To Eli Kramer's 6th grade class in the Bronx

Trip Start Nov 02, 2003
Trip End Feb 14, 2006

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Flag of Madagascar  ,
Friday, January 23, 2004

Dear Mr. Kramer's Class,

Hello again! It was wonderful to get your letters - you guys are great writers! First, a quick update; then I'll try to answer your questions. I have been in my town for 5 days now. I'm still trying to get used to things, but the hills around the town are beautiful and the people are really nice. I'm pretty used to the culture by now, since I lived with a Malagasy family for 2 months before coming to my new town, but I am still having some trouble with the language - it's so different from anything I've studied before! Some words I thought you guys might enjoy are "micritreritra" (to think), "fikambanana" (organization), "looboo-looboo" (bush), and the fact that the most famous Malagasy singer's name is Poopy. Yes, really.

Even though I really like it here, I'm still not used to everyone staring at me because my skin in light. Do you guys ever feel different from other people? Do you ever get called names or call someone else names? People shout "vazaha," which means "white person," at me all the time, and I really don't like it.

OK, on to your questions. I think that I'll just go letter by letter.

Kamela P.: Some people have electricity, but it's really expensive, so they only use it for light and maybe a TV or radio if they can afford them. No one has an electric stove; people with more money have gas (which is what I have) but most people use charcoal or wood (which is kind of like having a big campfire in your kitchen.) Using wood is a problem because most of the trees in Madagascar have already been cut down.
In my part of the country it's not very hot. (I live in the central region which is pretty high up), but near the coasts it's very hot. People there wear breezy clothing, build houses out of bamboo sticks so breezes can blow through them (my house is mud, which keeps out the cold in winter), and drink a lot of water to stay cool.
Many people have diseases, which is why I'm a health volunteer here. Many of the kids - 40 percent - are malnourished, which means that they don't get enough foods with protein, vitamins, and other things you need to eat to stay healthy. That makes it much easier for kids to get sick. Some of the most common illnesses here are malaria (a disease that's spread by mosquitoes and causes high fever), chest and throat infections, and diarrhea (which is kind of yucky to talk about, but it kills a lot of kids because it drains all the water out of their bodies.) There is AIDS here, but not very much yet - though if Malagasy people don't do something, it will spread very quickly.
People do carry fruit, laundry, and pretty much anything else you can imagine on their heads. They sometimes even carry backpacks on their heads because it's more comfortable to them than wearing them on their backs!

Arlene M.: I dress pretty much the way everyone does here, but they wear pretty Western clothing. They just put together some outfits that we wouldn't, like bright flowered pants and a pastel plaid shirt. I wear sandals, but most people can't afford shoes or save their shoes for special occasions. They must have really tough feet!
I am learning the Malagasy language, but I still have a ways to go.
Finally, you wrote "The Africans." Malagasy people don't actually consider themselves African, which was surprising to me - they just think of themselves as Malagasy. The culture is a mix of Indonesian, African, Indian, Arab, and French, so I guess it's pretty unique!

Fatmata (sorry if this name isn't right, I couldn't really read the signature): It's really cool that you got to see where your family came from and visit your relatives! I'd really like to go to West Africa sometime, too.

Ariel Q.: Madagascar has tons of really interesting animals that aren't found anywhere else in the world. I went to a National Park and saw the biggest species of lemur (like monkeys) - they're 4-1/2 feet tall when they stand up, which is probably taller than some of you! We also saw giant snails (bigger than my hand) and tons of interesting lizards and bugs.
There are kings and queens some places in Africa, I think, but Madagascar has a president who's elected by the people. (They also had a problem with a very close presidential race in 2001, just like the U.S. did in 2000!)
I will definitely come back to the U.S. when I am finished working in Madagascar; I want to go to graduate school so I can get a great job and help lots more people. (I went to college before joining the Peace Corps.) Many Malagasy also want to come to the U.S., either because they can make more money or because what they know of American culture (mostly through movies and music videos) seems really cool.

Shayline G.: Yes, I remember you! In my region, people wear lots of clothes, even during the summer (like now.) They wear more clothing than I do! But in the really hot parts of the country, they wear tank tops and wrap-around skirts.
And, at least in my region, no one sleeps on the roof. What made you think they did?

Pourcher J.: On my way to Madagascar, I slept, read, watched movies, listened to music and talked to other volunteers - it was a very long flight! (Twenty hours of total flying.)
Yes, I do miss my friends and family, but I can write letters with them like I am with you!

Rawon R.: I haven't seen anyone wash clothes with berries and fruits; people use soap and river water and pound clothes against rocks to clean them. But that doesn't mean that people don't wash clothes with fruits in the part of Africa your friend went to!
And I will send pictures as soon as I can!

Arlene M.: I already talked about clothes a little bit, but I will bring one of the wrap-around skirts for you to see when I come back.

Shanequa J.: I already talked about electricity, kings and queens, and diseases a little bit, but I will try to answer the rest of your questions. Not everyone in Madagascar is poor; there are people with cars, fancy clothes, even DVD players. Most of the people here are poor by U.S. standards - the average salary is about $200 per year, which is not enough to live on in the U.S. - but things here are also a lot cheaper. For instance, I can go to a restaurant and have a good dinner for about 20 cents. I think that Malagasy people feel they have enough money if they can afford healthy foods and shoes and can send their kids to school.
I don't know if there are ceremonies for new babies, but I will try to find out for you.
I'm also not sure what kind of permission people need to leave the country. Even in the U.S., we need permission, in the form of a U.S. passport, but anyone who's not in trouble with the police can get one. I think that it's pretty similar here, but I'll try to find out for you. (However, it's not an issue for most Malagasy - like I said, the average salary is $200 per year, and it costs $500 to fly to the African mainland! So most Malagasy can't afford to leave the country anyway.)
Oh, and I realized that using U.S. dollar signs might be confusing - Madagascar actually uses the Malagasy franc, which is still a little confusing to me sometimes! But $1 = about 6000 Malagasy francs, or FMg.

Bianca C.: I agree with you completely: people from the same country (or different countries, actually) should not kill each other. There's no good reason for it, but some of the reasons for civil war (war within one country) in other parts of Africa are different people or groups fighting each other for money or power, or different ethnic groups fighting. (Even though people here stare and sometimes call me names because I'm write, no one wants to kill me!)
Madagascar is a pretty peaceful country; there's no civil war here now, but there almost was a few years ago. Remember - when the U.S. had election problems in 2000, because it was so close between Gore and Bush? Something similar happened in Madagascar in 2001; two candidates each got about 50 percent of the vote and they each claimed to have won. In the U.S., although many people were angry, the debate was settled peacefully. In Madagascar, though, people fought a lot and were almost at war. People from the two parties who claimed to have won were claiming different parts of the country for themselves, blocking roads and even blowing up bridges, and for a while there were 2 governments! The U.S. government made all the Peace Corps Volunteers in Madagascar leave because they could have been in danger. But it didn't turn into a war, and volunteers were able to come back in about 4 months. Now most people here, as far as I can tell, think that the winner and current president, Marc Ravalomanana, is doing a good job.

Denton B.: Yes, the money is different from American money. It has many different colors and pictures of animals, important people in Malagasy history, and daily activities. The largest bill is only worth about $8! I'll include a couple bills for you to look at.
The 500 francs bill is worth about 8 cents. It also says "ariary zato" because Madagascar has 2 money systems: 1 ariary is worth 5 francs. "Zato" means 100, so it's saying that this bill is worth 500 francs or 100 ariary. I don't know who the woman is, but notice the people herding cows on the other side - those are special Malagasy cows, call zebu," with humps like camels! And you can see people washing clothes.
The 1000 francs bill might seem pretty old, but it's very new and clean compared to most Malagasy bills! Some of them are so old and dirty that it's hard to tell how much they're worth!
Again, I don't know who the man is on the bill, but you can see people fishing, which is a major source of food and money on the coasts. "Roan-zato ariary" means 200 ariary, which is (of course) 1000 francs.

It was really great to read all you letters, and I can't wait to hear from you again soon!



And now, some legalese:
The opinions expressed and experiences described in this travelogue are those of one individual Peace Corps Volunteer. Nothing written here should be interpreted as official or unofficial Peace Corps literature or as sanctioned by the Peace Corps. I have chosen to write about my experience online in order to update family and friends; I am earning no money whatsoever from this endeavor.
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