Weeks ago, I asked SOAN junior Elena Becker for an update from her semester studying abroad in Madagascar. In spite of electricity outages and itinerant access to the internet, she punctually replied, and I’m only now getting it posted here. As this post goes up, Elena is headed off again into the countryside for her independent study project (part of the SIT study abroad program). Her project sill explore the impacts of wood and charcoal burning cookstoves in a particular rural village. Perhaps we’ll get to hear about that project later, but for now, here is her slightly outdated update!
Elena (left) and some of the other students studying abroad in Madagascar for the semester
Madagascar is mostly wonderful. Like any experience – especially any experience abroad – there are a lot of ups and downs, but so far I’ve been recovering well from the down moments. In these first six weeks (it’s already six weeks? Yikes!) mostly what I’ve learned is how much I don’t know. Maybe the most prominent thing I neglected to note before I waltzed onto the plane in August is Madagascar’s positionality in the world. I’m living in a country that is consistently included among the twenty poorest in the world
and that often even makes it into the “top” ten. Everything here seems to stem from that. People beg on pretty much every corner and street in Tana (local slang for Antananarivo
, the capital city), often in tattered clothes and without shoes; the water isn’t safe to drink; the whole country is extremely dependent on foreign aid and therefore vulnerable to colonial-esque relationships with developed countries; infrastructure is failing; and often the democracies and elections here are façades for the oligarchy that’s really at the wheel.
However, my lived experience is pretty insulated from that. For obvious reasons, the program houses us with middle to upper middle class families and, in my case, my host family in Tana lives in a three bedroom, one bath house and owns a (used) car. They have running water and electricity (except for during the frequent power outages) which already sets them apart from a majority of Malagasy. When we spent a few weeks in the port city of Mahajanga (“Ma-ha-zan-guh”) my host family there also had a car, running water, and electricity. Plus they had wifi, which is an amazing amenity here.
Malagasy hobbit house?
Despite those material differences, I’m still getting a pretty full experience of Malagasy culture. We’re taking Malagasy language classes five days a week, and I’ve evolved from such scintillating conversation starters as “it is very hot” and “this is a banana” to crowd-pleasers like “can I eat one of your French fries?” and “we will speak Malagasy in Betafo!”. I won’t be winning any literature prizes, but I’m getting somewhere. Actually, learning Malagasy has been a super interesting experience because our Malagasy classes are conducted in French, not English. Having only been taught foreign languages in English, it’s weird for my “fallback” language not to be English. When I run into a word that I don’t know in Malagasy I say it in French instead, which is new for me. Usually when I can’t say something in a foreign language I have to express my thoughts in English for translation help. This new approach is making me so proud of my French!
Certainly one of the most regular cultural experiences I’m having here is meals. Rice (“vary” in Malagasy, “riz” in French) is a staple food, and therefore eaten at pretty much every meal. I’ve been having “vary sosoa” or “vary mena” three times a day. In the middle class, this is usually supplemented with some kind of veggie (reliably a stewed green) and a little meat. Meals can also include soup or broth. The colonial influence being what it is, there are also baguettes, croissants and madeleines for sale in pretty much every neighborhood. Higher class or more Westernized families will eat a baguette and jam at breakfast, and most hotels offer that too.
Elena (left) trying her hand at petanque, a popular game in Madagascar
American food is starting to filter into the culture – there’s a popular pizza chain called “GastroPizza” in many major cities, and a lot of restaurants offer spaghetti and other pasta dishes. Despite that, there are no American franchises here, none of the McDonalds or Starbucks that I thought were so globally ubiquitous. Probably the most obvious sign of globalization is the fact that in the last 5-10 years cell phones have proliferated, and now just about any Malagasy person of moderate social status has one (even if they can’t afford the minutes).
Apart from those quotidian experiences, we’re getting to travel to some pretty amazing places in the country. The program is based in Tana, but we do regular excursions. We just returned from our first long one, about two weeks spent in the north of the country. We passed through Ankarafantsika National Park (lemurs galore) and then did about a week and a half of homestay in Mahajanga. After Mahajanga we went further North to Nosy Be, an island just off of mainland Madagascar. There we saw a really cool homegrown cultural tourism operation designed to empower women whose husbands have abandoned them, and then spent a couple days at a strip of beachfront hotels to observe some mass tourism (and sex tourism, which is obvious on the coasts; lots of old “vasaha” (white) men with young Malagasy women).
Of course, the excursion also provided an opportunity for us to relax a little. If you’re wondering if I was buried in the sand and then sculpted into a flounder (“tondro” in Malagasy), you would be correct. Perhaps you’re also wondering if I spent a morning helping dig sea urchin spines out of a classmate’s foot, and translating her medical questions into French? Right again! Our next excursion is in about a week, when we’ll leave for Andsirabe and Betafo in the south. We’ll be doing a one week stay in a rural village in Betafo, which is when I’ll really have to break out the Malagasy – we’ve been reliably informed that not too many people speak French there, which means you can also forget about English.
What an amazing and immersive experience (so far), Elena! Good luck with the remainder of the semester, and we home that your research project goes as planned.