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aiza ny kabone?

amber's in madagascar for 27 months

I have mentioned this before, but, I do many things in this country that are really strange and sometimes I don’t even realize it.  I know you are thinking, well Amber, you were already pretty strange.  Well this is taking it to the next level (I think):

Conversation between myself and another volunteer who happened to be passing through. We went to get coffee.

Me: So what did you do this week?

Her: Oh man! I went to a fety (celebration or party) and got kind of drunk and killed a chicken all the way through.  I mean I sliced the neck, plucked it, gutted it, gave out the entrails to the kids, butchered it and then cooked it.

Me:  That is pretty awesome, I have a hard time with the neck cutting, actual slaughter part.  The gutting and cleaning is easy enough.

Savanna:  Yeah, but I think it will go better next time that I do it.

Me:  Why?  You will have a sharper knife? (Note to readers: knives in this country are not awesome)

Her:  No, I won’t be drunk next time.  My knife was plenty sharp, it was like a really jagged sharp butter knife.

Me: Oh yeah man no problem there.  (No sarcasm was used)

I don’t know if this conversation is PETA friendly or if it even makes sense.  However immediately after the story we both looked at each other and asked each other what had happened to us?!

Other strange things in my life this week:  my French tutor speaks English, French and Malagasy, all well.  She is Malagasy, has studied in France and lived somewhere in Europe for a year where the common language with her coworkers was English but it was not the UK.  We never use English in the classroom. I will admit we do sometimes use it.  The weird part I think is when I ask her questions, but in Malagasy.  I ask her how to translate from Malagasy instead of from English.  Savanna (the girl I study with) and I are not doing this on purpose, we are just confused by English now.

The last strange thing was today when the guy I work in the office with, Nirina, sang along in the car to the guitar only version of Jimi Hendrix playing Little Wing.  Legit.  (Also, he is already pretty into heavy metal but also Clapton, knows Layla, like the Stones, loves him some Jimi, but I am also getting him into all things Jack White, OCMS, The Black Keys, St Vincent, Bon Iver and other realllllly random songs and artists.  He also really likes Simon and Garfunkel.  We are a good match for coworkers)


For this post I will be pulling material from Peace Corps and that will be in quotations. Basically I am doing this because they explain it better than I can:

“On April 25th the entire planet will be marking World Malaria Day by giving donations and raising awareness about this disease, but for Peace Corps, one day just isn’t gonna cut it. So we hereby proclaim April to be Peace Corps’ Malaria Month.”

So far the few things I have been able to do are BAMM related things, or “Blog About Malaria Month.”  I have been blasting people with messages, making my banner a big obnoxious ad for Stomp and so forth.  Last Saturday with my Tea & Talk club I led my first malaria discussion.  I am an education volunteer so my knowledge of malaria was very limited to what I needed to know personally to prevent and identify malaria with myself.  In order to get ready for the meeting that day I drowned in an electronic pile of google documents that exists just for this purpose.  It is an amazing resource available to PCVs in my region (Africa…) on malaria.  For example, I learned that 98% of world wide cases of malaria come from Africa.  In addition, diarrhea and malaria are the two biggest killers of children under five here, and they are both preventable and treatable.  (I hope that I am remembering these statistics correctly, if they are wrong I am sorry).

I was not at all confident that my lesson would go over well.  I took a basic lesson plan from volunteers in Rwanda and I titled it “Malaria and Madagascar.” Deep.  The basic plan was that I typed up a list of facts and myths about malaria and cut them out and handed them out to the students.  They had to think about it and then write on the whiteboard if their piece of paper was fact or fiction.  For the most part they did well, we had problems when it came to mangoes (they do not cause malaria, and this is a common myth that even my university student friends believe) as well as the symptoms of malaria (the cyclical nature that can happen with them was unclear as well).

When we discussed preventative techniques (bed nets, removing still water, creative planting, etc) neem was brought up.  (Google neem now if you want).  They all knew that it was helpful in preventing malaria but were not completely sure how.  I happen to have a cork board in the Peace Corps house with tons of information on neem cream and malaria month up and we talked about making neem cream, which is a homemade mosquito repellent.  One student became especially excited because he thought 1) there are a ton of these trees where I live; 2)  let’s make it because that would be fun and do demonstrations in the communities in Fianarantsoa where the tree grows.  At the moment he is gathering and photocopying information I gave him, meeting with local community members and organizing demonstrations that we will lead.  I hope that we can get this organized so we can show people how to make the cream (really easy) and talk to people about other ways they can also help to prevent malaria.

I will keep you posted on the neem demonstrations, but in the meantime:

“In 2011, Peace Corps Madagascar joined together with all of the other Peace Corps Africa countries to commit to Stomp Out Malaria in Africa in our lifetime.  Malaria is still causing many unnecessary deaths in Madagascar.  There are over 3000 volunteers across the continent who, just like me, are working to bring this number to zero.  World Malaria Day, April 25, is quickly approaching. In my town we will be marking the day by teaching people how to make neem cream.  What will you do in 2012 to help end malaria?”

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Things happen now that I don’t find strange.  When I sit and think about it though I realize that I should find them strange.  Sitting around with my friends I say oh that is just like how it is in America, I am worried that it is not at all like America and I will be really freaked out in about 6 months. Because I should be home in about 6 months.

I have been on a few trips since I last posted so I will tell you about them.

1) Antsirabe (halfway between me and Tana)

Paco Taco!

I went to Antsirabe to the local volunteer meeting (VAC) there. I went to represent as PCVL as well as present a few items I needed to talk about with the PCVs in that area.  Nothing too terribly exciting happened, I mean Brianna and Shayla did buy a puppy outside of the grocery store for 2,000 Ariary (~$1) and we snuck it into our hotel.  We happened to have been staying on the top floor with a giant communal balcony and the maids almost immediately figured it all out.  But no worries, we made a collar/leash deal out of rope and bought flea shampoo and medicine and he was snuggle ready in no time.  We fed him bottled water and meatballs.  Brianna’s site mate is now his daddy

2) Farafangana (the south east)

Again I went to a VAC meeting but this time south of me to another part of the region. While I wanted to stay just two days, I ended up there much longer.  Why you ask?  Oh a cyclone that was all the way at the top of the country decided to bounce of the Mozambique Channel and come back for more.  So the house I was staying at had the entire yard flood to the top of the back steps (higher than my knees).  For a few days in a row I waded through town to get to the brousse station to figure out if any cars were making it through the road and each time I was told that no, the road is flooded/washed away, but tomorrow we should be able to go.  Finally, on a Tuesday the brousse guy came and pounded on the door at 6 am and said “hey let’s go, hurry up” (but in Malagasy) and I shook everyone awake and we all packed and hoofed it to the station. So we waited there for about two hours but at least we got to eat breakfast.  We filled up a brousse and then about 15k from the town we attempted to drive through the river.  The engine stalled so everyone pushed it back to land, we meandered for a bit then everyone around got it together and we all pushed the brousse through the river.  It was very close to tipping and washing away at one point but we made it across and everyone’s things were okay and no one drowned.

getting ready to ford

Then I had to wait in Manakara to make it the rest of the way home because there were massive landslides on that road.  I spent the night in Manakara and then found a brousse the next day, and there were indeed landslides, and we all had to get out of the car at one point so the brousse could drive behind a bulldozer to get across.  Between this things happening combined with the things that are part of our lives here (malaria, kabones, dysentery, etc etc etc) I am glad I played Oregon Trail as a 4th grader.

the road we needed to cross, days after it was "cleared"

3)  Anja Park, Ambalavao

Went on a day trip with Tea and Talk (the English club) to Anja Park (the one by my old house with all the ring tailed lemurs).  It was about the 9th time I had been there and the hike and experience was fun as usual.  Then on the way back about 24k from Fianarantsoa, our brousse ran out of gas.  So I had the pleasure of spending 3.5 hours in a random cluster of houses and epiceries while our driver hitched a ride into town with an empty oil container to get gas and come back.

4) Vatovavy Fito Vinany (the south east)

The most recent trip that I just returned from was a trip to Mananjary and Nosy Varika.  This was a trip in a nice Peace Corps 4×4 and I went to do site development, safety and security evaluations and help find houses for the incoming volunteers.  The pictures are online.   On the way there we got stuck waiting on that same road with landslides for the construction crews to go to lunch, so we befriended a random pineapple seller in the middle of no where and hung out with him for a while.  He claimed that pineapple juice can help heal stings from bees and what have you… But the best part was going to Nosy Varika (literally translates to Lemur Island but I didn’t see any lemurs there).   There is already a business volunteer there so we went to help develop the site for an environment volunteer. We got to rent out and take a speed boat up the Pangalanes Canal from Mananjary to Nosy Varika.  (a good map can be found here  It was awesome to be on the boat and see all the villages, fishermen, fruits, trees and just general ambiance.  I went to a lot of other places too on the trip and did a lot of work but it probably is not that interesting.


The best part of going to the coast was the seafood and sun, for sure.  I got to eat fish, shrimp, crab and lobster.  Actually I haven’t eaten the lobster yet, those babies are in the freezer right now obtained for the bargain price of 8,000 Ariary a kilo.  (That is really cheap, it is about the same price as beef here). I also got baskets of passion fruit (there is a completely different kind that grows on the coast than here), breadfruit (similar to potatoes or cassava), jackfruit (apparently tastes like green tropical starbursts but I haven’t eaten it yet), custard fruit (tastes like yogurt, so good), oranges, bananas, coconuts and some other fruits that I don’t know what they are in English…

cows crossing the canal

Pictures are online on my picasa site.  I have been lucky enough to get cameras to borrow from other PCVs so I am surviving without one for the time being.

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my chicken

Hey so first of all my camera was stolen so pictures will be few and far in between until I figure something out. To be clear DO NOT MAIL a camera. I am 117% sure it would be stolen. In the meantime you can enjoy some chicken murder photos.  I received the chicken pictured above as a Happy New Year gift from the staff at the house/compound where I live.  I fattened it for a week.  That chicken was good I ate it on tortillas. To be clear, you may mail tortillas. But after my last post I went on the site visits I had mentioned. It was a really great trip – I got to see sites that I would never have gone to (either because I didn’t really know the volunteer or the road was just miserable). I learned some interesting things about other PC sites and people during my trip. For example, the PC staff member I went on the trip went is really awesome at making cheese, and some volunteers are interesting in creating some sort of AA in their communities (alcohol is a huge problem here). Another volunteer wants to start an income generating cheese production organization and another volunteer is about to be in a documentary with the silk organization she works with. The trip was really interesting to see how so many volunteers’ sites within such a small section of Madagascar are so different.

But the fun riding around in a fancy 4×4 NGO car eating homemade cookies is over, and I am back in Fianarantsoa (where people steal my nice old camera). Back in Fianar when I am not doing work I watch movies with people who are in town. Another lady vol was in town and we watched a terrible chick flick and it was just awful. The reason I bring it up though is because the movie had so many “American” things in it and it freaked us out a little bit. We also gained a bit of perspective into why so many people think we are all rich fancy folks though. Nothing else is going on really. I am starting to work more at my new site and am currently planning a conference with another volunteer about, you know, casual stuff, like HIV/AIDS, health, the environment, life skills and how to teach this to students (and the people we will teach are teachers and we should probably use Malagasy). So I am not stressed at all. Next Tuesday I start private French lessons and that will actually be stress free and hilarious.

A few more random thoughts. First, there is this whole Ryan Gosling tumblr meme that I don’t quite understand the origins of because I live in Madagascar. But as someone who studied international development and lives in this country I really like because I do understand the jokes. For example, the January 21st post I appreciate because I have been connecting different volunteers recently who have talked to me about getting more information on starting VLSs in their communities. Man they all make me laugh. Second, I will get around to updating photos in a few days so stick around. Third, would anyone be angry if I came back to the states for a month or two then bounced to Asia? Thoughts?

apple crumble

Last, and most importantly, APPLES, PINEAPPLES, PEARS, AVOCADOS, PERSIMMONS, PLUMS, GRAPES, PEACHES are all in season or starting to be. I am lamenting the loss of lychees and mangoes though, my last season with them.

Traveling in this country is slow and painful. I went on Christmas vacation to Diego-Suarez, or Antsiranana is the Malagasy name. From my new house in Fianarantsoa, Diego is 1500 kilometers north. To get to Diego took roughly 34 hours total, one way. So the math – our average speed was about 44 kilometers an hour. One kilometer is about .62 miles. So, in American speak we went about 27 miles an hour. Also because I was sitting on the right side of the taxi brousse for one big chunk of the trip I managed to get sunburned. We stopped at Anakarana National Park which has tsingy, limestone rock formations (see the pictures online for comprehension) that are really awesome and expansive. In Diego they speak a different dialect of course, so we studied the major changes in basic conversation so we could be the vazahas that spoke the local Malagasy and not the dialect from the south. Volunteers who live around there advised us strongly to not speak the official dialect as it may anger some local folks.

Overall I think I like Mahajanga (where I went with Brianna last vacation) much better than Diego because it has most of the things that I like about Diego but it is more geared towards Malagasy tourists and people than to the rich foreigners. But Diego did have more than its fair share of fish, coconuts, plates of fragrant rice WITHOUT rocks, coconut fish/chicken, crabs, pools and beaches.

My new job. This explanation is mostly up for Jane so feel free to skip but here it is so you can understand what I am doing with the rest of my time here. I find it difficult to explain to non Peace Corps people so bear with me. I used to live in Ambalavao, 56 kilometers south of Fianarantsoa. I went to Fianar from time to time to use the bank, go to the PC house to use internet and shower and so on. I worked at the high school in Ambalavao. The job I have now is the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL). I now live in that PC house in Fianar (which means hot showers almost whenever I want that come from a hose and not a bucket). A part of my time is now spent still doing TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) activities. For example I work with a conversational English club with university students and I also have workshops with local high school English teachers. The other part of my time is spent doing peer support for volunteers. So volunteers can come to me for help on projects or with issues at site or I go to volunteers’ sites to see how life is going. For example, I just finished my official training for my new job on Wednesday but now I am hanging around Tana to go on site visits with a senior staff member. This means that we will travel for about a week to all of the volunteers that live between Tana and Fianar (about a 450 kilometer stretch of national road and about 27 volunteers spread across it) to see how they are doing at site and give the volunteer a chance to talk about stuff with us and to show off what they are doing at site as well. Later on I may be doing additional site visits in the south east of the country when some of the PC programmers go on site development trips (where they find and prepare new sites for incoming volunteers). The last part of my job is admin and financial. Here I am responsible for money things related to the PC house, the Meva, and with keeping it up as a volunteer transit house. The previous PCVL had the nickname Kim Jong Il, and now I have been bestowed with the name Kim Jong Umber (if this doesn’t make sense to you, then don’t worry about it or google it).

On the whole life is good at the new house. The only problems so far are: when I moved in there was a turkey, and a goose, living in the courtyard that scared me to death because I was convinced they were going to bite me and across the street there is a bar that is open every night where people flock to perform karaoke very loudly and very badly. When I am finished with my site visits I will post pictures of the new house.

I added a map to this one to help with perspective on where things are.  Tana – the middle, Diego-  up at the top, Fianarantsoa – middle of the bottom half, Ambalavao – not on there but just a scootch south of Fianarantsoa, the limestone park we stopped at – not on there but 100 k south of Diego, Mahajanga – the north west coast.


Hello people, I have fallen off the communication wagon for a bit. Sorry about that. I think it has been two months since my last rambling on here. It has been an interesting (is that the right word?) few months. For those keeping count, I have less than a year in country. The exact count I don’t know, for that ask Brianna who has awesome countdown gadgets on her computer. I recently stopped by Ranomafana (Hot Water) National Park on my way to Tana for a training. For pictures, see the photo album (Jane I labeled the photos too!). It was an insane hike that took about 5 hours instead of the 2 we planned on. I have been to some other parks in country so far but this was my first rainforest. It was awesome, minus the leeches that I kept finding on my legs… I got to stay at this amazing house nearby that a volunteer (who has since finished service and is on her way home!) lived in for part of her service. It had the nicest bathroom I have seen in country thus far. No joke. And another volunteer came in to stay for a night from the coast and just happened to bring a sack of freshly caught shrimp for us to grill up for supper.

Scenery on RN7 Fianar to Tana. Rice.

My stage also just completed our Mid Service Training Conference in November. It was great because we got fed insanely awesome food (see pictures…), got to reconnect with other volunteers that we never get to see, and we learned some things too. My next training will be for my new job (I move to Fianarantsoa in about a week people!!) in January. Then, our CLOSE OF SERVICE conference in June. Time is going by really fast now! It is really insane to be on this side of the 2 years.

Car repair, streetside in Tana

School is going, well, it is going. My class schedule changed last week approximately 6 times, because teachers that haven’t been around for the past two months are now involved and don’t like their class schedules and mine has become the victim of their whims. However, I have one week left to deal with this so I am taking it as an opportunity to just laugh at the entire process. It is really entertaining to watch the teachers and students argue over class times and try and figure out my schedule/understand what I am saying/understand what they are saying.

On my English midterms back in October, I added two bonus questions because I thought my test may be too difficult (people did well though I was happy). Here are the two questions and the range of responses received:
1. Who is the president of the United States of America? – Andry Rajoelina (he is the Malagasy leader); David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, Churchill, Wilson, Roosevelt (I gave them a sliver of credit for past US presidents), and Barac-obamah, Baracbama, etc and so forth. A number of students managed to get to Barack Obama.
2. What is the capital of the United States of America? – New York (#1 response by far), Afrique, France, Londres, Cameroon, Mexique, Wachyton, Etazonia, Amerique, Etas Unis
So after I gave back the exams I also gave them a small geography lesson and now their final will have these questions:
1. What nationality is Miss Amber?
2. What state is Amber from?
3. Where was Barack Obama born?
I can’t wait to get the exams back next week.

In other news it is SUMMER/RAINY SEASON. What does this mean you ask? It means it is hot. And although my pump water is brown now because the rain causes all sorts of lovely things to leak into our water supply I still feel better after rinsing off with a nice cold bucket of the pump water than not. On the positive side all kinds of fruits are coming into season now. I have already enjoyed at least three different kinds of mangoes, I’m buying litchis by the kilo and I just had a couple of passion fruit that a volunteer brought with him from the coast to Fianar. Delicious time. Also the rain puts me in a sleep coma sometimes. Right now the Fianar MEVA has passion fruit scattered around the house for no apparent reason. It is like an Easter egg hunt wherever you go.

To clarify things: no, I do not work for the Department of Defense no, I am not a missionary. These are real questions asked to me today by tourists about the Peace Corps. This did however give me a brief window to very briefly explain what the Peace Corps is and does.

Two thoughts for today: the start of school and wearing contact lenses.

No, I am no longer on vacation as I have been asked a few times. I have been back at site now for a bit waiting for school to start. The national school calendar lists October 3rd as the first day back at school, and other private schools in my town have started back up. Some of the public elementary schools have as well. I am
very-very-very grateful for this because these few schools cover all of the kids that hang out at the compound and now it is quiet again. However, my school, the main high school for the area, has not gone back to school yet. This week apparently is an excellent week to start construction. The entire school break was not desirable. In order to accommodate a growing student population, the school district is expanding the amount of classrooms on our campus. This is a good thing. When I arrived at school on Thursday to begin what I thought was my first day of class, it looked like a bomb had gone off on one of the buildings, there were fires burning in the yard (to cook rice and prepare construction materials), the desks and other items from the building being expanded were stacked in the other useable buildings. One classroom had been converted into a hotel room; it has tents set up inside of it. It took about two hours of standing around with some of the other teachers that showed up to all agree that yes, we could not hold class. I have been told that this construction will be finished in about a week, so I should be starting class shortly.

It took me over a year to figure this out, but contact lenses are really weird. While sitting around the other day with some ladies, I was helping by rolling up silk threads into balls of yarn. At one point I commented that this was really difficult to do because the lighting was terrible and my eyes were not coping (to be clear, I was also untangling the thread, which is why it wasn’t simple). A woman responded that I should go get glasses. I responded that I was wearing glasses, but on my eye. She obviously thought I was messing with her. I responded to this by popping a contact out. The reaction was priceless; she just stared at me with her mouth open and didn’t know what to say. I called them vazaha glasses. Word got around that I was doing weird stuff with my eyeballs so I went back to my house, got the case and solution and demonstrated taking them out for the day and everyone just stared.

Ceteris paribus, this time next year I will be not in Madagascar. This is very weird.