Why I Love Madagascar SO Darned Much

15 March 2018

I often say “Madagascar is the place where magic is born” and I think that for a variety of reasons. First would be the people, the amazing Malagasy people.

All you gotta do is pull out a camera, and all the hams run to have their pictures taken. These crazy kids… love ’em all.

Per oral history that has been passed down in my family for at least seven generations, my LEE side originated in Madagascar, though I have no idea where exactly or the tribe or even the region. This story has been so prevalent all my life that, when I decided to give up my hustle-bustle life of I.T. in the San Francisco Bay Area to live a simpler life, Madagascar was at the top of my list. I had no idea how I’d make it happen, but I just knew it was where I was meant to be. When I discovered that the Peace Corps had some openings there and that I’d been dreaming of serving with the Peace Corps ever since I was eight years old, I knew that all the decisions I’d made in my life up to that point had led me to Madagascar.

THE PEOPLE – This country was formerly enslaved (officially colonized, but what’s the difference?) by the French and though the Malagasy reached their independence in 1960 (after many years of fighting for it), and though there are lots of remnants of their French history, the indigenous Malagasy culture not only survived but is as strong and vibrant as ever. There are 18 distinct Malagasy tribes and each with its own dialect, in addition to Malagasy Official. I happen to live in the Boeny region and speak (haltingly) the Sakalava Boeny dialect. The differences between dialects can be light night and day, with many native Malagasy even unable to understand another Malagasy who speaks a particular dialect with which they’re not familiar. Add to that the regional dialects, such as where I live, in Mahajanga, and there are words spoken only in Mahajanga that are not an official part of the Sakalava Boeny dialect.

Each child that attends school in Madagascar has to learn at least THREE languages: Malagasy official, French, and English, plus they may also be formally taught their local dialect, making a whopping four languages to learn. In addition, throughout their school career, they have to take a total of three state-sponsored exams, one after 5th grade, one after 9th grade, and the final one after they complete 12th grade. Failure of any of these exams means the child cannot progress to the next level, and failure of the final one, the Baccalaureate exam, means the student cannot attend any college in Madagascar. The “Bacc,” as it is called, is administered only once per year, and I met a man who’d taken it seven times, but finally passed it. By then, he was 26 years old but delighted that he could FINALLY begin college. However, because of Madagascar’s poverty and poor ranking in the world community, the lack of available jobs means that even with a college degree, many graduates still cannot find a job or find one in their field. Despite all that, they just keep striving, keep pushing to better themselves, and this is something I find so refreshing.

Case in point, in Mahajanga, a tourist destination because of our location on the Western coast and because it’s just the best place in Madagascar, period, jobs are still a problem. But that doesn’t stop enterprising people from creating their own jobs and just getting a large lawn umbrella or a tarp and setting up shop. Two of my favorite bike shops are run by guys underneath a large umbrella on the side of the main road, and though I was a bit leery at first, because of the somewhat high-end bike the Peace Corps provided me, they had no problem fixing it and they made me feel right at home as I stood by and watched them do their work. In another instance, though we only have about three months of rains each year, umbrellas are used year round because the average temperature year round is between 85-90 degrees, so keeping the sun off of you is truly a thing. In the States, if you bend or break your umbrella, what do you do? If it’s a treasured umbrella with which you cannot be parted, you stick it in your umbrella stand or where you store your other umbrellas, and it stays there, forever, and forever broken. Or if it’s a crap umbrella that you care nothing for, you toss it and buy a new one. The majority of the people of Madagascar are poor, so throwing away a bent or broken umbrella isn’t really a thing. What IS a thing, however, is roadside umbrella repair guys, who,

Umbrella repair men, next to a bank, in the Mahabibo district of Mahajanga.

like the bike guys, set up on the side of the road, next to a bank, or other busy places, and start repairing the umbrellas of passers-by. It makes SO much sense, and for a pittance, your busted umbrella is as good as, or better than new. Same goes for shoe repair. Cheap, fast and good quality repairs.

And electronics are the same way. Busted phone? Squirrely computer? Sluggish tablet? The electronic guys are everywhere, but I found a couple of guys whom I actually adore, and they’re located in the Mahabibo area of Mahajanga, along the main road where there are lots of other electronics to be bought, sold or repaired. The ingenuity of the people is what I think I respect the most. Our public buses are actually like 15-passenger vans that have been refitted to seat at least 30 people. There are probably about 15 different routes around the city, each with a sign in the window stating the route number and a list of the townships and areas it visits on its route. Fitting that many people into a van designed for half that number means only one thing — tight fit. Once the seats on each side of the aisle are full, a wooden board is placed across the aisle at each row, and a fifth person sits in that row, often having to sit on one hip, sideways, because there just isn’t any more room. Nobody seems to mind, either. No “You’re in my personal space” or anything you’d expect to hear in other countries, here, we’re gonna be real close here for a while. I’ll try not to cough on you.

The vans themselves, most of which would not be considered roadworthy in the West, many are being held together with rubber bands and chewing gum. Missing windows, doors that won’t lock or even stay closed, tiny seats with no legroom, holes in the floor so you can see the road below, and no ignition, so they’re hot-wired to start. How do they keep these OLD Mercedes Benz clunkers running? That Malagasy ingenuity. If a part if no longer available, they’ll just make a new one. May not look very pretty, but it will get the job done. There is a car repair yard near my house that I pass all the time, usually several times per day. Recently, they had one of the Number Nine vans (they’re called taxibes, “taxi-BAYS”) in the yard and they stripped it down to almost just the frame. Over the course of 2-3 weeks, they rebuilt that van, put in new seats, new interior, and exterior paint, newly painted rims … it looked like it had just been driven off the lot. Once the rebuild was done, it was pushed (or maybe driven) about two blocks down to another shop for a new engine and/or transmission. And because everything is so cheap here, this old, rusted, busted up taxibe due for the junk yard, was given new life and will probably run at least another decade. I find this utterly fascinating and resourceful, something we could all learn from.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I will continue to post about the people I encounter, the places I explore and the experiences I have teaching the incredible children of Madagascar.

My 6th graders, all 13 of them. My favorite class.

“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


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.”