Monday, October 4, 2010

Coups in the News

"'Cus even in Madagascar,
we'll find some shack below radar"

-Gogol Bordello

Back when things were beginning to turn sour in Madagascar, I remember being frustrated when Google news couldn't feed my information addiction regarding the pending coup. English-language articles that came up from a search of 'Madagascar' were mostly about the release of 'Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.' Though this would soon be hilariously ironic, I couldn't figure out why this was more news-worthy than a tempest of cyclones, looting and massacres. I still don't know why it didn't get covered as extensively as it might have, but I've been looking at Google trends, and it seems to validate that it was bad coverage, and not my information withdrawal, that sent me into such anxious fits at the internet cafe.

Here's the first plot, showing web traffic and news reports for Madagascar since 2004, to give you an idea of how coverage of the movies compares to the coup.

The first thing to notice is the relative size of the peaks in overall traffic, at 'A' and 'B,' to the average level of traffic and subsequent coup traffic. The next thing is that the news coverage, shown on the bottom line, was fairly responsible -- small peaks for the movies relative to the coup. Also notice that peak A is quite wide -- beginning around the 'Madagascar' release on May 27, 2005 and taking until mid-2006 to return to a normal traffic level. It also has a secondary peak corresponding to the DVD release on November 15, 2005. Since the release of the second film overlapped with the period of turmoil, we'll just have to assume that the traffic peak for the second movie at 'B' has similar traits. This means that when we look at traffic for 2009, the high baseline at the beginning of the year is mostly residual activity from the movie release on November 7, 2008.

Here we see some stranger behavior from the news publishers. There's a small hiccup in late January, when the looting and shootings took place. The greatest news activity only happened when the president peacefully stepped down on March 17.

So far, we've seen that web users care more about movies than Malagasy murders, regardless of how much noise the news makes. We also might hypothesize that the internet-based media mailed this one in. It missed all the real action and mostly covered an event that was pretty much a forgone conclusion in the minds of anyone paying attention. But is this true everywhere? How do other coups stack up?

Honduras suffered a coup in June 2009, just 3 months after Ravolomanana stepped down. I've graphed activity for Honduras and Madagascar in 2009 on the same chart so that we can see the relative intensity of the coverage.

All of a sudden, that huge spike on March 17 looks like a speed bump next to the Honduran Himalayas. This makes sense. To get to Madagascar from the east coast of the United States, you need 19 hours and $5000. And there are probably more American expats in Honduras and Honduran expats in America than is the case for Madagascar. You can't report what you don't see.

But come on - there were more articles written in
Romanian than in English about the crisis in Madagascar. Romanian! I don't even want to think what that would look like in terms of articles per fluent capita!

Certainly, there's a lot this data can't account for. (Was the coup in Honduras more unexpected and sensational? Is there a disparity of the level of access to telecommunications in the two countries? What effect did World Cup qualifiers have on the traffic?) But I can't help but wonder if there's a certain amount of negligent laziness that determines the news we see and the news we don't. What do you think? And seriously, what's the deal with the Romanians?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I miss you, stage of love!

Dear Stage of Love,

May everyone be enjoying this first stage of their new adventure! I am minutes away from being shuttled to the airport for my flight to Tanzania, and have that nervous, excited feeling all over again (did it ever go away?). And I'm thinking of you all and missing you. Please know that you are all loved so very much and more than invited for a visit to Tanzania. I'll be updating my blog soon with site info and such. And I would love it if we kept up this blog, even just to send notes to one another and share stories. You all are with me always...can't wait to see you again...state side, africa side, or elsewhere in the world. I love you!

Tara Magnolia

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Service Interrupted

So the 2008 Environment group blog experiment is over. As some of you may have heard, Madagascar has had some political turmoil lately. The Peace Corps program there, along with all other "non-essential" US Mission staff, have been evacuated. The service of the 2008 Environment stage is over, interrupted just before the half-way mark. So as we split up and go our separate ways, --traveling around the world, going home to eager families, transferring to other Peace Corps countries-- I'd like to look at where the blog succeeded and where it fell short. If your the kind of person who hates "meta" (blogging about blogging), don't bother with the rest of this post.

First off, I just recently discovered the website, which is a great compilation by country of volunteer blogs from around the world. It's exactly the kind of ultimate outcome I envisioned (but did not know existed) when Brendan H. first came up with the idea of a group blog. That said, I still think group blogs by training class or country have a lot of potential, mainly because of more frequent updates.

Our own little blog generated 4 updates in November, 2 in December, and 2 in January. This may seem low, but compared to the update frequency on most individual volunteer blogs, it's actually pretty good. In addition, if more people started CROSS-POSTING stuff that they put up on personal sites, the update frequency would increase significantly. If you click around a little on Peace Corps Journals, you'll notice literally dozens of blogs for each country. Seriously, even with a fast connection, who has the time to add that many sites to their frequent reading role? A more centralized way of organizing PC blogs, either by training group or country, would make the site more accessible and interesting. It also might stimulate more discussion, because as much as I love you all, at 50AR-100AR/minute, I don't have time to visit each of your sites individually.

I also think that it is not a coincidence that updates pretty much ended the week before the political situation deteriorated. I think everyone (myself included) was hesitant to post given the sensitive nature of the topic, the potential security implications, and the chance that posts would lead to uncontrolled rumor and panic both back home and with other volunteers. I can't emphasize enough how legitimate I think those concerns are.

At the same time, I think that a situation like the one we just faced is where a centralized blog could prove most valuable. With good guidelines and maybe a PC group blog moderator (either similar to PCVL or even a staff-line), I think Peace Corps Journals could be the go-to spot for on-the-ground news for things like political events, natural disasters, or other newsworthy happenings. I definitely acknowledge that this is tricky terrain, but I think the upside is huge if PC invested some time and energy.

So those are my thoughts on this mini-project, the Dagu Diaries. I think I speak for many of us when I say how truly sad we are not to be able to finish our service in Madagascar, a place we were incredibly lucky to experience over the last year. I wish everyone the best of luck in their next endeavors, and hope to see you all again at the Stage of Love 5 year reunion. Maybe we can post here to set it up!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Fanafody Gasy

The sky was mostly clear with a few clouds spotting the horizon and our guide, Longhead’s Uncle (Zama’ny Lavaloha), uprooted a patch of grass, turned it up side down and stuffed it leafy part first into an unsuspecting termite mound. He said that this would stop the rain. Two hours later a huge storm cloud appeared out of nowhere and we were soaked to the bone. I thought, down one Fanafody Gasy.

The rain had stopped but the dense forest cover above was still dripping as we left the cave and headed back to camp. I was taking my time enjoying the quiet calm after the storm as I was stung by some sort of wasp that left two small vampire-fang-like dots on my forearm. It hurt. Even before I had a chance to look at the damage, our guide had pulled out a homemade cream and was applying it to the sting. The pain ceased and the sting never swelled. Fanafody Gasy was tied.

We returned to the village only to be summoned, along with all of the other villagers, to the cattle path heading south of town. There was some sort of curse in the middle of the path, half way to the watering hole. Apparently the chief of the village’s husband had buried some small sticks wrapped in black cloth, a deadly curse. All 50 or so of us stood huddled around a pool ball sized hole, staring at the three finger-sized sticks when my neighbor was overtaken by an ancestor’s spirit. She bent down, threw the sticks deep into the brush and started screaming, eyes rolled back into her head, in an incomprehensible mumble. Eventually the spirit quieted and the villagers went searching for the lost evidence; justice would still have to be served. Fanafody Gasy, I thought, is eerily similar to the Salem witch trails.

As the tin roof creaked under the strength of the Malagasy sun, my neighbors had forgotten the deadly curse and began to focus on relieving our friend of her ancestor’s spirit. Rum bottles were strewn around the room and the spirit had possession of my neighbor. The spirit was speaking through my neighbor’s body in broken Malagasy, giving new taboos to various people as I searched for recognition in her eyes. Rum was replaced with water and the water was being thrown around the room, when she finally broke her gaze and was freed of her ancestor. She would remember nothing.

Fanafody Gasy is more prevalent in our doctorless village than even the most common medicines in the States. It is rarely talked about and those that know how to administer it demand its weight in gold. As I struggle to understand even the most basic forms of it, it seems to grow, encompassing more of the Malagasy way of life than I could begin to imagine. I would like to call it ‘traditional medicine’, but it includes so many spiritual, medicinal, and ancestral aspects that ‘traditional medicine’ only manages to scratch the surface.

I’m left now, confused and curious, excitedly unsure. I can only settle, knowing that I will never know the whole story. No matter how many ceremonies I sit in on or how many medicinal treatments I take part in, I will always be on the outside, peering in; looking for some sort of recognition in the eyes of an ancestral way of life that will never be mine.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

This is Africa

This is Africa...
-where most people live on a dollar (or less) a day.
-where houseguests include geckos, rats, and cockroaches the size of your index finger.
-where you eat cassava root to feel full, even though it contains new nutrients, because you can't afford anything else.
-where kids are perfectly happy playing with rocks.
-where you shouldn't drink the water but it's too hot not to.
-where the clothes people overseas thought they "donated" wind up for sale at the market.
-where mangoes are abundant, litchis are $0.25 a pound and bananas are the dessert of choice.
-where most people feel the effect of hungry season, yet everyone has cell phones.
-where the question "What church do you go to?" is as common as "What is your name?"
-where the roads are so bad in some places that you're better off walking.
-where a bucket & basin are essential for washing yourself and your clothes.
-where I currently call home.

This is it. Africa. And while many Malagasy prefer not to be called African (they take pride in their Asian and/or Polynesian descent), truth be told, Madagascar is part of Africa. All of the above statements come from my experiences the past year here in Madagascar. I frequently experience TIA (This is Africa) moments when I am riding my bike through rolling hills & rice paddies with the sun beating down on me.

Madagascar is one of the poorest African countries. I think that people sometimes forget about it since it is an island isolated in the Indian Ocean. But the facts are startling: it was one of 10 countries with the worst per capita growth rates from 1980-2002 (-1.9%). Madagascar is more poor than the continent of Africa (with the exceptions of Zimbabwe & Sudan). If Madagascar continues to experience a 6.3% economic growth rate, as it did last year, then by 2025 it will have only caught up to the rest of Africa. Sometimes it is hard not to wonder "How do Malagasy even begin the journey towards development?" But then I am encouraged by the motivation and strength of the people. Like the farmer/welder who rode his bike 80 kilometers to attend one of my trainings. Or the bicycle repairman who sought me out, wanting to expand his business to include selling spare parts, and subsequently completed a 4 page business plan in one day. These are people that know there are opportunities out there for them and they are willing to work just for a chance at those opportunities. People that will take the initiative rather than wait for handouts that may never come. So at the end of the day, when I contemplate returning back to the States before my 27 month service is finished-tempted by images of toilets, light bulbs, and ice cubes-the people are what keep me here. I know that I'm not going to change the world, or even Madagascar, but I hope to provide, even to just a few people, the opportunities that we, as Americans, are born with.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Life is Rice; Rice is Life

Most all of you know by now that rice is a cultural obsession here in Madagascar and that it is eaten by the heaping plateful at every meal. When I am invited to someone’s house, what acts as more of an indicator of how Gasy I have become than my level of fluency in the language is the amount of rice that I eat (“Well, he’s kind of dumb but at least he knows how to eat rice,” I can hear my hosts thinking). It occurred to me, however, that perhaps not all of you fully grasp what it means to eat rice so frequently here. Of course, you know that it’s not buying a big bag at Costco (or reusing your own at the bulk bins of the Co-op), popping it into the rice cooker, and sitting down to meal. But how involved a process is it? I’ll spare you the technical details, which us environment volunteers love so much, on this journey from field to table, but I hope you will nonetheless get a sense of why rice is more than a meal here, why its a way of life.

First stop: tanim-bary, or rice paddy. In the Central Valley of California we have huge paddies - expansive, flat, mechanised operations, complete with aerial pest control – that contribute a large amount to world rice stores. Needless to say, that is a model not readily adopted here in Madagascar. Aside from not having the capital to purchase the inputs (tractors, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.), the topography is too rugged to permit such large-scale operations. There are a couple of areas, like near Lac Aloatra, the so-called bread basket of Madagascar, where tractors are in use, but by and large, what feeds people here are small-scale, organic, labour-intensive, family ‘farms’.

We have all seen pictures of Burma and Thailand with the beautifully terraced hill slopes, neatly distributing water through all the level fields. That is pretty incredible technology and speaks to the power of cultural heritage to pass along and perfect an agricultural technique over thousands of years. We have paddies like those here, too, passed down from that same cultural heritage and thought to have been brought with the last wave of Indo-Polynesian settlers maybe 500 years ago. Their descendants, the Betsileo, live on the plateau and are known for their rice culture. They build terraces every bit as impressive as the Burmese. But many of the tribes, such as those near me in the South East, don’t possess this inherited knowledge and use different techniques. The people in my region have traditionally lived in relation to the forest. Aside from harvesting many products from the forest, they practice slash and burn agriculture. After clearing a tract of forest, they grow rice and manioc on the hillsides using the stored nutrients for a year or two, until they are depleted, and then repeating the process with a new tract. But now that the forest is nearly gone and slash and burn is illegal, they are having to learn how to build paddies and manage the land more sustainably. It is hard work, and rice is now grown mostly in valley bottoms here- not yet on hillside terraces.

The stages of rice’s journey that take place in the tanim-bary will be recognizable to anyone who has spent some time on a farm. First, before rice even enters the story, the paddies need to be prepared. Here, that means men and cattle will be out tromping in the pudding like mud, mixing in manure, and flattening whatever weeds grew in the off season, until man and beast are equally unrecognisable under their sun-baked, grey plaster coats. It takes a few days and if there aren’t cattle, the work is all done by hand.

Then for the next couple weeks women will be transplanting seedlings, one by one, throughout the valleys. They are bent over for hours and their work is punctuated by the sounds of conversation and laughter (at least every time that I walk by or help out). I find it to be a really pleasant activity, but were I to do it for as long as they, I am sure that I would awaken moaning from a sore back.

After the planting comes the weeding of course - a couple times over the next month until the plants are big enough to shade the competition. The men use tools if they have them and the women use their hands. Rice takes about three months to grow so the next two months will then be turned to other tasks.

My favourite part of the process is harvest, not solely because I get to indulge in the pleasure of playing with sharp things. The men work in a line, spread out shoulder to shoulder, cutting swaths with their razor sharp sickles, as the women follow behind bundling the severed stalks with a stray piece of straw. A morning spent harvesting is an incredibly rewarding experience. It is the climax of a story that we have been telling repeatedly for the last 12,000 years (not to mention the, what, 2 million? year old roots of playing with sharp things). A fair comparison is made in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, when he describes the exultation Levin feels while participating in the mowing of the meadows.

I think most North Americans, including myself, have a hard time picturing what happens to the rice next, up until we see it on the shelf at the grocery store. Maybe it travelled across the world; but even if you live in California and are lucky enough to eat Lundberg’s organic basmati grown along the I5 it’s no less mystifying where that rice has travelled and what machines, factories and warehouses it has visited along the way to transform a petulant stalk of seed heads into those pearly white maggots in a bag. You’ll have to turn to other sources to solve that mystery. I do know, on the other hand, what happens every step of the way from the fields surrounding my town here in Madagascar to my plate. It may be laborious, but it is intelligible.

Once it is taken from the field, and before being dried in the sun, the rice needs to be threshed. In my area, the women take a bundle of rice on a straw mat or tarp and knead it with their feet. The loose grains fall from the matted stalks, which when removed, leave a golden pile of unhulled rice. You can imagine how much time it takes to thresh a whole hectare worth of rice in this manner, which is how much one family can reasonably handle, provided they are lucky enough to have rights to that much land.

I don’t know where the origins of the word ‘thresh,’ as I neglected to pack a good dictionary in my suitcase, but after participating in the use of another threshing technique I’m sure it must be related to the word thrash. In out training village on the plateau, a big rock or oil drum is laid out, again on a mat or cleared area, and a big bundle of stalks is taken in each hand and beat against the object repeatedly until all the grains have flown loose, showering the area with loose rice. If any of you enjoy beating a punching bag when you are stressed, you should try this. Another great thing is that the whole family gets to participate.

After threshing, some poor girl gets suckered into watching rice dry on woven mats laid out in the sun for a couple days, fending off the voracious chickens, ducks, pigs, and whatever else attempts to gorge itself on the oh so tempting bounty. If it is for family consumption it will get stored in this state in large gunny sacks until needed. But if bound for market, it will need to be hulled. In wealthy areas it is taken to a hulling machine, but for most families (wives) this means pounding it in a giant mortar and pestle, sometimes in a rhythmic refrain with one or two other women.

If you are be or another ‘city’ dweller, this is when you get to buy the rice. In my market there is a row of people from the country, all sitting with their baskets of rice and one of the ubiquitous kapaoka, or tin can measuring devices. All the rice is the same price but there will be different varieties and varying states of unhulledness and bug-filledness (very technical terms) and it is your job as a shopper to find the good stuff.

Before cooking, it still must be winnowed and washed. For many families, this process is repeated before every meal. After being picked through for unhulled grains, bugs and stones, it is tossed in a sahafa to remove any light bits of hull that are left. It now looks like what you are used to eating, except that it is of a varying shade of red, a characteristic of our special Malagasy varieties.

It remains paradoxical to me that for how much effort goes into the cultivation and preparation of this culturally defining foodstuff, there is next to zero effort in the actual cooking. Attention all good Persians: read no further – what follows may horrify you. In the absence of temperature control, the idea seems to be to get the flames as hot as possible, toss rice into a pot full of water, cover, and wait. Sometimes its too dry, usually its soggy and mushy, and always the rice on the sides and bottom are burnt. Turning this into a virtue, we re-boil water in the pot and drink this as a tea. Being that most Malagasy seem to drink nothing else, this has become the national drink. In fact, it is important enough that technologies introduced to help reduce fuel wood consumption (like solar cookers) have failed here because while they cook the rice just fine, they don’t get hot enough to burn the rice.

The Malagasy obviously take pride in their rice culture and know more about the varieties and subtleties of the farming practices than us volunteers can ever hope to learn, even though we are busy teaching them new techniques (S.R.I. is cultivation process that has spread throughout the rice growing world. It has yet to catch on here, even though, ironically enough, it was originally developed in this country). Nevertheless, that pride has infected us volunteers, too. There was one volunteer who, while doing business in the capital for a few days, bought a bag of clean rice at the Malagasy Wal-mart because he was tired of winnowing it. When we saw what he bought it took a little while to register in our brains, but then we all burst out laughing at the novelty of it. Now if you see me in a couple years standing petrified in front of those bulk food bins, you’ll have some idea what might be going through my mind.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Vary Triathlon

As Marshall and Charlie have already so richly described, the face of death is strikingly apparent and influential in the every day life of rural Madagascar. In a continuation on the funeral theme, I’d like to share the rather impressive 40 day Sakalava Muslim mourning tradition after a death in the community.

The day of the death, a chicken is killed at the mosque. Over the following three days, many people solemnly gather at the home of the deceased, spending many hours cooking and eating very large meals, paying their respects to the mourning family and praying. Over the next month money is collected and given to the family and smaller meals are shared periodically. On the 38th day of mourning, another chicken is killed at the hour of the death, and the final 2 days are filled with group cooking and eating again, but this time the air is light, celebratory and one of happy remembrance.

And this is also where everything devolves into chaos…a sort of entropy in which everything, remarkably, settles into the right place…eventually…
The Vary (Rice) Triathlon
Leg 1. A 60cm in diameter pot full to the brim, with rice. The art of measuring out exactly the right amount of dry rice and water to accomplish this is unknown to most Americans, and after completing my two year transplant here in M/car I still don’t think I’ll understand. And if the pot big enough for a child to go swimming in doesn’t impress you, then perhaps the 1meter long wooden spoon needed to scoop out the rice will. This device is aptly called the ‘spoon tree’ and requires 3 people to operate (or maybe just 2 if neither of them is me) – one to hold the pot in place (did I mention that this is all taking place over a still very hot, but dying fire?), one to hold the giant serving ‘tub’ in place as rice is scooped into it and to scoop sticky rice off the spoon with a plate, and one to do the actually scooping – this person is standing with the pot at about knee level and is remarkably strong yet agile.
Leg 2. Now, at least 2 people must carry the tub of rice to the ‘platter preparing station’ – this leg is a challenge for the following reasons: 1. The tub is heavy and full of steaming rice; 2. to get to the platter prep station, one must walk on what feels like the world’s hottest sand; and 3. the entrance to the station is blocked by a barely visible clothesline, approximately 5 other people carrying their own bowls/tubs of various food items, and a very low porch roof that even I (5’2”) find a struggle to duck under.
Leg 3. This leg of the vary triathalon is way too advanced for me – the platter prep station requires the ability to dish out the correct number of platters of rice, construct towering bowls of sidedishes (usually 3 – one meat, one mashed pumpkiny deliciousness, one coleslaw-like salad with mangoes) and dispense this food in the correct ‘respectful’ order to approximately 50 hungry men, women and children.

Now seems like a good time to point out that the vary triathlon is a female only event, and despite its physical and mental strenuousness, does not stop anyone from speaking their mind about how things should be done (or weren’t done correctly), eg. Your side dish is just too salty or Oh my god, are we out of rice?! I would also like to share that the women of Katsepy speak very expressively and emphatically, in other words lots of arm waving, finger pointing and hand slapping. This is their normal habit. Now imagine they are all slightly excited, agitated and armed with serving spoons dripping with sauce or sticky with rice. No middle school cafeteria has seen more food flung.
Finally, we all settle down on our straw mats, 5 or 6 people gathered in a circle around platters of steaming food, introducing strong and delightful smells to our nose. ‘Bismillah’, hands dig in and as the eating begins, memories and stories are shared, sadness over death is replaced by a celebration of lives current and past, and content bellies are filled with rice.