Evacuated

June 26, 2009

I received a text message from the Peace Corps on March 12 to inform me that the Peace Corps Madagascar program was officially suspended. When soldiers at a military base near the capital decided to ignore all orders from their commander-in-chief, President Marc Ravalomanana, the Peace Corps decided that the country was too dangerous for volunteers to stay. The timing of their decision was perfect: Less than a week later tanks stormed the capital building and forced Ravalomanana to resign.  There have been protests, shootings, and failed discussions since.

The next morning I raced around my village with my bicycle, taking photos of the market, my favorite restaurants, my middle school, and the beach. I also said goodbye to the Malagasy friends I’d made in the last six months like Monique, Eric, and my neighbors. Bezara, the yogurt guy, gave me a souvenir Madagascar tank top and hand soap. Then I hitched a ride to the taxi-brousse station with two small bags and I left my village for good. Through all this I never cried though my heart felt like a wilted flower.

The next day we flew to Antananarivo. I rushed through a medical and a packet of administrative forms, and early next morning I was on a plane to South Africa. As I watched Madagascar become more and more distant through an airplane window heavy clouds obscured my view.

For the next week all Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers were holed up in a Johannesburg, South Africa hotel for more medical and paperwork. We ate in a restaurant akin to T.G.I. Friday’s every day and experienced culture shock at its menu—so many items, so many colors! Our rooms had clean beds and hot showers with wonderful water pressure. We had more alcohol to choose from than Three Horses Beer, and everyone spoke English and seemed very tall.

I terminated my relationship with the Peace Corps on March 18, sixteen months earlier than I’d expected. Although I could’ve attempted the difficult task of transferring to another country, I wanted to wait and see if Madagascar’s program would reopen. Today I’m still waiting.

In my Las Vegas home Michelle and I flip through photographs of everywhere we’ve been in the last year. There are nearly a thousand from Madagascar, and when we left that Johannesburg hotel to travel around Southern Africa, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, we took another five hundred photographs. The photographs contain Malagasy friends, volunteers, ceremonies, Buddhist monuments and Hindu temples. There are lemurs, chameleons, elephants, rhinos and wildebeest. There are volcanoes, train travels, waterfalls, orchids and lovebirds. Jungles, islands and beaches; safaris, bus trips, and plane rides. We flip through these photographs and I shake my head incredulously. How lucky, how awesomely lucky I’ve been to have experienced these things.

After being evacuated from Madagascar, a piece of me is still unfulfilled. I am no longer in my village. I’m no longer teaching English to my 600-something students, and my plans to help my community have been interrupted. But this is not a sad story, nor has it ended. It’s only on hiatus. It’ll take on new characters and new plots. There’ll be new conflicts, new resolutions, and new observations that’ll make you think. And in fact, stories much better than this one reveal themselves everyday. In innumerable ways there is and always will be good work to bring to others.


Consolidation, returning to site

February 18, 2009

For 18 days we volunteers were consolidated at a beachfront hotel in Antalaha. The sun beamed for most of the time and we listened to the Indian Ocean’s crashing waves from our rooms. The Peace Corps gave us money to eat at the hotel’s restaurant, so we indulged in luxurious foods like coconut shrimp, chocolate mousse, pizza and crab. During this time we read books, took long afternoon naps, listened to music and wrote in our journals.

But our consolidation period was far from relaxing. As we wiled away the 18 days we didn’t know what would happen to us. It was possible that at any moment the Peace Corps would call us and report that we’d be leaving Madagascar forever, and it was equally possible that we’d return to our villages and our work. We received daily text messages from the Peace Corps’ security officer that reported the news: the mayor of Antananarivo declaring himself President of Madagascar and creating an alternative national government, the opposition storming the presidential palace, the military shooting and killing over 20 protestors in the capital, airplanes set aflame elsewhere, crowds fleeing from tear gas and grenades, more lootings and violence. Each day we were certain to be returning to America, and then we’d receive a text message giving us hope of returning to our villages, but then only to be dashed by a second and contrary text message. Antalaha’s beautiful beach setting and our luxurious meals were always tainted by the thought that we could soon be leaving Madagascar.

I’m writing to you from Sambava. Most Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers have been cleared to return to their villages. From what I’ve gathered, however, many volunteers are still bracing for evacuation. While most of Madagascar is presently peaceful, the political crisis at the capital has not finished. The crisis could intensify; we could be removed from our villages again. Today I’m returning to my village with the hope that I’ll spend the rest of my Peace Corps service there. It has become a home to me—a very happy home—and I would hate to leave it.


The political strikes

February 2, 2009

Before I give my account of the political strikes, I must provide some context. My context is limited to two sentences, however, so I don’t accidentally break Peace Corps’ policy of remaining apolitical. Marc Ravalomanana has been president of Madagascar since 2002. His success began by starting Tiko, a business that sells dairy products and cooking oil.

The strike came to my town on January 27. A few days earlier the Peace Corps had been sending text messages to warn every volunteer of increasing political tensions in the capital, Antananarivo, and to prohibit us from going there. The mayor of Antananarivo had called for the anti-Ravalomanana strikes. A string of lootings, fires, and gunshots happened in the capital before anyone in my region was roused to action. The only way we were affected by the strikes was when the rioters cut our news outlets by setting fire to the national radio and television stations.

On January 27 I finished giving an exam that afternoon and was walking past the director’s office when he called me over and said, “The Tiko store is giving away all its food. You should go get some yogurt and cheese.” I walked home and told my neighbor, Jean-Louis, about Tiko. “What?” my other neighbor said. “Jordan, do not go to Tiko. The strikes are here.” I listened to her, so instead of going to get free cheese I went home and graded a few tests. Then I heard a large group of people cheering. I ran behind my home to my neighbors and found them looking toward my middle school from around a building corner. Next to the middle school was a national radio broadcasting station, and it was there where a mob had gathered.

“Jordan,” Jean-Louis said, “Tiko has been burnt down. They burnt it down!” Just then the Peace Corps called me and told me to pack an emergency bag in case I needed to evacuate my village. Commotions like the one in my village were happening all over Madagascar. I returned to my front door and saw the mob moving to the sea port, which is a mere twenty second walk from my home. A man stood on top of the entrance roof and hovered triumphantly over the mob of men and women young and old. The gates were pulled open and the mob rushed inside cheering. As I threw together a bag of clothes, valuables and mementoes, bangs and crashes came from the mob forcing open the iron storage units in the port. BANG! Cheers. BANG! Cheers. Soon afterwards men began emerging through the gates with sacks of brown sugar and vanilla on their backs. The loot was handled in a variety of ways. Some men set the sacks onto their bicycles and wobbled home, while others’ families ripped open the sacks, stuffed bundles of vanilla into their shirts, and walked away. A Renault 4 drove up with ten passengers inside; the people jumped out and were soon replaced by sacks. The atmosphere was lighthearted as if the village had transformed into Disneyland’s Downtown U.S.A. Much of the mob were onlookers, and they strolled throughout the port watching their fellow townspeople steal millions of dollars of domestic produce.

A white car labeled “POLICE” drove up and out came three men in army berets and camouflage garb. The crowd of people did not give them a second’s notice. With semi-automatic rifles in their arms, the military men walked around for a while, watched the lootings, returned to the car, and drove off. My village was lawless.

For three hours the port was looted until every last gram of sugar and sprig of vanilla disappeared. At its end it was already nighttime and I was talking on the phone to my girlfriend. Then a few gunshots were fired from the road in front of my house. I quickly turned off my bedroom light, hung up the phone, and lay silently on my bed with a whistle in my hand. I’ve never been more scared than I was at that moment. In a haze of tiredness and fear I thought of what I’d do if the shooter were to come to the vazaha’s house—the vazaha who probably has lots of money and electronics in his house: I’d blow my whistle, alerting the neighbors; I’d duck under a table; I’d sit in my cement-blocked shower to avoid any bullets; I’d remain motionless in bed and hope he would give up and leave; I’d lay on the floor; and dozens of other thoughts. After seeing the military shrug off the lootings at the port, would they do anything to stop a shooter? All the excitement wore me into a deep and uninterrupted sleep.

The next morning I awoke and was astonished that I’d fallen asleep at such a time of terror. I opened my front door and saw that people were leaving their homes and walking around. It was safe outside. I took my bike and leisurely rode through the village. It had the aura of a morning after a night of hard drinking. Most stores were closed, and the townspeople, usually boisterous and jolly, were disconcertingly subdued. We looked at the village and at each other in a new way and were incredulous that people among us today were the same people who had rioted here yesterday.

The military had now appeared and had stationed themselves in groups around town. They announced on the radio that they would shoot anyone holding a gun and anyone attempting to loot local businesses. They also enacted an 8:30 p.m. curfew and would be searching people’s homes for sugar and vanilla. Around noontime they broke the town into segments and forbid anyone from traveling among the segments. I could not eat at my regular restaurant for lunch because it was outside my neighborhood’s boundaries.

Since there was a media blackout, nobody knew what was happening outside the village. Rumors spread that Marc Ravalomanana had either resigned or was murdered, riots had attacked foreign-owned shops in Sambava, a few people were killed in Andapa and Antalaha, and Tiko stores throughout Madagascar were ransacked and burned. We only knew that a 200-liter drum of cooking oil fell on a woman’s foot and severed it and that our Tiko had been reduced to ashes. We also knew that the gunshots in the street were from a gendarme who had fired his gun to scare everyone into their homes.

Last weekend most Peace Corps volunteers packed their bags and consolidated to towns throughout Madagascar. My girlfriend is safe in a village outside Antananarivo. I write to you now from a hotel in the SAVA region, where five other volunteers and I are staying until the political situation either fizzles out or intensifies. If it’s the former, we’ll return to our sites; if it’s the latter, the Peace Corps will fly us out of the country to mainland Africa. In mainland Africa our futures will be uncertain. We could return to Madagascar, continue our Peace Corps services in other countries, or simply go home to the United States. For now, we wait. But please know that we Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers are presently out of harm’s way and are crossing our fingers to return to our sites soon.


Curiosity

February 2, 2009

Whenever I spot a new white person in my village, I become curious. I turn to my neighbors or nearby Malagasy people and ask, “Who is the vazaha? Does he live here? Does he work here? Or is he just a tourist? Is he French? Does he speak English? Does he speak Malagasy? Do you know if he’s married?” Then I realize that my curiosity for strangers in the village is the exact curiosity the townspeople pressed upon me when I arrived here in August.


Working on my teaching

February 2, 2009

When the Peace Corps trained us to be English teachers, they repeatedly told us to avoid translating our lessons. By teaching English words and phrases and then translating them in Malagasy, the Peace Corps argued that our students were not actively engaging in the subject matter. They also argued that we teachers should be exposing our American tongues to the students as much as possible.

I followed the advice for the first semester with my middle school students. They were learning English for the first time, so I thought it’d be easy to teach “Hello,” “What’s up?” and “My name is…” without translations. When I gave them their semester exam, they did fine, but I still had the feeling they didn’t fully understand the material. In the streets my students would call out “Good morning!” in the afternoon and “Good afternoon!” in the morning. When I’d reply and ask “How are you?” they didn’t know how to respond. I suspected that my students committed all my lessons to memory without knowing the meanings behind them.

After returning from IST and Christmas vacation, I decided to tweak my teaching method. I’d teach the lessons entirely in English and then ask the students to translate the key points into Malagasy as a comprehension check. While the merits of the total immersion method are vast, it can be an obstacle for comprehension especially at a novice level. And although my 600 students are well-mannered, they don’t have the motivation to learn English to the extent that the total immersion method demands.

In the first week of the second semester I stood up and said in Malagasy, “When you see me in the streets, do not say ‘Good afternoon’ in the morning. In the morning, say ‘Good morning.’ In the afternoon, say ‘Good afternoon.’ In the evening, say ‘Good evening.’” The light bulbs that flashed above my students’ heads that week could’ve been seen from space. In following weeks they seemed to be memorizing my lessons while also understanding them.

I’m learning as much from my students as they’re learning from me.


Christmas Break (5 of 5): Cut Your Hair

February 2, 2009

I hadn’t cut my hair in seven months, mostly out of fear that a Malagasy barber wouldn’t know how to cut my foreign hair. Plus, stereotypically speaking, I was already a hippy for joining the Peace Corps, so why not embrace the image by growing out my hair? I welcomed the change.

The longer my hair became, the more my Malagasy friends hated it. Many Malagasy people associate long hair with Rastafarianism, which leads to associations of social irresponsibility, which then leads to ill opinion. I also liked to complement my longer hair with facial hair, and this choice in personal appearance was the straw that broke the zebu’s back. By the time I saw Michelle in December, to the Malagasy people I was as attractive as a taxi-brousse crash.

Michelle swore she liked my hair. She said she’d love me no matter what my hair looked like, even if it were all to fall out into irremediable baldness. But when I decided to cut my hair because it was too hot for Madagascar’s rainy season, she seemed thrilled. “You have a nice hairline and your long hair hides it. Hey, can I cut it?” she said. “Sure,” I said.

She needed some liquid courage before cutting her first client’s hair, so we drank some rum and played cards in her home while sweat dripped from every pore. Finally, she was ready. For the next hour she attacked my hair and facial hair with scissors she’d purchased in the market, and when she was finished my hair was short and perfect. My hairline looked nice, too. “I think I’ll give up teaching English and become a coiffure!” Michelle said.

Upon returning to my village, I discovered another advantage to cutting my hair: People no longer compare me to English singer James Blunt or think that I am English singer James Blunt.


Christmas Break (4 of 5): Christmas Cheer

February 2, 2009

Michelle’s home features an outhouse toilet. After the sun sets large rats run under its door and scurry on its floor, so at night Michelle goes to the bathroom in a bucket in the corner of her one-room home. To avoid any embarrassing situations while I slept at her home, we used the outhouse toilet as much as we could.

I awoke at 2 a.m. Christmas night with the feeling that my stomach was on fire. I needed go to the bathroom, and then it occurred to me that I had no convenient place to go. If I went to the outhouse toilet, it was guaranteed that I’d have to fight off rats, and it wouldn’t be pleasant for me to unleash a fury into Michelle’s bucket in the corner of Michelle’s bedroom while Michelle slept twelve feet away. I lay in bed and thought about what to do. I tried to ignore the pain until morning when I could use the outhouse, but I could not. I needed to go to the bathroom.

At 3 a.m. I finally decided to use Michelle’s bucket. “Hey,” I whispered into her ear, “I don’t feel well and I need to use the bathroom. Is it O.K. if use your po?”

“Of course,” she said sleepily.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I felt I needed to apologize for what I was about to do. “Don’t look up from your pillow and try not to hear me.”

I crept out of bed using my cell phone as a flashlight. My stomach was raging. While I sat on Michelle’s bucket and made noises that no girlfriend should ever have to hear, she lay still on her bed. When I finished, I stood up with my cell phone and took a deep breath. Then I immediately needed to vomit. I turned around, ripped open the lid of the bucket again and retched violently, my stomach heaving in pain. Michelle raised her head to see her boyfriend on his knees in his boxers destroying her chamber pot, all illuminated by the blue glow of a cell phone. Afterwards I climbed back into bed, got into the fetal position, and moaned softly. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach by a fist on fire.

The next morning Michelle still loved me. In fact, it’s been more than a month since her well water nearly made me unload my innards into her chamber pot, and Michelle still loves me. Our relationship, which has never left the lands of Madagascar, has endured many unromantic experiences in this country. Strangely enough, I think this endurance has made for the most romantic relationship I’ve been in.


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