What I know before I go

March 16, 2008

Before I received my country invitation, I imagined my life in the Peace Corps to be like me living in a hut on the moon. I’d be in a barren, lifeless African country isolated from mankind.

Then when I received my invitation for Madagascar, my image of my future life in the Peace Corps changed. I still imagined me living in a hut on the moon, but now there were lemurs. Me, hut, moon, lemurs. Maybe bananas, but now I’m pushing it.

So I’ve been doing some research on what my Malagasy life could be like when I arrive there in June. I’ve sought out other Peace Corps Madagascar blogs, checked out photos of Madagascar, read the Peace Corps handbook and welcome book and so on. Here’s what I’ve gathered since I last left you:

I may not be as isolated from humanity as I thought I would be. It sounds like English teachers are placed in higher population density locations than, say, environmental workers. My country invitation said I would probably be living in a city or large village, which is a better circumstance to me than my sitting in the middle of nowhere talking with my best friend Maggie, my Magnavox short-wave radio. I’m eager to interact with the Malagasy since I want to become a full-fledged Malagasy culture expert by the time I leave the island in July 2010.

There may not even be a hut on my moon. Some volunteers live in cement-made shanties with electrical power. Being an aspiring luddite of sorts, I wouldn’t mind living in a place without electricity. The lack of running water will be the biggest challenge for me, though. I’m very fond of hot showers, toilets, and tea—perhaps not in that order—in the United States. My living conditions will again depend on where I’m stationed after my three months of training, but know that I will likely be taking bucket showers and using an outdoor pit latrine. But I’ve also read that the Malagasy grow their own tea leaves—phew!

And speaking of culinary indulgences, the food in Madagascar sounds fantastic. Its base is rice with many types of vegetables and fruits. Mangoes, zucchini, peanuts, bananas, coffee, sugar, breads, and zebu (a strain of cattle) meat sound like normal foods for eating in the island. I read I’ll be routinely cleaning my home’s floors with a half-piece of coconut, so unless it’s strictly used as a household cleaning product, coconuts are another element of Malagasy cuisine. My curiosity is also piqued by a homemade yogurt drink found throughout Madagascar.

Christianity isn’t even the dominant religion of Madagascar. A little more than half of the Malagasy are animists, a ceremonial-based religion that differs in practice among the tribal regions of the island. I won’t even pretend I know what animism is, but I read that they have a regular ceremony of digging up the dead, performing a ceremony on their bodies, and reburying them. Christianity is the religion of about 40% of the population, and the rest is largely Muslim.

“The practices of fady, a ritualized system of taboos and cultural mores combined with ancestral veneration, have tremendous significance for Malagasy, though there will, of course, be differences in the degree depending on your location.” I’ve read a little about fady. It sounds like these taboos deal with wearing certain colors or articles of clothing in public. But I’ll leave it at that since I’m sure you’ll hear plenty about these taboos when I begin living in the country.

Since Madagascar is enormous, it has many regions with cultural, linguistic, and climate differences. My life in the country will depend on where I’m placed. No matter how much research I do, there will still be uncertainty and mystery in store for me—but that’s what I want. A novel isn’t nearly as enjoyable when you already know its plot.


Committing myself

March 7, 2008

The last seven days were surprisingly not as self-reflective for me as I thought they would be. A cool relief came over me after receiving my invitation, and I’ve been relaxed and confident since then on the idea of my joining the Peace Corps.

Before my eyes scanned across an ink “Madagascar” on Peace Corps letterhead, I was anxious by the specter of the organization. That specter, the one in which I would be dropped into an impoverished country rife with hunger, disease, and violence, evaporated with my invitation. The idea of enduring a third world country is somehow more manageable when it’s attached to a name. Last week’s invitation gave the specter a name, “Madagascar,” and now it was no longer a specter and a cause of anxiety. There was now certainty in my future. I was going to Madagascar.

My completion of the Peace Corps’ lengthy application process was already a sign that I was ready to accept the invitation. I had applied in August, done my in-person interview in September, and completed my medical and dental work in January. Plus, I’d been considering the Peace Corps as an endeavor since I learned about it shortly after graduating high school. The fact that the Peace Corps had been a viable option in my life for some years now was my emotional and psychological preparation for calling a placement officer in Washington D.C. and committing myself to 25 months abroad.

I made that step this morning. Around 7:30, I took out the Peace Corps manual, found the number for the African Placement offices, and dialed it. An officer answered.

“I’m calling to accept my invitation,” I said.

“Great. And who am I talking to?”

“Jordan Butler.”

“Butler?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Hold on a second, let me grab your file.”

I was sitting at my desk in my apartment bedroom. I took a sip of tea while I waited for the officer to return.

“I’m back,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your invitation? Tell me what you’ve read from your packet.”

It was a little curious how vague my placement officer was being. It was as if I received my invitation in the mail, discovered that I was going to Madagascar, and threw the rest of my packet into a lit fireplace. I didn’t think my acceptance would be an oral reading comprehension exam.

“OK, well, uh, I’m going to Madagascar,” I said. “I know that there’s about 20 million people who live there. I guess I didn’t realize how that many people lived there, and I guess I didn’t realize how large Madagascar was. I know that I’ll be teaching English to prim—no, junior high and high school students. I also know that I’ll be helping the English of Malagasy teachers, too. And it also sounds like I’ll be doing some curriculum building, too. Let’s see, it sounds like I’ll be speaking French and Malagasy while I’m there, but mostly Malagasy. Uh, I guess I probably won’t have running water or electricity. Oh! And there are lemurs there!”

“OK, that’s good enough.”

The conversation continued. He gave me the official spiel about applying for a passport and visa, airplane tickets, my mailing addresses and so on. He also asked me to send my college transcripts to the Peace Corps offices after graduating. Oh, and what a small world! My officer attended the University of Nevada, Reno a decade ago, and we spent a few minutes talking about the new student union, the new library, and the Wolf Pack basketball team.

After updating the placement officer on his former university, he wrapped up the conversation. “Congratulations and have fun in Madagascar,” he said. Thanks and goodbyes and hang-ups.

And I was committed. I set my phone on the desk, sat for a moment in silence, and took a sip of tea—then I laughed to myself. What a funny image I must’ve been! A 21-year-old sipping raspberry-infused green tea and wearing Chuck Taylors and a maroon V-neck sweater just committed himself to 25 months in a Malagasy hut. How different he would appear this time next year!