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Valerie McNamara

Buffalo, NY

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Madagascar

“Perhaps imagination is not where we go to escape reality, but we where we go to remember it.” -Glennon Doyle

The Backstory

The story of life

Where this all came from...

When I was a freshman in college, I realized that pre-med was not for me. Not only did I despise chemistry, but committing to being in school until I was thirty, to then start a job I wouldn't know if I would even enjoy? Not for me. I had taken a psychology class, and liked it, so I decided to go with that. I also decided to turn my Spanish minor into a major. This way I could not only improve my Spanish more, but I could learn more history and culture and literature. I was starving for perspectives I had never encountered and questioning everything I had taken as gospel up until that point. I started researching post-college options, because if I was going to change majors I was going to have to have a plan. I started with basic keywords, and soon stumbled upon the Peace Corps. It was exactly what I had been looking for, without knowing that I was looking for it. There were elements of travel in many programs I looked into, but most of those programs didn't sit well with me. None of them had you stay in one place long enough to build friendships and integrate into a new community, and I didn't understand how you could pretend to understand and meet the needs of the people you were serving if you hadn't spent time living with them and communicating with them. Language was a second factor, knowing that wherever I went I would be speaking a language other than English the majority of the time I was there. I was intrigued by the idea of learning a brand new language, but at the time thought I would probably go to a Spanish speaking country. I was sold. I set my sights on the Peace Corps, and worked hard at school and outside internships to make sure I would be the best volunteer I could possibly be when I finally finished college and could apply.

Fast forward three years later, in the application stage. I was entirely sure about the Peace Corps at that point. It lined up with the theories of development I had studied and admired, grassroots and sustainable. I had connected with a handlful of returned Peace Corps Volunteers who had served around the world, and received honest and genuine stories and opinions. I knew it would be challenging yet rewarding, but most importantly I believed with my whole heart that I was going to be helping people. That my hard work in college and the training Peace Corps provided would, in some big ways but mostly small ways, improve the quality of life of the people in my community. Whether it was spreading knowledge about how to prevent malaria, training local teachers in English teaching practices so their students would have a better chance of going off to college, or showing my girls that they are equally deserving of respect as their male counterparts. I knew I could do a small bit of good, and that is what drove me. It drove me before I left, and it drove me everyday when I was there. 

The Peace Corps is not perfect, and neither am I. There were things I could have done differently, more effectively. There are things the Peace Corps could, and probably should, do differently. But my time in Madagascar was the most meaningful seventeen months I think I will ever live through. My relationships with my family and friends there will last, and I will go back. Ambalavelona, the village where I lived, will be in my heart in everything I do, shaping my vision, actions and life. I have a thousand stories that make me laugh, cry and pick up the phone and call my Mama every time I hear them. Most of them I can't put into words, not yet at least. 

Here are some of the ones I can.

Slideshow

Images of the memorable moments

Some of my favorite people.

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My beautiful host sister and brother, from training. My first friends in Madagascar. I spent all of my free time with them. My sister had a funny obsession with my water bottle, she though it was funny that I never went anywhere without it.

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My host dad from training. He worked in the capital, but would come home some weekends to spend time with us. He taught me how to kill and prepare a chicken.

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My grandmother from training. She didn’t live with us, but would stop by everyday. She was so patient with my learning the language, always taking time to converse with me slowly and help me with pronunciation.

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My littlest host sister during training. She was always smiling and laughing, and loved playing with my shoes.

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My host mom, little sister and brother. My host mom worked at a local restaurant, and wants to study to be a chef.

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My two closest volunteer friends and I before moving into our sites. They were placed about a ten hour bus ride from me. Beyond grateful for them.

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Home.

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A zebu eating grass from my yard after a storm blew one of my papaya trees down.

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A fellow volunteer leading a malaria trivia activity when he visited my village for a community malaria prevention workshop.

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A couple of community members and I singing a song about malaria on the same day.

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A trip to a big city after completing our region’s annual Future Leaders Advancing Gender Equality (FLAGE) Camp!

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Sweaty selfie post-bike ride with some good friends

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My neighbor, who loved to come over and look at the pictures in children’s books and play soccer in the yard.

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A going away party for one of the volunteers in my region upon her completion of service. I hadn’t seen sriracha in over a year and I was ecstatic.

Voice Record

Voices and Audio

Goodbye!!!
Thank you very much
My name’s Valerie... and you?
Greeting in Antakaragna, the dialect of Malagasy I learned

Stories

The memorable moments

Great Expectations

Great Expectations

Pre-Departure and Post-Training Thoughts

My last day in Buffalo. I have said my goodbyes to family and friends, other than my parents who will drive me to Philadelphia tomorrow. I will have a day of training in Philly on Monday with my forty-ish fellow trainees. A day of travel after that, and we will be arriving at the Peace Corps Training Center in Madagascar on Wednesday! I have been studying the same packing list since receiving my invitation to serve almost seven months ago, but I have still yet to complete packing. Twenty-seven months is a long time to pack for, especially when you don’t know what climate you’ll live in for almost all of them. I will attend 13 weeks of training up in the highlands of Madagascar where it is “cold” (low of 50 degrees Fahrenheit, in the winter). After that I could be going to any village or town in Madagascar, and I won’t find out which one until after I am already there. That being said, I plan to have all of my packing finished this evening (or by the very latest tomorrow morning). Anyone who knows me can’t find this surprising.

I have been imagining what it will be like to arrive in Madagascar for months, and I am looking forward to having all of my expectations turned upside down. Although I am fairly aware that there will be no penguins, I do know that I can look forward to the host family I will be staying with for the majority of my training. And I can look forward to my fellow trainees being there with me every step of the way.

...

On Wednesday, September 5th 2018 I arrived in Madagascar. With my training classmates, I flew into the capital, Antananarivo (also known as “Tana”), and then took a bus to a small town called Mantasoa, a few hours outside of the city. The Peace Corps has a training center there, where we stayed for a couple nights before moving in with our host families. Over forty host families in Mantasoa graciously opened their homes to us and took us in. We had training six days a week and stayed with our host families until Thursday, November 15th when we moved back into the training center. Training covered topics such as language, cultural, medical, safety, and teaching English as a Foreign Language. It also included a practicum portion, where I was able to gain 12 hours of teaching experience teaching English to both middle school students and adults. Then, after some final testing and assessments, Wednesday, November 21st we traveled back to Tana to take an oath to become Peace Corps Volunteers. Two days later, I left to travel to my site where I will serve for the next two years: a small village called Ambalavelona in the Diana Region of Madagascar. I have been living in my new house for about a week and a half now, and have a week of teaching middle schoolers under my belt…

Pre-service training was an intense 11 weeks. In such a short period of time I learned so much about culture, privilege, learning, friendship, resiliency and myself. Some days I felt as if I was on top of the world, and other days I felt like a complete failure. I made some incredible friends, while missing dearly my friends and family back in the US. While my last three months in Madagascar have been the most challenging months of my life so far, I am ecstatic to see what the next two years will bring. 

Educated

Educated

Learning to Teach

My first experience in front of the classroom was in October of 2019 during the practicum portion of our training. I was supposed to be teaching colors and school supplies to around fifty twelve year olds who were on summer vacation. They were bribed with free notebooks and pencils to come to class, so that us trainees would have pupils to practice with before moving to our sites and teaching on our own. I had spent a couple hours the night before preparing my lesson plan, and standing up there in front of mischievous students and a couple of peer observers, I was feeling quite nervous. I hadn’t ever enjoyed presenting in front of college or high school classes, and I was unsurprised to notice that my shaky sweaty stage fright hands had followed me to Madagascar. My stream of consciousness sounded something like this:

“They’re on summer vacation and will have this topic retaught to them once school starts up again and after training you’ll never even see these students again so it doesn’t even matter if you totally make a fool of yourself or if they learn nothing from you and the only thing that can happen today is that you get better at teaching so you should be excited instead of nervous because you’re going to get better today but you’d get a lot better if your hands weren’t shaking so much and if you didn’t do that thing where you forget to speak at a normal speed when you’re nervous but you’ve got this the worst that could happen isn’t even a big deal at all so just do it…”

I finally started talking, and I completely bombed the lesson. I spoke too fast and half the students spent the entire class talking amongst themselves, while the other half spent the first half of the class paying attention and then the second half of class talking amongst themselves. My asking them to quiet down only elicited laughs, and at one point one of the students smacked the boy next to him. When I asked him to leave the class because that behavior wasn’t acceptable, he broke down crying and wouldn’t leave his seat. When the disaster was finally over, I was holding back tears of my own. I didn’t think things could have possibly gone worse and I couldn’t imagine how I was going to spend the next two years teaching this age group after how that class went. Lucky for me, my peer observers weren’t so dramatic, and were very good at giving constructive feedback. 

The next class I taught for practicum was eighth graders, and my assigned topic was holidays- coincidentally scheduled for Halloween. I dressed up as a Christmas tree, with all green clothes, paper ornaments taped onto my jacket and a paper star taped to my forehead, and taught what is still the most creative lesson I’ve ever come up with. There were no tears on my end or the students’, and it’s one of my favorite memories from training. 

I went on to teach many lessons to different age groups, becoming a more confident, effective teacher with each lesson. In August 2019 I finished my first year of teaching. I taught English as a foreign language to the equivalent of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, with the ages of my students ranging from twelve to eighteen. My classes ranged in size from 35 to 50, and my classrooms were equipped with desks, benches and a blackboard. I’m not sure who learned more throughout the school year, my students or I (probably me), and I’m not going to say I loved every minute of it, but I can’t imagine having spent that year doing anything else. I made close friends with the other teachers, and now my hands only sweat because it’s a thousand degrees, not due to nerves. After the school year ended, for the first time in my life I found myself eager for the end of summer vacation. I couldn’t wait to be back in the classroom with my students, even the ones that I have to kick out of class every so often. Finally the first day of school came, and I walked into the courtyard bright and early to be greeted by a host of good mornings, a few good afternoons (we’re immediately reviewed greetings) and a hundred smiling faces. A bittersweet second (and last) first day of school in Madagascar. 

Pictured: 6eme (6th Grade) 2019

First Day Jitters

First Day Jitters

Thoughts From My Last First Day of School

I’m writing this at the end of my second first week of school in Madagascar. Well, technically, school “started” two weeks ago, but I didn’t begin teaching until this past Monday. We teachers were supposed to meet a week before then, to create the schedule, but for reasons unknown, that meeting was cancelled. Therefore, on the first day of school, students had neither been registered nor had their schedules created for them. Absolute chaos is the only accurate description of that day. Students, some with their mothers and some alone, showed up with their report card from last year to prove that they had either passed and would be moving up, or had failed and would be repeating the year. At this point I will mention that at the end of last year only in sixth grade did more than half of the students received high enough marks to move up a year in school. Some of them had brought the money that is due on the first day, most came with promises to bring it soon. The day consisted of hundreds of students trying to find the correct teacher to sign up for their grade, a few teachers handwriting all of the rosters for the different years in their notebooks, and a classroom full of us teachers trying to work out the schedule so that everyone would be happy (not possible). I mostly just sat back and listened to all of the vocabulary words in Malagasy and French that I’ve still yet to learn, after I had made sure that none of my classes conflicted. 

Once everything was sorted I asked the teachers if we’d be able to start the next day and the only reply I received back was laughter. The director then explained that the 6th and 7th grade classrooms didn’t have desks yet, so they wouldn’t be able to start until the desks returned. When I asked where the desks were he just waved his arm in the general direction of the road and said “there”. Because of this I had then expected not to teach those grades that week, but I was disappointed when I also had no students show up to my 8th grade classes. English is only taught in the afternoon, and students all return home for lunch midday. Many students live far away, and the rainy season is beginning, so their four times daily walk isn’t always very fun. This combined with the fact that many of their morning teachers hadn’t shown up for various reasons (not uncommon), caused almost all of them to not take the chance of walking back to school after lunch. So, the first week of school was a bust. 

This past week I walked into my 6th grade class with low expectations on Monday, and was surprised to find 78 students crowded in the classroom. There were enough seats for 41 of them to squish themselves onto the benches, but the rest of them had to sit on the cement floor and write with their notebooks on their knees. I kept the lessons short this week, especially when it was raining. The classroom leaks and the cement gets quite soaked through, which makes the students’ already uncomfortable situation even less pleasant. The director has promised we’ll receive more desks with benches soon, but “soon” in Madagascar is a relative term. It’s also expected that by the end of the first month several of the students will have dropped out, as is the case every year. This is often due to family or financial issues.  

Despite the challenges I felt a sort of resurgence of energy this week from my students. Their eagerness and perpetual smiles make it impossible for me to feel anything but hope in their presence.

Pictured: EPP Ambalavelona Ambanja

Love of the Game

Love of the Game

An Up and Down Relationship with Soccer

At the end of my senior season in college, soccer and I weren’t on the best terms. The game that had started out as a refuge and release had evolved into a source of constant stress as well as emotionally and physically unhealthy situations. I had lost my love for the game, and by my junior year couldn’t remember why I had wanted to play college soccer in the first place. Once I was free, and free I certainly felt, I knew I would eventually return to the game. I did love the game still, but I needed a break. I was accepted into the Peace Corps and started having all sorts of dreams and ideas, and for a while I didn’t give much thought to soccer. 

Fast forward to moving in with my host family on day three of training. I know about ten words in Malagasy, and I can almost pronounce them correctly. My host parents are sweet and they’ve been through this with previous trainees, so they’re very patient with me. Using the clock on the wall they start to teach me numbers and we go over vocabulary for household items. The next day my host brother and his friend teach me a card game, and I get better at numbers and throw some colors into my vocabulary as well. We walk around the village and they point things out to me and teach me words I often forget instantly. The next morning I’m timid to leave my room and start the day because I just don’t know how to communicate with my new family. I don’t have a large vocabulary, and with what I do know I can’t really string together sentences. I grasp at straws to try to “start conversations” and get them to speak so it isn’t just awkward silences (picture me literally just pointing at anything within sight and asking, “What is that?” in Malagasy over and over again). Then, as I’m washing the post-breakfast dishes, I notice a pair of soccer cleats set outside the door. I finish up, get my host mom’s attention, and point to the cleats. She gives me the word for shoe, and I say, “Papa?” She says yes, and then I pretend to kick a ball and she starts nodding emphatically. She asks me (in Malagasy) “you like?” I respond with an emphatic yes (in Malagasy), and she then pulls me inside to where their television is. She turns on the television (I’d yet to see it turned on) and clicks through a couple of channels until she finds a game. She has me sit and goes to fetch my dad, presumably to tell him the good news. 

This was a major turning point for me. With little to no communication skills, I found myself looking for any way to connect with the members of my host family. Soccer ended up being what made me feel more at home with them. We would all watch soccer together on the television, and my host dad was on the local team, so Sundays we would go watch them play. My brother and I would goof off with the ball juggling or passing, but I always had to count in Malagasy or he wouldn’t give me the ball- I quickly became proficient at counting. 

Months later I became a volunteer and moved into a new village: this meant a new dialect, so although I wasn’t entirely lost linguistically I was still struggling, and it also meant a completely new culture from the one I had just spent three months adjusting to. Fortune fell upon me even faster this time around: I can see our village’s field from my backyard, and it happens to be right next to the school. The day after I moved in I headed out to the field to hangout with my new students. By engaging them outside of the classroom first I mitigated a bit of the awkwardness of my first day of teaching. We just passed the ball around, and eventually they invited me to play in their game the following day. I ended up playing with them regularly. I usually played goalie (something I hadn’t done since I was in middle school), and our weekly soccer games became a great way for me to get to know my students outside of the classroom. They were also just good fun. The younger primary schoolers love juggling and shooting, so they would come to my house several times a week just to play in the small yard behind my house. 

On the outside, the game looked quite different there at our school. The pitch is rough and uneven, the goal posts are tree trunks, the ball was so worn its actually fuzzy. Our pickup games let everyone play who wanted to, regardless of numbers. There are no lines on the field and no uniforms or color coordination. We only played barefoot… forget about shin guards. But there are games whenever there aren’t classes, and the game is play until it’s too dark to see. Everyone has a smile on their face- there’s no malicious fouling or cheap shots, no screaming coaches or captains. Soccer, once again, became a way for me to integrate and form bonds in my community without highlighting my lack of language proficiency; it also helped me improve my Malagasy immensely. I didn’t realize it until months in, but soccer also finally became a source of comfort and joy for me again, instead of stress.

To Kill a Chicken

To Kill a Chicken

Stories of Personal Evolution

Before I moved to Madagascar I would get irritated with my sister for killing spiders, because they didn’t do anything to her other than come inside the house.  A month and a half ago I killed a chicken. My host father asked me if I had ever killed one before, and I responded with a resounding “No!” because killing a chicken seemed absurdly cruel to me. And then he asked me if I ate chicken. I responded with a sheepish, “Yes…” and then he followed up by asking me, as I expected he would, why I found eating chicken to be acceptable but killing one appalling. I didn’t have an answer for him that I wasn’t embarrassed to say aloud, so I just shrugged. Then he taught me how to kill and prepare a chicken. Then I killed and prepared a chicken. I definitely wouldn’t say that I enjoyed the process, but I think that it made me appreciate the meat I eat more. It also made me feel more independent, and reminded me how much I took Wegmans for granted for twenty-two years. 

...

Living in upstate New York my whole life I never thought much about where my food came from. Upon moving to Madagascar I became much more aware of the origins of my food. Whether gathering fruit from the forest, walking through the rice paddies, or killing the chicken my family was going to prepare for dinner, more often than not I saw exactly where my food came from. Some days it made me want to become a vegetarian, but usually it just let me appreciate my food much more. 

A story about a day that gave me a fleeting desire to become a herbivore…

It’s late morning and I’m sitting down in my house reading and sweating when I hear a young boy’s voice shout “ODEEE TEACHER!” (Side note: shouting “odee” is sort of a verbal doorbell there, similar to saying, “knock-knock” aloud.) I peek out my door to see a couple of my sixth grade boys standing outside with the biggest grins on their faces. When I open the door wider I realize one of the students is holding a large dead frog in his hands. It looks like he had poked the eye out of it to kill it. The boys are looking at me, proud and expectant, so I congratulate them on their kill and smile. They keep looking at me, expecting me to do something, and I have no idea what it is. So we just stand there smiling at each other. The boys' smiles falter and one asks me if frog is “fady” for me. (“Fady” means taboo, and many regions, communities, and families have different fady throughout the country. If something is fady for someone it offends their ancestors, and this is taken quite seriously.) As I reassure him that the frog is not fady, it dawns on me that he means for me to eat it. My thoughts briefly flicker to my Jewish side of the family as I realize that eating frog actually might offend some of my ancestors. His smile picks back up and he proudly exclaims that frog is “delicious,” a word he learned in class earlier in the week. He then hands me the frog and tells me to enjoy, then runs away with his friend. I shout “Thank you!” after them and then just stand there with absolutely no idea what to do. I have no idea how to prepare frog, and I stand there thinking of all the frogs I saved from our pool growing up. My neighbor, a twelve year old boy, walks over to me with a smirk, asking me if I have any idea what to do with the dead frog. I reply that I don’t, and he gives me a list of things we will need to prepare it: a knife, clean water, pepper, salt, hot peppers, oil, a frying pan and a mortar and pestle. I have all but the oil in my house, so he runs to his house to grab some. He teaches me how to skin, gut and clean the frog, marinate it and fry it. We sit on my floor eating frog, and my student was right… it is absolutely delicious.

 

Pictured: Dinner and me

A Dance With Drakos

A Dance With Drakos

An Integration Story

Note: “Drako” is a familiar term to call a female. In my head I translate it (roughly) to homegirl.

My first true Malagasy party experience in my village was New Years, or “Bonne Année”. At this point I had been living in my village for about a month. I was immediately included in everything the community was doing, without question. I spent days beforehand learning how to prepare all of the different types of mokary (fried dough) and cake like snacks that are abundant here, and when the day finally came we snacked on the fried dough at eight in the morning when we started preparing lunch. A massive block of ice was brought from town so we could have cold sodas and beers, and later in the morning the rum and taoka gasy (local moonshine) was brought out. I, along with the rest of the women, prepared the food while the men slaughtered the chickens and ducks for the meal. We had pasta salad, then rice with chicken in a tomato sauce and some fried fish. Often kabaka (side dish that goes with rice for every meal) in my region will be seafood or chicken in a tomato based sauce and it’s by far my favorite food in this country. I’ve yet to turn down any shrimp sauce dish that’s been offered to me while here. After the tables were cleared we moved the party into the mayor’s house, where there are massive speakers. With Malagasy music blasting, we had a dance party. The women were very pleased with my ability to shake my butt and taught me some Malagasy dances to go along with their favorite songs. For the first time I really felt accepted into the community, I felt like I could let loose and be myself. Those women, my drakos, gave that to me and created what I felt was a turning point in my integration into the community.

These beautiful women continued to be my lifeline for integration, and my connection to the community at large. We spent mornings drinking tea and eating mokary, afternoons teaching me how to prepare Malagasy dishes, and evenings deep in discussion about life, men, culture, education and everything in between. They helped fuel my integration and project ideas I brought to them. We had long discussions about malaria and reproductive health, each of us learning from the rest. They helped spread the malaria prevention information I brought back from trainings, and helped facilitate discussions with families who were less than eager to let their daughters continue schooling. They amplified my work and enriched my life and I miss them everyday. 

Pictured: Jenna, one of my best friends from my village.

Of Mice and Women

Of Mice and Women

A Story of a Long Friendship

So, I’m spending my first night in my new house, and I’ve settled into bed, only to hear something scurrying around on the ledge of my window near the foot of my bed. I turn on the flashlight that I sleep next to, and see a rodent of some kind, but as soon as the light hits it, it scurries into my wall (my house is made of ravinala, a bamboo-like material). I get out of bed and find my broom and see if I can find the rodent, but I cannot. So I place my broom next to my bed and settle into bed again. As soon as I’ve almost fallen asleep, I hear scurrying again, but this time near my clothes. So I flick the flashlight on and see the rodent scurrying across my suitcase, but again he escapes me. The next time I’m almost asleep, I hear him rummaging around in my kitchen, but as soon as I get there with a flashlight, he scurries away so that I barely get a glimpse. This continued all night, me getting out of bed and turning on my flashlight for this rodent to just evade my broom. I felt like Vernon Dursely in the opening scene of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, constantly trying to catch Harry doing the “lumos” spell at night... but by the time he lumbers over to Harry’s bedroom Harry has already hid his wand and is pretending to be sleeping. For this reason I named my rodent Harry, and we played this game of human and mouse for the several months. At first he wasn’t doing anything other that keeping me up at night, so I wasn’t too motivated to get rid of him. But then, a few days later, he chewed through the bottom of my bottle of cooking oil so that it leaked everywhere. He also ate my schedule that said what time I was supposed to be teaching at my first week. Yes, I know how similar that sounds to “My dog ate my homework,” but it’s true. The next weekend I went to the nearest town to find a mouse trap to get rid of Harry.

...

A few weeks after moving into my house, I had still yet to find poison or mouse traps that I could use successfully to take care of my Harry problem. So, I was still being woken up by Harry several times a night, every night. I kept a bucket underneath the spout of my water filter to wash my hands into, and I'd only empty it out a couple times a day-so sometimes there are a few inches of water in the bucket. Well, one sweaty morning I woke up at the ripe hour of two, to the sound of splashing water, and rolled out of bed to investigate. After fumbling around for my solar light for couple minutes, I switched the light on and the splashing stopped. I walked over to the bucket of water and there was Harry, my arch nemesis gazing up at me. Just like a fish in a barrel or a rat in a trap, I had a mouse in a bucket, finally at my mercy after weeks of keeping me up at night. He had been trying to jump out of the bucket but it was too tall, so he couldn’t escape. But, the water also was low enough that he could stand in it, so he wouldn’t just be convenient and drown without my intervention. I knew I should kill him so that I could start sleeping at night, so I thought about my options. In order to kill him I could try to spear him with a wooden pole, or I could pin him down under the water, but I didn’t know if I could stomach either of those options. I could fill the bucket up higher with more water from my filter and hope he would drown on his own, but I grimaced at what a waste of clean water that would be. I considered dumping the contents of the bucket, Harry included, down my kabone (bathroom), which is basically just a little shack with hole in the ground in my backyard, but that seemed way too cruel a fate, even for the rascal who hadn’t let me have a good night’s sleep in three weeks. I sat down on my stool and talked through these options with Harry, who began to look cuter and cuter peering up at me from inside the bucket (in my defense I was half asleep). After about ten minutes of debating I took the bucket and dumped it’s contents, Harry and all, outside of my fence. I let him go free. Then I had three nights of peace and quiet. I started to hope that Harry would recognize my generosity and not return. Or that he would be too afraid of drowning to return. But my hopes proved false and Harry returned, and I went back to being woken up every night by his scurrying around and knocking things over and eating objects I previously thought inedible. He had not fallen back into my bucket of water for months, and I was unable to catch him or hit him with any of the plethora of objects I threw at him. “The Mouse Who Lived” continued to torment me night after night, and I spent a lot of time searching for the trap pictured here.

Non-exhaustive list of things Harry chewed:

Tube of Neosporin

Tube of Aquaphor

Bottle of sunscreen

Bottle of cooking oil

Bottle of honey

Bottle of hand sanitizer

Bottle of antiseptic

Mosquito Net

My favorite pair of shorts

Lesson planning notebook

Middle school teaching schedule

Wicker basket

Tote

The Reptile Room

The Reptile Room

Another Long Friendship

Living in a house made of Ravenala (Traveller’s Tree) in Madagascar, it is not uncommon to find an assortment of creatures trying to move in without your permission. Usually I didn’t mind: as long as they wouldn't eat my food I let them be. Sometimes they would eat my food, and I let them stay anyway. I didn't even normally pay attention or notice my many tenants. But every once in a while someone showed up who grabbed my attention.

Kaa started appearing in my house around New Years (happy holidays!!). At first it just hung out in my shower space, which wasn’t ideal but could have been worse. Bucket showering with a boa sleeping three feet from my face isn’t something I thought to add to my bucket list, but if I had I could have checked it off several times already. Kaa would leave for a couple days at a time and then return, just curled up lazily in the space in between my wall and my roof. Then Kaa showed up in the kitchen area of my house, which was less ideal. After snapping a couple of pictures, I went and asked one of my neighbors for help. The normal thing to do in a situation like this in my village was to take a long, skinny tree trunk, and poke the snake until it curls up around the tree trunk, then put the snake somewhere else, like the forest, or a field. That’s what my neighbor did. He took Kaa to the forest behind my house, and I thought it was done with. Six days later I woke up to find out I was wrong. Kaa was curled up in the space in between the wall next to my bed and the roof. Not the most pleasant sight I’ve ever woken up to, for sure. So, I went and found my neighbor to tell him Kaa had returned, and he used the same procedure to take Kaa to a field a little further away from my house. Usually the perk of having a snake in your house (if there is a perk) is that the snake would take care of any rodent problem you might have. However, Harry remained the Mouse-Who-Lived and Kaa’s presence did nothing to disrupt his nightly terrorizing of my house. 

Kaa would appear regularly, and I would go and get a man from my village who would poke it with a very long stick until it curled itself around the stick. Then the man from my village would take it to the forest just beyond my backyard. Sometimes Kaa would return a day later, sometimes weeks, but it would always return. This went on from December to March. One night I was readying for bed when I spotted it slithering along the top of the wall bordering my bed. It was already dark, but I went to go find someone to help me take care of it. One of the boys that’s always working near my house was around, finishing up dinner. He had helped me take care of the snake several times before and I think he was more sick of it than I was. Fed up, he went and retrieved a machete. I held the long stick and flashlight while he wielded the machete. The boa never got aggressive towards us, only tried to escape. After quite a few minutes of cornering it and poking it, trying to get it in the right position, it slithered into my wall. My friend bent part of the wall inward causing all sorts of bugs to crawl out that I didn’t want to know about, but it got the snake to re-emerge. Finally, my friend chopped Kaa’s head off (it took several hacks). There was snake blood splattered everywhere, but other than my pillow which I had to get rid of it was fairly easy to clean up. Regardless, I didn’t sleep very well that night. 

The Last Battle

The Last Battle

Harry’s End

I went away for training for a couple weeks in March, and came back to find my house a complete wreck, courtesy of Harry. Harry had either nibbled, peed or pooped on almost every item in my house. My response was to put on some Van Morrison and clean every nook and cranny in my house. I had to clean my mattress, mosquito net and sheets and leave them out to dry (and sleep on my floor for a couple days), sew up holes in my mosquito net and a few clothing items, and scrub the floor, walls, table and shelves. It took the better part of a couple days, and when I was finished I started on spider webs (and spiders). They were found in all of the corners of my house and every other nook and cranny they could find, including inside each of my shoes. On my last shoe, my left hiking boot, I took a look inside expecting one of Aragog’s descendants to scurry out at me. Instead I  found out that Harry is in fact a female, and had given birth to hairless, squirming triplets in my hiking boot. I asked the kids who were watching me clean what the local custom is regarding baby rodents, and they told me to toss them outside. So I did, and then they shooed the chickens towards the babies, and the chickens ate them. I was quite unsettled, but then I asked a neighbor to help me set my mouse trap, thinking perhaps my constant failings were user error. They weren't. Harry was apparently too smart for the trap, as she successfully ate the food but evaded the trap every night for a week straight.

I returned to my village from home leave on a Monday, and spent the entire afternoon cleaning up Harry’s mess. I spent my first week back attempting, unsuccessfully, to readjust my sleeping schedule. Where I usually was in bed by 7pm and awake by 4am, I was having trouble falling asleep before 4am and waking up in time for my 2:30pm class. Trying to explain time zones and jet lag to my students was extra difficult on account of the fact that I myself had terrible jet lag, and therefore less patience and language competency than normal. On Friday morning I woke up at 5:30 to a sound I’d only heard once before, the splashing of a mouse trying to escape a half filled water bucket. I’d only fallen asleep about an hour and a half earlier, so I was hoping that I was still dreaming, or just imagining the noise. It was, however, as persistent and immistakable as the roosters crowing was right outside my hut, so I groped around for a flashlight and rolled out of bed. I walked over to the bucket to see my nemesis trapped once again. I remembered regretting my decision to spare Harry’s life last time I was in this situation, and the months since that I had been hoping she would happen to fall in the bucket again. I knew I couldn’t let her get away, and yet I still didn’t want to kill her. She again entranced me with the cute, helpless wet mouse look that somehow nearly made me forgive and forget the last eight months of torment she’d given me. But I had promised myself that I would kill her any chance I got, and I was determined to do so. I grabbed a stick and tried to pin her down, but she was determined as well, and definitely more awake than I was, so I couldn’t pin her and she nearly escaped by scampering up the stick I was using to try to bring an end to her. I, for the second time that year, found myself contemplating improbable ways to murder a mouse trapped in a half filled bucket of water. I ended up using a wicker sort of shallow bowl I usually kept onions and garlic in that was of a similar circumference to the bucket. I dropped it in the bucket to trap her under, then pushed it down until it was completely submerged. What felt like minutes took only about twenty seconds. To her credit she fought until the very end, squealing and kicking and scratching, but eventually the resistance ceased. I was both relieved and repulsed, and I’m not ashamed to admit that tears were shed. I could blame the jet lag, but honestly I probably would have cried even if I had been coming off seven days straight of eight hours a night sleep. I just felt cruel.

I dumped her body, the wicker bowl and the stick in the forest behind my house, and have had no house guests since. Thus ends the epic battle between mouse and woman.

(Pictured: Kaa, being less than helpful and slithering around, entirely ignoring Harry)

Where the Wild Kids Are

Where the Wild Kids Are

Bring Your Machete to School Day

On Wednesdays I taught 8th grade English from 4:30-5:30 in the afternoon, and most of the middle schoolers had a sort of physical education class at 2:30. I usually went to school a couple hours before my class starts and voluntarily participate in gym class, something I hadn’t done since I myself attended middle school. One Wednesday I showed up at 2:30 to find 150 students (give or take) hanging around, like usual, except that each of them was holding a boriziny, which is a common house hold item. I’d never seen boriziny before I came to Madagascar, but it is sort of a cross between a machete and an ax. The students noticed me checking out their accessories, and started laughing. When I asked them why they brought these boriziny to school today, they only replied by asking me what how to say, “boriziny” in English. I taught them the word “machete,” and then the boys started running around yelling “I HAVE MACHETEEEEEEE” with their boriziny held high.  I asked them again why we needed machetes for gym class, and they excitedly informed me that there were no classes that afternoon, a fact I had been unaware of up until that moment. They assured me that the director of the middle school was supposed to be arriving soon, so we sat around and listened to music waiting for him to show up. After around 40 minutes, the director showed up and started labeling different sections of the yard surrounding the school with signs depicting different grades, and when he finished the hacking commenced. So there I was, standing around while 150 middle schoolers cut the school grass with machetes. After about 10 minutes I hear a bunch of kids talking excitedly and look over to see them forming a circle. I walk over to find that one of my eighth graders had accidentally caught his foot with his boriziny and had a gushing gash. He picked up a rice sack and ripped off a strip, tied it around his foot, and then got right back up and continued hacking. The phrase “rub some dirt in it” popped into my mind. The director of the school, entirely unconcerned, just told the student to be more careful. I was entirely concerned, and the students told me “Aza miasa loha madame,” which roughly translates to “stop worrying/stressing”. They couldn’t understand why I was so surprised at the afternoon’s events, and I couldn’t explain to them that at the middle school I attended there were rules like “no running in the halls”. I can’t imagine how a proposal for “Bring your machete to school day” would have been met at my suburban middle school in upstate New York. Luckily there was only that one machete accident, and after about an hour of hacking the kids finished. We then had a soccer tournament, and I played goalie for the 8th grade team. Obviously I had a shutout. The student who sliced his foot open during the grass cutting scored two goals. 

The resiliency of my students is inspiring: regardless of what challenge they’re facing they never complain or make excuses. They meet all tasks with enthusiasm, no matter what they have going on at home. And they absolutely never give up a chance to play soccer. They never fail to put a smile on my face and remind me how good life is. The pictures below are from this machete day that I’ll never forget. 

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Every life composes a song or two

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