A kabaro in church

November 28, 2008

Two Thursdays ago I had finished teaching a lesson and was headed home when a man and woman met me at the classroom door. The woman, Pauline,  who was in her late twenties and wore nice jean pants, told me they had come from the village’s Anglican church for my help. They needed someone to transcribe some English gospel songs so the church’s choir could sing them accurately. “I know some English,” she said, “But I’m not fluent. Can you come with us and help us?” Sure, I said.

We took a taxi to the other side of town and were soon sitting on reed mats in the woman’s home. We drank cold soft drinks and listened to “It is Jesus” over and over on a CD player. As with many instances here in Madagascar, I felt ill-equipped to help because I’m awful at discerning words from songs. I once thought a lyric in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” was, “Excuse me while I kiss this guy,” instead of, “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” I tried my best, though, until I suggested that I’d look up the lyrics on the Internet the next time I was in Sambava. “Great idea!” Pauline said. Then she invited me to church, and with how pleasant her demeanor was, I accepted. I thought the outing would be good for Mr. Jordan publicity.

That Sunday Pauline and I walked together to the front of the church. The entire congregation, about 300 people, stared at me and whispered as we sat down on the choirs’ benches. I wasn’t bothered by the attention; the commotion of being a white man in a Malagasy village, while unsettling in theory, becomes surprisingly pedestrian after a few months. Pauline turned to me and said, “My father’s the pastor, and he wants to introduce you. Is that O.K.?” I nodded and told her I’d even give a speech if the pastor wanted.

Hornet nests and remnants of old ones dotted the church’s walls, and the eight o’clock sunlight streamed through the paneless windows. Behind the pulpit was a painting of an ocean and trees created most likely by a middle school student. In the painting’s sky was a cross formed by four florescent lights which would be illuminated at the service’s end to celebrate the glory of God. Some worshippers wore proper church clothes that day, but the majority had on t-shirts and flip-flops, and many women wore white veils of varying patterns. Sweat already dripped down our backs from the humidity.

The service began with a song. I stood with the choir but did not join them in singing the English song, “Mama, I Learned a Lesson.” Later I asked Pauline why the choir sang English songs when the rest of the service was in Malagasy, and I think she said the songs served as a symbolic institutional tie to the Anglican Church in the United Kingdom. After the song we sat again and the pastor took to the pulpit. He said some things I didn’t understand, the congregation laughed at the things, and then he said my name. I awkwardly walked to the pulpit and stood beside the pastor as he said more things. Then he asked me to announce my name and hometown. I did. A few snickers from below. The pastor said more things and made a gesture for me to begin my speech. I took a deep breath and, in Sakalava, I said:

“Hello. This is my first speech. Before I begin my speech, I need to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I still don’t know how to speak Sakalava. Learning Sakalava is difficult. My name is Jordan. I’m from America. Some of my students are here today. I work with the Peace Corps, which is an American governmental organization. I teach English at the middle school without money. Malagasy people do not pay me, the Peace Corps pays me. I will live here for two years, and I…” Here I sputtered like a dolt for a while and tried to find the right words to say. “I’ll do other work, too. I will build a library here in the village. I’m your friend. If you see me walking in the street, you should talk with me. If you want to practice speaking English, I’ll practice with you. That’s it. Thanks.”

The congregation applauded and I returned to my seat, thinking of all the jokes and correct grammar I had planned to use but didn’t. I knew the speech was terrible, but I wanted to show the congregation I was making an effort to learn their language and be a part of their community. In the few months I’ve been here, I’ve gathered that there are two halves to the Peace Corps. The first half is your assigned job of teaching or administering immunizations or helping small businesses or whatever. The other half is creating relationships with your neighbors, your colleagues, your community, because it sends the powerful image that despite the fact you are you and they are they and there’s half a world of cultural differences among everyone involved, we can love each other as brothers.


Malagasy superstitions

November 28, 2008

For a graduation present a university counselor gave me a travel guide on Madagascar. In it were anecdotes and asides about the Malagasy people and some of their beliefs that’d seem strange to most first-world countries. At the time I thought the travel guide was being sensationalistic—similar as if someone characterized Americans through the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny—but I’ve lately discovered that these beliefs do exist in the everyday lives of the Malagasy people.

One morning I struck up a conversation with my 10 year old neighborhood friend. It was the weekend and I asked her whether she was going to the beach. She shook her head. “Why not? You don’t like swimming?” I said. “No,” she said, “I’m scared.” I asked why. She replied:

“There are ghosts in the ocean. They’ve killed lots of kids.”

After a few more minutes of questioning I learned that there are ghosts in the ocean who travel by the wind and eat the blood of unsuspecting swimmers. The 16 year old neighborhood girl was scared of the ocean ghosts, too, and so was her aunt. I was surprised that my innocent chat on strolling on the beach turned into a confession on murderous aquatic phantoms. Being a first-world skeptic, I don’t believe that ghosts live in the Indian Ocean. My guess for this belief’s roots comes from children drowning in the ocean and the discovery that their bodies have unoxygenated blue blood.

A few days earlier I discovered similar superstitions about chameleons. In my newfound enthusiasm for the animal I was showing some photos of chameleons I had spotted in the village to my neighbor. The 16 year old neighborhood girl was walking by and my neighbor said to her, “Hey, look. There’s a chameleon here.” The girl yelped and sprinted into the home, crying out, “Where? Where?” We explained that we only had photos of chameleons with us, not the real thing. She nervously stepped out to have a look.

I asked why the 16 year old was scared of chameleons and I received a myriad of answers. Chameleons are evil, my neighbor said, and if you hurt one, you may die from it. “There have been people who’ve died in the hospital here after touching chameleons,” he said. Another fear was that chameleons are very slow movers, and if you hurt a chameleon you will suffer a death as slow as their movements. Thirdly, chameleons don’t have ears, so if you harass and upset a chameleon it’s unable to hear your apologies.

The thought How strange! almost came to me, but before it did, my neighbor asked me, “Does America have beliefs like we do?” I nodded and told him about how some people think that opening umbrellas indoors, coming across black cats, walking under ladders, breaking mirrors and encountering the numbers 6 and 13 could bring evil or bad luck. Then I realized that Malagasy ghosts and evil chameleons aren’t so far off from lots of beliefs in my home country. For how exotic and backwards we often tend to think about Madagascar, sometimes it’s pretty similar to America.

Chameleons and geckos

November 28, 2008

The next day I met a British tourist at Sambava’s taxi-brousse station who was going to my village for a few days. Liam was spending a month in Madagascar to spot and photograph many of the country’s animals. We became fast friends on the taxi-brousse and ate together at my favorite soup and brochette hotely that evening.

The next day he said, “I’m guessing we can find chameleons here. We should have a go.” I had my doubts. I hadn’t yet seen a chameleon in my village, plus I thought they only lived in the rainforest. I took him to the beach because it’s lined by trees and brush of varying densities and could potentially be a chameleon’s home. As we strolled I pointed out a tree where the Sakalava hang sacrificed cow skulls on its branches. “About a month or so ago,” I told Liam, “There was a big Sakalava festival, and they sacrificed 105 cows for it. You should’ve smelled this tree then, it was awful. Burnt cow, ugh.”

A few minutes later Liam said, “There’s one!” On a branch a little higher than our heads sat a panther chameleon. Its black and gray colors blended well with the tree on which it rested. It was huge, probably two feet long. Liam ran back to the hotel to get his camera, and I kept an eye on the chameleon to make sure it didn’t escape. Then, by surprise, the bush next to me had an orange chameleon rattling around inside it. This one was a few inches long. My eyes darted from the large chameleon to the small one, and I remembered when I was seven year old and had read a children’s magazine about chameleons. Everything about the animal fascinated me then, from the way its skin quickly changed colors to its bulbous eyes and the way its tongue rolled out to eat insects. How unique it was! My childish excitement for chameleons returned to me, and I was ecstatic to live in the midst of this magical animal.

Liam returned with his camera and he snapped some great photographs of the panther. He was also excited. “Now I’ve seen both the smallest and the largest species of chameleon in the world on this trip,” he said. He showed the photograph of the smallest species he’d seen down south. It was a little less than half the length of a quarter.

In the course of Liam’s stay he also showed me seven species of geckos. Some are neon green and can get to be half a foot long, others are also neon green but smaller and their colors fade to blue as your eyes move toward their tail, and still others are small and brown and shed their scales when confronted by predators. I have the brown ones in my home. They crawl up and down my walls and feast upon the termites in my ceiling. They also let out a clicking noise every ten minutes that in English means, “Leave it to a tourist, Jordan, a tourist, to unveil a new side of your village which you didn’t even know existed.”

Eating well

November 28, 2008

The first week of November was a vacation from teaching. I went to Antalaha and had a peaceful few days with fellow volunteers. There we watched America elect its first black president via a vanilla family’s satellite T.V. and ate langouste and fish the size of my abdomen. On the topic of food, I came upon two new culinary delights just after leaving Antalaha on a taxi-brousse headed for Sambava.

The taxi pulled over to a vendor selling the season’s first lychees. After hearing weeks of Malagasy’ excited anticipation for the fruit, I bought a small pile of them. Lychees are like brown golf balls but with spikes rather than divots. You chip away its hard shell and eat its white juicy insides. I ate all of them in my lap, resulting in sticky fingers, juice spots on my shorts, and lychee pits strewn on Route Nationale 5.

The second delight came from a street-side vendor holding small bags. The passenger next to me bought a bag and offered me some. I nodded, and seconds later I had roasted salted hornets in my hand. They had inch-long red stingers and most still had their wings. I popped two in my mouth and told my passenger neighbor, “Mmmm! This is really good!” They really were, too.

I learned something about myself that afternoon. Five months of eating in this country and seeing flies waltz on my fruit, waitresses with their thumb tips in my dinner, termites swimming in my drinking water, and vendors sneezing into their hands before handing me street food, have culminated to the point where someone can give me almost anything—even bugs!— and I’ll eat it faster than a Malagasy child can say, “Donnez-moi cinq cent.” For this I’m still wondering whether to be proud or ashamed.


November 5, 2008

I’ve given up cooking in Madagascar. I’d rather spend the money to eat out rather than take the time to cook a sub-par meal and wash dishes afterwards.

Two meals a day I eat at hotelys, small Malagasy restaurants. Most hotelys are a family’s living room converted into eating quarters. The cook is usually the household mother, and the people busing tables are usually the cook’s children. I ate a rice and fish meal for lunch once while the household father napped on a mat across from me.

The food is always good and always available, so I’m always eating it. The routine weathers you from the dirty and probably unhealthy hotely environment. The plastic table clothes usually have holes in them, dirt is caked in the corners along the walls, and the dishes are cleaned by quickly dunking them into a bucket of soapy water.

Malagasy hotely families haven’t been introduced to capitalist principles, namely product diversification. Nearly every hotely in my village sells the same four dishes for the same four prices. No one tries to undercut the competition with a new dish, a better dish, or a cheaper price. It appears that rice with beef chunks, rice with chicken and greens, rice with fish in tomato sauce, and rice with beans, all for 1,500 Ariary, are the only dishes and price my village’s consumers expect. As such, except for the town’s soup and brochette hotely, I don’t have much preference which hotely I visit. They’re mostly the same in my village.

My favorite hotely, which I frequent almost daily, sells soup and brochettes. The soup has noodles, a few beef dumplings, shreds of egg and carrot, and a piece or two of lettuce in a bouillon broth. The brochettes, small skewers of beef served with shredded mango, are delicious, and they always accompany my soup. In a weird twist, this hotely is also the dirtiest hotely in town. Flies are everywhere. Termites flurry around a hole in the floor and they’re often exploring the dining tables. One time I watched a hen and her chicks mosey through the room, and then the cook, a household daughter, shooed them out with her apron. But most notably is when I was eating dinner and found a long, Malagasy woman’s hair in my soup. Having become so acclimated to hotely dining experiences, I calmly removed the hair, shrugged, and continued eating, thinking, “Hey! At least it wasn’t cholera!”

In general, if the food is hot, it’s safe to eat. I don’t eat the macaroni salad that some hotelys dish out, nor do I drink the water hotelys serve. If I need to drink, I ask for ranonam’pango, which is boiled water mixed with burnt leftover rice. Yogurt for dessert is safe to eat since the milk must be boiled to make it, and even street food like samosas, fried dough, ginger bread, and grilled bananas are safe as long as people and flies haven’t been touching them all day long. Whether this advice is sound or whether I’m just lucky, I’ve been in Madagascar for five months and I’m still worm-free.

My cussing students

November 5, 2008

The middle school’s other English teacher, Monique, came to me on a Monday morning right before my first class. She looked concerned.

“We’ve been told that your sixième trois class has been disobedient,” she said. “Two weeks ago, some students were saying very bad things at you in Malagasy. Should we punish them?”

“No,” I said. “They aren’t disobedient. They’ve been very obedient with me lately.”

After Monique left I chuckled to myself. Since Sakalava is such a new language for me and I still have to remember what the meanings of words are, the concept of swearing was a little funny. Students had said a series of syllables, syllables incomprehensible to me, but they apparently had horrible meanings worthy of punishment. They could’ve said I was the Lord Jesus Christ and I wouldn’t have known the difference. At first I shrugged at their words, but the more I thought about it, the more I supposed some action should be taken. Students swearing at a teacher is a giant disregard of respect in the community, even if it didn’t bother me. If action wasn’t taken, it might have larger consequences later in the school year.

In the afternoon I met with Monique again. “Do you think we should punish them? Do you think we should tell the director?”

Monique smiled and shook her head. “Oh, Jordan, they’ve already been punished. Last week, before your class, the science teacher took the students who said very bad things and he made them kneel for a long time. Then he—what is it?—slapped them on their faces.”

That explains why the class was angelic last week. Silly me, I thought they were captivated by my lesson on the present continuous tense!

The sequel to “Mrs. Robinson”

November 5, 2008

Another particularity of the Sakalava dialect is how directly people speak. In the United States, if a sick person in the hospital asked you how he looked, you wouldn’t say, “Your brothers and I took bets. My $20 says you’ll be dead tomorrow.” You’d instead tell the sick person a white lie or say something indirect. But Sakalava speakers would probably say the bit about the bets.

Here’s another example. Last week I was riding my bicycle home from lunch. A woman selling cell phones on the sidewalk calls out, “Hey! Come here!” I turn around and ride up to her table. She wore a black cell phone provider t-shirt and looked to be 30 years old.

“Do you have a wife?” she said. I nodded. She continued, “Where does she live?” I told her my “wife,” Michelle, lived south near Tamatave.

“O.K.,” she said. “How about Wednesday?”



“Wednesday what?”


“What’s on Wednesday?”

“Your house,” she said.

“My house?”


“What are we doing at my house on Wednesday?” I said.


“What are we doing at my house on Wednesday?”


Yes, propositioned again. Judging by the number of women who’ve approached me in the last two months, you’d think I was a descendent of Adonis instead of a skinny young man with ratty facial hair. All the attention comes from my white skin and the assumption that I’m wealthy. I told the woman while many married people in northern Madagascar have affairs outside of marriage, it wasn’t American custom to have a wife and sleep with others. She glumly muttered a response. Then I continued my way home.

You see, an American woman in this situation would be indirect. She would ask to come over to watch a movie or play Scrabble or something. But this Sakalava woman says the bit about love.