Breasts As They Were Intended

29 October 2017 (Sunday)

Babies everywhere. A tiny baby being held by its mother as she sits on the back of a motorcycle, unable to hold onto the driver (who is wearing a helmet) because her arms are full of her infant. I see this ALL the time and each time it makes me cringe. I mean, what’s the point of requiring the driver to wear a helmet but none of the passengers? And how many passengers are too many?  It’s common to see a motorcycle with a small child sitting on the very front of the seat (or standing on the floorboard in front of the seat (no helmet), the driver just behind (wearing a helmet), and often another adult and sometimes two children behind the driver (none wearing helmets) or, as I stated earlier, a woman holding a tiny infant in her arms with a toddler sitting in front of her, or sometimes behind her. Considering how often I see this, I guess it’s safe, otherwise, why would folks keep doing it? But then again, people do what they must in order to survive and if a motorcycle is your only form of transportation for your family of five, well, it is what it is. Efa iza zay (Malagasy for “it is what it is”). 

But the babies, whether dangerously straddling a motorcycle, sitting in a stall while its mother waits to sell some tomatoes or mangoes, or inside a taxi be (pronounced taxi “bay,” the local vans that serve as public buses), waiting on a chair in the bank, wherever, babies seem to be EVERYWHERE. And where you see a small child, you will most likely see a breast or two. Breasts deliver the most perfect food for infants in the most amazing way. Perfectly formulated for that one, specific baby, breasts provide a wonderful service to the world. And in Madagascar, you see a LOT of breasts, doing the main thing for which they were designed.

The first time I saw a woman here unabashedly pull out her breast to feed her young child, my first reaction was “That lucky baby,” because I’ve seen way too many American women choose formula over their own breast milk for a number of reasons. But here, breasts are used in the manner for which they were intended, and living in a place where any woman can feel free enough to openly feed her child, without even a thought to cover herself is, well, it’s absolutely refreshing. I explained to my English Club (a bunch of young adults who want to practice their English skills a few times per week) how we’ve demonized breastfeeding in the U.S., shaming any woman who would DARE expose her breast, in public, and have relegated nursing mothers to “nursing rooms,” which are often glorified bathrooms, or worse — and that some women have even been kicked out of public stores just for feeding their children the way nature intended.

I was in the bank last week, several times (thank you, Western Union, for making my life hell last week), and unlike in the U.S., they provide comfortable chairs for you to wait your turn — no standing in line in my bank, no sir. Anyway, the woman across from me had a rambunctious toddler who, based on her misshapen head and widely-set eyes, had either a really tough labor or was born with a number of birth defects. This child was old enough to walk, probably about two years old, and she would NOT sit still, no matter what. The mother had tried everything to settle her down, but the child was just too wound up to care. So, seemingly as a last resort, the mother pulled down her top, exposing both her breasts, and the girl walked up to her, laid down in her mother’s lap, started to suckle on the one breast while she played with the other nipple in her free hand, as kids are wont to do. It was a perfectly normal act (well, I think the girl is too old to still be nursing, but that seems to be the norm here so I’ll ignore it). Nobody in the bank paid her any mind because her breasts were being used as they were intended and I find this SO refreshing in this country that has so much going against it at times. This one thing — breasts — is just another of the many ways I see magic expressed in Madagascar.

Can you imagine women in the U.S. freely nursing, uncovered, anywhere, everywhere in the U.S.?  No, because we’ve lost sight of the pure innocence and beauty of nature. We’ve made breastfeeding something sexual, something ugly, something distasteful, something that makes others uncomfortable. And NONE of that makes ANY sense. As Madagascar continues to improve, economically and advance in the world, this one thing is something I hope they never lose. Breasts — just let them do what they were meant to do. Okay?

BLOGGING HAS BECOME A REAL CHORE

I know that many of you have been missing my blog posts these past few months, even the ones I removed a while back. But the whole process of blogging has become such a chore for me simply because I’d rather be OUT exploring this MAGICAL city than sitting at home or (like now), in a Pizza Gastronomie using their free wifi. Each and every day, I find something new and wonderful that just blows my mind. Like discovering that most fabrics here are 90” wide. WHA??? When I was a young girl, when we could find fabrics 58-60” wide, we were in heaven because the norm was 48”. But in the U.S., fabrics have gotten narrower and narrower and if I’m not mistaken, the norm is now only 36”, which is a REAL bitch when it comes to garment construction. Having a whole 90” wide not only more than doubles the amount of fabric you have with which to work, but it also changes WHAT you can do with the fabric. Draping something that wide is like, well, it’s like heaven, and sadly, I’m having to FIGHT every day when I go out shopping to try to NOT buy any more fabrics. I’ve already purchased a bunch (and fabrics are REALLY cheap here, about $1.50 per meter, and a meter is larger than a yard), and have been having the best time sewing curtains, bed linens, making patterns for clothes, etc. Oh, I’m in fabric HEAVEN, and sewing everything by hand takes a long time, time I’d much rather spend hand sewing than blogging. SO, in that stead, please understand that I will blog, but nothing like I was doing months ago. I’m just having too much fun, especially when I’m out on my bike, exploring this way and that, mainly because the only map I have to use was created by Stevie Wonder and edited by Ray Charles. It’s gawd-awful, and as I go through the town, OH, how I wish I’d taken a cartography course in school.

“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”

The Isolation is REAL

15 October 2017 (Sunday)

I didn’t join the Peace Corps for the camaraderie of the other Volunteers and being now the only one left in the “60 and Over” club has driven home just how isolating this job really is. Originally there were three of us old fogies, but one man had to drop out just before we left the states due to a medical condition, which left two of us, and the other, just a few months older than me, dropped out the day before we were sworn-in. I’d seen her departure coming for a while and was actually surprised that she’d lasted as long as she did, but in the end, the Peace Corps wasn’t what she really had in mind, so she quit and went back home to the States, her cat (who had runoff and had recently returned) and her beloved house which she was afraid wasn’t being cared for adequately by those she’d left in charge. Even though several of the other PCVs often comment how youthful I may be in my attitude and approach to life, in the end, though, I carry with me six decades of hard work, accomplishments, struggles, pains, joys, and lessons, many of which my younger counterparts may never experience. And it’s for this reason that I cannot really talk to ANY of them about some of the things I’m experiencing because they just don’t know what I know, which makes it hard to relate if I’m constantly having to define terms. For example, I told one of my fellow Volunteers that I felt like a pariah, and their response was “What’s a pariah?” All I could do was sigh. Remember, we’re all college graduates here. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated their attempt to try to connect with me, but this kind of thing is frequent and reminds me that I’m from a totally different generation when I say something like “HNIC,” and I get “What’s that?”

So, I’m alone, not something I didn’t expect, and even if my language skills weren’t an issue, I doubt I’d really find anyone here with whom I’d connect on a more personal level because of our differences. I’m a foreigner but don’t look like one at first glance, so even if someone assumes I’m not Malagasy, I think they think I’m perhaps from another French-speaking African country, so French is often thrown my way. Then, when I don’t know French and insist I know a bit of Malagasy, I get looks of “No shit?” along with a smile and then we begin to speak, slowly, in Malagasy. There are a few favored merchants I buy from on a regular basis, just nice ladies who always have a smile for me and even if we can’t say much, their kind energy is appreciated, so they get my business.  Inside my home, I’m always thinking of new ways to connect with my students, who range from 1st grade through 7th grade, and I’ve been using music, specifically my violin, singing, animating the Alphabet Song into a kind of dance, and going online when I have wifi access to find new lesson plans to engage, entertain and educate them. The Peace Corps trained me how to teach middle and high school and the Ministry of Education provides all schools with a structured curriculum we’re expected to teach, week by week, for middle and high schools, grades 6-12. but half of my classes are 1st – 5th grades and the other half are 6th-7th grades. This means that I have to come up with a curriculum for very young students who have had NO exposure to English, age-appropriate lesson plans, and deal with their short attention spans in creative and engaging ways.

I reached out to the Peace Corps for help, but they sent me mostly useless information; a one-page sheet with the lyrics to five songs to sing (Twinkle Twinkle, Frere Jacques, If You’re Happy and You Know It…), a one-page simple introductions exercise, and a one-page document on how to teach adults how to write upper-case letters and numbers. If I was an experienced teacher of young children, I’d probably be thrilled to be able to create my own curriculum and all, but I’m teaching a second language to young children, many of whom as also still learning their own first language, Malagasy, so I don’t quite know quite where to begin.  Thank goodness for the Internet and sites like Education.com and others that have given me some really good ideas for hands-on learning that will keep young hands energized and interested.  One such lesson is called ‘’Float or Sink” where I’ll bring in a few buckets of water and a pile of various objects. I’ll divide the class into teams which will compete to predict whether a specific item will float or sink to the bottom. I’m hoping I can keep this from getting out of control, but you know how kids and water can be.  Since science and math are my two most favorite topics, I’m planning to base many of my lessons around these topics and teach them English while doing some fun science or math project. I know I can make this work, but it would also be nice to be able to interface with other teachers who are teaching the same levels and dealing with the same challenges — but I’ll soldier on, alone.

Staying focused on the kids is what keeps me going through the times when I’m feeling most alone. I am VERY thankful, however, that there are SO many places in Mahajanga where I can walk or bike to free wifi access, because a LOT of PCVs are living in places so isolated that wifi access isn’t even a possibility — but none of them are forced to teach levels for which there is almost no support, either. I’m the only one of our Stage of 30 who is teaching at the EPP (elementary school) level. Considering that fact, how difficult would it have been for the Peace Corps to have pulled me aside and shared some basic lesson plans or given me a collection of books I could use in the classroom? Having wifi access, I’ve found lots of First Grade Lesson Plans, ESL Lesson Plans for early learners, etc., and I don’t need the whole plan, just the idea of what to teach is usually all I need to be able to craft my own plan, making it a fun activity for busy minds/hands. I love giving high fives, and for my 4th-5th-grade class (it’s combined) I have them giving me five on the black-hand side, which I hadn’t done myself in about 40 years, but the kids LOVE this.

So, I’m the old broad who will turn 61 next week, and who doesn’t FEEL old but is old, and the isolation of my life in Mahajanga includes my sex life or lack thereof. With the other PCVs, training was a big roaming slumber party, for the most part, lots of folks sharing lots of beds, and I’m happy for them. I was just an observer, watching the mating dances, predicting which two would end up together, which wouldn’t last, etc., and though observing it all was an interesting hobby, it was one from which I was totally excluded. I had a really good sex life before I left the U.S., and though I knew I’d be celibate for the next two years, it’s finally starting to hit home that I’m gonna be celibate the next two years!!  YEOW!  Okay, so I’ve never been ashamed of having a healthy sex drive and I used to enjoy sex and was truly fortunate to have had a partner the past few years who had a great toolkit and knew how to use it — I was spoiled in the best possible way. The problem with this is in finding someone who has all the qualities I need in a good lover (great head on his shoulders, politically aware, fun to be with, patient and loving in bed and out, and of a certain age and body type). Yeah, I’m probably asking for a lot but I’m worth it, and the minute I settle for less than I deserve, I GET less than I deserve. Quite honestly, I’d rather go without than to settle for a man who has no idea or interest in satisfying the woman, nothing interesting to say, isn’t comfortable with an independent woman, or has to take a pill to get things going. And when did “male enhancement” become a “thing” anyway? Back in MY day, I dated a LOT of older men, men who were 20-30 years older than me, and Viagra hadn’t been invented yet, and those old guys could slam every which way from Sunday — no pills needed. Nowadays, even men in their 30s are buying those little blue pills on the black market, just so they can get it up. What in the hell is THAT about? Whatever happened to just living a good, healthy life, regular exercise, good food, no drugs, little alcohol — you didn’t need those little pills. Just seems like this whole marketing scheme was to get men to think they need something they really don’t need at all. Yes, maybe we had to work a little harder to get him to stand at attention, but it was all natural, and it worked. Blue pills? If a man needs to take a pill, I’m not interested. Done. But I digress.

So, I’m not having any form of male relationship, either, nobody to go dancing with, or just have a drink, nobody to have a meal, no one to take with me to the beach or go for a bike ride. So, I do all those things by myself and the only one that bothers me is the beach. If I ride over to a deserted beach, the water is calling my name. I lock up my bike and run into the waves all the while knowing that it’s dangerous to swim alone, but I AM alone, so swimming alone is something I’ve had to just get used to. I’ve always been an excellent swimmer, was a lifeguard, used to compete on a swim team, did water ballet and am comfortable in salt or fresh water. I don’t feel I need someone to babysit me while I’m in the water, but the ocean is no joke and stuff can happen. I just have to let go of my fears and hope that nothing happens while I’m swimming, alone. It just is what it is, and I’m not gonna put my life on hold because I don’t have someone with whom to share my life.

It’s at times like these that I wish the Peace Corps would really give some serious thought about how to support older PCVs. We have different life challenges. Retirement accounts, mortgages, kids/grandkids, real estate, elderly parents, etc., and though we may be physically and psychologically ready and able to serve, our “other” lives, the ones we left behind before we took on this challenge, continue even though we’re thousands of miles away.  I mean, think about this, when you apply for the PC and you’re, say, over 40, there’s a good chance you own some property and you’ve probably started putting some money away for retirement. You may have some kids in college, elderly parents, etc., and if would be SO nice for the Peace Corps to have a department, even just one person, dedicated to helping us work with mortgage refinances, tax issues, retirement plans, etc., and if nothing else, someone our age who has LIVED life, has had to deal with balancing a life, kids, home, career, spouse, parents, menopause, etc., and knows how challenging it can be to be thousands of miles away. The PC already has a Civil Rights Department and a Victims Advocacy Group, how hard would it be to add “Mature Volunteer Advocate” to one of the existing departments so that, when I’m just feeling overwhelmed, I can actually speak to someone around my own age, to whom I don’t have to define words just so we can communicate?

The needs of the mature volunteer are different in a lot of OTHER ways, too, including sex, or lack thereof. Fewer options in the U.S., and almost NO options overseas, and just because we’re grey up top doesn’t mean we don’t have the same needs and desires as someone a third or half our age. Trust me, we do. Interestingly, though, the PC Medical Office notices this and in my three-month supply of meds they send me quarterly, they include a few tubes of feminine cream to help with dryness associated with menopause. I didn’t ask for this, but they knew, because of my age, that this might turn out to be useful, so at least SOMEBODY understands that our needs are different. Oh, and thanks for the cream. It’s nice that I have friends and relatives I can call stateside, and they do help relieve some of the stress and personal issues I face, but for official business, it would be SO nice to have someone within the PC to whom I could just chat, express concerns about my 62nd birthday next year and what that will mean for me Social Security/tax-wise, just everyday life “stuff.”

I LOVE the Peace Corps. Every day I am GRATEFUL that I asked and they accepted my request to join, and each day I wake up in my ancestral home, Madagascar, I have to fight back the tears, that I’m REALLY here!!! Oh, this is a magical place. But it’s not perfect and perhaps I can work within the Peace Corps to ensure that they can attract and KEEP more mature Volunteers because our worldview is so much more complete, so much more flavorful, and so much more interesting than most of the younger PCVs. We are a vastly untapped resource and I hope the Peace Corps can take advantage of this while we still can.  The magic that is Madagascar and the magic that is the Peace Corps — by taking advantage of the innate respect afforded one my age by the local culture, there is so much MORE I could be doing, so many more lives I could touch — Oh, the synergy we could create.

Yes, I’m isolated, but at the same time, I’m loving every minute, too. I especially look forward to Sunday evenings because that’s when I get to talk with my daughter. It’s early Sunday morning in California, and she’s always home then, so we get to catch up in our weekly chat. If my son is answering his phone that early in the morning (not a guarantee), I get to talk with him, too, but he’s not really an early bird. When I think about the fact that I won’t see them for at least two more years, these regular weekly phone calls make it seem like when I was still living in the States, I’d chat with each of them about the same amount of time, so having free wifi available so I can make free wifi calls is HEAVEN.

I’m also working with a local computer center sponsored by the U.S.Embassy, called the “American Corner of Mahajanga,” located at a local high school, and I’m working with the director to upgrade the Windows software, replace the awful French keyboards with American/British keyboards, get a working networkable laser printer and some ergonomic monitor stands. Once I get a working printer there, I’ll be able to print out pictures of local/national/international black historical figures to share with my classes, figuring the more positive role models they see that look like them, the better. Everybody knows Obama, but not everyone knows George Washington Carver, Bessie Coleman, Billie Holliday or my future husband, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, to name a few. And those are just famous black Americans. There are famous blacks in history from almost every continent and I’m looking forward to sharing their stories in future lessons.  One great thing about being able to create my own curriculum is that I get to choose what images they see and black kids need to understand black history around the world. This is gonna be great.

So, that’s it for this week. I hope to update my blog every Sunday, again, based around the time I’m at one Mahajanga restaurant or another using their free wifi. Sadly, I had to scratch Bim Bam Burger off my list. Their food just wasn’t very good anymore (don’t know WHAT happened), the portion sizes kept shrinking and worse, their wifi got so unreliable that it wasn’t usable. It was a nice thing while it lasted, a vegan burger joint, but it is a franchise and perhaps the owner was bound to follow the company line, and the food suffered as a result. Sniff, sniff, Bim Bam.

“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”

Happy Birthday to My Wonderful Son

23 years ago, I gave birth (in under one hour) to the world’s most wonderful baby boy, David Pitts. I’m 11,000 miles away from him today, but I think about him all the time and hope and pray that his life is happy, healthy, prosperous and successful.

I’m sitting outside the closed “La Gastronomie Pizza” and using their wifi (thanks for leaving it on 24/7), since I don’t have wifi at home. Just a quick note sending love and gratitude for being the best son, ever. I hope he doesn’t hate me for sharing some of these old photos.

Blindsided By Serendipity

BLINDSIDED BY SERENDIPITY

3 September 2017 (Sunday)

This is the last Sunday we’ll spend in Mantasoa as Trainees, and unlike other Sundays when we were still living with our host families and had no access to wifi, on this Sunday, we’re all living at the PCTC and have unlimited access to wifi, to the extent that the limited bandwidth here will bear. It’s such a nice feeling to be able to get up and make a wifi phone call back to the States to talk with one of my kids or download some software updates I’ve been wanting to do for months, or just peruse the news online. And I had every intention of just staying in today, studying Malagasy since I have to re-take my final LPI exam (because I obviously did so well when I took it the first time, last week, right?), maybe take a canoe out on Lac Mantasoa again — just a lazy, do whatever I feel like day. My fellow Trainees had a bang-up party last night which I didn’t attend (though I was repeatedly invited) so when I got up this morning and went to breakfast, there were fewer than five of us in the cafeteria. Today’s breakfast was beef sausage, pork sausage, scrambled eggs, pancakes and fresh pineapple juice. With so few people actually eating, there was a ton of leftover food, so I took the opportunity to sneak a few pieces of sausage out of the cafeteria with the plan to walk down to town to find my beloved Milo (pronounced me-LOO) aka “Lady Spot,” and take advantage of this last opportunity to feed her before we leave Mantasoa for site this coming Wednesday morning. She is the most delightful dog and though we’re not sure who owns her or where she lives (she’s always just “there” all over town), whenever she sees me, she quite literally jumps for joy because she knows Mama Leeza has probably got a treat for her.

My plan was to go down into town to find Milo and give her some sausage, then walk about another mile further to Masombahiny and give Oni (OO-nee), my host family’s eldest daughter, 5,000AR toward her trip to come visit me in Mahajanga later this year. Milo was the easy part. The hard part was that I didn’t want to go all the way to my host family’s home because I’m still struggling with my feelings toward my host mom, Clarise, and I just didn’t want to see her. In my last post, I mentioned how awkward it was to have to refer to her as my “mom” though I’m old enough to be her mom, and Lord only knows that she’s not the best cook, and the way she allows her youngest daughter to manipulate the entire family has been a constant sore spot for me during the months I lived with them.  But the biggest problem I have had with my relationship with Clarise was that I felt that I meant little more to her than just a cash cow — a means to an end — an easy source of free money from the Peace Corps with few strings attached. Though she’s a fine person, a loving mother, an absolutely gorgeous woman, and kind and generous, she and I were just never able to form a real connection. Efa izy zay, Malagasy for “it is what it is.”

Walking down the hill to Montasoa, I stopped at a small store (they’re called epiceries) and purchased two mofo paina (MOO-foo PYE-nuh), which are just French bread baguettes so I could do one of my favorite things, feed the ganagana (GAHN-uh-GAHN-un) (ducks), and akoho (ah-KOO-hoo) (chickens) who live at or next to my host family. They know that when they see me coming, so is some food, and they always come running the minute they see me. I’m gonna miss this when I move to Mahajanga. Trainee Brendan lives next door to the woman from whom I’ve been buying my mofo baolina (MOO-foo BOL), which are these amazing fried bread balls, and as I got closer I saw Lady Spot resting on her side in front of Brendan’s house. Like always, when she saw me, she jumped up (I mean, she actually jumps for joy when she sees me … it’s hilarious) and ran to me to get both a snack and some mommy love (“Who’s a good girl?  Who’s a good puppy?”). I know that I must be careful feeding her, or any dog, publicly in Madagascar because people who are themselves starving take exception when animals are given food they think should have gone to feed a human. So I just continued to walk knowing she’d follow close behind and once we walked past the basketball courts and I sat down underneath a tree facing the stream and she feasted on the pork sausage I’d smuggled out of the cafeteria.  She’s such a great dog and after her recent disappearing act, where she simply vanished for 10 days (I literally thought she was dead) and magically reappeared in front of my eyes when she walked through a gate across the street from my host family’s home (soaking wet though it was dry and sunny outside), I wanted to make sure that this last free day I had in Mantasoa, she was treated with an extra special treat and lots of Mama Leeza hugs and petting. I knew, however, that once the treats were gone and it was time for me to walk to my most family’s home, Milo was going to follow me no matter how many times I yelled, “Allez” (French), which in her mind means “Act like you’re really going to go away then wait until she’s far enough ahead and then start following her again.” As I walked through the rice fields toward Masombahiny, there was Milo, at first hanging back trying to pretend she wasn’t following me, but by the time I was halfway there, she was right behind me again. It was useless to shoo her away, so I just kept walking ignoring her. The main reason why I didn’t want her to follow me is that I know that my host mom doesn’t like dogs and really doesn’t want Milo at her home for fear that she’ll attack one of the chickens or ducks, but the dogs here never seem to even notice cats, much less ducks or chickens.

When I got to my host family’s home, I walked into the front yard and closed the gate behind me and yelled, “Allez” again, still knowing that Milo would not follow my instructions but trying to look the part in case someone was watching. Then, as I walked around the side of the house to the backyard, I pulled out the first loaf of French bread and when the ducks and chickens saw me they came rushing toward me, like always. They are so used to me that they jump up to peck the bread while it’s still in my hand, so I just tear the loaf in half, one half in each hand, and point the halves toward the ground making it easier for the chicken and ducks to have their way, taking as much as they want. It’s SO cool and since this last chance I had to do this, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. When I got to the back door, my host dad was just on his way inside and he smiled when he saw me. I walked inside and saw Oni, Nomena and Fahasoavana cleaning the kitchen so I walked into the kitchen and while her father looked on, I gave Oni 7,000 AR and told her that this would be enough to get her to Tana on a taxi-brousse and that I’d meet her in Tana and take her back to Mahajanga with me, sometime in the coming months, but definitely before the end of the year.

The trip from Mantasoa to Tana takes about 3 hours and costs 5,000 AR (about $1.50 U.S.) and I’d originally planned to tell her that she’d have to come up with the 5,000 AR herself and I’d reimburse her once she got to Tana. But once I thought about it, I decided it was more important to give her the money up front, so she’d have tangible evidence that I was not going to forget her and that I was serious about my intention to bring her to Mahajanga to visit me. If she spends the money on something else between now and then, that’s her choice and she’ll blow her chance to visit a part of the country she’ll probably not ever get to see. I have faith in her, though, and I expect that when I contact her, that money will be still tucked safely away and she’ll be able to meet me in Tana.

That done, it was time to leave and once I got back outside, Clarise (host mom) came back with the youngest daughter, Edena, in tow. I chatted with her, briefly about the “ganagana kely,” the little baby ducklings who have a habit of disappearing with their mother and not returning for a day or two later — just our normal chit chat — and as I turned to leave, I don’t know why, but I walked over to Clarise and hugged her. Remember, she and I weren’t close because I couldn’t figure out how to relate to a woman young enough to be my child who was supposed to be acting as my surrogate mother.

So, I hugged her. And as I held her, I felt her start to shake. And then I realized she was crying. And the longer I held her, the more she cried.

And she cried — and cried.

As I held her, I stroked her back, I brushed the back of her head with my hand and I whispered to her, “It’s okay, my darling. It’s okay.”  And for the first time, after months of awkwardness, for the first time I realized that the moniker SHE had given me, “Mama Leeza,” was because SHE needed a mom, since her mother died long ago.

And then it made sense.

What you must understand is that the Malagasy people don’t really cry. Expressing emotion is something they don’t really do, preferring to be stoic, even during childbirth, from what I’ve been told, they keep strong emotions in check. They’ll laugh, of course, but tears? No, except for extreme circumstances (perhaps a death, for example) but saying goodbye to a loved one? No. It’s just not done.

Clarise was crying. There. Outside in her backyard. In front of her husband and in front of all four of her daughters. She was breaking all the rules, and it dawned on me that it must have been years since an older woman had held her like that, and years of missing her own mother came rushing out to me, Mama Leeza, the woman who had been assigned to her by the Peace Corps.

And though I had to fight back the tears, I KNEW I had to be strong for her at that moment. She needed to be able to cry and she needed me to be there to hold her, to allow her that moment.  That magical moment of utter vulnerability. She shared this with me.  Me.

When I let her go and she started to wipe her face, I knew it was best for me to leave quickly, and I did. The chicken, ducks and Milo (who’d snuck in during all of this) followed me out to the road and Milo and I walked back toward the PCTC, while I contemplated what had just happened to me and what it all meant.

In my last post I talked about the Magic of Madagascar and how, if you’re open to it, you can see magic around every corner. And then I walked to Masombahiny and found that the place where I’d been living for nearly three months had its own magic but I’d been blind to it — until now. If only I could tell this story to my language instructor in Malagasy. If only I had the skills. Perhaps, if I try to simplify this story to the bare basics, I can translate it so that the sentence structure is sound and I can choose words that don’t have TOO many syllables (yeah, good luck with THAT).

But I can’t help thinking “what if.” What if I’d known what my presence there meant to my host family? Could I have even have processed it with all the other things I was juggling at the time? The Peace Corps schedule was BRUTAL, and half the time, I didn’t know if I was coming or going, and had Clarise been able to communicate to me that she needed a mother figure more than I did, would I have been able to have done anything about it? I don’t think so, and I wish that wasn’t the case, but I was already overwhelmed just trying to get through all the language lessons, teaching lessons, lesson plans, site visit and just getting used to all things Malagasy.  But I know now. And though she and I didn’t connect like I did with some of the moms who are closer to my age, that magical moment I shared with her, crying in my arms like she was my own child — that moment I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Magic. Sheer magic.

“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”

The Unique Challenges of a 60-Something Peace Corps Volunteer

 The Unique Challenges of a 60-Something Peace Corps Volunteer

The Peace Corps is a simply wonderful idea, born at a time when the U.S. was struggling with its own internal problems, yet somehow the powers that be decided that it was time for us to reach out and spread the message of peace and international friendship around the world. And through all these past 56 years, through a few bumps and scrapes, hundreds of thousands of amazing American citizens have stepped up and volunteered years of their lives to spread this message in dozens of countries where we’ve been asked to come and provide assistance. We have done this by helping to educate children and adults, to provide basic medical needs and training, improved agricultural practices and helped businesses grow and thrive. And no, the Peace Corps isn’t perfect, but I challenge you to find another program that has done as much good as the Peace Corps has done, for as long, in so many places, and with as many tangible positive results as the Peace Corps.

I LOVE the Peace Corps, and even when I’m at my lowest, struggling to complete four separate group homework assignments, each with a different group of Trainees (who live miles apart from one another), or I keep making up Malagasy words (such as “mieraka” which is a combination between reraka and miaraka) and no matter how hard I try, I’m find it hard to FORGET this non-word, driving my LCF (Language and Cross-Culture Facilitator), Andry, to distraction (sorry, Andry), or I’m eating peas and rice for the FOURTH time this week (grrrrr), no matter how hard things may seem at the moment, I must never forget that THIS is my life’s dream. THIS is what I’ve been waiting for. THIS is what I signed up for. And I wouldn’t trade THIS for anything.

Okay, that all said, now that I’m back living at the PCTC (Peace Corps Training Center) again and PST (Pre Service Training) is almost done, I can take the time to reflect on what the past three months (seems more like three years) have meant to me and changes I would have made had I had the power to do so.

As an older Trainee, soon to be Volunteer (we become “Volunteers” once we’re sworn-in on September 8th), my experience is different than most of the other Trainees in some pretty significant ways. Of the 30 of us, only one other Trainee is my age (she’s one year older than me), but she and I have almost nothing in common and though we’re cordial, she tends to keep to herself and I’ve been unable to form any real bond with her. I look 60, and I carry 60 years of experiences and memories with me, but I don’t feel 60 if that makes any sense. What I mean by that is that I don’t think of my life in terms of limits, I never have. I don’t think about what I cannot do, what I shouldn’t do because of my age, but rather, I live my life based solely on what I haven’t done yet, and I thought this would gel quite nicely with the Peace Corps ethos. And it has, but only to a point.

Lemme ‘splain. When we were paired with our host families, I have no idea what criteria were used to decide which Trainee went with which family, but in my case, I was placed in a home where both the mother and father are younger than my own daughter, yet I was to refer to them as “nene” (neh-neh) and “dada,” mom and dad, which was ALWAYS weird for me. They were the nicest people, absolutely wonderfully loving, supportive, patient and kind, but because she just hasn’t lived long enough to experience many of the things older women experience, when I needed someone to understand what I was going through, I couldn’t talk to her (even if I’d been able to cobble together a fairly decent Malagasy-language conversation). Conversely, I did bond with three of the moms of some of the other Volunteers — all women about my age, and I couldn’t help thinking how different my experience might have been had the Peace Corps placed me with a mature host family. Women who have actually lived — Women who have all raised their kids years ago — women who have had to struggle to overcome challenges and made it through the other side — women who, with just a look and neither uttering a word, we each know what the other is thinking. THIS would have been so helpful to me and the whole relationship would have made more sense.

In my household, my “parents” were each 38, and my sisters were 19, 10, four and two.

I’m 60. The dynamics of the relationships in my host family were always awkward because I could never imagine having a two-year-old sister or parents younger than my own daughter. However, had I been placed with an older family, even if my “parents” were my age or only slightly older, it would have felt like a better logical fit and I imagine we would have all bonded as a real family — something that didn’t happen with my own host family, despite our attempts to force a fit. At our last dinner together, my nene made a point to tell me that I’ll always be family to them and that if either of my kids wants to visit Madagascar they can stay with her, and no matter how far I go, I’ll still be family. But as much as I appreciate her sentiment and kind words, it still just never “felt” like family.

Conversely, at the Peace Corps sponsored “Thank You Host Family” event on Friday, I sat with my host family through the speeches, even had the delightful four-year-old Fahasoavana sitting on my lap (I adore her), but once the speeches were done, I preferred the company of the older moms, those three with whom I’d formed a real connection during the months I was living in Mantasoa, not because they’re better or anything, but simply because we just had more in common and I felt a real kinship with them. And in each case, as it was time to say goodbye to them, each one hugged me and said, “Don’t forget me.”

Oh.

Fighting back the tears.

Don’t forget me — this same mantra has been the basis of my life’s work, genealogy, where I’ve spent decades trying to find and tell the stories of ancestors long passed simply so that they wouldn’t be forgotten. When each mom told me this, it was like a small electrical shock. Forget you? No. I could never, will never forget you.

When it was time for my own family to leave, quite honestly, I felt no sadness about their leaving. They’re very nice people, but, as I said, the connection, the dynamics, the calculus of our relationship just never connected, so it was like saying goodbye to some kind strangers with whom I’d shared a brief bit of time.

Quite honestly, I felt nothing.

And then, Oni, the eldest daughter (and quite brilliant, I might add) came up to me, and in her broken English said, “Mama Leeza. Don’t forget me. You’re like my grandmother. Don’t forget me.”

WHA??? Grandmother? Oni felt that I’m like her grandmother?

My first thought was, OF COURSE! It makes sense that I’d be a grandmother to a 19-year-old. This is a pseudo relationship that actually makes sense, and as I stood there, in utter shock, thinking she was just another of those nice strangers to whom I just referred, from her vantage point, I was filling a void in her life to which I’d been blind, because I was too busy just handling all the Peace Corps stuff.

I had to fight back the tears, afraid that if I started crying I’d never stop. So I held her… and I held her… and I held her. I told her I could never forget her and I pulled back her hair and kissed her cheek and, with tears in my eyes, told her that she must come to Mahajanga to visit me. Yes, she can be my granddaughter. Yes, I welcome this granddaughter. Yes, this relationship makes sense and this relationship is one I want to keep.

“But Mahajanga isn’t free.” No, my dear, it’s not free. I’ll pay your way to come visit me in Mahajanga, don’t worry about that. And perhaps, once you spend a few days in Mahajanga, maybe your whole perspective on life will expand. Though you’ve told me that all you really want to do in life is to farm rice, maybe once you spend some time in this large, magical city on the West Coast, maybe you’ll dream different dreams. Maybe you’ll realize that with your brilliant mind and your amazing awareness at such a young age, maybe you’ll realize that you have potential far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Maybe, Oni, just maybe you’ll start to see that your life doesn’t have to be defined by limits other would impose upon you. Perhaps, darling girl, you’ll look back and see that, all this time, you’ve been wearing a fabulous pair of wings and that the world looks so much better from above. Maybe the sky’s the limit for you, Oni.

Maybe.

And in that instance, “Mama Leeza” became “Gramma Leeza.” There’s magic around every corner in the Peace Corps — as long as we allow ourselves to experience it.

Magic. Sheer magic.

 

“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”