Because of France’s colonization of Madagascar, everyone thinks that if you’re white, you’re French and rich. That’s why Malagasy kids in my town always yell “Bonjour!” or “Salut, vazaha!” It also explains why a teenage girl ran to me during site visit and asked if I was looking for a servant to hire.
It’s pretty obvious that if you want to have successful community projects as a Peace Corps volunteer, your community needs to know who you are. So for the first few weeks I’ve been my own advertising and public relations project. Every morning after Bezary’s yogurt I stroll through my town’s market so that everyone sees me. I’m not hard to spot; I’m one of the only white people in town. When Malagasy people, usually kids, say, “Bonjour!” or “Salut!” I respond with “Hello!” to show that I’m an Anglophone, not a Francophone, and to hopefully spark a little understanding on cultural diversity.
An easy way to spread Mr. Jordan publicity is to speak Sakalava in public. Hardly any white foreigners speak Malagasy, let alone a Malagasy dialect, so for a white guy to speak it gets the village people talking.
While I still get kids greeting me and demanding money in French, other people have begun saying English words and phrases. I get lots of hellos and good mornings and such from people on the sidewalk or riding by on their bicycles. I was sitting on the beach one time when a woman walking by recited an English dialogue she must’ve learned from school: “Good afternoon!” “Good afternoon.” “How are you?” “Fine, thanks, and you?” “Good.” “Goodbye!”
After going to the market, I was walking home behind two teenage girls. They didn’t think I could understand them as they spoke Sakalava. Sure, I didn’t understand most of it, but I understood the parts where they said that I was American, I lived near the middle school, and I spoke neither Sakalava nor French. They also said I was really cute. A few minutes later they left the path and looked at me and giggled. “I’m really cute, huh?” I yelled to them in Sakalava. Their mouths dropped in amazement. “I can understand a lot!” I said. The teenage girls laughed and blushed.
I can’t tell how successful my publicity efforts are going. I’m happy that teenage girls everywhere are talking about the cute yet practically mute foreigner in town and that other people know to say “hello” to me. But I’m still receiving French salutations and introducing myself to people who’ve never heard of me. The taxi-drivers are also still honking at me in the street with the puzzling theory that honking immediately convinces pedestrian foreigners that walking from Point A to Point B is just too tiresome.
I’m hoping that my middle school students will further spread the word that I’m an American Peace Corps volunteer. Once my community knows who I am, I’ll be better able to work without pesky assumptions getting in the way.