It has really been a while since I’ve written one of these but let that be an indication to you that I am safe and having an incredibly transformative time—not that anything is wrong. So much has happened to me and around me in the past month that it is kind of overwhelming to try and put it all into words and explain how far I’ve come from my last post about culture shock.
When I wrote my last post, I had been in Madagascar for only two weeks and had only gotten a small taste of what it was like to be here. Now, after having been here for nearly 7 weeks, I have reached the halfway point in my program. Since it has been a while, I am going to go through each of the major milestones for me during my time here thus far…
The first major experience I had since my last blog post was the hike that I took with our program up Pic St. Louis, the highest peak in Ft. Dauphin which allows you to see some of the most breath taking views of the city. The hike was particularly challenging for me after having had a mellow night on the town but I was able to pass through it. This hike was also the first time we engaged with the students from the Centre Ecologique de Libanona (CEL)—a group of absolutely incredible individuals whom we have spent a majority of our last 5 weeks with. While this hike was challenging, it was not the most challenging thing I experienced that day. I had been extremely dehydrated and had been walking down with the second group of students who had kept stopping to break, and I knew that I didn’t have enough energy to keep stopping and restarting and that something bad might have happened if I didn’t get down the mountain quickly, so I went ahead on my own. Once I met up with the first group and we made our way down to the bottom where we were met with water. At the bottom, we waited. It seemed as though it was taking a really long time until finally, one of our teachers came down and said something was wrong with one of the students. He said he was really not doing well and they were trying to rehydrate him and get him down the mountain. Slowly but surely, they got him down the mountain, but he was still in pretty bad shape. I was sitting with his head in my lap after he came down and his whole body was trembling. Our academic director was waiting to hear back from the doctor to see if they should take him to the clinic, and at one point I said to him that it was better to leave now than to wait to see if it gets worse. Unfortunately, it never got better. We reached the clinic where we waited to be met by a doctor. Once she arrived, it was a bumblefuck of French, English and Malagasy with more of a ‘do and hope it works’ type of attitude, than a ‘ask questions to inquire about what happened’ attitude. This was when I gained a whole new appreciation for Western medicine. It wasn’t until after she had stuck the IV in his arm (which she had me hold into place while she looked for the medical tape) and I had asked our AD the normal vital health questions about the student (For example: do you take any medications? Are you allergic to anything? Do you have any previous medical history? Family medical history?) that those questions were asked. I kept being left alone in the room with the student, holding him down as his convulsions worsened. The doctor hadn’t even noticed the seizures until I pointed them out. Finally, the English-speaking doctor arrived, and she seemed to understand the gravity of the situation and was able to truly provide the care necessary. In the end, the student had to be evacuated to South Africa because the health infrastructure available in Ft. Dauphin was not adequate enough to help the student. Even more intense was that this evacuation couldn’t happen until the late morning of the next day. Luckily, the student is now fine and safe back home in America, having suffered what seemed to be an extremely severe allergic reaction to a plant. My health became one of my absolute top priorities after this experience, and I gained a new perspective on health in the developing world and why studying global public health is so important for the developing world. After that rather traumatic experience, I was thankful for my health and the people surrounding me so much more. It is amazing how going through tough experiences like that can really bring a group of people together.
The next voyage we took was to study botanical methods at a littoral forest reserve in Sainte Luce. This excursion was rather uneventful for me because of my lack of interest in the subject matter, however it was one of the first times that I had really seen the effects of things literally getting lost in translation. Aside from the challenges of understanding scientific research methods, which are already far over my head, having to do it after it was explained to me in an odd mixture of three languages, one of which is still extremely difficult for me (Malagasy) and one which I was still struggling with majorly at the time (French) was an extremely confusing experience. However, the three days that we spent in Sainte Luce were so fun and relaxing otherwise, that the confusion was totally worth it. When we weren’t out in the field, we were supporting the local economy by completely buying out the collection of super cool embroidery from the ladies who work at Stitch St. Luce, bonding with the CEL students while playing the Malagasy/French version of truth or dare, singing songs and listening to music, turning UP and having deep conversations about the scope and size of the universe (major shouts out to Nick for that one). Overall, that excursion got a solid ‘A’ in my book.
Wow, this post is getting long…I really should work on the frequency of my postings—sorry friends, but I’m gonna keep going.
The most transformative experience thus far is absolutely, by far our village stay in Faux Cap, an area located in the Tandroy region of southern Madagascar. I don’t really know where to begin with this one except with to start by saying that this was one of the more pivotal moments for everyone on our program. I started out by being really hesitant about the people I was paired with so I was already really nervous about the stay. The name of the village that I stayed in was called Tanandava and it was comprised of about 12 families with over 40 kids living in the village. During our stay, we were meant to conduct three different forms of Participatory Rural Appraisal (a set of research methods geared toward improving development) and integrate ourselves into the village as much as we could. It was extremely difficult to do at times because both my partner and I got sick (I had food poisoning for just a day but she suffered from bacterial dysentery). I felt especially bad for her just because we were shitting in a hole in a cactus patch and had no access to any western infrastructure of the bathroom variety. Thankfully, that was really the only negative part of the stay for me…aside from when I would be bombarded every time I took out my camera. Each day we sang and danced, which at first was difficult because I didn’t know the dances and was just being pushed and pulled every way, but by the end when we entered into the dance competition with the other villages at the Pot D’Adieu on the last day of our stay, I knew it was all worth it (because we definitely won). The other aspect of the village stay, and for me was the most valuable, was that of language integration. Unfortunately, I did not become fluent in Malagasy nor did I come anywhere close BUT given that our translator, the magnificent Ginot, pretty much only spoke French and Malagasy to me, it forced my speaking confidence to improve because I had no other choice but to speak to him in French, especially because we chilled all the time during the stay. While I didn’t become fluent in Malagasy, it was also really interesting to realize the importance of body language and its universality. While I wasn’t able to understand the words coming out of any member of my family or my village’s mouths, I was relatively able to understand what they were saying or wanted from me by their use of body language and their facial expressions. Since the village stay, I have really picked up on the importance of language and its nuances as well as the usefulness of body language as a really useful tool for communicating without verbal language. And since the stay, I believe that my speaking confidence in French has gotten even better and I hope that this progress will continue.
After living in the village without running water, electricity, a western style bathroom and living out of my tent, I was more than thankful for my homestay family in Ft. Dauphin and the resources I had there…a pretty drastic change from the struggles I was having when I wrote my blog post on culture shock. My stay in the village really humbled me and made me realize how much more thankful I should be for my material things, however it also gave me more reason to believe the notion that less is truly more. Something that I have been really noticing about my life, and just the world in general, lately is that when people have fewer things, they always seem to be happier people. They laugh and smile more and spend their time doing things that bring them joy rather than get lost in things that don’t really add value to a person’s life. While it can always be argued that these people still live hard lives and need lots of things, I think the more important thing to take away is that when you concern yourself with less of your things and spend more time in the present and with people and the intangible joys of life…you are much more likely to be a happier person.
I missed my family so much while I was in my village that it was so fun being able to spend time with them during my last week living with them in Ft. Dauphin. Even the small activities like cooking dinner and washing clothes became fun tasks where were able to bond and really enjoy each other. I am more than ecstatic to return to Ft. Dauphin and visit with them and share more fun times with them!
And now this leads me to the last 2 weeks. We left Ft. Dauphin with the CEL students to travel up to Vagaindrano and Ampasinakoho to do marine studies. The trek up to Vagaindrano took us 2 days to complete by taxi brousse (or bush taxi), which I will probably get to writing a whole blog post on about because it deserves that much space. Unfortunately we did not do much fieldwork because the weather did not allow—never did I ever think I would see hail in Madagascar…but this trip has been crazy unpredictable so now I truly believe anything is possible. The hardest part about the voyage, for me, was saying goodbye to the CEL students for 3 weeks because I had become so close to them and I miss them all so much. I am so excited to reunite with them in 3 weeks time!
Now, I’m in Manakara with a new homestay family and will post more about that later on because this post is getting TOO long haha. Thanks for bearing with me through this. Sending lots of peace love and blessings your way, my friends!