Okay. For real. I don’t even know what to say about today. Every single day that I spend in Madagascar keeps getting better. It’s becoming a challenge to come up with sexy opening paragraphs so I’m just going to cut right to the good stuff.
I actually had a pretty decent sleep, about 5 hours and I was only woken up twice. It’s funny what classifies as a ‘decent sleep’ in Madagascar. But it’s hard to sleep when you’re so excited for the jam-packed days ahead.
We got an early start to the day with the usual routine – breakfast, debrief and drive to the field. Today we visited Ambonidobo village, a village that WaterAid is almost complete their work in, and we were greeted again very warmly, with dancing. Never have I seen a group of people who love to dance more than the Malagasy. We spent the first part of the morning inaugurating more taps in the community, listening to speeches, and dancing with the kids. Around mid-morning, we broke off into smaller groups to get a very intimate and in-depth look at the lives of some of the village families.
Zee, Cydnie and I went with Ernest to a woman named Halnaurine’s house, where she lives with her husband, four children and one grandchild. So, here’s be thing. These houses are the real deal. When you close your eyes and picture an ‘African Village’, this is what you would see. Sticks, mud, and thatched roofing. But once we were inside, I could hardly believe my eyes. For what the home lacked in size, it made up for in unique beauty.
You could tell that this family took some serious pride in their home. They knew it was modest, but it was clean, comfortable and functional. The five of us sat around their tiny kitchen table, no bigger than an elementary school desk.
Ernest acted as a translator as we asked about daily life in the village, how long the house had been standing (10 years, no repairs!) and got to know the family a bit better. Then, it was time to get to work. Zee went with the father to tend to the Zebu (Malagasy cows with humps on their backs) and I later learned that it was a hilarious experience for him. Sure, Zee thought. I’ll just go with this man who I just met, who doesn’t speak the same language as me, and his two massive, horned bulls. It turns out that he had to chase them around to get them into the water, bring them back and re-tie them up, he stepped in a huge pile of Zebu poop, and then they made him chop wood with a dull axe. It was all quite a struggle apparently. I couldn’t help but laugh when he came stumbling into the house, arms full of wood, cursing the Zebu poop, and laughing that he ‘wasn’t built for this shit’. Me neither, Zee. Me neither.
Meanwhile, Cyd and I had been helping Mama in the kitchen. ‘Women’s work’, we were told. I washed dishes while Cydnie built a fire in the family’s indoor kitchen, and when I returned, I transformed back into the asthmatic, gasping, teary-eyed disaster that I’d been for most of my adolescence, except now I was in Africa watching as this woman, her young daughter, and her 18 month old grandson all puttered around a tiny, smoke-filled room with no ventilation like it was nothing. It was truly amazing. (Shoutout to Cyd, too, who managed to stay inside throughout the entire cooking process. I, on the other hand, kept running out into the yard to wipe my stinging eyes and cough up half a lung. Sigh. Canadian problems.)
We helped Mama to make these sweet popcorn balls, made of burnt sugar and crushed popcorn pieces, and then rolled into a ball about the size of a mandarin orange. She explained that she often will bring these to the market to sell, for 50 Ariary each. Just to put that into perspective…that is two cents Canadian. With our new currency rules, we’d *technically* round that down to nothing. Literally nothing.
Her family also supports themselves through farming. While we were visiting, they were focusing mostly on ginger and bananas. We learned that they also used to have chickens, but a disease came through her flock and wiped them all out, so they have slowly been saving up to buy another chicken, but it will take time. And, because I know you’re wondering, a chicken in Madagascar costs around 10,000 Ariary – a little over $4.00 CAD. Less than the Starbucks you may have had this morning.
After we finished our popcorn balls, we had about half an hour to sit and chat with the family, with Ernest as our translator. We talked about life, death, and growing up in the village. They wanted to know about snow, and how did we farm when it was so cold, and what role do cows play in Canada? We compared social norms, weddings, the culture associated with sex, courtship, beauty, vanity and raising a family. It was one of the most eye-opening and beautiful days of my life. These are experiences that 99.99% of tourists in Madagascar would never, ever experience. I feel so lucky.
In the afternoon, we shared a large picnic lunch with the community consisting of rice, beans, and pork for those who ate meat. And, after lunch, in true picnic style, a huge game of soccer. I played a little bit, but since I have the athletic coordination of a juvenile elephant seal, I mostly sat back watching. You know those moments when you are just sitting there, looking around, taking in a moment (bonus points if the sun is low in the sky and a bad Pitbull remix is blaring through a blown speaker over a gas generator) and you think to yourself, how did this happen? How did I manage to get here? How am I in Madagascar right now (Mada-Freaking-Gascar), surrounded by all of these beautiful human beings who live in this remote village hundreds of kilometres away from any major cities, watching them play soccer under the setting sun? Why am I lucky enough to get to experience this?
I expected to be sad when I came on this trip. I was worried about the things I would see, and how they would affect me. As an empath, I thought that this level of poverty would devastate me. Strangely, though, it hasn’t. If anything, I am more inspired than I have ever been to continue this work and spread this message. These people don’t have very much, it’s true. But they are happy. They are full of love and gratitude and hope and joy. They put our western culture to shame as I think of the types of things I have complained about back home. I never want to lose sight of that ever again. I know that I inevitably will from time to time, but I hope I can bring myself back to this moment. Back to their faces and their stories and their smiles.
It’s unbelievable to see the impact that something so simple – so freaking simple! – can have on a community like this. Water. Clean, safe water. Something that you can walk over to your tap and get on demand has given them so much.