Easter in Antsirabe

Posted: April 25, 2014 by Kirsti in Non SU: SIT Madagascar

At home in the United States, Easter is one of my favorite holidays with my family; Holy Week and Easter for the Faaren/Ruud household is filled with beautiful worship services and music, traditions I look forward to every year, great food, friends, family, and a certain level of frivolity. This is the second year in a row being away from home during the time leading up to Easter, and one of the only times not being present for Easter Day festivities. Although I was sad to miss this occasion, I have come to know that the next best place in the world to be for Easter is Antsirabe.

For the last part of the study abroad program, all the students conduct independent study projects on a topic of our choosing, in a location of our choosing. I want to be academically challenged and study something related to my major, Political Science, but I’m also in Madagascar and want to have fun. Therefore, I decided to focus my project on the formation of national identity and sources of unity in a diverse country…through the lens of music and dance. I could have performed this particular study anywhere in the country, so I decided to come back to Antsirabe to spend more time in this beautiful place that is rich with family history. It was, after all, my Grandfather’s work with the radio station and music here that initially sparked my interest in my topic of study.

What I did not know until my arrival, however, is that if there was a perfect time and place to study the role of music and dance in Malagasy life, it would be Easter in Antsirabe. Two other students and I arrived the Friday before Palm Sunday, so we were able to watch  the city transform entirely over Holy Week. On Friday, we were three of the very few guests at our hotel and by Wednesday, every room was filled. Apparently, people come from all over the country, and all over the world, to celebrate Easter in Antsirabe for what is, essentially, a week-long music festival. There are performances all over the city by local artists and big name artists from around the country, and people are out in the streets all day and night. By Saturday, many streets were entirely blocked off for carnival rides, food vendors, and stages. The area in front of the train station was turned into an open-air discothèque, and music blasted from speakers from every street corner in the center of town all night long.

During this first week of the project, I was met with an overwhelming willingness to participate in my study by so many people. After just two days of starting the project, I was in contact with an internationally-known Malagasy musician, met several bands after live performances, conducted many interviews, including one with a man who was introduced to me as “the best person in all of Madagascar to talk to about music and dance,” joined a choir, took part in an intergenerational jam session with friends and family of a new friend where I too sang a solo with a jazz band and one of the other students revealed his secret talent for playing the djembe (who knew there were drum circles in Oshkosh, Wisconsin), met with a man who had worked with my grandparents and remembered by Dad as the little boy who collected stamps, and received so many invitations for musical events happening throughout the week that I had to turn some down. And that was just the first two days. It has been a whirlwind.

Easter weekend was a bit hectic with all the festivities in town, but I made sure to do some of the traditional Faaren/Ruud family Easter shenanigans–with a Malagasy twist. We had some other friends from the program come stay with us in Antsirabe for Easter weekend at an apartment we have now moved into at the old Norwegian Lutheran missionary children’s school. It is now owned by the Malagasy Lutheran church and is a “Cross-Cultural Center” aiming to bridge Malagasy and Norwegian cultures. I cooked a big Easter dinner for all of us and served the food on familiarly Norwegian-looking plates. It feels a bit like my Grandmother’s house. My friends humored me by playing some of my family’s traditional Easter games, and we even raised the level of frivolity a bit by wearing sparkly party hats. These hats and Mardi Gras-style masks were sold by every vendor in the street for the Easter celebration and children wore them all over town; some children even wore them to Easter Sunday church services.

We attended a worship service on Easter at the church some of our new friends work for as the pianists and organists. We had met several people from the congregation already either through our various study projects or at the jam session. It was nice to see familiar faces and have people to score us seats and hymnals. Normally on Easter, I struggle through the soprano part of the Hallelujah Chorus in my church choir, but this year, I got to listen to Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus sung by an amazing boy’s choir; these little guys hit all the high notes effortlessly–it was beautiful.

I know that my Grandfather had composed several hymns and choral peices in Malagasy, so every time I am at a church services here, I scan the hymnal for his name but had never been successful. Because there were so many people, communion lasted about 45 minutes; in between singing songs, therefore, I had time to skim through the hymnal a bit. I was sitting next to one of my American friends and he asked what I was doing. I explained, and told him that I had pretty much given up at this point. He took the hymnal from me to perform his own search, flipped a couple pages and said, “Found it.” There it was. Hymn 374. “Hevero, ry Andevom-Pahotana.” G. Ruud. I come from a long line of criers (we prefer the term, “sensitive”), so I can blame genetics for the fact that I teared-up a bit sitting in that pew. The other students, however, were very supportive of this means of expressing emotions and even when we sang other hymns, my friend who found the hymn kept his thumb in the page so I wouldn’t lose it for the rest of the four hour-long service. When the service had finished, we showed the hymn to our pianist friends and although they were not familiar with the song, they were able to sight-read the notes and sing a bit of it for us. They said that the song is beautiful and that they would go home and learn it.

Being here has been one wonderful, surprising moment after another and I have been so warmly welcomed. Not only has this been great for my project and makes the study process very enjoyable, but I feel like I’m also connecting with my family story and making friends. I am so happy I am here.

And next Easter, Faaren/Ruud family, get ready: We’re wearing party hats.


Flash-black, on Monday we went to an orphanage and got to spend an hour and a half with some of the cutest girls in Tijuana. It was overwhelmed to think that the sweet and energetic girls we were playing with came from some of the most difficult backgrounds fathomable. It was nice for everyone to have a break and just have a chance to play.

Flash-back to yesterday. We went to I think my favorite visit of the trip, La Casa de la Immigrante. This is a place from men who have been deported or are about to cross the border to move to the US. It really impacted me how desperately these men wanted to be in the United States despite how depressive our immigration system is. They would do anything; even risk their lives. It shocked me that just because I was born in the United States, I automatically had a step up in life. It made me want to know and understand more about border and immigration issues.

The adorable photo bellow was taken after about 6 hours of work. The rebar we are standing on was the tedious preparation we did today in order to be able to pour a cement roof tomorrow. At the beginning of the week, the plan was that we would visit a Maquilla in the morning and most likely not have enough time to work at a site during the afternoon. As plans usually go in Mexico, this idea changed and it ironically became our longest day of work. We arrived in Valla Verde at around twelve thirty starving. We began work anxiously awaiting lunch. Paul told the women in the village that we could do quick sandwiches but they refused, saying this was not good enough. The wait was worth it when we saw the quesadillas, salad, beans, and fresh guacamole they had prepared for us. Another perfect example of the hospitality we have been shown each day here in TJ.
I am embarrassed to say that when Paul offered the idea of quitting early or finishing up the job, I wanted to quit. Thankfully, I was out numbered and we finished the whole roof. After we were done I know our hard work made the family’s dream of a home that much closer. As we drove away the family, along with many other community members, waved frantically and smiled as we drove away. The expressions on their faces made all those hours of work worth it.



Blood, Sweat and Cement.

Posted: April 3, 2014 by sueducationabroad in U.S - Mexico Border: Contemporary Perspecti ves

Yesterday, we worked for seven hours pouring cement on a roof. It took fifty volunteers, eight children, and about six skilled carpenters. I lifted, I pushed, I pulled, and I marveled at our combined strength. When it was finished I looked around at the group leaders and all the volunteers around me, all weatherbeaten, all red, and all smiling in triumph.

Now that it’s all said and done I have fourteen cuts on my hands, and when I move to stretch I can feel my dry skin resist the movement. My back aches and my glutes are on fire, although I am secretly grateful for the burn, seeing as summer is coming up. But when I saw what we accomplished, what I accomplished, I smiled back at all the people around me. I feel inspired, I feel empowered, and mostly I feel awe struck.

I feel inspired by all the people around me; from the volunteers and staff who have dedicated their life and time to this work, to all the locals that I have encountered; who are stronger, kinder and better cooks than I ever could have imagined.
I feel empowered by the vision that drives this foundation. This organization is so multifaceted and I find myself amazed at its ability to extend itself into so many parts of the community. Lastly, I find myself in awe at the people that I have been surrounded by and the amount we’ve been able to accomplish. My time in Mexico has disproved all my previous notions about the culture, the issues and the people, and for that I am grateful.


It’s hard to believe that it’s already Friday. The beginning of the week seemed to go so slow, but now I am wondering where this week went. Today we went back to our original worksite for our final half day. I spent the first part of the morning digging a trench and ended up getting yet another blister on my hand. I then spent the rest of the morning tying wires and rebar in preparation for the rest of the construction of the house. As per usual, it was only yesterday that our group really began to feel like a team just as the trip is coming to an end. The family cooked us a lunch of delicious Carne Asada, beans, quesadillas, and some other food that followed the trend of the rest of the week- that I didn’t want to stop eating. Today we got to bring a little something for the families as far as food goes. We brought Choco-flan and a piñata to share with the family and their friends. We got to share an hour or so spending time with the families to just talk and learn from each other which was our main goal originally. As this trip comes to a close, I know that I have learned a lot about community and how important and even critical it can be. This community can be within a neighborhood, a city, or state and I know now that I have been and will continue to be a part of the global community. The act of doing something good for a neighbor, friend, or someone you have never met is something that must be experienced and cannot be translated into words. So, as we Neosporin, bandage, and lotion our wounded hands, we are armed with knowledge that we need in order to continue to form the larger community in our own back yards and in the rest of the world.


>When I think about Mexico, I come up with ideas for sightseeing, warm, sunny, nice weather, and beach. My images of Mexico are something colorful like this picture. This is Esperanza building where we stay. It’s pretty, isn’t it?
(Where we lived)
There are so many places that represent so-called Mexico, for sightseeing spots.
Today we went to one of those places, Puerto Nuevo!
We enjoyed shopping.
We ate shrimp and fish tacos, those were really good! The Beach was beautiful.



But don’t forget that those places are just one part of Mexico.
Sometimes, buildings are not colorful and
we don’t see any fancy things. There are rocky and sandy roads and garbage.


Some people might be surprised how Tijuana, Mexico looks.
This is a photo of the second day in Mexico, it looks shows a different side of Mexico.
When you visit Mexico, of course it’s good to visit places for sightseeing. But please visit local places, you can see and know how Mexican people live their life.
Some places are sometimes dangerous, so please visit those places with people who are familiar with Mexico.
But don’t be afraid, Mexican people are very kind and cheerful!!



Reflections on Mexico….

Posted: March 26, 2014 by sueducationabroad in U.S - Mexico Border: Contemporary Perspecti ves

Hello Everyone! We have been learning about US and Mexico border issue for three months in Professor Paul Milan’s U.S Mexico Border Relations class. We have been so excited to visit Mexico and now we have finally arrived in Tijuana. We are working with an organization called Esperanza. Esperanza is a non-profit organization in Tijuana that helps families with limited resources build homes.

I was surprised by the contrast between U.S and Mexico. I expected Mexico to be similar to America but actually, it’s not. I saw many broken houses, wild dogs, mountains of trash, and poor people on the road right after crossing the border. The amount of poverty feels overwhelming. I feel so powerless in the face of poverty. However, instead of feeling sad, I decided to communicate, interact, and listen to people here because that’s the only thing I can do now.
View of Mexico/US Border

I have been thinking a lot about my paternal Grandmother while being here in Madagascar, her old stomping grounds, but during the homestay in a village near the town of Betafo, I have also been thinking a lot about my maternal Grandmother. She grew up on a farm in North Dakota and instructed me before my departure, as any good Norwegian would, to “work hard.” As her mother used to say, “Vork never hurt nobody.” Well, Grandma, after living on a farm for a week, I have followed through with your instructions and have gotten a taste of the hard work you’ve been talking about all these years. In comparison to how much my host family works, sometimes late into the night, however, I have done very little. Even still, my body aches from just the small amount of watering, fertilizing, and household chores I did.

We expected this village stay to be conducted almost entirely, if not entirely, in Malagasy because not very many people speak French in the rural areas. In preparation, we devoted a lot of time reviewing helpful phrases. I laughed at one of the other girls in our group for making a flashcard of “emergency” phrases that included “Te-hitery omby aho, azafady” which means, “I would like to milk a cow, please.” As it turns out, however, this phrase was very helpful to know as I was asked this as an interrogative within five minutes of my arrival. I wish I had also learned prior to the stay, “You are going to slaughter a chicken,” and “Be careful not to fall in the flooded, muddy trench” because I did both of these things. As with everything I did, there was a crowd of attentive spectators present during both of these events. The “fishbowl effect,” as our director calls it, has been one of the unexpected challenges of the village stay because I quite literally stick out as the only white person in our village and everything I do is a source of entertainment (why I decided that this was a good time to really crack down on my flossing beats me).

On one occasion, my host father instructed me to wade out into the rice paddy with a group of people to help them catch fish with my hands. I provided them all a good laugh as a young man would catch a fish and release it right in front of me so I could try to catch it; I never succeeded. One woman showed me how to make a cup with my hand to catch the smaller fish, and after several tries, I finally caught one! I really cannot overemphasize how small this fish was, but hey, I’m savoring the small victories here. Like when I made it back to the house with a bucket of water from the stream without spilling any of it. I am forever impressed by my host sisters’ ability to balance large jugs of water on their heads without using their hands and then effortlessly climb up and down steep hills without spilling any of the water. Most of the time, even when I wasn’t carrying a bucket of water, I would slip or stumble, and my graceful host sisters would say, “Mora mora, Kirsti!” (slowly!).

My host family is comprised of my father and mother, two aids who live with them, and four daughters still living at home. My host parents have three older daughters living elsewhere and my host father has two other daughters from a previous marriage, making him the proud father of nine girls. He is the Mr. Bennett of fathers, so gentle and loving, working hard to provide for his daughters.

One of the real challenges I faced while being there is simply living and listening to the hard reality of their circumstances. I have been exposed to poverty before, not that it gets any easier, but for some reason I was not expecting the magnitude of emotions I felt listening to my host father talk about their struggles. Most of my day is spent with my host mother and sisters, communicating almost entirely in Malagasy, but my host father speaks French very well so when we had time together, we had long conversations I came to cherish and look forward to. My heart broke as I listened to him remembering a time when he was a child during the First Republic when Malagasy ate well and took vacations from their work to see other parts of the country. He says that Madagascar is rich but, according to him, bad governance has led to the reality of them working just merely to eat, and that is all. He stares out the window at their livestock and extensive fields of vegetables and rice and talks about his desire to send his children to school and provide for them and the increasing difficulty of this task as the family continues to grow and their agricultural livelihood is threatened by low market prices, global climate change, and environmental degradation. We look out at the surrounding hillsides that I proclaim to be beautiful and he says it is hard for him to see the beauty when he sees the degradation and what it used to be. He points out the visible damage caused specifically by climate change. It is hard to bear knowing that his lifestyle has little to no carbon footprint but that my own unsustainable lifestyle in the U.S. is making their life even harder.

The knowledge of their struggles with poverty and those of all their neighbors across the country was my very hard for me. I also know, however, that it is important to have this exposure, even if it is hard. I was remembering a podcast I heard in one of my theology classes last quarter at Seattle University of Parker Palmer talking about dealing with hopelessness in the face of these seemingly insurmountable injustices. When exposed to these realities, he references the idea that the heart can break in two different ways. In the first, it shatters apart into pieces and we are unable to pick ourselves back up, consumed by grief. In the second, the heart breaks open, enabling us to have even more empathy and a strengthened capacity to face these challenges with this personal, real connection. We are able to maintain hope, motivated by the emotions of our open hearts. It has been a while since I heard the podcast so I may be misrepresenting exactly what he was saying, but this image was helpful for me in making sense of what I was feeling and also living with the knowledge of this injustice.

Every time I felt bogged down by sadness or hopelessness, an interaction would take place that renewed my faith and hope as I witnessed the incredible resilience of the human heart. It was in the moments of pure joy, no matter how small, that I realized I could overcome this hopelessness because they definitely do not let the unfairness of their circumstances prevent them from loving each other and extending love to me, enjoying the day, and continuing to have faith in God and hope for the future. I experienced this when I would laugh and play with my host sisters who always seem so happy. I experienced this when I witnessed the incredible ingenuity of the 15-year-old boy aid in constructing toys out of anything he could find outside, my favorite toy being a cricket-drawn cart. I experienced this during all the family meals in which our laughter and discussions were sandwiched between a prayer at the beginning and end of the meal which was eaten while sitting shoulder to shoulder on mats on the floor. I experienced this during all our family dance parties when my host father would proudly narrate the different styles of Malagasy music and dance and my host sisters would teach me new moves. Everyone participated in these joyous events, including the two aids, and sometimes, the cat. And I experienced this when my host father told me as he gazed out at the world around us that he loves his work and is optimistic about the future of his country, hopeful that soon there will once again be an abundance of food and they will be able to take vacations from their work to see the rest of their rich, beautiful country.

Like my host mother taught me to say in Malagasy, I will not forget them (Tsimanadino anareo aho). Their story is now woven into mine and their love is now part of my motivation to work for social justice in the world in any small way I can, believing that one day, my host father’s hope will become reality.