Below are my responses to some excellent questions posed by Ms. Jenkins’ French class at Oak Ridge High School in California. Hopefully anyone reading this blog can get a better picture of my life here after reading these responses. My next post will be a normal (and long overdue) blog entry.
Something to keep in mind while reading these responses is that I live in one city in northwest Madagascar. Life is completely different throughout this rather large country. I may also perceive some of the same things differently from other Peace Corps volunteers, tourists, or any other foreign visitor.
•What are the school hours like there and how many days a week are there classes?
•How do classes rotate throughout the day?
School meets everyday, Monday through Friday, but students’ schedules change depending on the day. Classes are in 2 hour chunks from 6 a.m. to noon, and then again from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Usually students don’t have all the slots filled on a given day, but most days class does start at 6 in the morning.
During the 12:00 - 2:30 break students walk or bike home for lunch as there is no cafeteria on campus. In fact, the town essentially shuts down during this period and almost everybody goes home to eat lunch and take a nap. They then make the journey back to school (which for some is several miles away) until the evening.
These long school days make it nearly impossible for students to spend any time studying, especially because most don’t have electricity and therefore head to bed right after cooking and eating dinner. Most students also have to help take care of their younger siblings or pick up food at the market everyday, leaving almost no free time.
Additionally, many students are not actually from Ambanja, but stay here with relatives to go to school during the week and then go back to the countryside on the weekends. Many of them spend the whole weekend working in the rice fields.
•What subjects do they teach in high school?
•How many languages do the students learn by the end of high school?
In addition to English, level Seconde students take: earth and life science, physics, math, French, Malagasy, history, and physical education. I only teach level Seconde, which is the first year of high school, so I’m not sure about the requirements for the other two levels (which are called Premiere and Terminale).
The Malagasy school system is based on the French system, which requires high school students to pass a national exam called the baccalaureate in order to graduate. This exam tests them on each of their subjects, including English and French, so they have to know enough of these languages to at least get a passing score to graduate. I don’t believe any other foreign languages are taught in the public schools.
•How many kids are in each class?
There is a maximum of 70 students per class. Usually about 60 or so students show up for English class.
•How big is the school? How many classrooms are there?
The school consists of one two-story building with 7 classrooms, and another set of 4 classrooms in another building behind the first. The school also just finished constructing an additional 2 classrooms in a bamboo, thatched-roof, barn-like building.
It’s a pretty tight squeeze with 60 some kids per classroom. The desks are attached to wooden benches, meant to seat two, but kids often have to cram in three to a bench.
Ambanja is extremely hot and humid, but the classrooms get a very good cross breeze due to the fact that there is no glass in the windowpanes. However, it is now the middle of the rainy season and the lack of windows means kids sitting at the edge of the classroom get a little wet on windy days.
•What do kids do for fun? What extracurricular activities are available? What sports do the kids play (are there any organized teams)?
Soccer (called football here, like in most of the world) and basketball (to a lesser extent) are the main extracurricular activities. From what I understand there are football matches within the school (for example, between level Seconde and level Premiere) and against several private high schools in town.
•What is the ratio of boys to girls in the school?
I believe the proviseur (principal) has the exact statistics, which I’ll try to obtain for my next letter. From what I can tell, level Seconde has a pretty even ratio.
•Do kids use Facebook or cell phones or iPods?
Computers are extremely rare here due to their high cost, so most students don’t use iPods and many are completely unfamiliar with the Internet. However, cell phones are relatively inexpensive here, even ones with mp3 player capabilities.
From what I can tell, almost every student has access to a cell phone.
•At what age do kids start working?
I’ve seen five-years-olds working at the general store near my house selling soap, fried bananas and cigarettes. From as soon as they are able, kids start helping their parents with everything from chores around the house, to taking care of their younger siblings, to working at the family store or market stall or out in the rice fields.
•How would you compare American kids to Malagasy kids?
Aside from the difference in workload due to helping out with the family business or farming duties, most Malagasy teenagers seem preoccupied with a lot of the same things as American teenagers: students worry about doing well in school, they talk about music and sports, and they gossip about relationship drama.
•What type of music do the kids listen to?
There is a considerably large Malagasy music scene, with each region of the island producing its own unique style of music. However, it is nowhere near the size of the U.S. music market, and thus, from what I’m told, radio stations may not cycle through a new set of hits for over a year. In fact, not a day has gone by since I moved to Ambanja in which I haven’t heard the number one jam in the north: “Za Tsy Kivy” (which means “I am not discouraged”), by Jerry Marcoss and Farah John’s (which can be found on YouTube).
That being said, Malagasy kids are also really into non-Malagasy music, such as Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Lucky Dube (reggae artist from South Africa), Eminem, Rihanna, Beyonce, and even Justin Bieber. Also, the themes from last year’s World Cup in South Africa are still really popular on the radio here (Shakira’s “Waka Waka,” K’naan’s “Wavin Flag,” and Akon’s “Oh Africa” are played fairly often every day).
•Are there any drug problems among the youth?
Here in the north many adults (especially taxi brousse drivers) chew on khat leaves, which produce a mild stimulant effect, but I haven’t seen many young people taking up the habit.
Alcoholism is unfortunately a big problem among adult males here. It is extremely disheartening to see men wasting their already meager earnings on rum while their families barely have enough for food.
•Do they play instruments and what kind?
Most students, although they will deny it, have at least working knowledge of basic guitar chords, and I’ve met some truly brilliant guitarists. There are also quite a few djembe players.
•Do you miss home?
•What do you miss most about the U.S.?
I did a lot of mental preparation before leaving the U.S., but nothing can really prepare you for being away from friends and family for this long. More than missing face-to-face interactions with people, the toughest part is feeling disconnected from events back home. Friends and family are able to call me every so often, but sometimes it’s hard to relate to what’s going on in their lives or in the news because I’m so far away from it all.
In more material terms, I will never again take for granted the variety in consumer goods available in the U.S., or the incredible infrastructure in place there. Supermarkets, paved roads, reliable electricity, clean running water, and an efficient, accountable postal service are all things I miss pretty regularly.
•What’s the hardest thing you have to do on a daily basis?
Probably battling the intense heat and humidity is my toughest daily task. I never experienced anything like this type of heat in the U.S., especially not in Salinas, California. Just sitting in my house is enough to make me break out into a full sweat. The monotony of food choices also gets kind of draining, but it has given me a new appreciation for the immense variety of food available in the U.S.
Overall, though, I have it pretty good here. Education sector volunteers are placed in bigger towns in order to teach at the Lycées. I am lucky enough to live in a concrete room with an electrical outlet (although electricity is usually out for a few hours a day), a light, a water spigot/shower nozzle, and cell phone service. Most other volunteers (especially the environment sector) live out in the middle of nowhere in wooden huts with no electricity or cell service and they have to get all their water from a well (because of this, many volunteers refer to the education sector as “posh corps”).
•What’s your favorite food (not necessarily in Madagascar)?
I’m a big fan of Mexican food, and I’ve actually been able to make some pretty tasty tacos here. I quickly discovered there were beans, rice, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and flour for tortillas. However, I was really excited to find out that avocados are grown here, although they are only in season for a few months out of the year. Due to the price of flour and the time it takes to make tortillas, Mexican food is definitely reserved for special occasions, but I’m sure glad I don’t have to go two whole years without it.
•Have you encountered a huge spider/tarantula in Madagascar yet?
I’ve seen some pretty big spiders here, about the size of my palm all spread out, but no hairy tarantulas. They generally keep to themselves, which is nice. However, the creatures who don’t keep to themselves are the big brown rats that live in my ceiling and come down into my room to chew things up. I recently came home after being away for three days to find that my pillow had been torn to shreds by a rat trying to construct a nest out of the stuffing. Now out of habit I immediately reach for my broom (conveniently located next to my door) whenever I enter my house in the hopes of catching one of the foul creatures so I can knock it to kingdom come.
My house is also inhabited by about half a dozen or so green geckos and a few slightly bigger gray lizards that hang out on the walls and catch insects, which is pretty cool. However, my favorite creature around my house is the chameleon that lives in the tree next to my window. It comes down to the lower branches every so often, and I get to see it change colors to match the wood and leaves of the tree.
Life in Madagascar
•What are the utilities like (electricity, plumbing, heat or air conditioning)?
•What are the bathrooms like?
Other than in (relatively) expensive tourist hotels, I haven’t heard of any place here with heat or air conditioning. In the sweltering north and along the coasts, people just have to sweat things out.
In the big cities the power company Jirama provides sporadic electricity to those lucky enough to live close enough to the power lines. I am one of the few Peace Corps volunteers who is lucky enough to have electricity, although as I type this the power is currently out. Jirama is often jokingly called “Jiramaty”, which means “the power’s out” (from jiro – electricity and maty – dead).
Most people don’t have plumbing and have to get all their water in buckets from pumps or wells. Again, I am extremely lucky and have a water faucet and shower head in the bathroom attached to my room.
I also have a toilet, but it was never designed to flush: you flush by pouring in a bucket of water. Most people do their business in a latrine, which is typically a mud-brick or wooden enclosure, in the center of which is a hole in the ground. All volunteers had to get accustomed to using these during training (my training group’s first day in Madagascar was full of laughs as our trainers attempted to pantomime the correct form of squatting over a hole).
•What is the weather like?
Here on the coast it is very hot and humid most of the year. However, in the central highlands (where the capital is located) it can get pretty cold. When I arrived in the capital in July (which is winter here because we’re in the southern hemisphere) I didn’t go anywhere without a winter coat.
January to March is the “rainy season,” when sometimes it doesn’t stop pouring for a week straight here in Ambanja. This is also the time when cyclones come in from the Indian Ocean and hit the northeast coast of the island. The north and east coast are generally pretty wet all year long, with rainfall decreasing as you go south and west until you reach a desert region in the far south and southwest.
•What kind of food do they eat in Madagascar?
Rice, rice, and more rice. I don’t know if this fact has been verified, but I’ve been told that Malagasy eat the most rice per person of anywhere in the world. A typical meal consists of a heaping pile of rice (vary), on top of which you put loca (official dialect) or kabaka (northern Sakalava dialect), which is just the word for “the food that isn’t rice”. Here near the coast we eat a lot of fish, but it’s tough to eat because they serve the fish whole—head, tail, bones and all.
In most of the small villages there is not a huge variety of food available other than beans, tomatoes, onions, and whatever fruit is in season at the time. In the cities you can get a lot at the market: potatoes, cassava, carrots, green peppers, green beans, leafy greens, eggplant, eggs, garlic, seasonal fruit (bananas, oranges, limes, litchis, jack fruit, mangoes, coconuts, and others).
Also in the cities there is usually a pretty large meat market, which was probably the biggest shock of my food-buying experience. Since there is no large-scale refrigeration, butchers kill the animals that day, carve them up, and put all the pieces out on the table raw. When people buy meat, they only buy what they can cook and eat in a day (by midday it starts to smell pretty bad, so when I buy meat I try to go as early as possible). Malagasy use almost every part of the animal. Since coming here, I’ve been served cow tongue, cow feet, and cow intestines (the tongue was actually incredibly flavorful—the other two not so much).
In terms of the type of animals eaten, Malagasy tend to raise cattle, pigs, goats, and chickens (the last are sold live and killed, plucked, and gutted in the house— a process I participated in while living with my host family). Pigs are considered fady (“taboo”—I’ll explain this in greater detail under religion) here in the north, so unless you’re from the central highlands, you don’t eat any pork.
Since Ambanja is near the coast there is a wide variety of seafood available. Depending on the season you can get a range of small fish, huge tuna, bundles of sardines, shrimp, calamari, and crab. In some places I’ve heard they sell sea turtle, which is illegal because it’s an endangered species, but the authorities tend to look the other way.
This is also true of the illegal sale of “bush meat,” or wild animals sold for food. While I haven’t encountered it here in Ambanja, I’ve heard that in the countryside many people kill and eat lemurs, which is incredibly sad because lemurs are only found in Madagascar and many species of lemurs are endangered.
Other weird food items I’ve come across are grilled bat and big fried grasshopper- like bugs. A fellow Peace Corps volunteer tried the bat and thought it was slimy, leathery and gross, so I won’t be trying that anytime soon. However, I was served a plate of the fried grasshopper-bugs at my Malagasy friend’s house—they were intimidating to look at because they still had their heads and legs, but they actually tasted really good.
(Sorry if you’re reading this right before lunch!)
•What kinds of restaurants are there (ethnic variety any McDonald’s?)?
Most towns and villages have “hotely’s,” which serve traditional Malagasy food (a huge pile of rice and a little bit of meat or beans or veggies on top). Additionally there are tons of street vendors in towns that sell all sorts of deep-fried snacks (my favorite is deep-fried bananas).
In the big cities that I’ve been to (Antananarivo and Diego) there are fancy European-style restaurants, a few pizza shacks, and some immigrant-owned ethnic restaurants (I’ve seen Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Moroccan).
•Do they like coffee?
Madagascar is a coffee-producing nation (in addition to cocoa, vanilla, and a number of other agricultural products). Many Malagasy often enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning, although they tend to add tons of sugar. I really like the coffee here and have a cup at the bamboo hut across the street from house everyday (it’s the closest thing to Starbucks I’ve seen here).
•What is the typical clothing like? How do the kids dress?
There is a traditional clothing here called lambahoany (which is a long, loose colorful sarong worn by women), but it is mostly worn around the house or on special occasions here in Ambanja. Frippery, or second-hand clothing, is the main source of clothing here. From what I understand, it is sold or donated to Madagascar in bulk, and then Malagasy merchants sort through it and sell individual items from market stalls. Ambanja has a fairly large frip market.
At school, students wear long pants and t-shirts or button shirts, over which they wear (usually unbuttoned) a button-up, tan-colored uniform shirt. On Mondays, however, guys must wear black slacks, a white dress shirt, black shoes, and a black tie; girls wear black pants or skirts and white blouses. While not at school, most people wear shirts and shorts, but it’s so hot in the day that guys usually go shirtless.
•What kinds of clothing stores are there (anything we know)?
There are no western-brand clothing stores that I’ve seen (although there may be a few in the capital). However, you’d be amazed how much cool second-hand gear you can get (“one man’s trash…”)
There are at least two Malagasy clothing companies: The Maki (which means lemur) Company and the Baobob Company. They sell new clothes, but they are designed for tourists.
•What is the most common religion?
I don’t have the percentages on me, but most of the population is Christian, split between Catholics and several Protestant denominations. Here in the north and along the coasts there is also a significant Muslim population.
Traditional veneration of ancestors is also practiced, often in addition to Christian beliefs. In the highlands people participate in the traditional famadihana ceremony, in which family members remove the bodies of dead ancestors from tombs and rewrap them in fresh burial cloths. They then dance around in a time of celebratory remembrance of the ancestors. Often there is a lot of heavy drinking involved.
Another element of traditional religion is the practice of tromba (pronounced “true-mbah”), in which someone goes into an alcohol/drug-induced trance to channel the spirit of a dead ancestor. This is done in times of sorrow or distress as people ask the ancestor for advice, but I’ve only heard of people practicing tromba out in the countryside.
Another element of traditional religion that touches all parts of Malagasy life is the notion of fady or taboo. Fady differ from region to region and deal with a variety of actions, from who should be served first in a meal, to places where you are not allowed to walk, to days you are not allowed to work, to the way houses are set up.
•Is there cable?
There is one channel available called TVM (TV Madagascar), which one can get by using an antenna. Most Malagasy don’t have electricity, let alone TVs. However, there are some very rich families that have satellite dishes to get more than the one channel.
TVM offers some miscellaneous French programming during the day (including Latin American telenovelas dubbed in French), and Malagasy government-controlled news in the evenings. Sometimes big soccer matches are rebroadcast at night.
•Are there many white people there?
White people (referred to here as vazaha) are not common here in Ambanja, and especially not out in the countryside. Most Peace Corps volunteers here in Madagascar live alone in tiny villages and are sometimes the only contact those villagers have ever had with vazaha.
However, Diego (far north) and the island Nosy Be (off the coast of Ambanja) are filled with (mostly French) tourists. Unfortunately, many of these tourists are often old men looking for young (sometimes underage) prostitutes. Sex tourism of this nature is prohibited, but when people make so little, the money offered by sex tourists is often very enticing. Many young women drop out of school because they know they can make a lot more in a few nights on the streets of Diego or Nosy Be than they can in any other job.
•Does anyone own a pet monkey? What kinds of pets do people have?
I don’t believe there are monkeys here, but Madagascar is home to 70 different lemur species, 22 of which are endangered. Over 75% of the plant and animal species found on Madagascar are endemic, meaning they are only found here, but many of these species are endangered due to deforestation and poaching.
Because of rats many people keep cats around, but don’t really treat them as “pets” in the same way Americans do. This is also true of dogs, which have a pretty sorry lot here. There is no spay or neuter system, so packs of mangy, starving mutts roam the streets and then have lots of pups that live the same life. Because of this, dogs are considered very dirty animals and most people have no problem abusing them, even if they keep one around to guard the house.
•What is the most common form of transportation for every day travel? Does anyone ride elephants?
People walk or ride bikes around everywhere. In some towns, like Ambanja, there are tons of bicycle taxis (called cyclo-pousses) that take people around town. There are tons of real taxis in the big cities (and a few here in Ambanja). Most people don’t have cars.
To get between cities, people pile into taxi brousses or “bush taxis.” These are old vans in which as many people as possible are crammed inside—and then the drivers go look for more people to squeeze in before leaving town! On the roof (stacked in piles so high that it sometimes doubles the height of the vehicle) people put everything from suitcases, to giant hundred-pound bags of rice, beans, sugar, or fruit, to huge baskets of live chickens, to goats, to bikes, and everything in between. I’ve been on plenty of taxi brousse rides, each one pretty painful because of passenger capacity, but I’ve never seen any of the precarious rooftop cargo come untied or fall off.
As far as I know there are no elephants in Madagascar.