The Drought

I came to Vohipeno, Madagascar prepared for the hot, humid region that my research indicated. There was reported to be lots and lots of rain. However, the Vohipeno that I have found it not to be what I anticipated. Back in November I was told that we should have started getting very frequent showers. None came. Water stress continued to increase until every one of Fihaonana’s deep wells was bone dry. It was unprecedented. Fihaonana could no longer support the life it held; there was no water for drinking, cooking, washing, or watering. We turned to the Matitanana River that is located about five miles away. We made trips to river to bring back truckloads of water barrels which we manually filled in the river and emptied back into our own wells. This continued on for months as the rain continued to fail to fall.

Though the absence of rain in this region was more acute here than some other places this water shortage was not something that was limited to my region, a very large part of Madagascar was dealing with the absence of rain. Madagascar was drying up. In many parts of Madagascar  the rice crop, the staple food, was not planted because there was simply not enough water for it grow. People grew increasingly desperate for water. There was talk of the Malagasy government forcing artificial rains which essentially consists of spraying clouds with salt, forcing the water to condense and fall down as salty rain on the earth below. The water to Antananarivo, the capital, was threatened to be completely shut off— they dissembled a dam to keep that nightmare from happening.

I have been cautioned to be increasingly careful as people fall into a desperation due to the failed rans. Rice prices have already shot up as the rice crop this year will be much smaller. Fortunately we have had a strong mango season as the mango tree, I am told, does well with less rain so people in my region have relied heavily on them. However, mango season is coming to close and people will no longer be able to count on it for to meet caloric needs. Typically after mango season, people in my region rely on rice and red fruit (that’s the only English name I’ve heard for it ). However there will not be the needed rice since it was not planted and the red fruit crop this year is quite weak due to the lack of rain. Many people honestly don’t know what they will be eating. I have been told that people will be getting the “rice crazies” as they can’t find and/or afford to buy their needed calories.

About two weeks ago we finally began to receive blessed rains. Though the rain cannot correct much of the damage already done it keeps more from happening. We’ve finally been able to begin planting some vegetables, the other day I helped to plant sweet potatoes, another staple food for many Malagasy people. But this weather is not a fluke, this year is not going to be thought of as some odd year where the rains were just off. This just part of a trend that has been growing, especially in the last ten years, where the dry season is extended further and further with each passing year— this is climate change at work. The South of Madagascar is already historically noted for it’s poverty and for it’s struggle to grow the food to support it’s population. Climate change aggravates and add to those struggles. If the whole world lived as the average Malagasy does, climate change would simply not be an issue today and yet, here we are, in a world where it is an issue and vulnerable places like Madagascar are having to pay prices they can’t afford because of the actions and lifestyles of others.

At the bottom of the picture you can see Fihaonana’s “fish hatchery.” This picture was taken part way through the drought, the hatchery dried up completely soon after. 

Welcome to Fihaonana!

According to my calendar I’ve been at my site, Fihaonana, for over three weeks now, however, I think that must be somehow wrong because I’m pretty sure I only just arrived the other day. But nevertheless, I’m delighted to introduce to you to Fihaonana, the little spot in Madagascar that has become my home! Fihaonana is a Lutheran farm school that is located outside of the village Vohipeno, Madagascar. Fihaonana is a place for students to study farming practices and animal care, if all goes well they’ll have a degree in hand after about ten months of study. Vohipeno is located in one of the most poor regions of Madagascar and the school works hard to charge almost no tuition fee, that way individuals who would otherwise not be able to afford to pursue any higher education can attend. The school’s goal is to create informed, conscientious, working farmers in Madagascar who live by their faith. There are currently 33 students in attendance, only five of them are women. The typical age for students is in the lower to mid twenties. The current students’ term is almost finished, their last day is in a week. I imagine the farm will be a lot quieter without all the students here.

My accommodations are right on the farm so I am never far away from the bustle of activity. Most of the animals on the farm are not too different from what you’d find on a family farm back home in Iowa— they have cows, pigs, and chickens. The farm actually also has a stocked fish hatchery, something that is fairly unique in Madagascar. In contrast to the animals, many of the plants here are ones you’d definitely not stumble upon in Iowa. Right outside my door are dozens of papaya trees, the papaya is currently in season, I am very happy to be able to eat them. Fihoanana also grows a good variety of very familiar plants in their gardens as well, like potatoes, cabbage, and carrots.

I’ve been received here with great excitement, kindness, and welcome. Everyone has been wonderful and very concerned about my well-being. I get asked about my health about five times a day, everyone seems to be on edge, expecting me to be overtaken by a great and violent sickness in response to my change in environment and new Malagasy diet. There are always things here for me to keep busy with. I’ve done a fair variety of work here, so it is a little hard to offer a summary. I will say this though, all of it has been terrifically glamorous, as you should have already surmised. Just about every morning I spend several hours weighing and sorting eggs; I help sell some of these same eggs on a weekly trip out to larger neighboring towns. I’ve also helped to take care of the animals by cleaning out stalls, refilling waters, collecting eggs, milking the cows by hand (which I’m embarrassingly slow at compared to my Malagasy friends), and mixing feed. One of my more demanding tasks includes chasing after/being chased by giggling Malagasy children, but hey, someone needs to do it. I’ve also taken great enjoyment in spontaneous sessions of teaching English and learning Malagasy out in the barn. There are a bunch of piglets due this next week so I’m excited for that, I will no longer be the newest kid on the block!


Leaving Antsirabe

I’ve spent over three weeks in Antsirabe now, my time here is quickly coming to a close. Tomorrow I’m off to my site placement in Vohipeno. I am quite excited to be heading out to my new home for this coming year! I’ve noticed myself getting increasingly antsy to hit the road. I’m also a little apprehensive since I’ll now be leaving the comfort of my fellow YAGM volunteers who have grown into fast friends these past weeks. My time here in Antsirabe has been full of laughs, mangled Malagasy, good food, confusion, language practice, and good camaraderie. I have plenty of memorable stories from my time here, but I’ll just share one with you today which has proven to be a seemingly inexhaustible form of amusement for my friends here.

Pastor Kirsten set us each individually out into the city for an hour, shutting the gate behind us, that way those who had not taken the step to explore on their own would be forced to do so. I happily set off towards the outskirts of the city that way I could get a little more into the countryside, a place I found preferable to the hub of the city. Not out of the norm, I was quickly assailed by numerous pousse-pousse drivers who were trying to get me to climb into the cart they pulled. A foreigner like myself is quite the catch for a pousse-pousse driver since chances are that the foreigner is a chump, just as am I, who doesn’t know typical rates and will be willing to pay steeper prices than locals. There was one young man, maybe a few years older than myself, who was particularly eager to give me a ride. He pedaled next to me for some time, I had the usual exchange with him, telling him in Malagasy that no, I didn’t need a ride, but he, being an persistent business man, insisted that I would surely need a ride back after I finished whatever I was doing. I just bemusedly smiled and continued on my way, waiting for him to give up as most do after a little while.

But he didn’t. He rode next to me, grinning and looking over at me. He gave me his name, Bernard, and asked for mine. He soon began slowing counting with Malagasy numbers, clearly inviting me to practice my numbers with him. The few Malagasy words that I had a confident conversational hold on were in desperate want for company so I was in no position to be turning my nose up at an opportunity to provide those lonely words some companions. As soon as he felt satisfied with my Malagasy numbers he moved on to cover some French ones.

The conversation eventually lulled, but he continued to follow me, brakes squealing to stay with me as we went downhill. I honestly had no interest in taking a pousse-pousse and even if I did I was not supposed to head back to the compound, Lovasoa, for another 45 minutes. So I came up with a plan which I thought rather clever, I decided to head down a little path which I had gone down before and thought impassable for any sort of venhicle, pousse-pousse included. I watched him struggle and he fell further and further behind me until I could no longer hear the squealing of his breaks and he was completely out of sight. After a little while the path opened up and I climb up a hillside that towered high above the path I had just come out of. I decided to sit there and admire the view.

It was about five minutes later when I saw Bernard pedal out from where I had just came. I was very surprised. I had assumed that he had been forced to give up and turn around, but even then I felt okay since I believed I was in a fine position to not be spotted by him. My confidence dropped when I made out his voice asking a woman if she had seen me. She, of course, immediately pointed up the slope to where I was sitting. He cheerfully called out “Madam!”, beamed, and waved up at me as if had just spotted his long lost best friend. I smiled and waved back in amusement. As I watched him perform some sort of pantomime to convey whatever things he felt the language gap prevented him to say with words, I scolded myself for overestimating my ability to go unseen here. I stand out an incredible amount here, of course all the locals are going to have noticed a crazy white person climbing around, no question.

After Bernard had finished his antics of calling in Malagasy up to me and doing, perhaps, the charades performances of his life, he resigned himself to gazing up at me until he eventually stepped down into an area where he was out of sight from me. I took the moment to make a run for it. I dived into some bushes just to be on the safe side. Ten minutes or so passed and I was relaxed and feeling pretty safe, Bernard was out of mind. Then I heard an enthusiastic “Madam!!” coming a different side. I can not tell you how he found me in the bushes, but oh, he sure did. At this point I was just laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation and his clear delight at having found me again. He parked his cart and he ran on over to me, not even a little fazed by the fact that this woman in the brush was clearly insane. I extracted myself from the bushes, resigning myself to the fact that my hiding skills were clearly no match for Bernard’s seeking ones.

The Malagasy lesson continued and he started pointing at different things and saying the word for it in Malagasy. I echoed back the words to him and told him the words in English, which he did his best attempts at. I’m sure we looked quite the ridiculous pair, pointing at different things and miming different verbs for each of us to to identify in our own language. I passed the rest of the hour delightfully learning Malagasy with Bernard in this manner until I finally hopped into his pousse-pousse and went back to the compound, arriving right on time.

Since then Bernard has made numerous appearances throughout the city. He follows me like a shadow, a shadow with squeaky brakes and a tenacious entrepreneurial spirt, always ready to take me back to Lovasoa if I say the word or, let’s be honest, even if I verbally voice the opposite. Bernard is now very well known among my fellow volunteers from my story and different run-ins with him since; his delightful demeanor and joy whenever he finds me has become a major running joke among us. Just this morning he found one of my friends and excitedly pedaled up to her saying he was Bernard and making wild gestures to convey a tall person, clearly trying to indicate that he was the Bernard, the friend of Ellen’s, perhaps hopeful that publicizing our friendship might boost business for him. I won’t be surprised if I find Bernard frantically pedaling after my taxi-brousse as I leave for Vohipeno tomorrow morning, trying to offer his services as my personal pousse-pousse driver for the rest of my year.


Bernard: My Pousse-Pousse Driver Friend

My First Days in Madagascar

I’ve been in Madagascar for a little over a week now. It took 30 hours of travel, but my Madagascar crew and I successfully landed on the island in the capital, Antananarivo. We spent a couple nights there exploring the city, eating rice (something I’ll be doing a lot of here), and going over some program logistics.

Flight to Madagascar
The view from the place we stayed in Antananarivo

I am now in a city called Antsirabe, it is a few hours south of the capital. This city was founded by Norwegian missionaries and is famous for it’s hot springs which I have yet to dive into despite some the city’s cool temperatures which my clothes are ill-equipped to protect me from. It has warmed up considerably even in the short while I’ve been here though. My seven fellow volunteers and I will spend a little over three weeks here where we will be receiving intensive language training and some cultural classes. After our orientation and training here, the eight of us will disperse to our different sites that are scattered throughout the island.

We are staying and studying at a compound called Lovasoa which is owned by the Lutheran Church in Madagascar and the Norwegian Mission Society. We have several patient and persistent individuals who are working hard to teach us Malagas, the native tongue of the island. We’ve had five days of classes thus far and I am disappointed to announce that I am still not fluent. Maybe that will happen tomorrow, seems unlikely though.

Antsirabe, though I’ve been here only a short while, has proved to be an interesting place with interesting people. I’ve enjoyed quite a few walks around, trying to explore and to experience the daily ongoings of the city. Pousse-pousses powered by lean, wiry men run up and down the streets. Paths in busy market areas are crowded with vendors and pedestrians,  trying to get anywhere is a game of avoiding collisions with people, chickens, and dogs on the sidewalk by walking on the street and simultaneously trying to avoid being hit by cars, pousse-pousses, or other individuals who similarly took to the street by jumping back onto the sidewalk. In less traversed area meandering paths are paved with a red-brown dust that now coats all my shoes. Antsirabe, in general, is not meant for the absent minded walker seeing as there are potholes everywhere, and sidewalks disappear and reappear with a seemingly fierce distaste for consistency. It’s important to watch your feet, even though there are plenty of beautiful and interesting things to hold your attention if you look around.

This Saturday we had the assignment of cooking our own supper so we made our first solo trip to the market, equipped only with our rudimentary Malagas skills and some Ariary (the currency of Madagascar). The market is a busy, somewhat overwhelming place, especially to my wide, unaccustomed eyes. It was an interesting experience— bartering is definitely not my favorite thing in the world, but I’ll have to get used to it if I want to eat. I do anticipate wanting to eat. There was an array of reactions to our jumbled and often incoherent attempts at Malagas in our search to cross every item off our shopping list. Many individuals met us with patience and understanding, some others were in less of a mood to deal with our bewildering attempts at communication.

Our presence in the city is always noted—our large stature, light skin color, and perceived affluence make blending in seemingly impossible. People almost always assume that I am French when they see me since most foreigners in Madagascar are, indeed, French. I get bonjour-ed a lot which I usually return with a salaama (hello in Malagas) which often proves to delight the greeter who beams and echoes salaama. My fellow volunteer friends and I also seem to provide a valuable teaching experience for young children to learn the Malagasy word for foreigner, vazahaha. As we pass by I’ve watched several different parents, with a small child in their lap, point to us and say vazhaha and the child excitedly points at us and repeats the word. So at the very least our presence is possibly helping to boost the vocabulary of a few young ones.

The view from my window in Antsirabe
Inside the Lovasoa compound
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Watching the solar eclipse with our ridiculous, protective eye gear
Working a field in Antsirabe
Lake in Antsirabe