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.