Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the African continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around Africa (and the world!). This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Madagascar.
Loren – Age 24
Where are you from?
I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area.
What country and program do you serve in? Please give a summary of your program goals and what your typical work includes.
I’m an Education Volunteer in Madagascar! As Education Volunteers our goals usually focus on helping middle/high school students learn English and prepare them for taking the high school exit exam known as the Bac, but we also do a lot more! We are “Education Volunteers” because we also aim to integrate American culture, health, critical thinking and other important ideas into our yearly curriculum. We also work with local teachers so we can share our teaching knowledge with them (relating to the above and also encourage more interactive/diverse learning activities) and vice–versa.
My day-to-day work includes teaching 10th and 11th graders 16 hours a week. On my off hours I run an English Club for my students where we learn English songs and play fun games aimed at speaking practice. Last October I ran a GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp, which brought 20 young girls from the countryside, 5 Malagasy chaperones and 4 other Peace Corps Volunteers for 5 awesome learning days in the capital of Antananarivo! The camp was focused on sexual health sessions relating to peer pressure, women’s health and HIV/AIDS but we also had sessions on empowerment, women in the work force and educational opportunity visits to local universities.
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
I live in a small rural town on the east coast in a trano vato, which means cement house. I share the house with the principal of my high school, a few students and the mayor of the town too. My town has been pretty lucky with development work – we are an hour and a half off the main road but have had various NGO’s provide the town with clean water (the spigot is a few feet from my house) and a gas-powered generator that provides the town with 2 hours of electricity every night. Amazingly there are also a few cell towers in my town and although there are no internet cafes I am able to connect to the internet through my phone!
We have a market in the center of town, which is open every day. I’m vegetarian so my usual diet consists of whatever vegetables I can find at the market. Even though I’m vegetarian my diet is pretty similar to that of my neighbors as meat is expensive and not always available. We usually eat various leaves. A favorite of Malagasy is ravitoto, pounded cassava leaves mixed with garlic. Rice is the staple here and beans are also very popular among Malagasy [the people of Madagascar]. My favorite snack is bajia, which is red beans cooked, pounded and mixed with garlic, ginger and flour and then fried…delicious!
The toughest challenges I face with daily living would be the weather. Heavy rains either bring flooding or very, very muddy roads, which makes it difficult for me and my students to get to school. Our school also has a very bad roof and when it rains heavily about half of our desks become soaked so students are constantly moving to try and find somewhere dry to sit. And when it’s hot…no one (especially me!) likes working in 95 degree heat with 100% humidity!
What are the people of Madagascar like?
If I had to describe my host country neighbors, I would have to say they are very laid-back but also very hard-working. Traditionally women do all of the household work which includes cooking, cleaning and laundry. Not every household is the same, but men traditionally work outside the house either in farming or other jobs. Many people in my town are farmers and there are also a lot of vendors at the market, mainly women selling anything from t-shirts and bowls to fried bananas and noodles. In their free time the people in my town just enjoy each other’s company or go for walks. Many of my students enjoy playing sports (basketball, soccer and volleyball) when they are not in school. Another popular past time if you have electricity is karaoke!
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has PC service met/surpassed/trample don your expectations of what service would be like?
Being the first education volunteer at my site made the beginning of my service very challenging – learning what my community expected of me, the Malagasy school system, what level of English my students had compared to with where they should be – all of that PLUS learning how to be a good teacher was probably the most challenging part of my whole service. My students were very shy at the beginning and weren’t used to my teaching style. They had a hard time understanding me and I them, as I knew very basic Malagasy. However as time passed, things got better and students started to show real improvement.
I’ve been a volunteer for about 20 months now. It’s extremely rewarding to see the progress my students have made. Students greet me on the street in English, and try to engage in conversation with me when they can. I have some students who try only to speak English to me, which is a great feat for them as the Malagasy curriculum focuses mainly on reading and writing alone.
Why did you join Peace Corps? Looking back, do those reasons still apply to you now?
I have always had a love for traveling, as I did most of college abroad, so I thought Peace Corps would be a great way for me to finally immerse myself in a single culture and meet some new people. At the time I wanted to work in international development, working for organizations that meet the needs of people living in developing countries. As I’m nearing the end of my Peace Corps service, lots of things have changed. My idea of development has morphed into something less concrete. I really believe in the Peace Corps model in building capacity and I am glad I am spending two years with people I would have never met if I hadn’t decided to join Peace Corps. It’s really an eye-opening experience, even if you have traveled abroad before.
But since I have spent much of college and these past two years abroad, I’m really looking forward to being back home. I have a new appreciation for the U.S. that I didn’t have before. I’m still hoping that I can give back in some way when I return home, to both Madagascar as well as people in the U.S.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Goverment?
Yes, definitely! I think the work Peace Corps Volunteers do is very beneficial for the U.S. government and host-country nationals alike. Goal number 1 is to provide the host country with trained men and women and sometimes seen as the most important, however I think goals 2 and 3, sharing American culture with Malagasy people and vice versa, are equally important. Everyone has something to offer and I think learning from other cultures brings us closer together as people. I also feel it’s very important for Americans to know what the living situation is like for other people around the world. We all live on this (quite small!) planet and yet many people here and around the world are still struggling with things we as Americans take for granted. It’s great that volunteers can share their experiences with family and friends back home, which I hope will lead to more philanthropic help or at least understanding for those back in the U.S. as volunteering is not for everyone.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
I’m currently planning an epic 3-month road trip across the U.S. and back! I realized that I still haven’t seen much of the US, so I’ll be driving from San Francisco up the West coast, all the way across the country to Maine, then down the East coast and back across the U.S. through the deep south. My focus will be National Parks, so I plan on doing a lot of camping and also visiting a few big cities I’ve always wanted to visit.
How have you seen yourself change in Peace Corps?
The greatest change that I’ve seen in myself after these past 20 months is that I am more independent and more outgoing than I have ever been. Peace Corps has taught me that sometimes I need to ask things from people I wouldn’t normally talk to and that there’s no room for being shy, only room for putting yourself and your ideas out there and hope that the best will come out of it. Being a teacher as also given me a great sense of accomplishment – if I can engage 65 rowdy high school kids at once in pouring rain, then I can do anything!
I don’t have a blog but would love if you checked out a podcast I made with my site mate. We talk about the first stages of Peace Corps, his service and projects and what it’s like to be a volunteer. Here’s the link: https://soundcloud.com/lorendiesi/health-pcv-alan
Also I tweet pretty regularly, mostly about PC/service stuff: https://twitter.com/lorendiesi
Thanks for reading and shout out to Hannah for such a great idea!
Thanks Loren! Be sure to check out her Twitter feed and listen to her podcast!
Do you want to represent your country of service by letting me interview you? Get in touch with me through the contact page.