Newsletter 5

Espegren Mad YAGM Newsletter 5


A Last Day in Madagascar

Today is not my last day working as a YAGM in Madagascar, but it is one of them.

This morning I woke up at 7, got dressed, packed up my stuff and left the house with a fellow YAGM, Kelsey, who stayed the night after a day-long bus ride up from the town of Fianarantsoa the day before. We grabbed breakfast to go on my street, small sweet and salty orbs made of rice flower called mofogasy [Malagasy bread], and ate on the hour-long bus ride into the neighborhood of 67 hectares where I work.

Here we parted ways as Kelsey caught the next bus on her route home and I headed into the clinic at my church for a morning of baby weighing. I plodded through weighing and charting the growth of about 20 babies before they were taken in for their free vaccinations with only minimal meltdowns on the babies’ part. I happily noted that some of the babies that I had previously weighed in low were growing fast and closely approaching the ideal weight for babies their age.

After I finished, I thanked the staff for their help, returned the scale and headed to a nearby Chinese restaurant for some much needed coffee, on the way being invited over for lunch next Monday by the office manager of the church. As I indulged my persisting caffeine addiction, I graded the last quiz I had given my students [about listing and describing the color of clothes]. The matron of the restaurant informed me that the wifi was still down; I didn’t linger.

I headed to the lamba [fabric] market, and weaved my way through the colorful and claustrophobic stalls to my favorite lamba seller – she is the only seller who carries a specific lamba called a salovana, which is sewn in a circle and can be wrapped as a skirt, a dress, or as I more recently learned from the Peace Corps, an infinity scarf. I bought 4, filling an order from my mother, explaining to my seller that this would be my last mass salovana purchase, as I was headed back state side.

After this shopping spree, I meandered to a wifi café close to the market to photocopy the exam I would give my students at 2, and check my emails – it’s scary how many of these start cropping up when your return is immanent. I lost track of time and realized I had only 30 minutes until the exam. I ate a bowl of soup on the side of the road and booked it to class.

After the students had all arrived I counted heads and much to my chagrin realized I was one test short! I let the kids go to the bathroom while I begged the principal to make one photocopy using the school’s tiny, jerry-rigged copy machine. My wish was granted and the exam commenced. In between answering questions and reminding students that test time was a time for silence [not something my students are practiced at], I decided I should probably take a shower when I got home, and thought about how I really did need to sweep and mop my floors.

My students finished the exam 30 minutes early, so I let them go home to study for their next exams. Afterwards I realized I didn’t know if I actually have the authority to do this, but no one yelled at me as my students streamed out, so it must have been ok.

As I tried to catch the bus, a teenage miscreant started laughing at how silly the vazaha [foreigner] looked running after buses. I found this mildly annoying and decided to walk down to the next bus stop, which is calmer and involves significantly less chasing after moving vehicles and straight arming others off the back of said moving vehicles. On my way I decided to indulge in an ice cream cone from Madagascar’s one and only fast food chain Gastronomie Pizza, an odd habit I have picked up, as it is winter.

Waiting at the next bus stop in a much more civilized fashion, a man came alongside me with a happy greeting. When I asked the news, he told me that he was brining bed linens to the hospital where his child was being born. I congratulated him and told him my news, that I had just given an exam to my students. Shortly after, my bus arrived. I missed the worst of the traffic and arrived back in 40 minutes.

Walking down my street I decided to buy a hat I had seen this morning, musing that I had somehow spent a year in Madagascar, the land of hats, without acquiring a single one. The man selling them refused for a very long time to tell me the price in Malagasy as he thought I was playing a trick on him, no matter how many times I assured him I was from the US of A, not France.

I now sit at home, having not showered or mopped my floor, recounting the day to share with you all, and considering if I should go to Zumba in 15 minutes or not.

I wrote this account not to bore your pants off [I do hope you skimmed most of it] but to show how very life-like my life is here. I didn’t travel to the end of the earth, just the other side of it. If you took out the funny Malagasy words, my day was probably rather similar to yours, just a little more moramora [slow]. I commute, I eat, I drink coffee, I work, I buy things, I wifi, I converse, I Zumba. Yes, there are some glaring differences, like, you know, living in a different language, but the year I have just lived is not a separate experience, it was simply a continuation of my life in a different place. I live in a city; we have fast food and malls, terrible coffee and wifi cafés. Some things will be difficult in my transition back to the American way of life [namely the speed], and I will miss many people and many things, but I promise you, I am, for the most part, the same person you said goodbye to almost one year ago. I apologize in advance if I find it difficult to sum up my year in a few words, but imagine doing the same for the ups and downs of the year you just lived.

I will be finishing my work here on the 17th of July, leaving Madagascar on the 29th and will be at and around home [in California] from the 11th to the 23rd when I will move to Baltimore for grad school. I look forward to seeing as many of you as I can in the coming months!


“Stay alive!” That’s right, the Malagasy word for goodbye is the word life [velona] in the command form [at least that’s what my Malagasy tutor assures me, the subtleties of Malagasy grammar are far beyond me].

Why am I saying goodbye you ask? Didn’t I just get to Madagascar? That’s how I feel – that is, when I’m not feeling the exact opposite, which has happened on more than one occasion, being a world away from my California home. But alas, in 7 short weeks I will be taking my leave of the Malagasy community that graciously hosted me for 11 months, and bidding them “stay alive” until next I see them.

But, as the end nears, I’m faced with the question, what does “veloma” that really mean? Keep breathing! Don’t go and die on me! Well, yes, hopefully that, and more.

During our YAGM orientation, the Global Mission staff promised to mess with our heads so that we might come back and mess with the heads of our sending communities [that’s right, I’m talking about you]. And I can assure you that this open-hearted, polluted, boisterous, pick-pocket ridden little piece of Madagascar that I’ve called home for a year has messed with my head. The challenge now is how the people I’ve formed relationship with, and the experiences I’ve had stay alive in me.

How do I take a year’s worth of living among a Malagasy family, choir, church, neighborhood and have this time inform how I live into the future and my call in the kingdom of God? I do not have an answer to this question, as I know it is all too easy to conveniently forget; to ignore that email from a friend asking for a favor because they seem [and are] a world away, to return to habits of excessive spending even though I know my students here share erasers because they can’t afford to buy their own.

So, I am asking you all to help me keep Madagascar alive. To sit through those boring stories I tell about my host brother and sister. To be gentle with me when I set foot in a Costco the first, second and third time, because that is going to be weird for a while. And most importantly, to ask questions. But please, for the love, do not ask, “How was Madagascar?” because all you will receive in reply is a deer in the headlights. That is a question for people who don’t want to have their heads messed with!

But, just as important, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I will stay alive here in Madagascar. Being a YAGM, you hear about other former YAGMs, from coordinators, host communities, random people you meet in hotels that find out you’re a missionary. Whether you try to or not, you leave a legacy with someone. But, with less than two months left, it is easier for me to check-out, coast through class with no lesson plan, stop trying to learn Malagasy, skip choir practice, preoccupy myself with future plans. But if I’m not truly living here while I’m here, I won’t stay alive in my community when I’m living on the other side of the planet.

So I keep living. This month I joined a zumba class in my neighborhood with my host mom and her sister-in law, started giving presentations about gender based violence with my friend Sthela, and committed to weighing babies every Tuesday morning until I leave. And yes, these might be small additions, but it feels good to live into the close of my service here, and into the beginning of my service elsewhere, because in Madagascar goodbye isn’t really goodbye, but a reminder of our call to be alive in Christ and in community.

The term “life-giving” is a YAGM buzz word for experiences that fulfill you and affirm your life and purpose. But, the term becomes even more apt when we realize that life-giving experiences usually are a result of giving some your life for someone or something else – dedicating your time and efforts to a person or purpose.

So I leave you with this command, “Veloma daholo! Stay alive everyone!” and remember, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” [Matt 16:25]

When God Breaks a Toe, God Gives a Community

Ok, I don’t actually think God broke my toe, but perhaps God was the small stump on the beach that I kicked hard enough to snap my fourth toe to 45˚ angle, after all, Jesus was the rock in the desert with Moses and the Israelites…similar. Regardless, being a Biology major who never got around to taking Anatomy, I did not realize that the assumed point of dislocation was in fact a long bone extending into my foot. The treatment for which is preferably a boot. Unfortunately the only available boot at the medical facility that treated me appeared to be made for a 6’4” individual. My innovative doctor remedied this by strapping a foot mold made from plaster strips to my leg with a bandage or three. The result was reminiscent of a cast, but far more comfortable. I was issued a pair of crutches and told to lie low. Good advice, I learned, when I tried and failed to navigate the treacherous urban terrain of Antananarivo (more on this later) on crutches.

While home bound I was worried physical isolation would add another barrier between me and my community besides language, culture, class, ethnicity and so on. But I was in for a surprise. My host family, concerned by my hopping about the kitchen on crutches precariously balancing cooking instruments, arranged for a different neighbor to share their midday meal with me whenever they weren’t home. Every day at 5:00PM the members of my choir would pray for healing of my toe. A delegation from the choir came to visit me at home and pray with me when I couldn’t make it to church one Sunday. When I did make it to church, everyone wished me a quick recovery, and when I arrived at work after getting the “cast” removed everyone was overjoyed that I was back.

I assumed it was over and gratefully got back in the rhythm of things. Then, just the other evening, I was going home after a church staff picnic in cyclone season rains. My area of town is known for high rates of petty crime and my host family worries when I travel by bus after dark, so I was in a bit of a rush as night was falling. The heavy rain had temporarily turned my usual alley path into a river, and instead of waiting it out or finding another path around I decided to wade through. The water, murky from the dirt and waste being washed by, concealed the location of the overflowed trench gutter into which my foot plunged. I went down, and my recently mended toe twisted at an unfortunate angle. I continued on, now covered in mud and waste water, knowing that my bus was looming just ahead. I forgot to take into account the rain induced rush hour that left no seats on the buses, and the rain induced taxi fare inflation to a sum of money that I only carry on special occasions. I limped along the median, the only high ground, towards the next bus stop hoping for better luck. It was at this point I began to cry in part due to the pain and in part due to imagining how much fecal matter was in the water into which I had previously fallen, assuming the rain and the umbrella would hide my shame. Wrong again! After a while, some women I had never met noticed and stopped and asked me what was wrong. They helped me along until they could convince the backdoor man of a bus to let me on.

Those of you who know me know that I pride myself on being fiercely independent, and I prefer to give help than receive it. But my toe saga has given me another, not so gentle reminder what a community really is – a group of people who help each other. And luckily you don’t need to speak the same language, have the same culture, be the same ethnicity or anything else to help people. So, maybe God did break my toe.