Friday, December 6, 2013



Happy holidays from Madadgascar!

While I do love my job and life here, I am happy to be describing my last Thanksgiving here.  And what an epic one!  We had ten Americans, a Malagasy girl, and a French guy.  And more food than we knew what to do with!

It all started a few months ago when a French volunteer in my town, David-Pierre, mentioned that he had never had Thanksgiving food.  Well, as a food holiday enthusiast (to say the least) I was not going to stand for that.  In different but related conversation, I mentioned the existence of the “turducken,” a chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey.  Well, we then decided that we had to try that.

So two weeks before Thanksgiving, David and I were at the market talking to the guys who sell chickens and ducks.  I hadn’t really seen any turkeys, but I knew Madagascar had them.  In fact, there were a few beauties living in Emma’s backyard!  Unfortunately, those were not for sale.  We talked to the poultry sellers for a bit, but never made definitive turkey-buying plans.  Two days later, a couple of guys show up at my house with a very terrified, tied-up turkey.  I decided it would be hard to find another one and they had brought it all the way to me, so after a bit of weighing (thanks, mom and dad, for the luggage scale :p) and haggling, I had myself a turkey.

TURKEYS ARE LOUD!!!  Also very weird, the waddle thing on their face feels so strange!  The turkey, dubbed Ood (from Dr. Who), only stayed at my house for a day, tied to a tree.  He gobbled all afternoon.  The name for “turkey” on the coast is just that sound, the gobble that it makes.  That evening I took him to the French volunteer house because they have a bigger yard and had made a pen for Ood.  Over the next two weeks, at the recommendation of various Malagasy friends, we fed Ood corn covered in vegetable oil to make him fat.  When I bought him, Ood weighed around 7 kilos, or 15 ish pounds.  We didn’t weigh him before we killed him, but we were guessing the dead bird, void of all innards and feathers, weighed probably 20 pounds.  Big bird!

Most of the crowd arrived the day before Thanksgiving, which actually coincided with the first night of Hanukkah.  Emma and our friend Zach are Jewish, so they helped us celebrate.  We made latkes, a traditional potato pancake, and James read us a children’s book called “Grandma’s Latkes,” which he found in the donated books he received for his town from the “Books for Africa” project organized by some previous volunteers.  We also decided to cook the turkey the night before so the oven would be free for all of the cooking the day of.  I was actually working, finishing up the mural with the church by my house, so by the time I got home the boys had already killed, gutted, and plucked Ood, and he was all ready to be dressed.  It was probably good I wasn’t there while they were doing all of this, since killing the bird I had taken care of the two weeks probably would have made me a little sad.

We nixed the turducken idea, since we found out they are made by machines because you have to debone the duck and the chicken.  But we did make a delicious duck in addition to the turkey, and David got to try his hand at making fois gras for the first time.  On Thanksgiving, we spent the day cooking garlic-mashed potatoes, duck, two kinds of green beans, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes, stuffing, guacamole, bread, fruit salad, banana pudding, and peach cobbler.  I was really impressed with everyone’s contributions.  It tasted like a real Thanksgiving dinner!  In honor of Hanukkah, Emma also made matza ball soup, even though it wasn’t the right holiday (that one is for Passover).  She also had a menorah her mother sent her, so we lit that and said the Hebrew prayer as well.  We also talked about watching sports, and many of us missed football.  As a replacement, we watched videos from the 2012 London Olympics that Christina had downloaded.  Allllllmost the same, haha.

I was thankful for my volunteer family, we all were.  Most of the people in the room had been here as long as I have, and some had lost family the previous year.  We expressed our thanks for our families at home and our new one here in Madagascar.  We invited the “First Thanksgiving-ers,” the Malagasy girl and French guy, to break the wishbone, and passed a wonderful evening eating, drinking, and laughing.

Most of the crew stuck around for brunch the next morning, where we finished off a large part of the leftovers.  We also made latkes again, because Zach was not there the first day, and had brought applesauce, which you are supposed to put on the pancakes.  Delicious!  Then most everyone took off and went back home.  I was so happy to have all of them in my town to celebrate one of my favorite holidays, but I am looking forward to being home next year!


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Halloween VAC


Manahoana indray namako!

Hope you all are enjoying your holiday season.  I recently got packages smelling heavenly of cinnamon so I am getting in the spirit too!  Sad I will be missing another set of holidays at home, but excited about my last five months of service here in Madagascar.  Well, the time has come again for me to coordinate another meeting/part for all of the highlands volunteers.  We returned to Ampefy (Emma’s town, 30 km west of me) for some beach fun and a costumed Halloween party.  It was great fun, but as always there were some frustrations involved in planning an event for 20 people.

On Halloween, the day before everyone was set to arrive in Ampefy, Eric and Emma joined me in my town to help me carve “pumpkins” for decorations.  These are really a kind of large squash with a green outside and orange inside, but they still work fairly well and taste like pumpkin.  Our planned designs using paper cutouts didn’t fair so well, the pumpkins were too small and oblong, so we ended up mostly free handing and trying to correct our mistakes.  All and all pretty amusing.  We also decided to have a Tim Burton movie marathon, and ended up watching Batman Returns and Beetlejuice.  Eric had never seen Beetlejuice!  I couldn’t believe it.  Not my usual Halloween night, where my family and I always watch Young Frankenstein, but I took care of that one, Hocus Pocus, Sweeney Todd, and Halloweentown earlier in the week J Also, I used the pumpkin guts to make a pretty good facsimile of my mom’s sweet potato casserole.  Yum!

The next day, we headed out to Ampefy to get ready for the arrival of all the other volunteers.  Nearly half the group who came out was new volunteers, so helping all of them navigate to Ampefy after only swearing in 6 weeks prior was a bit of a trip.  We have a new volunteer, Ian, in our region, and one close by, Zach, so they showed up fairly early and joined Eric, Emma, and me for a pizza lunch.  The way Ian looked at the pizza it was like solid gold and rubies, too funny. Everybody else was coming through Tana, so the few volunteers who had made the trip before had to help heard all of the newbies on their way.  Everybody finally arrive between 7 and 8 in the evening, so we mostly just got dinner, grabbed a few drinks, and caught up with everyone we hadn’t seen in awhile or hadn’t met.

The next day was set for the big meeting at the beach.  Emma had talked to a tax-brousse driver in town and set up a private ride for us the 8 km to the beach on the lake owned by a hotel.  The guy was supposed to pick us up at 10 am, so when 10:30 rolled around and he still wasn’t there, we began to call.  He said he was in town and on his way the first time.  15 minutes later he said he was in a town 10 km south of Emma dropping people off, even though we paid him extra not to work in the morning so he would be on time to pick us up.  At 11 we wouldn’t get ahold of him, but 10 minutes later a smaller taxi-brousse with a different driver arrived.  The driver said the guy we had set everything up with was on the road from Tana but had four flat tires so he called this new guy to come pick us up and take us.  This new guy would not budge from the price we set up with the previous guy, even though that was at a premium because we wanted him on time.  So an hour and a half late and too much money later, we finally got on the road to the beach.

The actual beach day and meeting were pretty relaxing.  The weather was beautiful, the food was delicious, and we had a beautiful sandy beach with beach chairs and umbrellas all to ourselves.  However, late in the day it started to look incredibly stormy, but we waited until the last minute to leave.  Hilarious mistake.  The clouds had surrounded our little beach on the lake, coming from all sides.  We had just gotten under the pavilion to square the bill when someone shouted, “look! A double rainbow!!”  People started taking pictures of that awesome spectacle, but then someone said, “look at that wall of rain coming across the lake, how cool!”  That is when I yelled, “let’s head for the car before that hits us.”  Unfortunately, everyone was too engrossed in the rainbows to listen to me, except for two people.  So the three of us headed to the car, and got in just as a mini-cyclone hit the area.  There was deafening wind, pounding rain, and even hail!  The road on which we had come was mostly mud anyway, but would be nearly impassable if the rest of the group didn’t come soon.  They start racing one by one to the car, looking like they had been swimming even though none of us had touched the lake.

We finally got everyone in the car and started on the road back.  The driver could barely see out the windshield, so I was glad this wasn’t a well-traveled road.  We passed houses with their roofs blown off, lost our spare tire off the back and had to return for it (it was already in someone’s ox cart to be sold somewhere else, they had to buy it back), and got stuck in the mud multiple times.  We volunteers were used to it though, and all still in good spirits when we finally arrived back in Ampefy.

The plan for the night was dinner on your own, then meet back for a Halloween party.  Our hotel had hosted us at the VAC in February, and allegedly knew what we wanted.  However, when we returned from dinner, they were not selling any alcohol or snacks, the communal area with the speakers, karaoke machine, and couches was shut up, and all of the staff was asleep.  It was 8:30.  In a mass scramble, we went and bought nearly all of the beer the small town of Ampefy had to offer, set up an ipod on some small portable speakers, and managed to salvage the party by 10:30 pm.  So there were definitely some unexpected hiccups, but that is life in Madagascar.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Moringa! Moringa!! Moringa!!!


Manahoana indray!

I want to tell you about a project that I am really proud of, one of my biggest to date.  When I first arrived in Madagascar, my fellow economic development volunteers were trained with environment volunteers.  They talked all the time about this tree called moringa.  I had never heard of it, but I soon learned that it is practically magic in terms of nutrition.  High in protein, vitamins, and calcium, the leaves and seeds could do wonders for a country hat mostly lives on rice and deep fried carbs.  The moringa tree is gaining popularity throughout Africa, South America, and Asia because it grows in very sandy soil and doesn’t require a lot of water once the tree is already grown.  Plus, the tree begins producing leaves and seeds in just a few months, and lives for about 15 years.  Yay sustainability!

Back in July, I developed a project plan that would spread moringa throughout the Itasy region, partnered with the Office of National Nutrition and an agricultural training center 11 km west of my town.  There will be 6 pilot sites and a production site at the agricultural training center partnered with the French volunteers in my town.  We received the $3,000 in USAID funding when the project was accepted in September, and began buying supplies right away.  Each pilot is partnered with a school or youth organization, and will have about 15 trees.  We just completed the first three-day training to teach the heads of the pilot sites how to grow, process, and utilize the different parts of the tree for different uses.  We taught them how to make all kinds of different recipes, salt licks for cattle, how to dry and pound the leaves into a powder to use as a nutritional supplement, and lots of other things!

I was a little nervous to see how a project of this scope.  There will be pilots all over the region, and in my experience you have constantly monitor your counterparts to make sure they are following up.  So far, I didn’t need to worry.  I was so impressed with how engaged and hardworking all of the pilot heads were during the first training.  I keep hearing from Eric and Emma about how excited the community members are, and how they are already starting to train other people, even without the help of the professional trainers.

The next step is preparing these three-day trainings at each of the pilot sites and giving seeds to community members.  The idea is to get moringa widespread in communities all over, and teach people how to use it in a bunch of different ways.  Also, I will be preparing basketball and soccer tournaments at each of the pilot sites.  The programs will also involve moringa games and programs, associating fun, fitness, and nutrition together.  Excited to keep moving forward!


Tuesday, October 8, 2013




Time to tell you about one of my favorite projects I have been a part of so far.  Four highlands community economic development volunteers and myself followed in the footsteps on many previous volunteers and put together a “Girls Leading Our World (GLOW)” camp.  We each invited four middle school/early high school girls from each of our five towns (20 girls in total) and a chaperone from each to travel to Tana all expenses paid to participate in a five-day camp at the beginning of September.  Here is a description of what we did each day:

Volunteers travelled with their girls and chaperones from their towns to the YWCA in Tana where we were staying.  My girls and chaperone came from Manazary, a town 18 km south of me on a very bad road.  The chaperone is a good friend of mine; a school director who is very familiar with the problems girls from the countryside often face.  She brought the girls to my town, and then we caught a tax-brousse to Tana and met up with everyone for lunch.  The rest of the first day was mostly introductions, icebreakers, and setting up the schedule and expectations.

While HIV/AIDS prevalence is very low in this country (lower than America, actually) other STIs and unwanted pregnancy are problems that occur throughout the country.  Most of this stems from a lack of education about condoms and family planning.  Peer educators from Population Services International led the morning session, and taught a rather technical lesson about STIs and condom use.  I was impressed by how many questions the girls asked.  Still giggly, but definitely informative.  Two female doctors led the afternoon session, which was good on a lot of levels.  Some of the peer educators from the morning were guys, which might have made some of the girls participate a little less.  The afternoon was all about goals and family planning to meet those goals.  Then the doctors had the girls practice putting condoms on AND taking them off using bananas.  Useful information, plus the girls got to talk to female doctors, which was definitely inspiring for them.

This day we took the girls to the US Embassy in the morning.  I hadn’t actually been there before, as it is very far from our transit house and office in Tana and the security is extremely high to entrance is restricted.  The building is a huge fortress that dominates the landscape over rice fields.  Everything inside was pretty much as it would be in America: very shiny and put together.  The automatic toilets and dryers in the bathroom freaked everybody out haha.  The program in the morning was led by some of the Malagasy women who work at the Embassy.  They talked about their jobs and responsibilities and, more importantly, how they got where they are.  We also invited a women’s’ group from Tana that works with an education volunteer to come talk.  They had doctors, dancers, and politicians, so a very wide variety of successful women.  We had lunch at the Embassy (also they have a VENDING MACHINE.  Mind=blown) and then headed out to the large stadium in the center of town.  There we talked to a girl’s soccer team.  The players ranged in ages from 16-23.  There was a bit of a miscommunication (the girls thought we were playing them) but then they agreed to talk to us a little about sports and health.  We were also trying to emphasize that girls do not need to conform to gender stereotypes and can do anything boys can do.  The girls (and chaperones) ended up being nearly offensive to these girls, telling them they looked like boys.  This sparked the idea in the other volunteers and myself to lead a stereotypes discussion later that night.  We focused on the assumptions people make about men and women, and also about “vazaha” (foreigners) and Malagasy.  The result was actually really good.  Without pointing people out (very bad in a collectivist society) we were able to communicate that they may have made these girls feel bad, and not to behave that way in the future.

The next day we headed to the University of Antananarivo in Ankatso, where we had students and a professor we knew (who studied at Cornell) talk about their university experience and how to get into university here.  Some of the girls were a bit young to take this really seriously, but a few really understood that you have to start preparing early if you want to do well enough on your high school exit exam to go to college.  In the afternoon we went to Education USA, a center in Tana that focuses on helping Malagasy students apply to and fund a college education in the US.  They also do a lot of English tutoring.  While this is likely impossible for a lot of the girls, if they aspire to go to school in the states and end up continuing their education in Tana or even finishing high school it will definitely be a success for us.  We also had a couple girls that if they work really hard they have a real chance.  There are also a ton of resources there on undergraduate and graduate programs, so the other volunteers and I browsed graduate material in the back and discussed our future plans.  Still don’t know where life will take me yet!

At night on days 3 and 4 we showed the BBC documentary on wildlife in Madagascar IN MALAGASY.  I gave the wonderful documentary to my grandparents for Christmas before I left, but I had no idea it had been translated.  Such a wonderful thing for these people to have, because most of them do not understand or appreciate the unique flora and fauna that is endemic to Madagascar. So on Friday when we went to the zoo in Tana, the girls were enthusiastically reading the signs for the different animals and talking about what they had learned.  I was really excited to see them actually synthesizing information and applying it.  Also bonus: while taking pictures of some of the lemurs, a zoo worker motioned for another volunteer, Amy, and me to come over to him, and told me (in French) that the lemurs give kisses!! I am sure this was not something condoned by the zoo, but he knew he could get a tip if he let the two vazaha girls play with lemurs.  He led us to an enclosed area where the backside of the lemurs’ cages were and opened the door to three different types of lemurs consecutively.  Then he put honey on our hands and cheeks and the lemurs licked it off!  It tickled sooo badly, and was ridiculously adorable.  Definitely a personal highlight to the zoo trip.  After we left the zoo the plan was to take the girls to the top of the hill where the Queen’s Palace (Rova) overlooks the city.  Well, when we got there the gatekeepers were refusing to let the other volunteers and me in for the resident price.  Vazaha have to pay 10,000 MGA (about what I make in a day), while the Malagasy only pay 500.  The rest of the volunteers and I fought them on this for some time, telling them we were volunteers and showing them our residency cards.  One of the guys even told me I was American and friends with Barack Obama so I have money.  Not true.  I asked him if his president gave him money and he just kind of laughed.  But here is the best part: when the other volunteers and I decided not to go in and told the girls and the chaperones to go on without us, they refused.  They said it was unfair the way they treated us AND MENTIONED THE STEREOTYPE LESSON WE TAUGHT THREE DAYS EARLIER!!!  I was so impressed and felt so much love and attachment for these girls, who demonstrated how much they had learned in just a few days.  So then we left and took the girls on a shopping trip to buy souvenirs and such.  Later that night we helped them plan the presentations they are going to give in their communities in order to spread the information they learned.  It was really cool to hear them reflect on all of the stuff and get excited to teach it.

So here is the weirdest thing: the whole week went incredibly well, and the following is a cultural response that both verified the success of the camp, and terrified the American volunteers to our very core.  The volunteers and I were watching a movie in our room around 8 pm.  Our room is located two floors below the large room where all the girls and chaperones were staying.  We started to here a sort of screaming, and at first thought the girls were running up and down the stairs like they had been at 4 am that morning.  It starts to get louder, and I run to the hallway to see what’s wrong.  There is a girl collapsed on two other girls just wailing as loud as she can.  The other volunteers follow me into the hallway, and we start asking the two girls supporting her what the matter was.  We got vague answers that didn’t really make sense, and it looked to us like she was incredibly ill and having some sort of fit or seizure.  Eric carried the girl downstairs to get some air, while Emma and I went upstairs to find a chaperone.  What we found was another girl sitting in the hallway and screaming “jesosy!” (Jesus) over and over again.  Emma and I assumed it was an exorcism, which does happen in this country.  Then a chaperone came out, looking completely nonchalant, and told us the girls were just sad, the ambiance of the week was so nice and they made so many new friends that they didn’t want to leave the next day.  Three floors down Eric was arriving at the same conclusion when a chaperone appeared to help the girl he was with.  What we gathered from the chaperones was this was a perfectly normal response, something that actually happens quite a bit.  But it scared the living daylights out of us.  We also decided that the girl who collapsed on the stairs definitely did it for attention.  Since the girls are around 14 or 15, they had huge crushes on our two male volunteers, who are in their early twenties.  This girl got exactly what she wanted: Eric carrying her down the stairs, willing to do anything to make her feel better.

So the wailing aside, the week was amazing, and I can’t wait to help the girls conduct trainings in their towns.  Also sorry for the novel, but a lot happened!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Manahoana daholo!

I know this is late, but I am finally writing about my trip to the beautiful island of Isle St. Marie off the east coast of Mada.  So the day Alex flew out my friend Erica from U of M and my fraternity Delta Sigma Pi flew in.  She was coming in from a week in London with friends she met through working with Nielsen in San Francisco, where she moved after we graduated.  Since she was only coming for a week, we had to strategically decide what to do, and we chose St. Marie because it was whale season and I had never been there.

After I picked her up from the airport we spent the night in Tana catching up about everything in the world since I had seen her in San Fran the month before I left the states.  The next morning we embarked on our journey east with an 8-hour taxi-brousse ride to the port city of Tamatave.  We stopped for lunch on the way and Erica got her first taste of true Malagasy food—a huge mound of rice and greasy beef and beans.

So we get to Tamatave and stay the night there.  We get a call partway through the day from our bus/boat company that we were supposed to take the next day saying the boat had not gone to St. Marie for five days, so they thought it was going to go the next day but there were a lot of people backed up so we wouldn’t be able to go until the day after.  So we grabbed dinner and drinks along the beach and just hung out for the night.

Since we had a day to kill in Tamatave, we decided to go to a nearby zoological park 8 down the river where Beth, another volunteer works.  They have a lot of types of lemurs in cages and at least two types that are fairly domesticated but outside cages.  We got to feed a few of them too, which was really cute.  Their hands are so soft and squishy, so weird!  Also we got to see some lemurs outside the cage mess with their same kind inside the cage, which was actually pretty funny. It started to rain, so we headed back towards town.  Beth had been working with bamboo rafters, so we paid one of her cooperative members to take us down the river, which was pretty cool.

The next morning our bus picked us up from our hotel at 4:30 in the morning.  We rode for about 5 hours to the port town and then waited forever in the pouring rain for our boat to arrive.  The ferries hold about 50 people, which sounds like a pretty big boat but for these waves it was nowhere near enough.  The waves crashed over the enormous boat getting everything wet.  It was pretty scary actually, but after we got out of the tide it was much better.  And the best part is, we got to see a couple of whales from the boat on the way!  The ride took about two hours and then we kissed land on the other side.

We got driven to the house we were renting and I was surprised at how perfect it was.  The house was enormous and we were paying about $6 a day per person, which was awesome.  We had a kitchen and two bedrooms for the five of us staying there.  The best part was the proximity to the water: our balcony steps were submerged in ocean at high tide.  It was beautiful.

So we hung out for a few days enjoying extremely fresh seafood and beautiful ocean.  Unfortunately the weather was mostly rainy (silly east coast) but it was still paradise.  One day we went and met other volunteers on Isle aux Nattes, which is a small island just south of St. Marie.

We could have stayed out there forever, but unfortunately had to head back towards Tana for Erica to make her flight.  The boat trip back was as smooth as can be, which is a testament to the effect of the time of day.  On they way there we left around noon, on the way back we left St. Marie at about 5 am.  Then we took our bus back to Tamatave.  That was one of the most interesting things.  After we boarded the boat, paramedics brought a man on a stretcher who had been stabbed.  We had actually heard about him the night before, our guardian mentioned the incident.  The man travelled with us on the boat and then he was laid down right next to us in the bus to go to the hospital in Fenerive, north of Tamatave.  Very interesting (and uncomfortable) experience.

When we arrived in Tamatave we grabbed a quick bite to eat and then hit the road for Andasibe, the national park about 3 hours east of Tana.  The brousse ride was long and slow and it took us forever to leave from Tamatave, but we finally arrived in Andasibe and hit the sack.  The next morning was the day of Erica’s flight, so we didn’t have very long before we had to go back to Tana.  We did, however, get a chance to go on a hike to see the Indri, the largest lemur in Madagascar, and I got to feed some!  Too cool.  We then got a private car to ensure our arrival in Tana in time for Erica’s 3 pm flight.  Made it just in time haha, but she arrived back in the states smoothly and safely.

All in all a wonderful trip to a beautiful island.