My region (region Sofia) has been labeled the Black Hole among Peace Corps volunteers. It acquired this nickname when the main road was almost completely impassible. Even though the road has been renovated the name lives on, and this is because of the scarce number of volunteers who are placed here. I asked my APCD to place me in the desert and to isolate me from other volunteers. Even though I was deathly afraid of these things I asked for I decided that I wanted to go the whole nine-yards since I was already in Africa, I never expected to be placed here in the first place. The label makes this region seem uninspiring, but in reality its quite the opposite. And because it takes me one full day to reach the closest volunteer its become important for me to identify true friends and to not take them for granted.
The nine weeks of training I had in Mantasoa did not prepare me for my life at site. People say that PST is a necessary evil. But really I think if Peace Corps had given me a quick crash course in health and security and dropped me directly over a ‘copter at my site I would still be in the same place I am now. When I was first installed I felt I was in a different country; the culture, the environment, the people, the spirit are all so strikingly different from the highlands. The training I received in Malagasy official was almost useless for me here. I appreciated PST for it exposed me to Merina culture and language. I wouldn’t have had that experience otherwise. But when put at site I quickly realized I needed to forget everything I learned during my training and that I would have to run harder and faster to reach the same level of language with everyone else. I started learning how to say the basics again on my own: dog, cat, bed, morning, night, tomorrow, yesterday, girl, boy, etc. I had to learn how to sing when I speak, to pronounce the nasal “ng” sound, to roll my “r’s”. There was no small Peace Corps community that I could turn to exchange ideas and language with. For the most part I relied upon myself and the support from my community. I suppose I sound like I’m bragging, no not really, just completely honest like I’ve promised to be. I’m writing this as a warning to future volunteers in this region. You will struggle. It’s not the easiest region to live in, but in the end it will be so rewarding and you’ll feel accomplished for making it to the finish line. You will realize how strong but on the same token how vulnerable you truly are.
As far as work goes, I explained a little about what this would look like in my region from my previous post. The population here will not listen or respect you unless you prove yourself in their eyes, and even when you do this they already have instilled in them a stern independence and sense of self that is challenging to work with. When my director came to this region and talked to many of the inhabitants and non-profits she was surprised to find this out. It truly is a different world up here.
Food: if you are in the sticks, you will either gain tremendous weight or lose it. Carbs, carbs, carbs, on carbs. Before the road was fixed there was widespread famine here. I’ve had children, particularly the girls who do most of the chores but get a smaller portion of the meals, come begging at my door for scraps. I’ve had children scrape the burnt rice at the bottom of my pots when I turn my back, and eat it quickly out of embarrassment.
PCV’s don’t know much about the Black Hole volunteers nor do they know much about the region. Most of what other volunteers know about me is from our short training together over a year and a half ago. The black hole kind of sucks you in to it. But to be honest I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m offering a window into this place where no number of adjectives can justly describe.