Saturday, November 06, 2010

So What's 8 months in Madagascar been like?

All right. So there's no legitimate excuse as to why I've neglected my blog. Don't get me wrong. There have been several attempts, but you know saving lives/curing AIDS/electrifying rural villages can take a bit of your time. No, but really. I tried and the internet connection is sporadic and spotty at best (i.e. Attempt #1 - @Cyber Cafe in Moramanga; blackout in the middle of writing a post, Attempt #2 - @Meva house in Tana; internet wouldn't let me past the edit layout page thanks to 30 other volunteers sharing the wi-fi, etc...) Let's just say the internet has been a trying experience.

Enough apologizing. On to the update that you may have already given up waiting for. While I was in LA in late September/early October the #1 question I was asked most was:

"How's Madagascar?"

- ha. where do I EVEN begin? AND how can I even try to answer that question fairly? uhhh well here's my attempt to sum up the meat and potatoes of the happenings of this PCV's experience. For the sake of your reading attention span and my writing stamina, i'll do my best to cover the last 8 months in the next few posts.  

  • My Peace Corps Volunteer Sector: Small Enterprise Development (SED)

 - The grassroots approach. Essentially,  SED volunteers partner with local NGOs, associations, or communities to help the local artisan / farmer / small food stand owner improve and grow their business. Which in turn will help improve livelihoods, boost economic activity, so on and so on.

  • My PC Site: the "urban" town of Miarinarivo 

- I love Miarinarivo! So the first week after we arrived in country, our PC SED director Madame Lucie (who is the most MOTIVATING and HARDWORKING person I've met) interviewed us and placed each of the 8 SED volunteers in our sites according to site needs and volunteer experience. I lucked out. Miarinarivo is not your romanticized Peace Corps "grass hut" sleepy village setting. Although I would have really liked to experience "roughing it" for the next two years, I can't complain about the electricity, running water, and hub of other expats to share the experience with. 
- Miarinarivo is 88km (2 hours by taxi brousse) away from Antananarivo (a.k.a. TANA) the capital of Madagascar. Why is that so crucial? Because practically EVERYTHING can be found in Tana. Where do you get a decent mattress for cheap? - Tana. Where can you buy orange juice? - Tana. Where can I get this fixture to repair my toilet? - Tana. Get the point?
- Miarinarivo is also the capital of Itasy (which would be like the Sacramento of California) so it's pretty much like the administrative decision center of region. All the offices of different Malagasy Ministry Offices (our US equivalent of Departments) are convenient 10-15 minute walks from my house. As a chief-de-lieu, or regional capital, Miarinarivo also has a bank. Impressive. I know. As you can imagine. Banks are not omnipresent as they are in the States. And having a selection of different banks is pretty much reserved for the major towns in Madagascar. I guess Miarinarivo is big, but not yet Major. 

75% of the community are salaried employees, 15% farmers. In contrast to most other Malagasy communities where 95% of the community are rural farmers. So although I'm not really living a Manhattan lifestyle in this urban community. There are more people who earn their living from paychecks from municipal offices rather than selling rice or corn. Here's a fun fact: Even though 75% of the community takes home paychecks every month, ONLY 5% of the community own a bank account. Why? Most people cash in the paycheck and hide the money in their "magic mattress" at home. Interestingly enough, the common belief is that people typically do not have enough money to open an account; so they need to save for it. In the meantime, it's mattress time.,3596.html A little background about PROSPERER for those savvy French speakers. As I mentioned earlier, every PCV is partnered with a NGO, organization, or community. So I was lucky again and have been partnered with PROSPERER. Believe it or not, that's actually an acronym ... in French. Simply translated: "Programme to support the rural businessman to help the overall economy of Madagascar". 

Prosperer is a 7-year (2008-2015) Malagasy government programme aimed to help rural businesses. It's funded by IFAD (Int'l Fund for Agricultural Development) - an $18Million loan to be exact to the Malagasy government. They work in the 5 poorest and most densely populated regions in Madagascar. They have business consultants in each region who go around on orange and blue Honda sportbikes and serve as the "doctors" of small and rural businesses. 1) They identify small businesses that need help, 2) they do a diagnosis - what products do you make, where do you sell, basics, 3) they give recommendations and help set up trainings to treat the "symptoms". so that could be trainings in Financial management, Marketing, Quality and technique (for the artisans), and most importantly teaching the culture of savings and loans. 

What does that all mean for me?
Well I'm a guinea pig. At least I'm not alone. 2 other volunteers in my region share my "tester" pains. We are the first PCVs to be partnered with this organization. Prosperer requested volunteers to help their mission and in exchange pay for our housing. Not complaining. I definitely could not afford the rent on my PC salary. 
Lessons from a guinea pig. Each Prosperer business consultant works with an average of 30-90 small businesses monthly. With the help of PCVs they were hoping we'd help double that number. Woops. I don't think so. 1. We are not that fluent in Malagasy.... yet, and 2. PCVs are prohibited from riding motorcycles ... we're not very mobile. So they're learning to scale down their expectations of us. :( Now we have an understanding that each volunteer will focus on 2-3 groups (not 30-90) phew! 

  • My Projects So Far: English Business Club w/ PROSPERER, Electrification Project for 2 rural villages, Researching for a Telecenter and an artisan boutique for the region.
English club -- Geeze. I can't tell you how many times people ask me to teach them english in Miarinarivo. Sometimes it's not very polite either - "When are you going to teach me English? I'm free tomorrow" Somehow everyone thinks oh yes, American - you are a certified English teacher. So I often politely decline and explain thy need to find a PC Education volunteer. I can only deal with business. So I've created a Business English club with the people in PROSPERER and practice talking about business issues in English. Last week - watching and discussing the documentary  FOOD, INC. Very interesting documentary about the American food industry if you haven't seen it yet. It was also a very interesting platform for cultural exchange between organic malagasy foods and processed american foods. I'm no longer surprised that my stomach turned inside out for a whole day when I was back in the States. My body got used to eating organic.

Electrification Project -- Lately, this project occupies about 80% of my week. About 14 km East of Miarinarivo you can find a rural community of granite sculpting artisans. They are the Cooperative of SA.SI.VA.MA. - Sary Sikotra amin'ny Vato Mariampoana (Rock Sculptures in Malagasy). They are 250+ and need electricity to improve production quality and quantity. I could  go into this for days, but I won't. bottom line i'm searching for a cost effective and appropriate solution. The national electricity company JIRAMA quoted the project to cost about $55,000 USD. yikes. Given the turbulent politcal times in Madagascar many funding resources have been cut .... which makes this project challenging. So I'm looking into cheaper solutions like renewable energy sources --- solar or wind powered. 

I try not to get too overwhelmed by the estimated cost of this project. My boyfriend, Rudy, has been such a cheerleader and motivator to not lose hope. So thanks to him, I haven't lost the fire and passion to find a way. Have you heard about Windmill Will? If this 14 year old in rural Malawi can make it happen for his community, then this 23 year old US university graduate can too. 

All right. I suppose that's a spoonful for today. Another to come soon... 

Mandrapiahoana.... SEE YOU NEXT TIME!

Monday, March 01, 2010

Here We Go....

Officially leving American soil today :) and I can't wait to jump on that plane!

Yesterday started a great day! Early morning I met my dear friend and lovely pledge bro - Lori Motooka. She took a 4 - hour bus from NYC to meet me in Washington D.C. We had my last Dunkin Donuts (for awhile) and then went to see the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian Museum. Again, I'm overwhelmed by the love and support of my family and friends.

Then I had training -- lots of group exercises and lots of talks about "feelings" - our anxieties and aspirations. Apparently we're all afraid of getting food poisoning and "copious vomitting". HA! We all want to help others and share our talents. And when I refer to "we," I mean 25 Peace Corps Volunteers - 12 Small Business Volunteers + 13 Environment / Forestry Volunteers. It's awesome that we each have this instant connection with one another -- "I know the shit you've gone through to get here" kinda deal. I can't wait to continue bonding with my "Staging Family."

After several hours of hugging out our feelings (jk), a few of us hit the streets of D.C. and hopped 2 bars. I was very happy that I was able to reunite with my FAVORITE GERMAN - SEBASTIAN! Sebastian and I studied abroad in HEC Paris together and he's now currently working for the German Embassy in Wash D.C. Talk about small world.

So that's been the haps for the last few hours. I'm about to head out with my new friends to Dulles Airport to fly for 18 hours to Jo'Berg, South Africa ( as they all call Johannesburg).

Last note of reflection - I have a family whose love and support could move mountains. Thank you Dear Ate Myra for my book of pictures and letters from family friends. Thank you mom dad sis and ate for the random little surprise notes of encouragement you've hidden for me throughout my luggage. I love you guys and I will miss you!

Friday, February 26, 2010

In My head at the Moment...

Reflecting on my favorite poem before the journey begins:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken (1915)

I'm going to have this song stuck in my head for a good portion of my trip.Thank you, Kenneth.

What else is going through my head :

- Stress: Lots of packing and phone calls to be made. 80 lbs isn't going to be easy.

- Sadness: Today's my last day at work and it pains me to leave such an amazing group of people - my second family. I cried when I started to read the Farewell card everyone signed during the surprise going away party at lunch. I can't even begin to imagine what it will feel like when I say goodbye to my real family on Saturday.

- Excitement: 40-degree Washington DC weather and then 24 hours of flying here we come! Saturday I fly out to Washington, DC for "Staging". Monday, March 1st I take an 18-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. ( I met a woman on campus today from Johannesburg who said there was nothing to see there. lol. I'm still excited.) Spend one night in Johannesburg and then I'm off for another 4-hour flight to my home for the next 2 years -- Madagascar.

- I am truly Blessed: Thank you, to all my friends and family for your love and support. People think I'm brave or courageous to leave the comforts of home to live and work helping total strangers across the globe. But the truth is that I feel obligated to take all the love you all give me and instead of bottling it up for myself, I'm going forth and sharing all this love with those who may not be as fortunate.

That's all for now. I'll post again before I officially leave American internet :) Madrapihoana (See you Later!)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Basics, Jitters, and Packing -- oh my!

I AM GOING TO ROCK THIS.  It's been more than 1 year since I received my PC nomination letter and I'm finally setting off. 7 days away. Although I'm feeling a myriad of emotions - sad, happy, excited, nervous, etc. - I am PUMPED for Madagascar.

First, let's cover the basics.
Why am I joining the Peace Corps?  Since sophomore year in college I decided that right after college I would dedicate 27 months of my life to helping others. If you spend your ENTIRE adult life working to provide for yourself and for your family and furthering your career, then how long is 2 years in comparison? USC went by in the blink of any eye. - Bye bye, 4 years. So 2 years can't be that hard. (..right?) Fortunately (and also unfortunately) the process to becoming a volunteer is really long. During my wait I've researched more about Africa and the various careers in foreign policy / economic development that RPCVs (returned PC Volunteers) went into and now I'm thinking this could be a nice segue to my career. Let's see where this road less-traveled leads. 

Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer touches on all of my interests - languages, cultures, seeing the world, business, helping others. I am truly blessed to have this opportunity.

What will I actually be doing? As a Small Enterprise Development (SED) Volunteer I will be assigned to collaborate with either an NGO or a Madagascar government agency to help develop a small business / local community. My PC Madagascar assignment is described as follows:
- Work with potential entrepreneurs to develop their capacities in accounting, organization, and basic management, as well as providing higher level tech assistance to existing entrepreneurs in areas such as inventory management, cost control and distribution systems 
- Helping small businesses expand by adding new products, entering new markets and improving production processes   
-Assist in efforts to start, manage, and expand microfinance institutions that support income-generating activities at the community level.

I've read different blogs / seen different youtube videos about SED volunteers doing anything from helping local sugar cane farmers reach international markets to promoting fair trade and organizing labor unions. So there's a whole gamut of possibilities. ... I'm excited. 

On top of my SED primary responsibilities I'll also have a secondary project that addresses another need in the community, but that's more expressive of what I'm really interested in doing. I've seen one volunteer create a Hip Hop Class for the children in her village, another volunteer started a book program in Ghana, someone else helped rebuild a school. Again ... I'm excited.   

I have to be real with myself and know that I may not be doing earth-shattering work like curing AIDS or ending government corruption. I admit I can't change the world, but I know for sure I'm going to do everything that I can to make a difference. 

Am I getting paid? Yes. They typically pay volunteers the average household income in the country. Sounds like nothing, but unlike the average household I don't have to support a spouse or any children - I'll have enough. Not a lot. But Enough. Some PCVs have enough money to even pay other people to do their laundry. 

Where will I live? The first 3 months are Pre-Service Training (PST) and I'll be living with a host family in my own room. Then after training the PC will determine what part of Madagascar my actual 2 year project will be and where I'll live in my own "house". I use the term loosely because "house" could mean cement like this house ... or it could be made of bamboo and reed like this house. Let's hope the big bad wolf doesn't blow it down. Will I have electricity? Maybe. Depends on where I am placed. Will I have running water? Who knows. Will I have internet? That's most likely a no.  All I know is i should prepare for the worst so that when things end up being better i'll be surprised. -- So I won't be sleeping on the floor like my sister always jokes around about. 

So Madagascar, eh? I like to think I hit Peace Corps jackpot because it's an African island whose beauty is rich with unique flora + fauna endemic to the country. The 4th largest island in the world. 19.1 million people who speak Malagasy (everyone) + French (more-educated class). I thought after 9 years of French and living in France  I was set -- nope. 
DOWNSIDE: I hear French isn't really used that much and it's all about the Malagasy (merde!) 
UPSIDE: Some of the first inhabitants of Madagascar were actually from Indonesia + Southeast Asia -- So the Malagasy language is actually in the same family tree as Tagalog (Hooray for being Filipino!). So picking up Malagasy shouldn't be that bad.
Other things I know about Madagascar:  
- former French colony; gained independence in 1960 - so young!  
- current president (DJ) Andry Rajoelina, the former Mayor of Antananarivo (the capital of Madagascar) seized power last year through a military coup d'etat; the European Union, African Union, U.S., South African Development Community condemn his presidency. Democratic elections are scheduled for this March (oh goodie, when I arrive) but people are speculating it might be another Iranian election scandal. We shall see...
-People mainly believe in Animism (the idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features), Protestantism, and Catholicism (PHEW! My parents can breathe knowing I'll be able to go to Sunday mass)

    Now let's talk the Jitters. 
    Like I said, I'm going through almost every emotion imaginable for someone who's leaving home + country to serve strangers. Yes! The unknown gives me such excitement and anxiety. Will they like me? How + when will I get sick? Will I feel like I'm making a difference? Will I be offended by some of the things I hear or see? Will I offend someone with what I say or do? Will people like/hate that I'm American? 

    What about all the modern luxuries that I'll miss -- my blackberry, my car/driving, high speed wireless internet, facebook, my laptop, my queen-sized bed, drive-thrus, starbucks, indoor plumbing, washing machine + dryer, the list goes on and on. Man, 2 years is starting to sound really long. HA! Good thing one of my core strengths is adaptability. If more than half the world lives on less than $2.50/day... I can too. Instead of all the things I'll be missing out on I realize there's so much more to be gained, things to be learned about the world, other people, myself, plus all the crazy life experiences to have. The scales are balanced again. 

    What about missing my family? Don't get me started. I can't write that much about it cuz I know I'll start crying while i type. but i know i'll miss them dearly and i'll do my best to write to them, send smoke signals, and yes, hopefully talk to over the phone at least once a week.

    So what am I doing now? - PACKING (and I guess technically blogging)
    80 lbs. Everything I'm hauling to the other side of the world has to weigh under 80 lbs. Clothes, books, supplies, favorite snacks, shoes... everything. The funniest thing is that I'm probably bringing 40 pairs of underwear, not because I want to, but because all the PCVs over there now strongly advise it. Makes sense if you don't have a washing machine handy all the time. lol. But I'm excited to use some of the cool things I had to get -- my North Face Terra 55 pack (courtesy of Ryan + Rudy) , my Swiss Army knife, my 30 degree+ mummy sleeping bag, my poncho (all 3 courtesy of my sister Myra), my solio solar charger for phone + ipod (courtesy of Mr. Jason Yujico), my solar shower (courtesy of Mr. Aven Wright), my North face jacket (thanks Kat), Tevas slippers, headlamp, etc. It's like I'm packing for a big long camping/hiking trip. 

    One of the things I'm not sure about is the clothing. What do you wear in country with two season - hot rainy and dry cool? On top of that, women are supposed to dress conservatively -- meaning no short shorts :( or too loose/tight shirts. Fail. I mean it's soo hot but you can't wear anything too revealing. Gotta keep reminding myself .. I AM ADAPTABLE. HA! 

    Wish I could write more, there's much to be done today. My last weekend in CALI :( Thanks for being a trooper and reading this the whole way through. If you have any other questions about things I might not have covered, just leave a comment...