Three years in Madagascar: "The images that will stick with me are those of the people"

planickaThree years in Madagascar have given me many images to remember: picturesque grassy mountains scarred with huge red crevasses; lush rainforests full of unique wildlife; miles and miles of geometric rice paddies; muddy roads full of bikes, ox-carts and cars, all waiting for a herd of cattle to pass; rocky outcrops populated by ring-tailed lemurs; beachside sunrises over the Indian Ocean on the east coast and beachside sunsets over the Mozambique Channel on the west.

But the images that will stick with me the longest are those of the people.

The Malagasy, as the people of Madagascar call themselves, are not well off by international standards. Many are subsistence farmers or fishermen raising large families on about a dollar a day. Their country is considered a third-world nation. Signs of poverty are everywhere, from the mud-brick or reed houses to the tiny classrooms stuffed with 70-plus students to the meager meals of rice and greens. To the rest of the world, the Malagasy are poor.

Yet in interacting with the people themselves, I found it impossible to identify them as such. The most common trait I found in people throughout the country was a gift for dancing, singing and joking. Children made up games with whatever was available to them; adults took any opportunity to chat at length with friends and strangers alike. Perhaps most surprisingly, Malagasy of all ages welcomed me into their lives, albeit with plenty of gawking and jokes about my appearance (large white Americans tend to stick out amongst mostly short black Malagasy, especially when they are constantly falling into rice paddies and dancing with children in the streets).

My time as a Peace Corps Environment Volunteer allowed me significant interaction with farmers in remote villages in central and eastern Madagascar, in the Lake Alaotra region. There I taught farmers to utilize organic planting techniques to improve their crop yields while also conserving the surrounding hillsides, water sources and forests.

I should say I attempted to teach these lessons; in reality, I would work with many farmers to adopt new techniques, but only a few would do so. Adopting something new in place of a long-practiced method is risky and even scary to many people. Those that did adopt the new techniques were brave and daring to do so. But all of the farmers were interested in learning the techniques with me, and those who did not adopt them still made the most of their time by peppering me with questions and assaulting me with jokes. The cultural exchange succeeded even when the technical one failed. Indeed, the Peace Corps’ goal extends beyond improving techniques in developing countries to improving cultural understanding between Americans and foreign nationals.

So, what did I learn about Malagasy people? First, that children are the same everywhere. I found I could communicate with children before my language skills had developed by making faces, acting out words and playing games. They quickly grasped games like duck-duck-goose, the three-legged race and tic-tac-toe. Whenever I felt lonely, I could turn around and start dancing or playing with the gaggle of children that would follow me around town. Malagasy children are also very creative. To entertain themselves, they make up stories, build wheels from sticks and “drive” them around town, play soccer with balls of trash held together with twine and craft detailed dance routines.

Second, life can be fun even when it is impossibly difficult. A Malagasy woman, loaded down with a baby on her back and a bucket of water on her head, will pause without dropping her cargo and share extensive gossip with friends. Men will come in from the fields and share a few laughs over a jug of homemade rum. Anyone will start to dance if the right music comes on, and many will do so without provocation.

The Malagasy love to sing, dance, and talk. I once read that the Malagasy adopted Christianity very quickly (around 90 percent of the population is Christian) because Sunday worship combined two of their favorite things: singing loudly and listening to long speeches. Malagasy people taught me that, no matter how bad my day was, if I just started to sing and dance I could not help but smile. I hope the Malagasy people I worked with gained something from my time in Madagascar. I know I certainly did.