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.



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.

Catching up with Michelle, Christmas break

December 13, 2008

I haven’t seen my girlfriend in nearly four months. We talk on our cell phones a few times every day, but it’s just not the same. In phone conversations Michelle’s freckles don’t dance in front of me.

Michelle’s Peace Corps experience has been rougher than mine. If she were to keep a blog, my blog would look as exciting as a congressional committee hearing. Her site village, which is on the east coast, is twice as large as my village, and the people there are rowdy. I will quickly highlight Michelle’s first four months at her village: Her home had rats the size of cats in it, she developed a rash from head to toe for two days, she was groped by a drunken old man on the street, she contracted giardia, the principal at her middle school died from malaria, people of all ages barge into her home to express their interest in learning English or to confess their love for her, her students behave like ring-tailed lemurs, she’s attended a few school faculty parties that have involved lots of ass shaking and 9 A.M. whiskey consumption, she went to a few music festivals, her love for smashed cassava leaves and rice has surpassed her love for me, she has taken up sewing, and she runs long distances barefoot on the beach. Peace Corps wisdom says that volunteers have ups and downs in adjusting to the host country. My time since training has been one long period of ups, while Michelle has had the more conventional ups-and-downs experience.

Tomorrow I’m flying to the capital, Tana, for a meeting with my stage of volunteers. Michelle will be there, and I’ve already promised that upon seeing her I will hug her so hard her head’ll pop off. Then we volunteers will spend a few days at the Peace Corps training center in Mantasoa, the small town with pine trees and a lake. For the Christmas break Michelle and I are going to her site village for a week, then off to Isle St. Marie, a picturesque resort island a ferry ride away from mainland Madagascar. Our Christmas and New Year’s Day will be spent eating mangos, getting sunburned, and thinking of our families and friends in America. Until next time, happy holidays!

Meteorologic retribution

December 13, 2008

I came across my neighbor one morning while walking home from the middle school. After a few minutes of conversation he asked, “Did you hear the thunder last night?” I shook my head. He asked, “Are you scared of thunder?” I shook my head again and said, “Why? Are you scared of thunder?” No, he said, but the housekeeper was.

The housekeeper and the neighbor then explained that lightning in Madagascar often strikes and kills people. In fact, common wisdom in the region was that if someone burgled your home or pick pocketed you in the street, the criminal was bound to be struck by lightning as punishment. When you’re the victim of such a crime, you can pray to summon a lightning strike upon the perpetrator. And if you find your praying skills inadequate, there are people versed in summoning lightning who you can pay to do it for you.

This is good to hear, I thought. Justice by lightning is cheaper, faster, and more rewarding than going to the police with a bribe.

Fetching water

December 13, 2008

In the villages, but more often in the countryside, many women have the task of fetching water. They stand waiting for their turn at the public spigots with their buckets strewn around. Wrapped to their bodies are lambas, large patterned pieces of fabric which are also used as blankets, tablecloths, and curtains. Upon a woman’s turn in the queue she places her bucket under the spigot and waits until it’s brimming with water. Then she dons a skull pad, puts the bucket on her head, and walks the water back to her home. The balance involved in this delivery is fantastic to my western eyes—Malagasy women never use their hands to support the buckets on their heads. Even more fantastic is the common sight of a woman fetching water with a second bucket in her hand and an infant strapped to her back.

Malagasy American flip-flops

December 13, 2008

The flip-flop is the regional footwear of choice. They keep your feet cool, they are easy to put on and take off, and they sell for only 2,000 Ariary in the market.

It is socially acceptable to wear flip-flops at school, work, and church. If you look at some Malagasy police officers from head to toe, you’ll see a bulky hat with a short black rim, then a button-down blue shirt with some badges hanging from the pockets, then creased dark pants, and then brightly-colored flip-flops. Doctors will complement their lab coats with flip-flops, and I often see town officials wearing professional attire with flip-flops. My middle school is equally as casual. Most teachers including myself teach in flip-flops, and the principal often works barefoot. I teach nearly 600 students and not one of them wears shoes to school.

During class one day I spotted a student with American flag flip-flops. The straps were blue with stars and the soles had red and white stripes. “U.S.A.” was written in bold letters where the heel rests. I grinned. Wouldn’t it be funny, I thought, if the only American in a 100 kilometer radius exhibited his nationality with 2,000 Ariary American flip-flops?

That afternoon I went to the market and found a vendor selling flip-flops with flag designs from the United States, France, Brazil, and South Africa. I asked the vendor for size 43 American flip-flops, and she pulled a new pair out of plastic wrapping. I tried them on and was quickly disappointed. The straps felt alright against my skin, but the sole was made of very thin foam that wouldn’t allow me to walk long distances without pain. Plus, although my blood bleeds red, white, and blue, ostentatious Americanism makes for obnoxious footwear. I took them off, slipped my feet back into my $50 Chaco flip-flops, and told the vendor thanks but no thanks. As I walked away I did the math and realized that in Madagascar my Chacos would’ve retailed for at least 75,000 Ariary.