Working on A Life

Experience is what its all about. And the stories. Post college most people go on to find a job, or apply to grad school. I decided just to live. This is my story as related to my family and friends. (This journal represents ONLY my views and none of Peace Corps or the US government.)

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Bettering humanity, one spreadsheet at a time.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cows, Spears & Dust

... and thorns... and Frisbee... and the Chumba...

Dispatches from a month amongst the Maasai

Greetings all,

This summer has been something of a whirlwind for me, with trips to Kenya and Ireland and numerous games of Frisbee with the Boston collective, family, The Girl and other social engagements. As a result, and as has been correctly pointed out by my parents (as usual, thanks M&D), that I am a bit behind the times in terms of keeping you all up to date. In point of fact, it has been well over a year since I've posted to this site, which is shameful even by my own lax standards. Not that I have been completely silent in the world of the internet as I started a second blog in collaboration (or attempted collaboration) with my housemates, which is more a city life, random thoughts and happiness collection than it is a chronicle. You are all more than welcome to pursue that fine body of literature here... Of course, I've moved now so that site will cease to have the same level of input....

In terms of working on a life... some background details from the last year are necessary before my summer adventures will really make sense. As many of you no doubt already know through direct contact or other sources, I have taken up residence in the greater Boston metro area and, for the last year have been working towards a masters degree in Public Health and the epidemiology of infectious diseases at Boston University's School of Public Health. (For those that are now saying epi-demi- what?? and scratching your heads the word epidemiology is actually a link to Wikipedia where all answers reside) Thus far, this experience has been wonderful and fulfilling and right up my alley; a combination of hard science, personal interaction, travel possibilities and interesting people and new ideas. It has also been difficult and occasionally frustrating and generally what you would expect from a high caliber graduate degree program. I plan on wrapping up my masters this coming December and once again entering the wild and crazy world of job hunting in a recession... That, however, is a different story for a different time.


As part of my degree program I was responsible for completing a practicum, where I get out into the real world and get some experience in Public Health on the ground and get a little time away from the abstract theories, a little distance from the power point slides and chalk dust... Since my wandering tendencies are well known I decided to take advantage of a program offered through the school and do my practicum working with the Maasai people's of south-western Kenya, near Mt. Kilimanjaro. So, on May 25th I once again crossed the Atlantic, spent 8 hours sprawled out over 3 chairs in front of a shop that sold 30,000 dollar watches in London's Heathrow airport and felt the freedom of African skies... eventually.... There was a 5 hour land-rover ride in there someplace as well...

I should probably also mention at this point that there were 20 odd other people on this trip, none of whom I knew before getting in those land rovers (at least not very well) and all but one were women... We met up with 5 Kenyan students who joined our group, 4 of whom were men so that evened things out a little bit)... The drive to our camp was kind of fuzzy, both because I was seeing the landscape through tired eyes and because there was a great deal of dust obscuring the windows of the tired old land-rover. (which looked to have seen action in WWII but I later discovered was actually a 2008 model) The bumpy roads and questionable seat belts often made clinging to something for dear life a priority over sightseeing. We arrived at our final destination, Kilimanjaro Bush Camp (KBC) completely exhausted but with the heightened senses and interested attitude that is my favorite part of being in a new place for the first time.


Despite being the beginning of winter and the end of Kenya's rainy season, it was near enough to the equator for the sun to be fierce and hot and the rains had not come for several years a set of circumstances that combined to completely parch the landscape and, we would later discover, made life extremely difficult for the proud people that called it home. The camp, run by the School for Field Studies (based in MA) was an oasis of thorny Acacia trees, tended by dedicated local Maasai staff and watered by wells and pumps bought with tuition money. Most of the year the camp served as a research station for wildlife management and environment students who lived there for 3 months at a time and learned the basics of big game conservation and human/wildlife conflict scenarios where it was actually happening. Somewhere along the line the community had confronted the school in the jovial African way and pointed out a simple truth that I learned myself during PC in Morocco. They would be much more capable of interacting favorably with the wildlife if their own families weren't dying of diarrhea, malnutrition, malaria, or one of the myriad other health problems that come from being a resident of a place that often seems to be doing it's best to cause you grave bodily harm. In response the school began taking summers off from wildlife programs and instead started bringing in graduate student public health researchers to gather the baseline data needed before health interventions can be made. Its long slow work, especially for those who are suffering while it happens. My group represented the third year of data collection.

The camp itself is located inside a mile long circle of fence designed to keep the animals out but which did a better job of trapping students inside (for our own safety of course). We did often see a plethora of wildlife inside the compound also, including monkeys and baboons, many birds, the occasional poisonous snake, scorpions in our laundry sinks etc. The fence had been knocked over and repaired several times when the elephants had decided that they wanted inside to have a go at the relatively lush vegetation. Nothing gets in an Elephant's way for long. They were kept at bay by our Maasai night guards wielding traditional Maasai clubs and spears and modern high powered flashlights. The camp was beautiful and in early mornings and late evenings when the cloudy haze cleared it was dominated by views of Kilimanjaro, humbling to all who have stood in it's shadow. Accommodations were fairly nice overall with 4 person bungalows draped with mosquito netting. Power was provided by solar during the day and by generator for a few hours each night... even internet was sometimes available on a connection routed from Italy, through Dubai and on to KBC by satellite. It was slower than molasses on the best of days and we didn't have many of those.. Running water was the greatest luxury, complete with showers and flush toilets, which blew my mind. Hardly roughing it (depending on who you asked).

As people in confined close quarters are wont to do when stuck with each other for 4 weeks, we all became friends at an accelerated pace and found entertainment in Kenyan campfire stories (usually with a moral that defied translation) books, crossword puzzles, soccer, Frisbee, disaster movies and frenetic dance-offs in the Chumba, (our all purpose meeting/dining/working/classroom/library hall), advanced discussions of poop and food we missed (familiar topics in any African ex-pat community), pinata making and destroying, cooking/baking, running and comparing how dirty our feet got (the red dust got in everywhere, socks and shoes were seemingly no barrier at all). When we escaped the confines of the fence to check out the local market town, Kimana, we frequented Club Kimana, a bar run by the former chief of the region and listened to Ace of Base on repeat because it was the only tape the

Oh.. and we managed to do a bit of work here and there as well...


Formerly semi-nomadic, the Maasai are becoming more and more sedentary with the influx of modern technology and modern thought into their world view. They make up about 3% of the Kenyan population and yet hold a fairly complete monopoly as the image people think of when they think of Kenya or even Africa in general. In traditional garb, which is still widely worn, they paint a picture of Africa encapsulated in a single person. Lounging idly balanced on a stick with effortless grace. Decked out in hundreds of thousands of tiny little seed beads in a riot of color. Pestering on anyone that remotely resembles a tourist during market day to sell everything from yards of colorful cloth to jewelry, to lion's teeth.

In my own experience there I found them to be a friendly people, though sometimes with little patience for a bunch of white people asking silly questions about where they normally go to the bathroom. Their language, Ki maa is fun, yet more or less incomprehensible to me, even after 4 weeks. I learned to say "potato" while working in the kitchen and its pretty much the only word that stuck.. I still couldn't spell it reliably... Most still attempt to hold much of their fortunes in livestock, mainly because the land isn't really suited to anything except a pastoral livelihood, yet with the lack of rain it's beginning to fail even this and many of the men were far away grazing cattle in other parts of Kenya where there was still grass, leaving the women behind with little to sustain them and bringing conflict with them to regions inhabited by other tribes. The government has even taken the somewhat extraordinary step of opening nearby Amboselli national park to them for grazing, provided they stay away from the more touristy areas. With little or no concept of land ownership they live collectively on group ranches, or large swaths of land (thousands of square kilometers) where any member of the ranch can live wherever he feels like having one of his wives erect a house made of cow dung and grass.

These homesteads, called Bomas, are often heavily family oriented, though sometimes an unrelated group will band together for protection. Traditionally they are built in a protective thorny circle of Acacia branches with the house of the eldest wife nearest to the entrance and the rest of the wives arrayed in descending order around the edge. The interior of the circle is reserved for susceptible livestock. The Masaai also rent their land to enterprising farmers from other tribes as an additional source of revenue, despite the fact the the farms overtax the fragile ecosystem and further deplete all of the few sources of fresh water that remain. Its a depressing collection of no-win scenarios they they bear stoically, women patiently waiting in long lines to get aid agency handouts of corn and other staples.

Their culture is enviable and still strong, even in the most disrupted areas. All Maasai belong to age-sets, or groups that have birthdays between certain years, and their position in Maasai society is determined by these groupings. The younger age sets are herders of small animals (sheep and goats), the teen years are reserved for Moranship, or the warrior years where they range long distances with the cattle and formerly raided other tribes. Older men are junior, then senior elders whose only responsibilities aside from lounging and drinking tea involve maintaining the customs and leading the tribes with their collective wisdom. Song, story and dance were practiced with great gusto and I was privileged to witness and even participate in these dances on several occasions. A testament to American culture, at one point the group of us sang the theme song of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to a group of Masaai women, much to the delight of everyone involved.

As our research was about to show, these people were widely variable even within the tribe and had just as wide a range of health issues and other problems. It was yet another situation that left me wondering if it would have been better just to leave them alone, rather than to introduce too much of a new world too fast. Of course the answer is that you can't deny any people equal opportunity, but it still sometimes makes me sad.

CHAPTER 3: THE WORK (and the malaria)

I mentioned that the group of us were there to fulfill school requirements at the same time as we met a community need to gather health data. The process was interesting, often exciting, more than a little frustrating and yet, somehow, we managed to pull it all together at the end and put on an awesome presentation for the community stakeholders. The researchers/students were divided into 5 teams, covering a number of water based health topics, including Hand washing (my group), childhood diseases, water sources, water collection and household sanitation. Each team devised a survey with questions geared towards finding the status quo of health practices and problems among community members. The 5 surveys were compiled together into one massive survey, formatted and then conducted in the community by researchers with Maasai translators. And here in one sentence I have described many, many hours of work. After the 45 minute survey had been conducted in more than 200 households we returned to the camp to do some basic statistics and prepare our reports.

At some point in the analytical process following the survey I managed to contract malaria, which didn't aid much in my participation in my groups analysis. I still managed to hold my own. (I hope, its possible my group was just being kind) Let me tell you though.. Malaria is no fun. I was on medicine to prevent it, and while clearly, that didn't work out as I had hoped, it did work to keep my case relatively mild. I'm not sure I would have wanted to experience the full blown version. I was out of it for days, with headaches and muscle fatigue and general malaise. The local medical staff was wonderful and the doctor went into great detail to describe the mechanism of my treatment once he learned that I was a student of Public health and had an abiding interested in Malaria. In most ways, I'm actually glad now to have had the disease, as I'll have an even better understanding of the situation faced by hundreds of thousands of people in Africa and Asia daily. Also, its a great get out of homework free card....

Once data was analyzed and reported, it was presented... and in this presentation was I think the best result of the whole process. Many members of the local community came to see us, and to see what we had done. Figuring out how to present the data to an illiterate audience was a challenge but also a wonderful experience, and their questions were no less thoughtful or thought provoking for not being based in the literate word. Many local public health experts who had participated in the design of the questionnaire and provided us with useful cultural and health related background information also attended and got to see what it was they they had helped to create and to see why it was so important. The community as a whole can see that the school is working to help them, and not just the animals. Eventually, interventions can be performed that specifically target the problems identified by this baseline research, doing the most good for the smallest expenditure of resources. Anyone who wants to see the final survey or read my groups report on hand washing can feel free to contact me.


Not all life at KBC was related to the project. As mentioned, fun was had around the camp in other ways also. (Yay Frisbee!) That said, it was certainly the out of camp field trips that proved to be most rewarding. We had a number of community service days, most of which were awesome. The first was manual labor helping to build/cement water irrigation ditches in a way to maximize efficiency and minimize water lost to evaporation and seepage into the soil while reducing contamination somewhat. Part of this project also included building a wall around a spring that served as the areas primary water source, so it couldn't be contaminated by drinking animals, people bathing, or other general missuses. On day two, we went to pick up trash around town with some school groups but ended up being the showpiece for an environment day spectacle where we sat out in the blazing hot sun for hours watching group after group of school kids sing and seeing elected officials give speeches in languages we didn't understand. This was a very typically African day, and I must say one of very few. The camp ran amazingly efficiently considering it's location. On the third day (which I missed due to the malaria) the group went out and helped weigh and vaccinate babies and distribute drugs to the populace. Lastly, we visited an orphanage and played with the children for an afternoon of fun and excitement.

In order to relax, we also had two safari days, where drivers from the park would take us out in the beat up land rovers and drive us around the national park to see the amazing array of wildlife. While some of my favorite animal encounters were the random ones near the camp that resulted in spur-of-the-moment off-roading, the national park was still absolutely amazing. I loved every second of those trips, from the company, to the vistas, to the buffet lunch at the resort hotel... I think pictures probably speak louder than words at this point so I'll stop talking about it here and just let you enjoy.

We took a hike to touch the border with Tanzania and visited a local volunteer counseling and testing clinic for HIV sufferers. Ohh and shopping... lots of shopping... mostly for bead work and other Maasai artifacts

CONCLUSION: (bet you're glad you're almost done)

In the end, this was an amazing trip and an amazing way to satisfy a school requirement, though a lot of work also. I think the best part for me was coming home with 10 more friends than I left with. Now I actually have people to hang out with at school! I would love to hear from all of you as to what you've been up to lately. Look forward to more from me about my trip to Ireland (which will be shorter) in the near future! (as soon as I can work it into my school schedule)

Love you all!
Until next time,
Stay well!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

With A Little Help From My Friends...

Hello all,

Greetings from the Red Island! As always I hope that this note finds you all well and in fantastic health and spirits. Also, as always, I’m quite a bit behind in my updates so, as always, I hope that you can find it in your hearts to forgive me. Alas, bad news, my camera was out of commission from my work trips and I only recently got it back from the shop so there aren’t as many good photos accompanying this letter online but there are still enough to make it worth checking out the illustrated version at

As July comes to a rapid conclusion (where did the time go??) I’m finishing up at the office and finding it frustratingly… well… frustrating. It took three days and much communication across oceans and continents to ensure the proper size and placement of logos on the front page of the final report document. I didn’t expect anything else really, but I had hoped. I also suffer from the affliction of having too many bosses who all have to sign off on the same document but who apparently don’t talk to each other and all want different things. It’s been a good learning exercise and needless to say I can’t wait till I am one day the boss and can be petty and exact revenge on a group of interns of my own. Insert evil laugh here. In any event, the 55 page report documenting my travels and discoveries (but only the positive ones!) is now complete (for the third time) and submitted to the powers that be. If anyone wants to see it let me know and I’ll be happy to fire you off a copy. For the next three days I’ve been demoted to doing data entry projects and am taking time off to write you all this wonderful letter.

Thankfully and excitingly life has not all been work in the few months since last I wrote. Much of the summer has been indelibly shaped by an unexpected but welcome and awesome friendship with a local PC volunteer and her friends and family, as well as by the arrival of my own brother and sister to the Love Shack.

It all began immediately following my return from the last of my work trips. While I was still mulling over what I had seen and done on those adventures I went out with a group of PC volunteers to an ex-pat bar downtown. I was invited by Molly, whom I knew and had been in contact with about another project that we were cooperating on for the PC environment program. Spent much of that evening daydreaming and drifting but managed to have a great time discussing ecosystems and favorite bird behaviors and to make plans to meet Molly and her friend Laura, who was visiting from the states for lunch the next day to discuss the project.

So, I met the girls at a hotely (a small local restaurant) in the same neighborhood as my house. Sitting around a plank table on makeshift stools eating Chinese noodles, rice and eggs in the shadow of a truly awesome wall poster depicting crystal tableware and a stack of neon orange pancakes we discussed the economics of Africa (and the world), our various travels, McDonalds abroad, politics, and the pros and cons of various religions and traditional beliefs from Mormon to Voodoo. We did not discuss the project. Several hours passed amicably in this way and when we emerged back onto the street it was as true friends. To celebrate these newfound friendships I decided to skip a few days of work the next week (one of which was a holiday anyway) and travel with them via public transport to Andasibe, the rainforest in the east, for a few days of exploration before they had to return to Molly’s site in the North.

We arrived without incident in the evening and set up lodging in a hostel run by one of the NGO’s I visited on my work trip to the same locale. After a scrumptious dinner of rice and beans at the local hotely (which came highly recommended by the volunteer that lives in Andasibe,) and some more conversation we retired for the evening. The whole time we were there the stars were nothing short of amazing. The moon was new and building so for much of the night, every night, we were treated to the full effect of the African sky. I firmly believe that if you have never been to Africa you have never truly seen the stars. (Though perhaps I would be willing to concede that they are almost as good elsewhere)

I’ve also decided that you can never get enough of the rainforest. There is just so much to see and take in. Every time you walk through its different and equally amazing. There are millions of variations just on the color green. Birds and lemurs call as if to compete for your attention, though it remains difficult to see anything through the dense brush. The corrosive smell of decay and the fresh smell of new growth and rebirth are present in equal abundance, reminding you constantly that one is not possible without the other. This time, because our guide was hand picked for our visit by the local volunteer, he was actually the chief forester in charge of tree nurseries and forest rehabilitation. This presented an amazing opportunity to delve into the world of plants that make up the structure of the forest. The organization who manages the private reserve which we visited, Mitsinjo, is busily redeveloping the forest from the ground up. Planting more than 70 species of trees of different types, each with its own rate of growth, lifespan, and shade tolerance, they hope to eventually bring back some of the endangered, slow growing hardwoods that used be the primary players there. Palisandre(sp), a tree which grows only in Madagascar, is one of the densest trees on earth. It grows a vertical meter every 20 years and is highly sought after as a building material for furniture and hardwood floors. There are hardly any left. We saw only a couple of them in the forest, mostly saplings shorter than me and less than two decades old. The oldest and largest that we saw clocked in at something like 700 years and was still only 6-8 inches in diameter.

I was also forced to somewhat revise my opinion of Eucalyptus. Previously, I looked on these interesting trees with their distinctive peeling bark as an introduced blight on the local landscape. Invasive and hungry for the water that is so needed by other rainforest species it would have gladdened my heart if someone had found a way just to get rid of them all. I learned from our guide that the French brought these fast growing trees here as fuel for the railway steam engines. He also made me consider that properly managed, these trees could be the only hope for saving the forest from the charcoal makers by giving them an alternative source of fuel.

The most exciting thing that happened while we were in the forest however was completely unexpected. It just so happened that a BBC film crew were using Mitsinjo’s forest to film nocturnal creatures called Tenrecs (think tiny hedgehogs except not at all related) and we managed, no doubt thanks to our copious charm, to wrangle an invitation to go with them and watch them film some segments. This was a truly amazing experience. Granted, I may never look at a nature documentary the same way again. The amount of equipment required is truly astounding and there are other secrets which I will keep to myself for fear of ruining your impressions with inadequate explanations.
>"My tomato... SO THERE!" Lesser bamboo lemur

>Dancing Lemurs Dancing
>Mongoose Lemur

All in all it was a great trip and the girls and I went our separate ways with the promise that my brother and I would join them later in the month in Molly’s village to the north for the celebration of Malagasy Independence Day on the 26th of June. I was excited about this trip for many reasons, not least of which that I wanted to see some PC sites in order to better compare and contrast to my Morocco experience.

I took Matt fresh off the 24 hour plane ride, gave him one day to recover and then stuffed him into a Malagasy Taxi-brousse, a decrepit bush taxi little larger than a mini-van into which they routinely cram at least 15 people. Its run down, dusty, bumpy, there’s no padding in the seats and we were on board for something in the neighborhood of 20 hours before being discharged in Antsohihy where we would take a brief overnight rest before boarding another bus for the last leg of the journey. It was awesome in a forget-how-to-use-my-legs-wish-I-had-Valium kind of way. Cold though… We got the front seats because I made reservations in advance and this would have been great except for two minor details. The driver insisted on blasting Malagasy pop music for the entire 20 hour trip and our window refused to roll up all the way. If we had any doubts that it was winter in the southern hemisphere they were dispelled along the route.
Matt by the Brousse before our big journey

In any event we arrived in Bealanana without serious incident, sore and dusty but feeling very much in harmony with the PC spirit. Reunited with M&L we resumed our discussions pretty much where we had left off several weeks before in the appropriate setting of M’s one room house and with the added benefit of Matt’s awesome sense of humor. We got a lot of reading in, explored the surroundings a bit, and made peanut butter with peanuts harvested from M’s garden using a large mortar and pestle on the street in front of the house, much to the amusement of passersby I’m quite certain. Especially when we started belting out camp songs. We also succumbed to our own patriotic leanings and L turned tattoo artist giving us all patriotic motifs with marker.

The town itself was actually quite large and a pre-holiday party atmosphere was building. Each night there was festivities and performances on the town square and Malagasy flags and other decorations sprouted from windowsills and balconies all over town. Despite our best efforts to procure a second chicken to supplement the one M had inherited from a previous volunteer there was not a chicken to be had in town. Every walking bit of poultry of decent weight had already been spoken for weeks in advance in anticipation of Independence Day feasting. There was even a small, seedy looking carnival doing banner business.

M was an amazing hostess and quite patient of our invasion of her space. She was an awesome chef using primarily an “improved” cook stove made of clay and rice hulls to make us one-pot vegetarian masterpieces over charcoal with ingredients from the market across the street. This didn’t stop us from getting her into trouble with her super cute landlady though, who took the time to berate M for having the tenacity to ask her guests to fetch water, despite the fact that she was busy baking us a Dutch oven pineapple-upside-down cake at the time.

The big day finally arrived and the Malagasy started hitting the booze early in the morning which made for some interesting people watching from the balcony. The official festivities included parades, (in which we were obliged to make a brief appearance), many speeches (which seem to be something of a Malagasy national pastime), soccer matches, bare knuckle boxing and a grand ball (which is not nearly as grand as its name would lead you to believe). We spent most of the day cooking and listening to music and ended up with an awesome feast - barbecued chicken and vegetables, cakes and bread, potato salad and traditional Malagasy salads of various compositions. Something for every palette. I could no doubt continue to regale you with tales of good times and good food, but I don’t want to make you jealous.

We ended up back in Tana eventually after a reverse of the taxi ride (for which we were better prepared) just in time for our own Independence Day celebrations. M&L eventually joined Matt and I in the city and we hung out and did city things (like getting our own official rubber stamps made and drinking homemade beer from the Hotel de France) for a few days before L had to catch her flight back to the states. My family then recruited M to help decorate for the Ambassadors 4th of July bash. This was a good time. We decorated 600ish cupcakes and arrayed them in the shape of a giant American flag. This turned out to be an amusing dessert choice for the party because Malagasy people have no idea what to do with a cupcake. Or a hamburger for that matter… which made flame broiling my hands at the grill for 2 hours worthwhile. I think perhaps my favorite part was the Malagasy choir’s rendition of the Star-Spangled-Banner… Or perhaps Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World.”
>Molly,me,Laura,Matt in true Malagasy style

Later in July M’s parents flew in for a month long visit and Matt and I took them up on an invitation to accompany them to Morondava, a beachy town on the Mozambique Channel to the west of the island. We figured it was probably worthwhile just to watch M make her parents ride in a taxi-brousse for 19 hours. (It was). M was going to Morondava to run a marathon and the rest of us (who thought she was quite crazy) were going to hang out on the beach and witness the weird majesty of the avenue of the baobabs. (Also because the Morondava region is supposed to be interesting and unique and I hadn’t been there yet).

It was an amazing trip. Definitely one of my favorites thus far. Our hotel was cheap, yet our room had a clear view of the water and the surf lulled us to sleep each night. The beach in front of the hotel was well maintained and we swam for hours every day in the buoyant, salty water of the Indian Ocean, riding the waves and swimming from sandbar to sandbar. Each morning the water as far as the eye could see would be dotted with native pirogues, usually with a basic square sail made from whatever scraps of material they had to hand and an outrigger. The fishermen would pull in all sorts of things, from squid to sharks and paddle them in to their women on the beach who would, in turn, prep them or sell them to local tourist hotels. Each evening the sun would set directly into the water rendering the sky and the crests of the waves in a multitude of orange and purple hues. The word idyllic springs to mind most regularly looking back on it.
Lizard Friends at the Hotel in Morondava
Lizard Friends at the Hotel in Morondava
Lizard Friends at the Hotel in Morondava
Beach Sunsets!
Beach Sunsets!
Beach Sunsets!
Beach Sunsets!
Beach Sunsets!

We rented a car one day to take us out to Kirindy Mitea National Park, home of the “dry” forest. (as opposed to the rainforest?) We actually ended up going a day later than we had planned because there was an apparent shortage of gasoline that it took us the better part of a morning to discover. Sometimes events conspire to remind you that you’re still residing in the third world.

The park was interesting and I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of birdlife. There isn’t as much underbrush in the dry forest and so you can see the birds better than in the rainforest. My favorites, the Paradise fly-catchers in the black and white morphology, were displaying! Exciting stuff indeed. We also saw 3 types of lemurs and if we had camped out there we might even have seen a Fosa, Madagascar’s largest mammalian predator. (Which looks like a cross between a dog and a cat and is in the Civet cat family I think.) The highlight of this excursion however was most certainly the Baobab trees that line the road. These giants are truly bizarre and yet this only increases their appeal and their majesty I think. They are wonderfully weird. I could, and did, stand and look at them for a long time. We visited all the main attractions; the “lovers” baobab, the “sacred” baobab and wound up our visit with the classic but still amazing sunset photo shoot over the “avenue of baobabs.” I think that many people who come to Madagascar probably have these exact same photos but the event itself is certainly spectacular enough to make it worthwhile. Our only regret is that the chameleons have gone into hiding for the winter, though M and Matt did manage to find natures version of gladiators when a dragon fly that had been caught in a spiders web turned the tables and ate the spider earning his freedom. Who says the best drama is on television?
Baobabs! My new Favorite Trees
Baobabs! My new Favorite Trees
Red-Capped Coua
Lazy Sifakas
Red-Bellied Lemur with Tagging Collar
Paradise Flycatcher displaying
Sacred Baobab
Lover's Boababs
Avenue of the Baobabs
Avenue of the Baobabs

Getting to know a praying mantis

Our final full day in Morondava was the day of the Marathon. Matt and I made signs and decorated to support our favorite runner (and we were the only ones… the idea of a cheering section has apparently yet to catch on in Madagascar). I must admit that despite thinking marathon runners are crazy I still found it to be nothing short of amazing. A group of 45 foreigners organized by an American tour group in Boston had come to Madagascar specifically to run this marathon. Other than them it was 30 Malagasy guys and M. The runners got up at 3:30am to be bussed to the starting line 42 kilometers (26 miles) away and were supposed to begin running at 6am in hopes of avoiding the worst of the day’s heat. Unfortunately, their shuttle broke down and they started more than an hour behind schedule and had to finish during the suns worst hours. Much of the course was deep sand and they couldn’t close the road so they also had to dodge traffic. Despite all of this the first Malagasy men finished in less than 3 hours and most did so without shoes. M was awesome and came in second for the women (no Malagasy women ran) and got a spiffy golden trophy to display proudly at the PC house in Tana. A pretty great day all around I think. It has inspired me to attempt to train for a marathon at some point in the next few years. I would like to at least find out if I’m capable.

Unfortunately, the trip had to end and we taxi-broussed back to Tana and I returned to the office. I’ve been using the afternoons to do things around the city with Matt and Megan and just to relax. M and her family have left and it’s back to just us again. Our own family is planning to leave on our first full-family vacation in quite some time the first day of August. We’ll spend ten days driving south, seeing the sights along Madagascar’s highway 7, a trip that was suggested to us when we first arrived. I’m looking forward to it, even if we have all grown up so much that it means a rather cramped car. I’m sure I’ll have something to say about that trip in the not-to-distant future.

In the meantime, this letter is quite long enough. I do hope you’ve enjoyed it though. If the fancy strikes you feel free to write and let me know what you’re up to! I’ll be changing mailing addresses shortly so it is perhaps best to start sending any paper mail to the new address, listed below. E-mail is also welcome!

Until next time,
Stay well!
Love and Luck in Everything

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Hope and Oranges

Greetings Everyone!

As always, I hope this letter finds you well, healthy, happy and safe wherever you might be and whatever you might be doing. It has been a particularly fine ‘fall’ day here and as I sit to write the garden is at is fragrant best, a riot of color in the sharply slanted rays of the late afternoon sun. The neighborhood birds have discovered the birdbath I built and have been visiting the yard in noisy flocks for a chance to splash around in it. It is amusing to watch them at their bathing because it is perhaps the best time to observe them as individuals, some timid and tentative and others rollicking and playful. Our first batch of bananas has ripened on the tree in the back (and if anyone wants some we find we have perhaps a few too many all of a sudden) and our tiny vegetable garden has grown in size and density until it now more closely resembles a small jungle. It has already provided us with fresh lettuce, green beans and various herbs, with tomatoes beginning to ripen on the vine. Strange to think that technically speaking winter is rapidly approaching. The only evidence of the season is that is chilly nights and mornings before the sun completely asserts its dominance. We’ve been cheating a little and for the last few days have had fires in the wonderful fireplace in our living room, despite it being perhaps not quite cold enough in absolute (New England) terms.

It has been pointed out by several friends in recent conversation that I am perhaps a tad overdue in writing this letter for which I most humbly beg pardon. The good news is that I’ve been busy traveling for work and thus would presumably have much to discuss. If only I could figure out how. Confronted with the task, I’m having a bit of difficulty figuring out where to get started. Still, the best way to begin is to begin so here we go and I apologize in advance if what follows seems more s stream of consciousness than a proper, well organized note. Not that I ever manage to write those anyway:) .

Though I haven’t been on any longer trips with the family since the ones I recorded in my last update we did make good use of the remaining April weekends playing softball and visiting the ‘croc farm,’ a smallish but otherwise impressive zoo with a main attraction I’m sure you could guess if you put your mind to it. I’ll spare you the trouble and tell you that there were thousands of crocodiles at the park varying in size (and I assume age) from hatchling to goliath. It was also my first chance to see Madagascar’s only mammalian predators, the civet cat and its larger cousin the Fosa, several species of parrot and, of course, chameleons and lemurs. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the park was that the Malagasy visitors seemed much more fascinated by the ostriches and retired donkeys than they were in the native wildlife drawing the ooohs and ahhs from the foreign guests. There is probably a lesson there on perspective. I’ll get to more on perspective later I suspect. I’ve had many pointed illustrations recently.

Softball was a great time, except that I hadn’t played softball in probably close to 10 years (now that’s scary to think about too hard) and I haven’t done any sort of sport in a few months so jumping right into a two day tournament was probably not the smartest thing I could have done. At 26 I’m tied for the youngest player on the embassy team with a visiting Peace Corps volunteer and even we couldn’t really walk properly by the second day. The Malagasy teams we played against might have lacked some of the skills that come from watching and playing baseball as a youth sport and a firm understanding of the rules but they more than made up for it with speed and endurance gained from years of soccer and hard physical work and they were excellent sports. Better sports, I’m embarrassed to say, than many of the American players who also seem to believe, rightly or wrongly, that arguing balls and strikes and close plays with the umps is just part of the fun. I also got to meet, and get to know through fun and mutual suffering, a number of people who work at the embassy and found them to be, in general, a good humored and enjoyable crowd. I was also struck momentarily by the fact that they represent an interesting microcosm of America and American life. A cross section of the country and the lifestyles united by the fact that they choose to work abroad but diverse in many other ways. I wonder how often anyone stops to notice this.

Our only other family outing was a continuation of our plan to pick compass directions randomly and travel as far in the chosen direction as we can manage on a weekend. This time it was a short (3 hour) jaunt to the west, to visit a large lake, see a waterfall and some natural geysers. This trip was mostly a bust since we couldn’t manage to find our way to the lake (we saw it from a distance but the guide book instructions were very vague), the road to the waterfall was too rugged to get the car down and the geysers were not truly geysers. Still, the area was beautiful; the hotel was nice (many spiders! Yikes) and the mineral springs were impressive. Plus we hadn’t yet been west so it was all worthwhile in the proper spirit of the thing.

It is my more recent adventures that have captured my full attention however. For most of the month of May I have been traveling for work on a project to photograph and document project successes and best practices of a Malagasy NGO headquartered here in Tana. The organization works, with its partners, throughout much of the east and south of the country and I have covered a lot of ground and seen parts of Madagascar that I am sure very few foreigners get a chance to discover. For the most part this trip has been about people, not places. The rural people, often far from roads, forgotten and underprivileged, in some cases starving or dying of disease yet always doing the best they can with what they have. They are wonderful people with a ready smile and a quick laugh despite their circumstances, a song on their lips as they go about pounding the daily rice ration. Proud men wrapped in gaudy blankets against the chill of morning mists clutch razor sharp spears and guard herds of cattle as they graze and water. Happy children in crowded classrooms do long division to show their strange guests how much they know, play soccer in tattered clothing with a wad of plastic bags as a ball and race bicycle wheel rims through a drizzling rain amid the squawks of startled poultry. Girls as young as 13 and married proudly show off their infant children, or shyly hide, peeking out from behind the doorframes of their tiny houses. This is a different world, far from anything I knew or understood even after spending two years in rural Morocco (though there are definitely some points of correlation) and these are the faces that populate that world. The faces of people that for 23 days in May have shared, as best they can with me, their lives, their troubles, their triumphs, their hopes, dreams and accomplishments. They are the faces I have attempted to capture on film and will attempt to capture in words knowing full well that I am doomed to failure from the outset. No image I can create will ever adequately describe the lives they lead. Many are the faces of my dreams now also, a permanent mark on my soul.

My translator, guide, and friend on these journeys was a 23 year old Malagasy girl from the capitol city’s ruling class (though such a distinction is not technically supposed to exist any longer) named Arivony (pronounced Arvoon). She is the stereotypical definition of a city girl and like most royals, a tiny bit conceited from time to time, all of which means that in many of the places we visited she was almost more of a foreigner than I was. She was also amazing, conducting interviews with busy, well dressed professionals and people with nothing but the clothes on their backs and often not even that, arranging meals and hotels and generally being my fixer and confidant. I certainly couldn’t have done the trip without her.


She and I had many interesting conversations during our many hours in the car or evening meals about life in Madagascar. She helped to shed light on traditions, like the giving of gifts, weddings, funerals, the ancestors, ‘spells’ of protection and others. One of the most interesting discussions concerned the social hierarchy of Antananarivo (and by extension much of the highland plateau). It turns out that to this day there are three major social classes in the capitol. Arivony translated them as ruling, servant, and slave. Historically the ruling class would be in charge overall, with the servant class working for them in the bureaucratic positions common to any government as well as in more standard servant roles, and the slaves, literally slaves in historic times, doing the hard manual labor and menial jobs. Now of course, there is no literal slavery and as Arivony puts it, “everyone works” but socially she still can’t marry anyone from either of the lower classes (she wears a golden identity bracelet to mark her status), each class has specific areas of the city in which they are generally found, distribution of wealth and position is generally still along the these class lines. They tell the classes apart by designators familiar to the racial conflict in the U.S. The slaves are for the most part of African decent brought up from where they had settled in the costal regions and have darker skin and different hair than the lighter skinned, straight haired ruling class of Polynesian decent. She also told me that it was getting more difficult to tell them apart and she had once accidentally dated someone from the servant class but had to break it off when she found out where he lived despite the fact that “he was a nice guy.”

In the end I think it was good for her to get out of the city and see some of the things that we saw. I know it was good for me. She started out believing that the people we visited were simply a bit backward, as if they had a choice in the matter. I found this view a bit amusing considering it was coming from a girl that wears her own baby teeth as jewelry in a spell to ward off evil. “Backward,” like most things, is a matter of perspective.

As we traveled further from the city I had to keep revising my definition of true poverty to be in line with what I was seeing. On the first leg of our journey to the east people lived deep in the lush rainforest, at least in places where it had not been logged for charcoal, as their ancestors had lived for generations before them. They farmed small plots wrestled manfully from the dense surrounding vegetation and scattered over many acres. It is an extremely difficult life, always at war with the surrounding jungle but much more sustainable than the slash and burn agriculture that is rapidly coming to replace it. It’s hard to tell right and wrong in situations where any option condemns either the people or the earth on which they depend to painful life and slow death. There is not enough food during the months at the height of the rainy season when the rice crop doesn’t grow to keep the children in school. I saw many with the red hair and distended bellies of kwashiorkor disease due to a lack of protein in their diets. The people live in bamboo and grass huts built on stilts to discourage rats and minimize flooding. The huts do almost nothing to keep the elements out or provide privacy but do keep the choking smoke from cooking fires in. (Yet, if you teach them how to make a chimney for their fireplace the number of malaria deaths increases exponentially. It turns out that the smoke from the fires also cuts down on the number of mosquitoes in the house.) Local organizations were struggling to provide centrally located sources of clean water, increasing agricultural diversity in an attempt to provide year round food sources and using puppet shows to provide information on family planning, health, sanitation and nutrition (to great effect). Its not often you can say a puppet show restored a bit of your faith in humanity.

Not everything was working however. One of the villages we visited was a completely deserted ghost town. The people who lived there, I later discovered, were deep in the forest where they stayed for most of the year, only returning to the village for festivals and funerals. Yet two wells had been dug in the village to provide clean water, only this hadn’t been discussed with the people of the village first and instead just seemed to appear out of nowhere when they returned from one of their long absences. Village elders declared the wells black magic and had them boarded up without ever using them, posting sun bleached cow skulls around the village on the end of long poles as warnings.

To the south conditions were no better and often worse. Bamboo huts were replaced by structures built with mud and sticks directly on the ground that I first mistook for chicken sheds. Often these houses had dimensions smaller than 6x8 feet and I could easily see over the peak of the roof without having to stand on anything. You had to crawl to get in the door and there were no windows. The grass roofs were black from years of cooking smoke seeping in as it attempted to find an escape from the crowded interior. In such a dwelling might live a family of 11 people or more. TB and Malaria are rampant despite a pitched battle being waged against them by the government, USAID, the UN and a variety of local organizations, including my own. We gave a ride to a family whose young daughter had gone into a malarial coma (the first I had ever seen), muscles clenched and sweating. They couldn’t afford to bring her themselves and it was too far to carry her. I can only hope she made it, but there were other children at the clinic that did not and statistics were against her. That particular clinic saw an average of 36 malaria cases a month, which may not seem like many until you realize that many people can’t get there at all and the disease is often in its terminal stages before the child is deemed sick enough to be worth the expense. Of the average 36 cases more than half die even after aggressive treatment.

Family planning was also high on the agenda of the aid organizations, since a woman in a rural village would, on average have around 12 children, 4-6 of which would survive to adulthood, the rest falling to malnutrition, gastrointestinal maladies, malaria or TB (though exact cause of death is often impossible to determine because they lack the resources to get to the nearest hospital for testing). This was expected as a matter of course. Men might have up to 10 wives and therefore father greater than 100 children, so even though he was relatively well off (men ‘buy’ their wives as a traditional check to insure that he is rich enough to then provide for them) that’s a lot of mouths to feed. I have no source for these numbers except my own observations and the interviews I conducted but it is a sad state of affairs even if only those few families are affected. Most families are willing to give up everything they owned to afford school fees and this is often what it takes. Teachers were often paid for by parents organizations and sometimes went hungry themselves in lean times, or walked miles a day to get too and from remote schools.

Some things are working. These are truly intelligent people and programs to increase their knowledge of disease, literacy, nutrition, health and sanitation and the benefits of clean water seem to be taking hold. School children raced to demonstrate that they wash their hands before meals and after using the latrine and treat their water to render it safe. They carry these lessons home to their parents from the classroom. Adult literacy classes often lead to the creation of village development associations that take on new agricultural challenges, like raising green beans and honey bees, building toilets and creating income generating arts and crafts co-operatives. Certainly, heartening progress.

Still, when you come from a life of relative privilege it is difficult to remain unaffected by such a total lack. By the time we reached the far southern port city of Fort Dauphin on our last set of visits both Arivony and I were feeling it. Her attitude had changed over the course of the trips from one of self superiority to one full of empathy and a kind of fierce national pride. If my visit and our trip had accomplished nothing else but to be able to be a catalyst for that single change - the creation of an outgoing and charismatic advocate with powerful friends and a better understanding of her own country - it was completely worthwhile. She broke down completely into tears during and interview with a 73 year old man whose wife had left him with a 4 and 5 year old child when he had contracted TB and had to stop working. We conducted the interview sitting on the floor of a house barely standing after a storm had pushed to a rakish slant. The organization we were visiting with donated rice to the small family, cooked by neighbors. It was the only house I visited not permeated completely by smoke and it felt less alive because of it.

Supposedly the man was cured of TB but still had a deep racking cough, as did his children and many of the neighbors. In the end we decided to use some of our own resources to transport as many children from the village as possible to the clinic 20 kilometers away for testing if for no other reason than to feel like we were doing something. Eventually we managed to get organized and took 40 kids in two trips in the back of our pickup truck amid a bit of a festival atmosphere.

The clinic itself was overwhelmed with patients already, with one doctor seeing between 30 and 300 patients a day (and on market days sometimes as many as 1000). Bloody surgical instruments sat soaking in bright colored plastic buckets on the floor of his office waiting to be decontaminated according to instructions someone had hand painted onto the wall above the sink. The room reeked of blood and worse. Charts taped to the crumbling cement walls tracked disease trends and progress in family planning programs, the graphs fluctuating wildly up and down the damp and yellowing sheets of paper. Yet these people were lucky. They had a skilled doctor and a clinic for him to practice in. White skin and a camera occasionally come in handy and the clinic managed to test every child we brought. The TB technician of the local aid group volunteered to be responsible for overseeing the results were properly distributed and any prescribed treatment followed. (the treatment for TB requires a 7-9 month course of daily antibiotics and is notoriously difficult to follow under such conditions except under direct observation) I also bought a literal truckload (200+ pounds) of oranges for the equivalent of $6 at a local market and passed them out to everyone I could find in every village along the way. So for the price of a little gas and $6 worth of oranges we helped in a small way and our own smiles returned. Tax dollars well spent I think. Later over lunch Arivony said, “I will never again say that I am poor, in fact today I think I am richer than I have ever been, though I have no money.” I can’t help but to agree. The people we visit are also rich in many ways and would never call themselves poor. “We have family” they would say, “we have our pride, we have our homes, we have our fields, we have our cattle and chickens, we can read, we can write, we have our ancestors and the stories of our ancestors, we have traditions and magic. Yes, we have no money, but we can still dream.”

Now, home again, I’m left with 2000 photos, mostly portraits, and the challenge of trying to figure out what it all means. The surreal nature of my double life sometimes strikes me as I write in the garden or go out for drinks with Peace Corps volunteers (some trying to escape their own ghosts I think). At an expat bar where a decent cover band does Steve Miller Band and the Beetles I have to stop and close my eyes and for a moment the music disappears I’m back walking among the proud people of rural Madagascar. In the end it is the question WHY? that most often recurs. The ways of fixing these problems are out there already. What’s stopping us from finding the resolve that would be required for bringing the combined force of will of the human race to bear on them? And my determination to go and complete my education and spend my life helping these people and others like them is redoubled. I would not have traded this trip for anything. It was a truly amazing and wonderful experience and I’m sad I have to return to the office this week. But I won’t be alone there. I will still have the faces.

I apologize that this letter is longer than usual, but I hope you found it worthwhile. Please write me! I would love to hear from you.
Until next time my friends,
Stay well
Love and Luck in Everything and next time you’re down have an orange and think of your wandering friend,