Easter in Antsirabe

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.



“Te-hitery omby aho, azafady” and other “emergency” phrases for village life

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.






These are the days of miracles and wonder

As we drove through the highlands on the way to our weeklong village homestays, we listened to the Paul Simon album, “Graceland.” Listening to “The Boy in the Bubble” and looking out the window at our beautiful surroundings, thinking about what had transpired the day before, a line in the song really resonated with my experience: these are the days of miracles and wonder.

Before sending us off into our respective villages, we had a few days to prepare in the nearest city to the village sites. This city, Antsirabe, happens to be the place where my grandfather started a radio station and is home to my Dad’s earliest childhood memories. One of my aunts was just recently here and noted that in her opinion, it is the most beautiful place in Madagascar. From what I’ve seen so far, I agree. Located in the highlands, the volcanic soil makes the vegetation particular lush and the air is so refreshing in comparison to the polluted urban center.

On our first day, the program organized a dropoff activity where they divided us into teams with a list of places to find on our own before meeting back at the hotel for dinner. Not being a competitive person (cough cough), my group decided to do some additional exploring before returning to the hotel (which was okay because we basically had already won, finding all the places faster than the other teams). During our exploration, we visited a market and stumbled upon one of the larger Lutheran churches. An event was happening inside the sanctuary so instead of going in, I thoroughly examined the whole exterior, wondering if this had been a church my family had ever frequented.

The next few days didn’t leave much time for further wandering on our own as we had many scheduled visits to organizations and also had preparations to make for the upcoming week. On our last evening in Antsirabe, I skyped with my family briefly before rushing off to a visit to an English club. I will be returning to Antsirabe for a month in April to complete my independent study project, so my Dad described to me where I could then find the radio station and his childhood home in relation to the old Lutheran Hospital. On the way to the English club, I asked our director if he knew where the hospital was and he didn’t know. I figured on my return trip I would consult a map and go searching.

We arrived at the location of the English club and there were many buildings in the same compound. The building that housed the club had the word “radio” written on the exterior followed by some Malagasy words I didn’t know. I asked our director if he knew what radio station it was and he didn’t. I looked around at the surrounding buildings and I felt my heart beating a little faster; but there are many radio stations so I felt silly getting excited. When I return in April, I thought, I will find out whether my gut was right.

I was placed in a class with advanced level one students and, being the daughter of a very experienced and talented English teacher, I tried to channel my Mom in how I spoke and addressed the students. Many of them were very eager to practice their English with me and they asked me many questions, including: why are you so tall? I’m single, are you married? Is it true what we see in movies about young people in the United States? Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Why did you chose to come to Madagascar? In response to this last question, I explained that I have always wanted to come to Madagascar and told them all about my family connection to this place. I asked the teacher if he was familiar with the radio station, Radio Voice of the Gospel, and he said yes! I waited eagerly  as he translated the name into Malagasy and I was so happy when all the students nodded excitedly and audibly acknowledged that they knew it too even though it is not running at the moment. “You know it?!” I asked, and the teacher responded, “I think it is right on the other side of this wall.”

I could hardly control my emotions as I conveyed my joy and surprise! I peered out the window to look at the house that was exactly as my Dad had described not even an hour before via Skype. All the students seemed to share in my excitement and I was overwhelmed; if I had let myself, I could have cried in happiness, but I saved this for later when I was not leading an English lesson.

After the class, I confirmed with the English club coordinator that it was the radio station and that they rent the space while it is not running. She pointed out the hospital buildings and I did a little further exploring around the station, the house exterior, and the garden. I imagined my grandparents in this place. I admired the building that may have been built by my grandfather and his father. And I thought about my Dad as a little squirt running around this compound and making those earliest childhood memories. I knew that all of this existed and that I would eventually find it, but I was not prepared for this discovery at that particular moment and therefore I think I was that much more affected by the experience. I felt as though my family were there with me because my heart was warmed as if taken in an embrace by those whom you love and who love you in return. It was truly incredible.


Driving in the car the next day I was still thinking about the experience and processing the miraculousness being here and this unexpected discovery. You are right, Paul Simon, these truly are the days of miracles and wonder.


Ny mandeha taxi-be dia mahafinaritra

I consider myself to be a fairly seasoned, competent bus-rider. Relying on public transportation in many situations to get from point A to B has caused me to frequent busses regularly enough in Washington to actually understand the unwritten protocol and social nuances of public transit life. Basically, I know what I’m doing. That is, I knew what I was doing until I got to Madagascar. In the capital city of Tana, my host family lives far enough away from the program center to warrant taking the taxi-be (bus) to and from class everyday. In our previous homestay, many of the students rode the taxi-be everyday but my homestay was conveniently located within a two-minute walk to the program center so I had no experience riding the taxi-be solo in that laid-back coastal town, let alone in this bustling urban center; in Tana, traffic rules, street names, and social nuances of public transit are less than apparent to a first time observer (and in the case of route maps, schedules, and traffic lights, completely nonexistent). Needless to say, I was a bit terrified.

In Malagasy class, we learned a song that all Malagasy children and adults I have asked seem to know. It is sung to the tune of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and the chorus, with a rough translation, is the following:

Ny mandeha (the voyage) x3
dia mahafinaritra (magnificent)

The verses go through various forms of transportation, for example: Ny mandeha taxi-be dia mahafinaritra.

After seeing these taxi-be, which are maybe 16 passenger vans with often times over 30 people, coupled with my unfamiliarity with this massive city, it was hard for me to imagine how I could ever come to think of this particular means of voyaging as “mahafinaritra.”

For my first few days of class, my host father and sister took turns riding with me to and from class. On my first day, my host father showed me the walk to Lake Anosy where I was to take either the 146 or 147 all the way to the program center neighborhood of Antanimena. Getting to the lake requires one to cross a 4 lane busy street where the only way to cross is to walk out in front of moving traffic trusting that the drivers will stop because only the presence of a body directly in front of the car will get any driver to yield for pedestrians. We did this successfully and the 147 arrived just as we did. You enter the bus from the back where an attendant opens the door and collects money from the passengers at some point during the ride; their memory and attention to detail is impressive. I learned how to say “misy miala” when it was my stop, and it all worked out seamlessly, as did the return trip. I was feeling confident about my ability to repeat this on my own.

As it turns out, we only took that bus because it was market day, so the next day my host father wanted me to take a different bus from a different place, and it was chaos. We missed several busses because they were too crowded. At one point, I felt my host father pulling on my arm and then he started running and hopped on a bus with a crowd all pushing to get on; apparently, I was a little too slow because the attendant motioned that they were at capacity right when I tried to enter. My host father got off and we waited again. The next time, my host father urged me ahead of him and indicated I should run and jump onto the bus while it was still moving. For anyone who knows my particular dislike for running and really the smallest possibility of danger, you know that this was definitely a stretch for me, but I did it! The bus ride also included stopping for gas and driving away with the attendant still running alongside adjusting the gas cap.

I had an incredible feeling of accomplishment the first day I successfully made it both ways of the journey by myself. Now, I am beginning to pick-up certain protocols, like how to pull out the aisle planks for additional seating, and I know which are the best seats to score. Most of my nerves have subsided as I have learned the basics, which allows me to look out the window 2 hours a day (1 hour each way) and observe city life! This has become one of my favorite parts of my day and I get to practice “participant observation,” a concept we have studied as part of our field research class.

I watch in awe as women and men carry enormous loads of anything and everything on their heads and all the carts speeding along with traffic. I tried to count how many photocopy shops I pass on my daily commute but stopped counting as they are too frequent to catch them all. I stare zébu in the face when they walk along the road and I observe all the retail interactions on the street as people sell their animals and goods, sometimes through open car windows. On many occasions, the taxi-be drivers will purchase newspapers while driving and read them while we idle in endless traffic jams. We drive by “Chez Luther” and “Coiffure Jonathan.” I see men receiving barber services on the sidewalk and women delicately shaping their mountains of rice for sale after each purchase. There are crowds of people standing in front of newspaper stands reading the front page of each newspaper hung on a clothesline. There is a street with a line of sewing machines with women waiting for customers that need lamba (cloth) sewn. There also is a canal with hundreds of leather armchairs for sale on both sides There are so many eggs. And chickens (dead and alive). And tempting smells of street food wafting through my open window.

I recently discovered while walking with a friend that I could cut my commute in half if I were to walk. Although I am excited to do this too, I have come to look forward to my daily taxi-be commute. Walking, I don’t have the luxury to just sit back and observe life as I need to be more alert. It was unexpected, but the song is in fact true: ny mandeha taxi-be dia mahafinaritra.


And the rain rain rain came down down down

Throughout my time in Mahajanga, I have had a song from my childhood running through my head every day as I walk to class. It is a song from the original Winnie-the-Pooh film, and because it is the rainy season here, the lyrics are all-too relevant: “And the rain rain rain came down down down.” My host family told me that this year, they have experienced even more rain than usual. I will admit to being a little frightened one of my first nights in Mahajanga when I woke in the middle of the night to the sounds of a big storm; the rain, thunder, and lightening that frequently illuminated my room lasted for hours. Normally, I love listening to storms and, being a native of the Pacific Northwest, listening to the rain at night is soothing and familiar. Laying in my bed that night, however, I started thinking about cyclones and the potential problem of me being stuck in the mosquito-net tent I had so thoroughly tucked all around me. I half-jokingly told our director the next day that I was a little scared of cyclones, and now I am the designated receiver of all daily weather updates: no cyclones forecasted here today! Since then, I have come to appreciate the rain again, and the stormy nights are back to being soothing and the rain back to causing a little feeling of being home.

For Malagasy people, rain is perceived as a blessing. We first learned this after visiting a Sakalava doany–a sacred prayer site of the coastal Sakalava people. As with many of our scheduled and unscheduled activities here, the visit started out dry but a downpour commenced shortly after our arrival. The member of one of the royal Sakalava families who received us said that to them, the rain signified that our meeting there was blessed. We were welcomed warmly and invited to come back again. Another such blessed occasion was our last night in Mahajanga. We had a party with all the host families during one of the more torrential rains, and the evening was filled with much dancing, singing, and laughter. At the end of the night, my host family and I darted to the car, laughing as we all got soaked. I will not forget the car ride home making one last tour of the city by night: by the market and the Grand Baobab, along the waterfront and the port, eventually making our way home, all the while singing together the Shania Twain song playing on the radio.

During this blessed stay in Mahajanga, we started the academic program, explored much of the city, interviewed many important members of the community, and practiced both French and Malagasy a lot. Staying with a host family for me was the highlight. It felt like time flew during these two weeks together and I was sad to say goodbye after forming a connection with this family.

The emblem of Mahajanga is a giant baobab tree located right off the boardwalk and, conveniently, not even a two minutes walk from my host family’s home. The tree is over 400  years old and its size and grandeur demand attention. The intricate trunk and root system is unlike anything I have ever seen in my life; it looks as though 50 trees all grew together, twisting around one another into a single unit.
On one of my last mornings in Mahajanga, I left earlier than usual to walk along the boardwalk before class and I stayed for a while to admire the baobab and reflect on my time there. As I gazed at this sturdy, impressive tree, I was reminded of the theme for this church year in my home congregation, “Rooted and Grounded in Love” (Ephesians 3:17). As I thought about this theme in relation to my experiences here thus far, I realized how appropriate it is. Along with many other people I have met, my host family is a perfect example of people living in this faithful way. They have been so hospitable and loving to me, and their commitment to their faith is evident in all that they do. I joked with my Dad that I traveled entirely across the world and I somehow still ended up in a “Pastor’s kid” household. I would frequently hear my host father reading scripture out loud  or singing familiar hymns in Malagasy all around the house-including the song my Dad’s family in the united States commonly sings together before meals. When I went to church with him, he translated much of the two-and-a-half-hour-long service from Malagsy to French for me, and he belted the hymns from his favorite spot in the back of the packed sanctuary. On particularly lucky occasions, I would listen from my bedroom to both my host parents singing prayers together in the other room in perfect, uniquely Malagasy harmony.

The morning of my departure, we packed all my things and I thought we were going to take advantage of the pause in the rain and all get in the car too. Instead, they ushered me back inside and sat me down so that they could pray for me together before I left. Their prayers were in Malagasy so I didn’t know most of the words, but I understood. The rain started again. After their spoken prayers, they sang the song I had cherished listening to from my room, and tears formed underneath my shut eyelids as I thought about these people and their loving hearts that have touched mine in such a short period of time. After the song, they asked me to pray in English. Like me, I don’t think they knew all the words, but they somehow understood.

They drove me to our place of departure, and we exchanged our final goodbyes huddled under an umbrella. They wished me safe travels and a future return. Standing there in the rain between them, I truly felt blessed.


Inona no vaovao? [what’s new?]

This past week has truly been  one of many firsts for me. Apart from just being in Madagascar, I have experienced, and I suspect will continue to experience, things that are entirely new and exciting.

A week ago,  we left the capital city for a three day journey to our first home stay location in Mahajanga, a city on the west coast, north of Tana. Along the way, my classmates and I experienced many new things, but some of the highlights include a day-long guided tour of the old royal palace and sacred pilgrimage site with a local professor, driving over an extensive waterfall along the Betsiboka River while “Impossible” played in the background, seeing lemurs at a casual bathroom stop, and slowing down/swerving on the road for the following creatures: cows/zebu, goats, chickens, and once, a large, red chameleon slowly making its way to greener pastures. I thought I would be able to get some homework done on this 13+ hour trip, but alas, the scenery and village life around us required our full attention. We gazed wide-eyed for the duration of the trip, speeding along winding roads and over rolling hills across beautiful rural Madagascar.

When we finally arrived at our destination, we united with our respective host families. I feel like I won the lottery. Not only can I see the water from my host family's house and am 30 seconds away from the popular boardwalk, but my host family is wonderful–incredibly hospitable, affirming of my language practice, and fun-loving. Coincidence of the week: my host father is Lutheran, like me, and his father is a pastor, like mine! Many other members of his family are also pastors, which is also true for my family. He gave me a tour of the city and made sure to point out all things Lutheran. My host mother and sister, however, are Catholic, which brings me to my first "new" experience in Mahajanga. After two and a half years of attending a Catholic university, I finally went to mass–in Madagascar! Normally, my host mother and sister attend the mass in Malagasy on Sundays, but as we had plans to go to the beach on Sunday, we went to the service in French on Saturday night instead. This also meant I could understand more of what was going on. A take-away for my home congregation to consider adopting is sending around the offering plate twice during the service– once before communion, and once after.
View of Water

Host Village

Along with attending mass, practically every experience with my host family is new. At the beach, I swam with my host mother and aunt in the Mozambique Channel, which was also my first time swimming in the southern hemisphere! To get to the swimming beach, we took a taxi be (bus), which is the one moment I think I can honestly say I have enjoyed listening to Miley Cyrus: on a crowded bus where I am the only one  who understands the words. On the return journey from the beach, my host mother and I took a pousse pousse. A pousse pousse is a cart pulled by a person either walking or running, generally barefoot, and all men as far as I can tell. It was definitely a new experience.

Meals are also new for me. Although they use a lot of familiar ingredients, I have tried several foods that are not common in the United States, like manioc. I have also come to realize the truth of a statement from our pre-departure materials.”In Malagasy, there are two words to describe food: vary (rice) and loaka (anything that is served [on] rice).” The first meal I had with my host family was rice with laoka on top, the loaka being what could best be described as a hamburger and pasta hot-dish. Other times, I have seen french fries on rice. Talk about starch on starch. No surprise, it is all delicious.

Although practically everything is new, I am almost amazed at how easily I am transitioning into life here. After pushing through the initial frustration of not being able to fully express myself in French\Malagasy, I am cherishing the small victories: the time I was able to say “Hello! My name is Kirsti and I am American” in Malagasy to a middle school class;  dinners together with my host family where I understand bits and pieces about their life, passions, childhood, and travels abroad; my first conversation with my host father when we looked at the stars from the boardwalk and I successfully indicated that the stars were both beautiful and different from the ones I see at home; the conversations about American pop culture with my host sister in which I may have disappointed her by saying that not all American high schools have a queen bee, and no, I was not a cheerleader; and all the moments already with my host mother shared in laughter at new jokes I know we both understand.



In the section about cultural differences in the orientation packet we recieved the first day of our program, we learned that making jokes and laughing with or directly at another person should not be considered rude because it is not meant to be and is a large part of Malagasy interactions. This emphasis was very clear: “[People] will laugh at you and make jokes at your expense. This will happen–accept it as fact and don’t be paranoid.”

Before departure, I found myself saying many times to different people that I was mostly excited but also very nervous. This is by far the most adventurous thing I have ever done, and some aspects of the unknown can cause some nerves. Language barriers were my primary concern as I do not speak any Malagasy and have not been in a French classroom for quite some time. I feared that my worries about making mistakes would disable me from speaking with people and fully immersing. After being here for only a little more than a week, I do not claim to no longer have any nerves, but I have decided to adopt the Malagasy approach to my mistakes and laugh. I have already made some fairly humorous mistakes, including ordering shrimp for the table one evening for dessert instead of pineapple, and telling a woman that she was hurt instead of blessed in response to her telling me that she has three children. In response to these mistakes and many more, we all laugh together. When I met one of my future host families, we filled the gaps in conversation with smiles and laughter. It was somehow in the these moments where we did not say anything that we got a feel for each other’s personalities- much more so than through my small talk about how much it rains during the rainy season.

It was also in a moment of laughter that I fully realized I am actually in Madagascar– that I am actually in the place I have heard so much about and where I have dreamed of going. I arrived a few days before the program start date so a few of us had several days together at a hotel outside of the capital city to ease into our new environment together. For the most part, we rested and spent time getting to know each other. Even when we ventured into the neighborhood where almost everything was different from home, the reality of our circumstances had not yet sunk in for me.

When the program started, we moved to a hotel that was in a more “pastoral” area and met the remaining group members and program staff. The hotel was surrounded by rice paddies and tropical trees all growing out of the very distinctive red dirt of the island. I cannot possibly convey the beauty of this landscape. The program arranged for a music and dance group to come and perform for us, which we were informed would most likely call upon our participation. There was a moment when we were all in a circle, hand in hand with the dancers who were wearing colorful Malagasy cloth; I was taking in familiar sounds of music from the south where my family lived; I was admiring the natural environment around me as we danced round and round; and we were all laughing together both in joy and at the vezaha’s lack of rhythm. This is the moment I realized: I am here!