Environmental Edu-ma-cation

“Ma,” in certain Malagasy dialects, is used as the interrogative and here I mean it to express the skepticism I have held for some time about all things education in Madagascar. It can be difficult, seeing the monotony of a colonial-era school system, to believe that anything can change, that any of the kids, for that matter, will get out alive. Education here is a process of rote memorization and regurgitation: a teacher before an impossibly crowded classroom, painstakingly transcribing the answers to the questions the exams will later ask; the students scribbling furiously in the front rows, carving their names in the desks at the back. From knee-high, to drop-out, to the very few who graduate, there is an absolute, merciless squashing of all creativity, critical thinking, and innovation. For a country facing a host of problems, these skills are at a dramatic deficit.

     Starting an environmental education program in my old village, I ran into some of the expected problems: the language barrier, general confusion as to my oddity, misunderstandings as to the exact parameters of a game of tag. But what I did not expect was to hand out crayons, ask for “a picture of anything in the environment,” and receive a hundred dumbfounded looks. One brave child drew a house and slowly it spread across the room. A half hour later I had a hundred identical houses in my hand. The issue, of course, was partly a conceptual one of the environment, but perhaps more importantly one of independent thought. I learned an important lesson that day and on many more to follow: addressing the future of Madagascar and its environment is a challenge much more monumental than a knowledge gap.

     So when I came to Maroantsetra to work with Wildlife Conservation Society and environmental education, I remained a bit of a skeptic, recognizing the value of the effort but far short of convinced of the pay-off. I found here something that changed my mind: a bunch of bright, enthusiastic, and motivated kids who, aware of the tremendous environmental burden they will shoulder decades from now, are eager for the knowledge and skills they will need to confront the challenges. In Connecting Classrooms, Malagasy Youth Network for the Environment, and Junior Reporters Club, students- many from scattered and isolated villages, already accomplished for reaching high school- explore their unique local environment, discuss issues, and develop a voice in the community. In a conservative country such as Madagascar, where ideas and beliefs are quickly entrenched, this youth empowerment is critical to fostering any change.

     And on occasion it yields some surprising results. In a recent UNICEF training, students took the floor to identify current societal problems, from lack of educational opportunity (too few professors, too much corruption) to governmental greed in the exploitation of the environment, from unequal development practices to a lack of societal boldness and courage. It may be easy for an outsider to identify some of these concerns, but for a Malagasy teenager to not only think so, but say it, is a powerful step.  When the youth speak out, take on leadership roles, and assume a sense of ownership over their own future- calling for greater education, battles against corruption, government reform and accountability, a change of mindset, and greater societal involvement and cooperation- the future of Madagascar looks a little bit brighter.

     There is an amazing thing that happens when I hang out with these kids and watch them grow into their roles, an amazing thing that makes me drop my skeptical use of the interrogative “ma.” It is the way that they set aside all their teenage theatricality and melodrama when they are in the forest and are utterly silent for hours. It fills them with awe, and that fills me with hope.

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Maroantsetra: Many Spears and Much Rain

     I didn’t know much about Maroantsetra before I came. I knew that the Malagasy people of the region were Betsimisaraka, which translates literally into “The-Many-Inseparables” and lends them a distinct sense of enigma. I heard that there were eight months of rain, that planes coming from the capital often circled and circled, then returned, unable to land in the torrential downpour. People everywhere told me that Maroantsetra was “mijaly lalana,” meaning “suffering for the way,” a reference to the near total isolation of this coastal city.

      After I arrived, it seemed that everyone asked, but no one could answer: what does Maroantsetra actually mean? The maro part isn’t difficult; it translates simply to “many” and is one of the most common and unchanging words in the confused Malagasy lexicon. The antsetra appears to have everyone stumped. I was first told that the name means “many on stage,” and refers to the period at the height of cloves season when the population is flush with money and concerts are held every night for months. There is a traditional story too, of the local “inseparables” standing on one riverbank and waving their spears at the French standing on the other, taunting and goading their Colonialist would-be conquerers. Thus, “many spears.” But an alternative, and understandably less popular, explanation is “many shovels:” a probable reference to the forced labor policies of the later Colonial periods. What did I say about this lexicon? Confused and conflicted.

      Maroantsetra boasts a single paved road, the goudron, but it is buried beneath so much sand that it took me weeks to notice. All the houses in this city are built on short stilts, as their seems to be more of this shifting sand than solid ground. The water table too is barely contained beneath the earth: an old oil drum suffices as a well and the rope need not be longer than three feet. When it rains, which it does nearly everyday, there is simply nowhere for the water to go: kids swim up to their necks in the puddles. And when the sun comes out, it is instantly blindingly hot. The humidity is like breathing scalding soup. I am always sweating; everything molds, rots, and rusts; I cannot leave the house without my rain-jacket; there is perpetually sand in the cuffs of my jeans.

       There is one radio station, and as I bike the puddled streets I am constantly moving towards or away from the same song, echoing from corner shops, bike repair shacks, and houses where dogs sleep under the porch and children play in the sand. Frequent long and unexplained gaps in cell-phone coverage are standard; this is a place where it is possible to be surprised by a tropical storm. All day, everyday a bocce ball game is underway outside my house. The clink of metal and thud in the sand fills the daylight hours and speaks to the rhythms of life here: even sport cannot be hurried.

       This is a city utterly isolated from the outside world. A single road heads south, a series of catastrophic mud-holes and sand-traps, clinging to the coast and sometimes sliding off it altogether [see previous post]. Two to five days treacherous travel brings one to Tamatave, and paved connections to the rest of Madagascar. The other escapes are on foot, four days North to Antalaha, through the rainforest, or five West across the mountainous center of the island to Mandritsara. Navigation around Maroantsetra and up inland is almost exclusively by the boats that ply several massive river systems which dump into a delta of interconnected waterways and then the ocean.

      Almost everything that arrives in Maroantsetra- people included- does so by boat, and as a result of this reliance, life is expensive and every single soda in the city is flat. When rough seas and cyclone season prevent water traffic, items steadily begin to disappear from the market: vegetables, canned products, all things but rice and fruit. If weeks pass and the boats still don’t come, the market sits empty and the only thing that can be reliably found is beer. When the weekly gas tanker fails to arrive up the coast, the price of fuel quadruples on the black market and suddenly the streets are silent of motorized transport. When the tanker does appear, a mob scene ensues at the city’s only pumping station.

It is fascinating place to live, an isolated, tropical enclave, battered by rains, and sometimes it seems, stuck in time. 

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CAN CAN CAN (PART ONE of the enthralling adventures of Kerry and Katie)

This story will be narrated by NONE OTHER THAN…. Morgan Freeman! Hooray!

One Friday afternoon, Katie and Kerry were strolling down the street in Maroantsetra, when SUDDENLY….. a thought occurred to the crazier of the two. “GASP”, said Kerry.  “I have an idea. We should bike to Mananara.” Katie, being the agreeable and only slightly less-crazy person that she is…. And knowing that Mananara is a mere 75 miles (120 km) south on the worst national TRAIL in the country… spotted with no fewer than 25 decaying, decrepit excuses for bridges, not to mention countless sand pits, bamboo bio-rafting ferries, and gaping, car-swallowing holes…. Promptly… agreed. 

What? You can’t read that? It CLEARLY STATES that it is only 110k to Mananara on Route National 5…

The crack-headed couple agreed to depart at 4 am the following morning. They also agreed that there would be no need to talk until at least 7 am. So the plan was consummated, and IN FACT, the first words were not exchanged until hours in, when contemplating a GIANT, GAPING hole in the road into which a person with good eyes could see the fiery core of the earth. It was here that the “sometimes-integrated-Maroantsetra-bike-gang” encountered its first friend… a nice young man so desperate for a traveling companion that he bridged the language barrier and asked two RANDOM WHITE GIRLS if he could share in the adventure.  YES.

The first of many obstacles


Well, shortly after the GAPING HOLE OF DOOM, and after the first of many harrowing, slightly out of control, downhill descents, the “sometimes-integrated-Maroantsetra-bike-gang” could no longer claim to be such. Its newest member was tragically left behind with his tire flat and his ego deflated. He would not be the last to fall.

Later, in a STUNNING display of confidence and athleticism, Katie took on the first of many disintegrating “bridge-like structures” and while yelling “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t”, plunged painfully into the wooden cracks. Deciding that the fault of the incident lay with a confidence issue, the theme of the trip hence forth became “CAN CAN CAN” and the pair continued courageously on into the great beyond where there were fewer and fewer signs of civilization and a significant increase in mud and peril.

A Particularly Lovely Stretch of Road

A Particularly Sturdy Bridge-Like Structure


Arriving in the small village of Anandrivola, our beloved heroes came upon a crowd of former-raft-captains swimming in the river around a sunken taxi truck and attempting to extricate it by roping a single floatie to its roof (perhaps the least effective place to attach a floatation device considering that the roof of the car was the only part above the water). Meanwhile, a second, not-to-be-discouraged taxi truck was attempting to board the bamboo-stick-raft off of which the first had just fallen.  SOLID PLAN.

 That barrel in the foreground is the aforementioned flotation device…

The not-to-be-discouraged taxi-truck

Katie and Kerry quickly removed themselves from the impending disaster and climbed across yet another perilous bridge requiring serious gymnastical skills. (Imagine Morgan Freeman pronouncing the word gymnastical).  It was at this point in their journey that the road actually became WORSE, if such a thing is conceivable, and began to wind through the mountains. The boulder-field which was formerly a road/trail, blew out both travelers brakes within an hour and left the two screaming down the hills of DOOM in terror. Nevertheless, in a perpetual state of unchecked OPTIMISM, the two were unfazed by the likelihood of their imminent deaths and continued to yell “CAN CAN CAN” ! UNTIL…. With a final yelp, Katie suddenly reached a point where she couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t, and gracefully CRASHED into the bushes in a mangled union of bikes, rocks, and legs. 




It was only shortly thereafter, in the heat of the afternoon, that their perpetual state of OPTIMISM started to falter briefly and the pair decided that they HATED rocks of all types and varieties. And also hills. And also small children who scream “SALUT VAZAHA” (which means “I HATE YOU, SAY HELLO TO ME!” in Malagasy). 

JUST THEN, by the grace of GOD… or whoever… the weary couple stumbled upon a slice of heaven…. A tiny little rice shack in a dusty little town full of warm coke and chicken sauce. Then followed a period know as the “GOOD TIMES” when their stomachs were full and Mananara seemed too close to be true… a mere 60 km left! 


BUT… just when everything seemed to be going swimmingly, the travelers reached the dreaded BRIDGE TROLLS of “insert name of small unknown village” where a group of swaggering, underemployed teenagers promptly demanded all of their money in exchange for passage across their rickety, shameful excuse for a bridge. By the time the couple reached the next ferry crossing, and a helpful stranger informed them that “there was no possibility of reaching Mananara that evening”, the two rapidly entered a period known as the “DARK TIMES”. 


The sweaty, mud-splattered, brake-less, companions reached the point of the day called “DUSK” and launched themselves down yet another hill which unfortunately ended in one of those wooden bridge-like things. Kerry began in the traditional way by confidently screaming “CAN CAN CAN” until the point at which her bike wavered and she adopted the CAN’T CAN’T CAN’T frame of mind. Moments before crashing VIOLENTLY into the wooden planks, she yelled “I’m DEAD, I’m DEAD, I’m DEAD” and shoes, bikes, and limbs all found their own paths to destruction. BUT, the UNDAUNTED travelers sent a drunken man into the river to get the lost accessories and continued valiantly on their way. 

The co-travelers now forged on in the darkness, intermittently and frustratingly falling into pockets of quick sand and wondering if the existence of Mananara had been a LIE all along. JUST THEN, our story’s beloved heroes stumbled upon a man who announced that Mananara was no more than ONE kilometer away. Katie restrained Kerry from attempting to kiss the man and the two picked up a perky, re-energized pace.  FINALLY, 16 hours from the birth of the trip, after 120 kilometers, 260,000 SALUT VAZAHA’s, 1000 decrepit bridges, at least that many falls, the bloody, weary, smelly, muddy mess of human beings reached the final river, where they WERE NOT ripped off by the last ferry man and happily climbed over the last little rise into Narnia (aka MANANARA). 


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Malagasy Culture: a Puzzling Paradox

       I was once told that while most cultures ethnocentrically consider themselves the center of the universe, the difference with Malagasy culture is that it believes itself the universe entire. This is no trivial distinction to draw, for that which unfolds in this insular world is taken as the one and only way, and those who stand to oppose this undiluted cultural force are not combated as much as dismissed utterly.

To those who have visited or even lived in the Malagasy world this statement of cultural unity, power, and exclusion may appear melodramatic, for are the Malagasy people not universally known to be “laid-back” and “carefree?” Are there not eighteen tribes on this island, each a subculture unto itself? 

What lies at the core of this culture, though, is just such paradox: paradox which allows a fragmented people to meld and mix and maintain a powerful cultural core, which enables a culture of color and noise and bright exchange to harbor a heart of passivity and fear, which tethers those who are seemingly carefree to a profound fatalism. Understood through a lens of overpowering community force, this core paradox does much to explain Madagascar, the place and its people, as well as its progress or lack thereof in the world.

It is crucial to recognize the manner in which Malagasy people strive to create formality, reinforce distinction, and maintain hierarchy. From the inherent structure of kabary (speeches) to the dictates of daily exchange, a sense of place and order undergirds this culture of surface nonchalance. Such hierarchal nature is most clearly manifest at meetings: those presiding usually sit facing the participants, commanding the gulf of floor space that yawns between; those of the audience crowd together, shoulder tucked behind shoulder, as if seeking shelter from a fire hose; they huddle in fear of being forced to stand apart.

This also serves to reflect the strong, nearly overwhelming sense of community that weaves Malagasy culture into one. Within societal structure place and status are clearly defined. There is minimal social mobility and while one hears an expected amount of griping, both the high and the low find comfort in the clarity of their standing. Equally condemned are those who believe themselves above the community (miavona– the “arrogant”) and those who fall below (menatra– the “ashamed”).

Yet out of this sense of community, and the social pressures that provide for its cohesion, arises the puzzling paradox of Malagasy culture. For hours no one will reach out to adjust the blaring of a malfunctioning radio. A drunk can run rampage down the street, unchecked. A husband comes home to beat his wife and children with the broad handle of a machete as the neighborhood looks on, and not a finger is lifted to intervene. I have seen this and have always had tremendous difficulty reconciling it with the bold and buoyant, deeply-united cultural half that is the easier to know.

But if one wants to understand the nature of Madagascar, a chronically underdeveloped nation with a people who suffer greatly for it, then one has to be willing to take a hard and unapologetic look at a cultural core of passivity, conservatism, and most profoundly, fatalism. Born of a powerful sense of community is a repression of genuine individuality, and of actual aspiration. The vast majority of Malagasy people hope for very little of their lives. Of course they want to make money and acquire things, but trapped in systematic poverty and a culture that condemns risk-taking, few are equipped or courageous enough to take even the first step towards a better life. Most are resigned to days of farming and fishing, marrying and birthing.

Though it is worth asking which came first, the poverty or its passive acceptance, it is more relevant to recognize what the cycle reveals: a fatalism that pervades Malagasy culture. One’s place and what comes to pass are simply accepted here. And though this may be an effective way to endure hardship, it does not provide the strongest platform for transcending it. 

This is not to blame Malagasy people for their poverty or their place in the world. It is instead to argue that in order to understand a culture, one has to concede paradox and allow for a certain level of complexity. Simple and sweeping terms (e.g. “fun-loving island folk”) refuse to access a culture or the shared worldview it provides its people.

And in certain realms, notably that of aid and development, such lack of cultural insight can have a crippling effect. 

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Tany Andalampandrosoana: Development in Madagascar

Malagasy people call Madagascar a tany andalampandrosoana, “a land on the edge of coming in…”

It is difficult to look at Madagascar and not perceive it as an arena of utter development failure. White 4x4s criss-cross the island, NGOs step on each other’s toes, projects begin and are abandoned, money is spent in droves. Too few Malagasy people try to do too much. Too many foreigners come and go; too few stay for any duration. Decades pass and very little changes. 

Madagascar’s sweeping failure to meet the benchmarks of the modern world is not a simple equation of cause and effect either. There are evident factors: a legacy of colonialism, long periods of disastrous governance punctuated by ill-timed and ineffective coups, economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, a fragile agricultural system.

But these tangible forces, while undeniably powerful, do not offer a complete explanation for the country’s laggard status, nor do the very evident shortcomings of international aid. It would appear, rather, that the business of development has ignored some critical points, that is to say: the people it endeavors to aid. In Madagascar, one again and again sees a Western paradigm forced on a people who not only refuse to accept its values and demands, but fail to understand them altogether.

In this country, the implementation of aid begets a clash of cultures. People will come to any meeting, they will nod and listen politely, will sign their names along the dotted line. Hands will be shaken with great sincerity and both sides will walk away with a feeling of accomplishment, the people for their participation in this great and ambitious project, the aid workers for such a promising beginning. But when the day of reckoning arrives, there is little to show: Where are the boats we paid for? Why are you using your mosquito nets to fish? How have all the bee hives simply disappeared? Then there is evasion and lying, less as an act of deception than a belated effort to avoid the social element of shame.

And when this happens, and it often does at all levels of the development effort in Madagascar, return trips to the drawing board dally in logistics and repeatedly fail to consider a most evident thing: this vast, seemingly unbreachable cultural wall. For so much of what happens, or does not happen, between that moment of promise and that of reckoning, can be understood with an adaptation of cultural lens.

For development is the world of deadlines and expectations compelled on a people who live free of the very concepts. It is the paradigm of progress pasted on a culture that does not see itself as moving in any direction, particularly forward. When the West dictates and the poor do not follow, why does no one think to ask: what if the past implementation of aid has been diametrically opposed to the core forces of this culture?

Because a culture that harbors a heart of fatalism and passive acceptance does not see the future as something to be seized, as a place of great promise and opportunity. It does not perceive itself as marching down a path of progress. Unwilling to promote individuality, unable to cultivate an ethic of innovation or creativity, it faces the problems of its world and wishes only to survive. This is how it can sign along the dotted line and shake hands with Western development, and then walk away and do nothing.

It is easy to look at the business of development, at the sum of its efforts, and declare it a failure. But- though I am no apologist for the many shortcomings of aid- sweeping condemnation cannot be the solution. Strip aid of its high-flying rhetoric, its naïveté, its protective coat of goodwill, and one finds a fundamental struggle, to provide that which is necessary to those who do not have it. A struggle very much worth the effort.

Where development fails Madagascar is in not understanding the very people it aims to help. Cultural insight is an endeavor in itself, and a time-consuming one at that. But it is utterly essential, for without an understanding of a people, their vision of their place in the world and their notion of progress towards it, what they hope and believe they can gain from life, development will continue to fail in Madagascar, and in impoverished countries the world over. 

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Explaining Global Warming in Malagasy (or, “Making the Earth Hot”)

      In Antsohihy, people sat on their stoops and peered at the sky, wondering why the rains had not come. It was late November and the clouds should have rolled in weeks ago, heavy with rain to settle the dust and quench the soil desperate for moisture. But there were few clouds, and the days persisted, achingly hot and dry. All the population of Antsohihy could do was sit, and wait, and watch the sky with a quiet, nervous tension: for rice does not grow in dry ground.


       Walking the streets of this ramshackle city, it is not difficult to understand how the rains here are invested with a certain anthropomorphic quality; they are exasperating but intransigent; like anyone else in this country, they arrive when they feel like it. 


On the second floor of the Antsohihy commune building, in a meeting room with broken shutters and rusty file cabinets, I stood before a group of local guides and environmentalists, asking: “What do you think global warming is?” There was a long pause and many blank looks, until at last someone stood: “Well,” he began hesitantly, “we all see there are many big fires here. The big fires are making the earth hot. And then where there were fires, the earth is bare, so it soaks up all the heat from the sun, and that makes the earth hot too.” There was a long pause, then another man rose: “It is like when there are a lot of people crowded in one room and that room gets really hot. The earth is just too crowded and we are heating it up.”


There is something to be said for the latter of these two theories: it could be either right on or wildly off. And the participants of this seminar were not be blamed for such localized world-views. Madagascar is a country where the immediately surrounding elements can be, and often are, thought to comprise the world entire, where the forest is not born of the rain, but is rather the very thing that draws it in from the sea. It is a peculiar relationship of cause and effect, but it generally prevails.


Thus, climate change is a challenging topic to approach, not only for its complexity, but also for its demanding acceptance of the interconnectedness of this world. Malagasy people- many of whom have never traveled further than the rim of their horizon- can have a difficult time accepting that what happens on the other, incomprehensible side of this globe can powerfully affect what they have always known right here. I do my best to explain that in developed countries we are driving too many cars, burning too many fossil fuels, using too much electricity, filling the sky with planes; that the world over we are cutting down the forests that could trap all this extra carbon and methane; that this means the heat from sunlight is not escaping the atmosphere (in my Malagasy, global warming is translated as “mampafana tany” or, “making the earth hot”); that the ramifications of this are profound, from changing global weather patterns to rising sea levels. And as we add each link in the chain, I think, really think, that they are getting it.


It is difficult to move with great speed though, as we are routinely hung up on smaller, but no less bewildering concepts. Lands of only ice and snow; ice cores; glaciers. We are stuck on a picture of a polar bear for nearly twenty minutes. Countries where everyone drives their own car, and people keep the lights on all night. Satellites. Deserts, where there is only sand, sand like waves, but no ocean. I, inadvertently, oh so carelessly, use a diagram of Sugar Maple growth in North America. What is a Sugar Maple? What is special about your Sugar Maple? Wait, wait, are you telling us that you Americans eat tree blood? (Think about it, then tell me how you would explain maple syrup in Malagasy).



By the end of the second day though, after pages and pages of hastily drawn diagrams, after countless tangential explanations, we were there. One man threw up his hands, “there are no solutions.” He then mimed picking up the phone, “I am calling God.” Another participant rose to leave: “I am going to pray now; I am going to talk to God about our planet.” The training organizer glanced at me: “We took a little bit of their innocence today.” 


There is validity to that statement. For these local guides and environmentalists, acknowledging the interconnection of incomprehensible worlds- of ice and snow, of six-lane highways and city grids- with their own fragile life on the coast, a life of rice-agriculture, mangrove-fishing and cow-herding, is a difficult task. And do not for a second be mistaken about the resentment they feel for this discovery. As one woman said in a long, impassioned speech: “In the wealthy world, they created most of these problems. And here, in the developing world, we could suffer for them. And yet they want to tell us that we cannot develop like them, and worse, they want to tell us to stop doing what we have always done.” 


Just before we left our ramshackle classroom, a guide raised his hand. Looking out the window at yet another dry, dusty day in Antsohihy, he asked: “You have spoken about global warming and changing weather patterns. Do you think that could be why the rains still have not come?”



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One Ticket to Paradise, One Passage through Hell (or, Civilizational Disillusionment)

The plane lifts off from Antananarivo two and a half hours late, but as we are all still operating on Malagasy time, no one is- as is said in Madagascar- “working their head.” We are homeward bound for the holidays, on our way to the land of milk and honey, leaving behind the heat-stifled chaos of Madagascar for the calmer and cooler pleasures of civilization. We sink into our delightfully comfortable chairs, stretch in the expansive legroom, peruse the endless entertainment options, and marvel at how all that magical food can be crammed into a single plastic tray. This is heaven, we declare to each other, what could possibly go wrong?

We land in Paris thirteen hours later and three hours behind schedule, a wrinkle in “making up time” that only a pilot outbound from Madagascar could claim with pride. We  disembark confident that our two hour layover will prove more than adequate, for we know that in this world all proceeds like clockwork, rigid within the laws of logic and efficiency. We bask in the glory of this disillusion for nearly three minutes, until we find ourselves in the back of a line that refuses to move. A rabble of more aggressive travelers have disregarded the line altogether; they push with insincere apologetic gestures to the front. I am appalled. I had believed these ropes to be a divine mandate, now I see their true nature, flimsy and easily ignored. A part of me yearns for the land I just left behind, where at least there are no pretensions of order that I feel obligated to obey.

After a static hour, we are told, scoffingly, to proceed directly to our terminal, 2E. We board a bus, only to discover that there are two terminals 2E. We exit, of course, at the wrong one and find ourselves at the back of another line, this one so long and chaotic that we cannot even determine what it is for or where it is headed. We are told to board a train to the other terminal 2E; I begin to feel as though I am trapped in a hellish children’s transportation book. The second terminal 2E proves even more chaotic than the first. We are commanded to re-board the train and return to the original 2E: we refuse. At an impasse, we are then informed that we need to be on the other side of the security barrier, look, you see, right through there. How do we get there? Oh no, you cannot, you are on the wrong side.

We look at the clock and realize that we have missed our plane.

We exit through passport control- stamp, stamp, Welcome to Paris. Glowering through the sheet glass window at the border guard, we turn and encounter a maelstrom; suddenly in all the chaos it all makes sense. Swirling hordes of people are packed underneath the domed ceiling, chanting and shouting. Bullhorns echo and harried travelers shove between the riot police. The security personnel at the Paris airport have gone on strike. I feel myself developing a sudden strong aversion to European labor unions.

We dodge the strikers and the riot police, trying our best not to look like strikers, and find, at last, a customer service desk without a line. Glancing at the itineraries our new savior tsk tsks, consults her watch, and says, this may take a while. She clacks away at her keyboard while we stare determinedly at a twenty-second loop of birds gliding over an estuary. We are not soothed; we hate civilization. A half hour passes before she looks up suddenly: your plane has not left yet, hurry, see if you can catch it!

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Rose-Tinted Glass

As much as we all may joke about Peace Corps goggles (it is not a joke: it is an affliction!), many of us have switched those spectacles for another pair of late. Long ago, when it meant little to me, I heard through the usual twisted, time-distorted chain of Peace Corps wisdom about the rose-tinted glasses. These, the legend went, slip down over your eyes during your last weeks in your village; they distort your once reliable vision and suddenly you find all that once irritated you to no end now terribly endearing. As the conclusion of my two years lay yet far off, I patently disbelieved in this rose-tinted phenomenon.


But then, without warning, it happened. Awww, I caught myself thinking, this is the last time I will be harassed by that guy for English lessons, that woman for plastic containers, that kid for dictionaries I lent out a year ago and never got back, and that drunk who harasses me just for the hell of it. Shucks, this could be the last of seven hundred times that I explain to my neighbor that I do not speak French (really, not a word), the last of five hundred vague acquaintances to demand “gifts of the road” (oh come on guys, I was gone ten minutes!), the very last of a hundred times I have had to lug two giant buckets of water up a never ending hill (who invented this torture slalom?!).


Possibly it is relief, or could it be these strange feelings are what is known as emotions? For now, I cannot help but dwell upon how I have moved through seasons in this place and with these people. Through the seasons of my Malagasy; through days of ceaseless, drumming rains and dry, endlessly dusty months; through mangos, apples, oranges, and the dark, dark days without bananas. We have moved from polite hellos to “what’s cooking?,” from tompoko (my lord) to drako-eeee (girrrrrrrrrrlfriend!). Parents no longer ask me to teach their children English: they ask me to adopt them and take them to America. (I say that the paperwork for that sort of thing is awfully complicated).


What is also surprisingly complicated is the application of this term “emotional closure” which everyone throws around with such confidence. I am not quite sure what it entails. I can eat my way through the last of my American food stash, can clean my mud house and pack up my odd assortment of belongings. I can give away my maps, my books, and my soccer balls, can take portraits so that I will not forget the faces that filled my days. I can, and have, bid my farewells. But when I say that I am leaving, people look mystified and reply, but you just got here. My kids cock their heads, only momentarily stumped: yes, but when are you coming back?


I remember in the beginning (and sometimes towards the middle and even occasionally at the end) when the days would drag on interminably. Now- and I am aware it sounds like Peace Corps is paying me to say this- I do not want them to go. It is bittersweet to watch them slip away. I am without doubt lost in the rose-tinted haze.


Time, it seems, has toyed with me since my arrival in Maromandia. Even in my final days I oscillated between a desperate desire to leave this very second, and a strange, dangerous desire to stay forever. I will never forget stepping out of the Peace Corps car on my first day and allowing a long string of expletives to parade through my mind. Where did the two intervening years go? How is it that I find myself watching the town- an unremarkable dot on an unread map to most, a million experiences to me- pulling away out of the rear window? I will not forget this feeling either of moving forward and knowing that Maromandia will stay right here where I left it.

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Kludge: In Defense of Peace Corps

Not long ago, a friend of mine said something she clearly thought would be shocking.  “Katie,” she began tentatively, as if bracing me for devastating news, “You know most people don’t really consider Peace Corps a world changer.”  There was a heavy pause.

                I was not shocked—my list of world-changers would be fairly short—but I was caught off guard.  I am much more accustomed to dispelling assorted myths born of distance, exoticism, and Peace Corps recruiting posters.  No, I do not dig wells with my bare hands and bloody knuckles, nor have I contributed to the search for the cure for AIDS.  I am sorry to say that I haven’t rescued a single stranded dolphin.

                For those who criticize the world-changing effectiveness or impact of Peace Corps, this may be the crux of the issue, an incompatibility of expectations and reality.  Peace Corps is exceptionally good at what it does; I just don’t think that most Americans know what it is we do.

                In defense of Peace Corps, I offer you one word and then ask for five paragraphs to explain it.  The word is kludge, and it is defined as “an awkward, inelegant contraption that somehow works.”  Setting aside entirely the personal growth of each Peace Corps volunteer, the private, complex and completely individual journey each of us undertakes, this is my strongest (or at least, most unique) argument for the value and very existence of Peace Corps.

                But first, I have to give due to the awkward and the inelegant.  Peace Corps is a lumbering, bureaucratic machine.  Often there are snafus and mishaps, as one might expect from an organization that places 10,000 volunteers in 10,000 far-flung locations.  One feels occasionally isolated and unsupported, as if after your hurried months of training you are slapped on the butt, told “make us proud,” and promptly creamed on the line of scrimmage.  You hear horror stories of volunteers abandoned; you hear stories, too, of volunteers who partied away their 700+ days.  But those are the exception, not the rule, and most volunteers leave Peace Corps feeling that they were respected and served with integrity.

                Despite these shortcomings, Peace Corps somehow works.  For two years, volunteers do a unique and challenging thing, integrating in the truest sense of the word.  We live among our communities, adopting their ways and sharing the rituals of life, learning the language, adjusting to the pace of a different place.  This is a means to an end, helping the community, but also an end in itself: struggling across a vast portion of the cultural divide as a good faith gesture.  As a result of this struggle we see our world and particularly our country of service through a new lens.  And, in turn, the citizens of our host country—neighbor, co-worker, mailman, coffee lady—see us as much more than the foreigner we initially appear and thus the United States as more than just a vague distant nation.  In this way, Peace Corps volunteers are ambassadors and embodiments of an ideal of cultural tolerance and exchange.

                This change of perception works slowly and yet powerfully on two sides of the world.  Here in Madagascar, the second a word of Malagasy comes out of my mouth, people know that I am American and a surprising number know that I am Peace Corps.  It is this demonstration of effort and nod to longevity, this crossing of the divide, that sets us apart.  Peace Corps volunteers are a presence in a country: not tourists, not disconnected development workers, but something altogether different.  Through pure hearsay, I have heard the American Chargé d’affaires say that Peace Corps is the reason the United States has a good reputation in Madagascar.  Think of that magnified on a seventy-country scale, or even the 139 countries in which Peace Corps has served since its inception 50 years ago.  Yes, much of what Peace Corps does is symbolic, but that symbolism matters.

                Now cross an ocean or two.  Each year thousands who have experienced a change of lenses, an alteration of values, return to America.  Their collective voice broadens our national worldview, enriches our perspective, enlivens and informs debate.  These are returned volunteers who will always remember their time in a dusty or drenched, distant corner of the earth, who will not forget the people who were kind to them there, or the subtle ways that the conduct of a world power can affect them.  Peace Corps volunteers know how small this world is, and in these increasingly interconnected times can be a unique voice for people who may be left out or left behind.

                Forget not that volunteers do good and effective things during their service too.  This argument is not to devalue these works or their impact, but rather to point out that the framework of tangible success is not the only way to measure Peace Corps’ value.  For Peace Corps, like any agency striving for improvement in the developing world, has encountered mountains of missteps, false starts, and dead ends.  This is another awkward and inelegant side of the kludge.  But the side that matters, the side that somehow works, despite the difficulties, is that of the thousands of volunteers whose countless actions and exchanges operate in a small, daily way to increase understanding and improve their small corner of the earth.

                Thus, after a heavy pause, I reply: Peace Corps may not be a world changer, but in a world that is changing, it is more relevant and necessary than ever.

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On Fences and Neighbors

I, as an American, am inherently fond of boundaries.  I am helpless to this particular penchant: it both runs in my blood and has been enforced since youth – from colonial homesteading to Frost’s fences (“Good fences make good neighbors”), from my kindergarten cubby to my college cubicle.  Ingrained with deep set notions of personal space and private property, I proceeded through life never recognizing these as just another cultural construct.

                That is, until I moved into a small town in Madagascar.  For the two years thereafter, my concept of space has been under attack, barraged relentlessly, eroded in the most subtle, creeping ways.  I am simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by this process, as I (stubbornly American) keep erecting boundaries and my community (persistently Malagasy) keeps gobbling them right up.

                Under construction for six months, my fence has also, unfortunately, been under the counter process of demolition for eighteen; it has been a steady, painful, stick-by-stick decline.  And as the fence has fallen, my neighbors have crept in with quiet assurance of my inability to resist.  First the yard was conquered, by the infiltration of soccer games and the enjoyment of afternoon shade.  What remained of the fence was soon a jungle-gym; my laundry line rarely held my own clothes; kids hung from the branches of my trees, grabbing at the fruit, as their mothers chattered, harvesting my moringa.  Even my latrine was involuntarily committed to the neighborhood and I was forced to ask myself why I felt such a strong sense of ownership over a hole in the ground.

                At last my porch was consumed: now a marbles arena, a nap location of choice, a terrace we can all enjoy.  My neighbors lounge at ease within the remains of my shattered boundaries.  Once I left for a single night to return and find that someone had quite literally moved in under the overhang, mat and cooking pot complete.

                It might have been this final incident—this most blatant and unapologetic invasion—that forced my recognition of a simple fact: these boundaries exist only in my mind.  Malagasy people conceive of space in a fundamentally different way; they do no perceive the world as I do, neatly partitioned and clearly delineated.  This is a product of my culture, a culture that values boundaries and allows them to dictate behavior.  Instead, Malagasy culture hesitates to circumscribe space, to award its possession, to declare what is public and private.  What boundaries do exist are fairly porous and born of necessity; within a village almost all is shared and communal.

                As proud as I am of my integration, the collapse of my private space can still drive me to wit’s end.  When this happens, I think back to my first months when I entered as the ultimate outsider into a closed, comfortable world where everyone knew everyone and everyone knew their place.  I hardly realized it, but I was just a little pocket within the larger confines of my village, ensconced and inaccessible behind my sturdy fence.

                Now the fence has fallen and as a result I have been invited into the communal world by the very actions of invasion I once despised.  I do not feel myself that I am entirely integrated (it is clear I need a husband and a baby for that) but I am no longer an outsider either.  I am another sort of anomaly, accepted, even embraced, within the physical bounds of my community, but not its fundamental social structure.  It is ambiguous but it is progress, and I will give up my sole right to a hole in the ground for such any day.

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