Tuesday, September 21, 2010


My address at site is:

Joshua Twisselman, PCV
CISCO Ambanja
Ambanja 203

Status Update

I am now a Peace Corps Volunteer.

A Few More Entries...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Not a lot of news here in good ol’ Mantasoa. After visiting paradise weather at my site in Ambanja, I returned to some of the heaviest, coldest rain I’ve seen here. I was saddened by how overjoyed I was to see Dada and Neny, because that means it’s going to be really hard to leave in a few weeks.

A bunch of current Education and Health PCVs have come to live here in Mantasoa at the PCTC for the next few weeks while they help with our tech training (I met most of them the night I stayed at the Tana MEVA after returning from site visit).

Also, I don’t think I mentioned this in my previous compilations, but one member of our group of 42 PCTs (Katie Minton) had gone back to the U.S. before site visits because her grandmother passed away. However, she returned to Mantasoa on Monday, which is a testament to her strength of character and the solidarity of our group. Everyone I’ve talked to wants to go the full 2 years without any ETs (early terminations). However, the odds are stacked heavily against that scenario. Still… no one’s talked about leaving yet.

Additionally, now that we’re back from site visits, the schedule is a bit different. Rather than language every morning and tech sessions in the afternoon, us Education sector folks have Practicum (practice teaching) in the morning and abridged language/tech sessions in the afternoon. Practicum is pretty much the real deal. They’ve rounded up about a hundred some odd student volunteers from the community and divided them into their respective grade levels (they are all on break from real school until October 11). We take turns teaching these respective classes.

Throughout Monday and Tuesday we’ve been preparing to teach. We were then divided into 3 groups of 7. Today, each of the 7 members of group 1 taught a different class level. Tomorrow group 1 teaches from 8-10, and group 2 teaches from 10-12. Friday group 2 teaches from 8-10, and group 3 teaches from 10-12. That should be the general pattern until the end of training.

I’m in group 3. When I’m not teaching, I’m either observing a class or in my own language class. Not the most exciting stuff to talk about, but at least we are now teaching actual students rather than reading lesson plans everyday.

Other news…

Yesterday I woke up early in the morning with an upset stomach. I felt like throwing up, but I didn’t want to puke in my po (pee-bucket), so I held it in until I got up at 6. When I emptied my po in the kabone (outhouse), I thought I’d take a stab at vomiting. At first I couldn’t, but then I got a good whiff of the kabone… that’ll do it.

I was feeling a lot better after that, but couldn’t really eat any breakfast. I told my neny, “marary kibo aho” (I’m sick to my stomach). She was very worried. She said she’d make soup for lunch. That went down alright, but I was still feeling pretty gurgly the rest of the day. Another round of puking when I got back from tech session at 4:30. Not fun.

I had more soup for dinner at 6, and headed to bed at 6:30. Summer sent me good vibes and I slept until 6 this morning, waking up fully recovered. It was probably just some undercooked meat, or maybe a 24-hour stomach bug. Whatever the case, I survived my first sickness in Peace Corps. I’m sure there will be a lot more where that came from.

The power is out here. Rolling blackouts, from what I understand. I’m typing on my computer by candlelight. Surreal. Even in a developing nation, it’s easy to take electricity for granted when you’ve had it access to it everyday. Well, I suppose I’ll retire. Until next time, mazotoa! (enjoy!)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Today I had my first experience teaching actual Malagasy students. I had to design a lesson based on a topic randomly selected from the nationalized curriculum. I was assigned Family Celebrations.

The level I was assigned to teach was 5eme. Levels here go backward. 6eme is about 6th grade in the U.S., then comes 5eme, 4eme, 3eme, 2nde, premiere, and terminale, which is the last level of Lycee (high school).

I had sat in on two 5eme classes on Wednesday, and the teacher seemed to be going a bit too fast, so I decided to make my lesson extremely basic. I focused on birthdays, specifically on the verbs “to dance, to sing, to eat, and to give.” Maybe it was too simple, or maybe my students are just mahay be (very smart) because we flew through the exercises I made.

We were scheduled from 10:15 to 12:00, and even though class didn’t actually start until 10:30, I was already having the class sing the Happy Birthday Song (which they already knew in English, melody and all!) and play hangman by 11:30. I released them at 11:45. I need contingency plans for my contingency plans.

Normal day after that. Tomorrow group sessions from 8 to noon.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

First, a shout out to my sister, Amy. It’s her birthday today. The big 2-1. Happy birthday!

This morning we had a full group session about PACA, which stands for Participatory Analysis for Community Action. It is the foundational theory behind Peace Corps’ approach to community development. Very straightforward: talk to the community, find out what the men and women do everyday, then get a sense of what the community’s needs are from the community members themselves.

After that scintillating discussion, we had a lesson in bike maintenance, led by none other than my dad, and his assistant Manana (Julie’s dad). Also straightforward. Good news is, I should be getting a bike: Trek, 21”.

I had lunch, and then since it was sunny I decided to manasa lamba (wash clothes). I hadn’t done a full washing since before site visits, so things had really piled up. Luckily, my Neny is the nicest woman in Mantasoa and came down to essentially take over. She pushed me aside and told me to rinse out the clothes once she had washed them.

Once they were hung up to dry, I walked down to the soccer field at the Lycee to watch a soccer tournament. About a hundred spectators from Mantasoa, including most of the 42 PCTs, watched from the hill next to the field. We watched two games, both of which youths from Mantasoa won.

Dinner was rice, peas, tomatoes, garlic, and pork. Another day.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ok, I’m ready to write my personal statement to apply to the Peace Corps:

I would like to become a Peace Corps volunteer so that I can inhale the most spine-tinglingly crisp air in the world while descending a mountain overlooking a vast, vibrant green valley at the precise moment when the sun reaches its hands through the clouds and touches my face, and the orgasmically harmonious dual guitar riff at the 3:41 mark of Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” simultaneously erupts from my headphones.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Mornin’! I’m waiting for the three drops of Sur’Eau (chlorine) to fully kill everything in the water in my water bottle. I’m supposed to wait 15 minutes after adding the three drops/litre. This is after the water has been filtered in my giant steel water filter.

In a few minutes I will be heading to the CEG (middle school) to watch a class from 8-10 and then I teach 3eme from 10:15-noon. The topic I was assigned today was “hunting.” I’m supposed to focus on vocabulary.

When making our lesson plans, we are supposed to use the four-part “4-mat” format: Motivation, Information, (Guided) Practice, and Application. We also have to write a brief objective at the beginning of every lesson that at some point uses the phrase “students will be able to” (SWBAT). Here is the first draft of my lesson on hunting:

Objective: By the end of this lesson, SWBAT track, find, and kill any number of big game endemic to the African continent.

Motivation: Ya’ll hungry? Cuz I am. You know what I could go for right now? Some tasty elephant steaks. They are so juicy and full of flavor—it’s making my mouth water! Shall we begin?

Information: Class, this is what we call an elephant gun. Hold it like so. Aim. Fire. Let’s practice.

Practice: Everyone have a rifle? Ok, Exercise 1: Fire at the targets: 25 yards, 50 yards, 75 yards, and 100 yards. Have fun!

(Oops! I forgot CCBI! It should be in metres, not in yards!)

Application: Ok class. You’re on your own. The student who bags the biggest and/or rarest animal gets top marks for the day. Good luck!

We’ll see how it goes…

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Let’s see… A lot has happened since my last post. I taught my actual lesson to 3eme on Wednesday, which ended up being a vain attempt at describing elephant tusks in English. I eventually got to explain the verbs “to hunt,” “to shoot,” and “to kill,” acting out each action in superb form, if I do say so myself.

Thursday I taught “describing people: pessimistic, optimistic, shy, etc.” to the 2nde level. Not as exciting as hunting, but the 2nde students are very bright and a lot more well-behaved than the 3eme students.

After Practicum on Thursday, us Education folks joined the Health folks at the PCTC for group sessions (this week we learned about the dangers of drugs and alcohol in addition to going over Peace Corps Madagascar’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP)). At the end of the day, I mentioned to Robert (training manager) that my family was having a famadihana (exhumation) the next day. He said he wouldn’t be able to go, and it didn’t look like I would be able to go because of Practicum and language classes.

However, over dinner Thursday night, I got a call from Lova (homestay coordinator). She informed me that I could, indeed, attend the famadihana the next day.

So, after Sakalava language class all Friday morning (I was not scheduled to observe or teach English Practicum) I went home to find various extended family as well as my Dada and Neny feasting on plates of rice and beef. After joining them for food, it was time to make the 45-minute trek to the famadihana.

We picked up fellow PCT James on the way, as his family was apparently participating in the ceremony as well. Unlike the last famadihana, the sun was shining brightly and it was very warm. We arrived at an open grassy area where a few hundred people had gathered, eating rice and drinking THB or Rhum or Taoka-Gasy (moonshine) from various stands.

The ceremony began at 2. Everyone formed a parade, propelled by the beat of a dozen or so drums and about as many flutes and accordions. We arrived at what looked like a small house, painted white with blue trim. This was the tomb. A man climbed to the roof of the tomb and gave a speech in Malagasy and then the tomb was opened. If you recall, last time (different families, different tomb, different famadihana) each family entered the tomb and grabbed the wrapped corpses, carrying them above their heads and dancing in a drunken frenzy.

This time, it was much more orderly. My Dada and his son came out with the first two corpses (completely wrapped in white burial shrouds) and laid them on giant straw mats. Once the other families had gathered their respective deceased relatives, they began wrapping each corpse one by one in brand new burial shrouds. One family must have just recently lost their exhumed family member, because they were extremely emotional, sobbing and holding onto the corpse, even as more corpses were brought out beside them.

The re-wrapping process apparently takes a while, so James and I decided to head back into town after saying goodbye to our respective families. That night what seemed like all 42 PCTs hiked to the top of the biggest hill in Mantasoa to PCT Raffaele’s house to watch I Love You Man on Raff’s computer. It was a big deal because we’re not supposed to be out after dark. We had to clear everything with training staff, as well as our host families, who are all usually in bed by 8 or 9. Because it had been a clear day we could actually see the night sky. It was breathtaking. I need a southern constellation chart. We watched most of the film and left for home at about 9.

Today we went to Tana to visit the zoo. The animals looked depressed and neglected. However, I can now say I’ve seen several species of lemurs in real life. I’ll be satisfied when I see them in the wild.

We were all ready to explore Tana after an hour at the zoo. We were not allowed to go to the Tana MEVA (where there is internet) because the members of the March 2010 Environment/Small Enterprise Development (SED) stage (our predecessors) are having In-Service Training (IST) this week at the PCTC in Mantasoa and are currently all gathering at the Tana MEVA. Our group of 42 Education and Health PCTs will finish Pre-Service Training (PST) when we swear in on September 21, and will come back for our own IST in December. Get it? Peace Corps sure does love its acronyms.

Where was I? Yes, we left the zoo to explore Tana. We split up into different groups and were accompanied by different LCFs (LCFs are the 14 or so Malagasy language teachers; I think LCF technically stands for Language and Cultural Facilitator, or Large Cuddly Friend, or Liquid Carbon-based Fuel). I went with a group of people who planned to shop after lunch, accompanied by LCFs Linda and Edvina.

We ate, Molly and Raff got photos developed, and then we went to a supermarket. By the time we were done, it was about quarter to 2. I needed to purchase a guitar. I have needed to purchase a guitar since we touched down in Madagascar. LCF Linda (who, like all the LCFs educated at the university in Tana, knows the city very well) took me on a hurried guitar shopping expedition because we had to walk back to a central location by 3:15.

I was told a decent guitar costs about 200,000 Ar (which is about $100). I had brought that much with me from the States for the very purpose of purchasing a guitar. The first shop Linda and I entered was asking 600,000 Ar for a guitar. Not cool. The next shop had a guitar for 190,000 Ar that felt and sounded nice. The shop after that had one for 199,000 Ar that sounded the same. We tried one last store that had a very nice looking guitar for 170,000 Ar. It felt and sounded much better than the previous two. Linda haggled it down to 160,000 Ar. I now have a great guitar, which cost about 80 bucks. I owe Linda my life.

Long ride back to Mantasoa, but I was floating.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I’ve been running almost every morning at 5:30. PCT Jacob (who runs barefoot) and his host brother Joseph run every morning. Additionally, at some point or another, all the following PCTs have joined the 5:30 run: Julie, Molly, Israel, Paul, Kaitlyn, Karina, Lorin and Ryan F. Furthermore, whenever Julie runs, so does her host brother Mamota, and occasionally Israel’s host brother (who runs barefoot with two broken toes) and his host brother’s friend come along (both names escape me at the moment).

The run is superb. We’ve estimated it (based solely on the time it takes us to complete it) at a little over 5km. The dirt road cuts through some rice paddies, crosses a river, goes up into the hills, and eventually comes back around toward the town, passing Lake Mantasoa near the PCTC. Recently it’s been spectacularly clear, and we’ve been blessed with some stunning sunrises. Also, there is always an eerie mist that hangs over the rice paddies, which we emerge from as we ascend the hills. Like I said: the run is superb.

Today was my last day teaching actual practicum classes (I taught about dinosaurs to the Terminale level). For the next three days we have been broken up into seven groups of three PCTs and assigned a specific grade level: Wednesday we do test review, Thursday we proctor a test (which we write ourselves), and Friday we grade the test. I’ve been assigned 2nde level with Israel and Rebekah C. Sunday we met up to start planning our review lesson and to start writing the test, but ended up jamming and singing for a few hours. We decided that we would teach our class “The Tennessee Waltz” and expand on the storyline. Since the students are not actually in school, the test will only involve topics covered during practicum, and rather than grades, students will be given prizes based on how well they do.

I think our lesson and test are pretty solid. I should get some rest.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

So it’s been a while. Recap:

Israel, Rebekah, and I were a pretty awesome team, if I do say so myself. Our review lesson expertly incorporated every lesson taught to the 2nde level during Practicum. We sang “The Tennessee Waltz,” then wrote a story which expanded on the song’s storyline, then created and acted out a dialogue, then ran an obligatory grammar exercise, and ended with a sweet “draw and label some clothes on the naked stick figures” game.

The test was the same format as the review lesson, except the story picked up where the song left off (the woman was now getting married and wanted to know if she should invite her former sweetheart to the wedding). There was also a different dialogue, a different grammar exercise, and another “draw and label 10 articles of clothing on the naked stick figures” game.

The next day, since we had already graded the tests, we were able to go over the answers with the class, and then spent the last hour throwing a dance party. Israel and Rebekah taught the class how to waltz while I accompanied on guitar, and then they taught the class some awesome swing dance moves (while I, again, accompanied on guitar).

So, Practicum was officially over. The next task was to prepare for our own final language exam (which was today… I’ll get to that). I reviewed a bit this weekend, but I also took advantage of Mantasoa-specific activities.

On Saturday, I went out on Lake Mantasoa in a canoe (which are available at the Peace Corps Training Center along with life jackets). The sun was shining, the air was warm with a cool breeze, and the water was calm and cool (however we are not allowed to swim in any lakes or rivers because of the possibility of schistosomiasis). Nevertheless, the canoe experience was amazing. Another example of why the PCTC should be called Camp Peace Corps.

Sunday I spent a lot of time with my family. I roasted peanuts and crushed them into peanut butter. I also watched my Dada kill a chicken and helped him pluck, gut, and cut it up. I then de-scaled and gutted some fish. After cleaning up, I washed my clothes with my Neny and then roasted some coffee beans. While they cooled off, I walked to a soccer field with some PCTs and watched a few soccer games. I came back and ground the coffee beans and put the grounds in a glass jar. A bold, dark-roasted, aromatic blend of only the finest coffee beans, grown fresh here in Madagascar. Available in the lobby.

I also recorded two songs at some point in the last few days (“Light Blue Walls” is a melancholy acoustic/alternative-rock piece about staring at the walls in my room every night and missing people; “Paul Cook” is a lighthearted ode to fellow PCT Paul Cook).

So, we’ve been preparing to take our final language assessment. It is unclear exactly what the procedure is, but apparently if we don’t meet the language level requirement, we are not allowed to swear in with everybody else on September 21. Instead, we stay here in Mantasoa for another two weeks while we perfect our language abilities. People have been a little tense lately.

I think I did alright. It was an oral assessment, and I was able to understand and respond to all the questions asked. I definitely could have been more fluid, but I tried my best. We all see if we passed tomorrow.

Whether or not I passed, I had to pack up all my stuff tonight. Since I have a “fly site” they are sending everything that I don’t need up early. This includes my metal trunk with various non-essential knick-knacks, my big metal water filter, my big suitcase and extra clothes, my bike helmet, and my bike. I will be left with my backpack, duffle bag, and guitar.

When I got home, I shared all five songs I’ve recorded in Madagascar with my host family, and then showed them all the pictures I took when I borrowed PCT Kaitlyn’s camera the other day. My Dada pulled out a micro-SD card with adaptor and asked for copies of the songs and photos. After copying over the files, he expertly inserted the card into his cell phone. He may have spent his life in a tiny remote village in Madagascar, but don’t ever tell me my Dada isn’t tech-savvy.

Dinner was emotional, because tomorrow will be my last night staying with the family. I gave my Dada and Neny their gifts (a nice John Steinbeck pen and a photo of vineyards in the Salinas valley). Dada played my songs on repeat throughout dinner.

It’s going to be tough to leave.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Tomorrow I swear in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.


On Friday, the Thank You Community ceremony occurred. All of our families and their extended relatives came to the PCTC in the afternoon to be recognized, to eat food, and to say goodbye. Two PCTs (Kristen and Israel) were scheduled to give Thank You speeches in Malagasy (both were great—they had the whole community laughing). I had expressed interest in performing my “Good Ol’ Mantasoa” song. During Israel’s speech I was tapped on the shoulder and told I was up next. I performed the song with Israel. Great time.

Afterward we ate finger foods and then there was a brief dance party. I danced with my Neny for one song, but she told me she was too old to keep dancing.

Then everyone left.

However, that wasn’t the last time I saw my host parents. Saturday I went down into Mantasoa after lunch to do laundry at my Dada and Neny’s house. It was hot and bright. My Neny was so happy to see me. We hugged more than usual. We then did laundry together, and then I purchased some orange Fanta, which we enjoyed together. I was told to come back on Monday to say goodbye and pick up the dry clothes.

Yesterday, I had a fairly uneventful morning. However, I was able to swap about 50 GB worth of digital media with people. When I was done, I excitedly stood up out of my chair and turned around… and fell off a step and tripped and ran into the wall. The force of me shaking the wall caused one of the windowpanes to shatter instantly. I was fine, but thoroughly embarrassed. But that wasn’t why I was sad yesterday.

I was sad yesterday because I said goodbye to my Neny for the last time. I had gone into town to get chocolate and phone credit, but not many stores were open because it was Sunday. So, I went to my host parents’ house, but no one was home. I was walking away in defeat when I was called by my Dada across the street (he and Neny had been playing cards with their neighbors). He told me I needed to get my dry laundry because Neny was going out of town on Monday.

I went up to get the clothes, and wouldn’t you know my Neny had ironed and folded them all. Additionally, she had sewed a hole in my pajamas. She’s so sweet. I hugged her one last time and said goodbye.

Today I was tired. I had stayed up very late last night recording a concept album (?) with fellow PCTs. Essentially I recorded people talking over and over again and then layered the conversations so it sounded like a huge crowd of people were talking. Occasionally people would hit the wood tables with spoons and I would sporadically add guitar riffs. It was quite fun.

Tomorrow I swear in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Multiple Updates

So, I've been keeping a log of my adventures on my computer. The following selected blog posts will be copied and pasted (and posted) from that log:

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Today was epic.

My sister-in-law came to Mantasoa for a wedding yesterday. She brought her ~1 year old son, who was pretty cool. His name is Toky. He hardly cried, he didn’t stink, he could walk around, and he could comprehend instructions. Pretty good qualities for a baby to have.

I woke up, showered, and had breakfast, like a normal Sunday. I had a lot of clothes to wash, so I got right to it after breakfast because I saw the sun. Luckily Neny helped me, because I had a lot to wash and within an hour the beautifully sunny sky had been replaced by dark clouds. We finished, and hung them out on Neny and Dada’s balcony.

I was walking over to the kabone (outhouse) and Neny was holding a live chicken. She told me to come inside, we were going to prepare it.

She brought it into the room where our table and chairs are. She put it on the floor and stepped on its wings so it wouldn’t move around. She held its neck over a little metal dish. She pulled out her knife and slit its throat. It twitched for a little bit while blood dripped into the pan.

Then we put it in boiling water, took it out, and removed the feathers. Then Dada and I cleaned it out, removing the entrails and carving it into its respective pieces. Then we boiled it with ginger and salt. Then we fried the pieces in oil. Then we ate it with rice for lunch.

Other PCTs had already had similar experiences, so I was somewhat prepared, but it’s still the first time I’ve seen anyone kill an animal that wasn’t a fish. I may have to do the killing next time, as some of my comrades have already done.

After lunch I said goodbye to my sister-in-law and Toky because they were heading back to Tana and I had a famadihina (exhumation) to attend. I met up with Israel and Paul. It was sprinkling on and off, had been most of the day. The road was very muddy.

We knew the famadihina was happening somewhere near PCTC, but we weren’t quite sure where. There was one car taking people, which filled up quickly. We started walking in the right direction and we got picked up when the car came back around. We drove about a mile past PCTC and then pulled over and got out.

It started raining like crazy. There was foot-deep mud. We heard drum beats in the distance. They grew louder and louder. We soon heard voices and flutes. Suddenly a crowd of several hundred Malagasy people came parading over a hill. We were told to merge with the crowd. It soon detoured off the dirt (mud) road and into an even muddier side path through the trees along the edge of a mountain.

As we walked, the sound of the drums and flutes was deafening. There were many drunk Malagasy men trying to get all of us to dance along the way. It was still raining.

We came to a clearing on the side of the mountain. Everyone gathered around a stone structure which we discovered was a tomb. A man read a big speech in Malagasy from under an umbrella, shouting to the crowd. Then the music started up in full force as men started digging dirt and rocks from out of the entrance to the tomb. When the music started, the rain stopped and sun shone through the clouds. It was surreal.

There were hundreds of Malagasy onlookers just watching from the perimeter, but there was a group of about 50 hardcore dancers in a frenzy in front of the tomb. People kept yelling at all of us white people (vazahas) to come dance. Most of the people yelling at us were drunk. Finally, the tomb was opened. Several people entered with a large straw mat. They came out with a body (completely wrapped and bound in white burial cloth), which they held wrapped in the large straw mat. They danced in a frenzy with the body held above their heads before bringing it to a clearing and setting it on the ground. Then another body came out, same actions followed.

By the time the third body came out, people were really pulling us to come to where the bodies had been laid out. I thought to myself, once in a lifetime experience. So, I went right up to the front. A bunch of Malagasy men kept making dance motions. Only a few PCTs had followed me. Others were looking on from the perimeters. Finally, I just let loose. Everyone was staring at me and laughing, but I didn’t care. I needed to dance. I believe there are videos. There are definitely pictures.

In total about 6 bodies were taken out of the tomb (it started raining again after the third body). People just danced to the beat of the drums and the sound of flutes. There were two bands on opposite sides of the tomb, switching off, song by song. I think I stayed for about an hour (I only danced for the one song). Other PCTs danced a bit within the big group of Malagasy dancers. Then I left with a group of 10 or so PCTs and we trekked back to the main road.

When we got there, we realized there were too many of us to fit in the car, so I waited back with a few PCTs. We were in front of some camp-like area that had a few bungalows and tents. What was odd about it, however, was that there were about half a dozen white people walking around. One of them came up to us. He didn’t speak English very well. He was French. Hillary spoke to him in French (she lived in France for 2 years).

It turns out that he is part of some French version of Boy Scouts and he and his compatriots are here in Mantasoa for a month expanding their camp area. Their goal is to make a space for French tourists to stay in order to be more integrated into Malagasy culture (as opposed to staying in a hotel). We were invited to come back and hang out some time.

The car came back for us, and by this time the famadihina was over. We were driven back into the village through the rain. I came home, cold, wet, tired, muddy, and overwhelmed. What a day.