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“The best things in life are unexpected—because there were no expectations.” –Eli Khamarov
I enjoy not having expectations. It’s not that I’m afraid of disappointment if my expectations aren’t met; it’s that I like being surprised. I like experiencing things without the shadow of my own preconceptions. But, I’m human, and, in spite of my best efforts, I still end up expecting some things as if they’re a certainty.
For example, I had expected to spend this past weekend making lesson plans. Yesterday, Monday, I had expected to celebrate being in Fianar for a month. This week, I expected to start teaching English to the students at SALT. I expected the first week of November to be my first official week teaching at FaFaFi. I expected my first day at Amboaloboka to happen the week after. Three weeks from now, I expected my schedule to be solidified and my days to be filled with teaching.
Instead, I spent this past weekend cleaning my apartment and packing. Yesterday, I spent the day in a car with two of my fellow Madagasgals as we road-tripped back to Antananarivo. This week, all of the Madagascar YAGMs and our country coordinator will be flying to South Africa together. We will have our first retreat in South Africa, during which we’ll process and discuss our experiences thus far. Three weeks from now, we’ll hopefully be returning to Madagascar and our host communities.
Obviously, reality did not match my expectations.
For those of you who don’t know, for the past couple of months, cases of plague in Madagascar have been on the rise. Plague is endemic to Madagascar, which means there are cases every year. The difference this year is that there have been cases in cities; normally, plague affects the countryside. Additionally, the strand currently spreading is the pneumonic plague, which can be passed relatively easily via coughing. Because of these factors and others, the YAGM program has decided to temporarily relocate all of the volunteers in Madagascar to South Africa, where we will have time to assess the situation. We plan to return to our host communities in mid-November. I want to emphasize that none of us were in immediate danger. I never felt unsafe or afraid in Fianar. Our relocation to South Africa is precautionary.
“The best things in life are unexpected—because there were no expectations.”
I’m not saying that our temporary relocation is the best thing that could have possibly happened. I’m not saying I’m happy to leave my host community. I’m definitely not saying that I’m glad the plague happened so that I could travel to another country. I am, however, embracing the unexpected. While this is not how I expected to spend the third month of my YAGM year, I am hopeful and excited that it might just exceed my expectations in ways that I never could have imagined before. I am grateful for the reminder that it’s okay when expectations aren’t meant. I trust that God has a plan. And I am ready for the unexpected.
It's crazy to think that I've been in Fianar for almost three weeks already! Some days it feels like I just arrived, and other days it feels like I've lived here for a long time. Even though I'm still waiting to solidify my teaching schedule, I am feeling very settled into life at SALT, thanks to my amazing host family (more about them to come later!) and the welcoming community. SALT stands for "Sekoly Ambony Loterana momba ny Teôlôjia" (Lutheran University of Theology), and it is the seminary where I both live and teach.
I live in a complex called Villa MELCAM. MELCAM stands for "Missionaries of the ELCA in Madagascar"; the name is a souvenir from a time when the U.S. had a strong missionary presence in this country. The subdivided building used to house American missionaries, and now it's used for guests--like me!
The biggest room is my living room and bedroom (above on the left). Yep, I sleep in the living room! (And, yes, Mom, I did make my bed just for this post.) And on the right, surprise! Another bedroom.
And last but not least, here's what the back of the building looks like.
My apartment is much different from a typical Madagascan home. In the words of my country coordinator, I'm living in "vazaha land" (vazaha is a term for foreigners). And I am. I am incredibly privileged to be living in such a gigantic apartment furnished with wifi, electricity, and running water. I have more space than I will ever need, and that's taking some getting used to.
Today I took out the garbage for the first time.
You might be thinking, “Okay . . . so what?” Or, “Why are you wasting a blog post to talk about garbage?” Trust me, I didn’t think I would be blogging about trash, either.
This is a picture of my dumpster, if you will. You’ll notice that there are no metal trash cans, no wheeled plastic garbage bins, nor a big industrial dumpster. There’s definitely not a separate place for recycling. In all honesty, it just looks like a bunch of garbage that someone threw on the ground.
And that’s exactly what it is.
When I take out the garbage in the U.S., I separate the recyclables from the trash. I rinse out the cans and bottles and collapse the cardboard boxes. I neatly tie up all the trash in plastic bag. I carry the garbage bag out to the side of the house, where three different wheeled trash cans await: one for trash, one for recycling, and one for yard waste. I open the lid, toss my bag on top of the others, and shut the lid. Once a week, I wheel the trash can down the driveway and leave it on the curb. When I’m away at school or at work, a garbage truck comes and empties the can, carting all my trash away. I come home, check to make sure the trash can is empty, and wheel it back up the driveway to start the cycle again.
When I took out the garbage here, I didn’t separate the recyclables from the trash. I didn’t bundle up the garbage into a nice, neat bag. I grabbed the bucket of compost from under my kitchen sink, the small plastic garbage can from my living room/bedroom, and the other plastic garbage can from my bathroom. I carried them outside, past the two homes next to mine, and around the back of the building, near the pig pen, where a shallow pit, blackened from fires past, awaited. I hesitated, thoroughly uncomfortable with what I was about to do. And then I dumped the contents of all three of my garbage cans on to the ground.
When I took out the garbage here, I could literally see the impact that my actions and my waste had on the environment. And it’s pretty sickening. In the U.S., we are so removed from our waste. In the neighborhood where I grew up, no one had to cart their own garbage to the dump. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the place where my garbage disappears to. All of the garbage cans in my neighborhood have lids on them so that we don’t have to see the trash. We even line the garbage cans in our homes with bags so that the can doesn’t get dirty. The garbage trucks come when we’re gone, so that when we come home, we don’t have to spare the trash a second thought. It’s just gone. Taken care of. Out of sight, out of mind.
Here, most people burn their garbage. If it doesn’t get burned, it piles up—in yards, on sidewalks, along the roads. Waste is never “out of sight, out of mind” because you always see it. In America, we would call this ever-present garbage littering. We would call it pollution. We would call it gross, dirty, and unsanitary. We would probably assume it’s an environmentally irresponsible method of waste disposal. But, how different is it really from what happens to our garbage in the U.S.? Sure, our roads are relatively clean, the sidewalks are pretty clear aside from the occasional piece of litter, and people’s yards are generally garbage-free. But our garbage doesn’t just disappear. The garbage collectors don’t wave their magic wands over the containers at the end of driveways, and poof! the trash vanishes into thin air. They bring it somewhere. All of those containerfuls of nice, neat plastic bags from hundreds and hundreds of houses—guess what? They pile up. Just like the garbage does here. I’ll admit, I don’t know exactly what we do with all the garbage in the U.S.; burn it, compress it, bury it, and maybe reuse some of it? We can’t get rid of it all, though. It piles up somewhere. In huge amounts. We just forget about it because we don’t see it.
Did you know that, according to the EPA (and this really cool infographic they published), the average American produces 4.4 pounds of waste per day? That means, on average, each person produces 1,606 pounds (almost a ton) of waste each year. That’s ridiculous. And nobody wants to think about that. Nobody wants to face how much damage they personally do to the planet. I know I don’t. It’s so much easier, so much more comfortable, not to spare my garbage a second thought after I wheel it down to the curb.
But if I created that much waste here, my own two hands would be dumping 30.8 pounds worth of garbage directly on to the earth every week.
I’m not saying that I think every person in the U.S. should have to carry their own garbage to the dump. I’m not saying we should start burning our own trash in our backyards. I’m not saying we should do away with garbage trucks altogether so that we’re forced to face our waste.
All I’m saying is that maybe our garbage is worth a second thought, no matter how uncomfortable that second thought might make us.
Hello from . . . Antsirabe? I’ll admit, this is not the post I thought I would be writing today. Originally, today was scheduled to be both departure and arrival. I had thought I would have waved goodbye to Lovasoa and Antsirabe. I had thought I would be settling into my new home in Fianarantsoa, perhaps meeting my host family and other people who will be important parts of my year. I had thought all goodbyes would have been said to my fellow Madagasgals. I had thought my first taxi-brousse ride would be in the books. But, surprise! Plans change. All of our departures were delayed at least a day due to problems with a bridge that’s on the road to Fianarantsoa. The five of us heading south by brousse are waiting for the road to reopen and traffic jams to ease up. That could be tomorrow, or it could be next week. Right now, it’s looking like we’re heading out on Monday!
Tomorrow morning, three YAGMs are leaving for Tana, one directly to her site and the other two to await flights at the end of this week. The other two YAGMs are hanging out at Lovasoa until early next week, when they’ll be able to go to their sites. (And the five of us waiting for the bridge will join them in more Malagasy lessons and English tutoring until our departures.) It’s going to be strange splitting up, but I am grateful for the extra day I got to spend with my whole Mada family today.
Am I disappointed? Frustrated? Worried? Nope! Not at all. I know my site will be waiting for me when I get there, and I bet I’ll just grow even more excited the longer I wait. Living in Madagascar is all about embracing a “mora, mora” (slowly, slowly) lifestyle. Nothing is certain. Things change all the time. I just have to be flexible and go with the flow. Everything will work out; it might just not happen on my timeline or in the way I expect. This adaptable lifestyle definitely fits my personality, but, in spite of that fit, this change in travel plans serves as a good reminder that even the things I think are set in stone are not certain. They’re just as subject to change as anything else. Initially, arrival in Fianar seemed like it was the trip guaranteed to work out on time. But it didn’t, and travel plans that originally seemed less certain are the ones working out first. And that’s okay. We’re all going to get to our sites; the journeys might just look different than expected.
In five days, our three+ weeks of orientation come to an end.
In five days, I get to squish my life back into a suitcase (or two).
In five days, we leave Antsirabe.
In five days, the Madagasgals split up for the first time since arriving in Chicago.
In five days, five of us will board a taxi-brousse (a bus that runs between cities) bound for Fianarantsoa, one of us will board another brousse headed to her site in Antananarivo, and the other four will drive back to the capital together to await their departures.
In five days, I get to try out the phrase “olombelo tsy akoho” (humans aren’t chickens) in order to signal the driver to pull over for a bathroom break.
In five days, I’ll arrive in Fianarantsoa, meet my host family, say goodbye to my fellow YAGMs, and move into my apartment on the campus of SALT, the seminary where I’ll be teaching English.
And what will happen after five days? I don’t really know. But you can bet I’m super excited to find out. 😊
“I’m going to Madagascar!”
“Wow! What are you doing there?”
I’m assuming the answer most people want to this question is the one I’ve been providing: I’ll be teaching English at a seminary, at a young women’s vocational school, and at a farming program. However, teaching’s not all I’m doing—and it isn’t the focus of this year, either. The fact that teaching isn’t the focus seems strange and, honestly, is a little hard for me to accept. Shouldn’t the work I do at my job be the forefront of this year? It’s not like my teaching isn’t important. The thing is, though, this year isn’t about work. It’s about accompaniment.
That statement brings on another question: what is accompaniment? According to ELCA Global Mission, accompaniment means “walking together in solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality.” Let’s break that down. Solidarity is “unity or fellowship arising from a community of feelings, purposes, responsibilities, and interests.” Interdependence is “the quality of being mutually reliant on each other,” and mutuality is similar to “reciprocity,” or “a mutual exchange.” To me, the part of the definition that sticks out is “walking together.” My year in Madagascar isn’t about my job because this year isn’t about what I do for other people. This year is all about what we do for, with, and alongside each other. It’s not about the product; it’s about the process.
I’ve been looking at this year as some sort of extended version of my two mission trips to Guatemala. For those trips, I had even less of a concrete answer to the question “what are you doing?”. I struggled to explain exactly what it was we were doing in Nueva, Guatemala, because we didn’t do anything tangible. We didn’t build a latrine, fix the roof on the church, or repaint the school. We didn’t “do” anything, at least not in the typical sense of the word. So, what did we do? We played games with kids. We went to congregation meetings. We made tortillas. We prayed with a family for their sick child. We toured farm fields. We painted the women’s fingernails. We laughed and cried and praised and lived together. And that was so much more rewarding and lasting than any latrine would have been.
This thing called accompaniment is all about the journey. It’s about being present. It’s about meeting people where they are and having them meet me where I am. It’s about learning and growing together. It’s not about swooping in to “fix” anything; it’s about breaking open my heart and trying to experience a different reality. It’s not about “walking in someone else’s shoes”; it’s about walking in my own shoes alongside that someone else as they walk in theirs.
Check out my first newsletter for more information about my first week in Madagascar!