Cold Pancakes

Pancakes: an emblem of good ol’ “America”. An “america” that boasts wealth and success and erases histories of oppression and struggle. An America that is full of empty promises for many. In the conversations with many Malagasy I have heard over and over a projection of a shiny, sparkling, magical place– but that is for another post. However, this conception of America is full of conceptions of American Patriotisms that I haven’t really engaged in. Football, hamburgers, July 4th, and always our flag. I get asked to sing the national anthem, of which I don’t know all the words. However, I didn’t grow up within this American Patriotism. My parents had a distinct dislike for nationalistic tendencies that glossed over a problematic history. 

More likely to serve rice, nato and miso in the morning, my mom’s cuisine is usually a reflection of her many years lived in Japan. I remember once my father put up an American flag on our front porch when I was little, probably around the time he got his citizenship. It was around the time everything was blossoming. I remember watching it droop over time, exposed to the torrential downpours that are customary in the springtime, wet and forgotten. The flag wasn’t deliberately uncared for, not intentionally ignored, it just wasn’t something that made it to the forefront of my family’s mind. While I did have a privileged upbringing, my family didn’t  engage in the clichéd depiction of America that is projected. We never had a TV to engage classical sit coms,  never watched football (I didn’t know the superball existed until I was 15), we were raised vegetarian so I’ve never had a hamburger.

Yet somehow, my unpatriotic family managed to guard this “Americanism” that is pancakes. I can imagine my mom popping around the kitchen early on weekends, rummaging in our hopelessly disorganized drawers, emerging triumphantly with odd amounts of flour, baking soda, and sugar. Sometimes a streak of powder smeared on her forehead.

The members who have already woken up animatedly discuss some political tidbit or another and my father absentmindedly stirs his coffee listening patiently to my mom who is usually the catalyst of the conversation. During this lively war of words, my mom manages to conjure up a batter. I never know quite how she does it, eyeballing the ingredients, magically creating the perfect formula. With a calculating eye she pours the thick and sour buttermilk into the batter, stirring the remaining bits expertly off the sides of the bowl. Over a hot and heavy cast iron griddle, she spoons the exact amount. At this moment she usually stands over the pan, surveying her work, waiting with the spatula, for the minute bubbles to form slowly around the outskirts of the pancake. By this point most of the family has gathered in the kitchen, rubbing sleep out of our eyes, brought by the smell and voices. A dull roar of talk and animal voices makes our typical law family din of chaos. The cat stalks haughtily across the table; the dog does his normal rounds shoving his nose into everyone’s laps, his tail destroying anything left in his wake, pausing to bark in a shrill exasperated tone if he doesn’t believe he is being adequately worshipped. Mom directs the setting of the table with her spatula, maneuvering the instrument like a wand or Excalibur, waiting for the magic apparitions of her requests. Then, with ease and poise, she attacks, flipping the pancake.

And always, when the golden hue sets in around the edges and a crispy brown skims the top, she announces, “Eat! You have to eat the pancakes before they get cold!” Normally as a family we eat once everyone has sat down at the table, waiting even if I am trailing behind to grab a jug of water. Pancakes are an exception. As they arrive at the various plates on the table, people begin. Chunks of fatty almish butter, a stream of sweet maple syrup, and always the tartly engaging, deep royal red Lincoln berries. This is the one rule that my mom is somewhat forceful about and never flexible. I didn’t grow up with a curfew save for pancakes. Not seated at the table when they are served? You don’t get pancakes.

Yesterday, as I squatted over a eucalyptus fire, covered in batter, flipping pancakes, this familiar scene set into my head. A wave of a new feeling washed over me, a pang of an incessant, yearning feeling. It sunk deep into my stomach, settling at the bottom, heavy. It nipped at my heels as I walked to grab the old baby clothes used as a rag. Moments like this appear at odd times when things that are familiar to you are slightly different while abroad.

So, when my host family had insisted (and I was thrilled to finally cook!) that I prepare some “American” snack for them, I immediately thought I could harness this one American trick I had up my sleeve. I couldn’t make the jumbled cuisine we made at home as they kept insisting on “American” food, “like burgers and brownies.” My previous attempt to produce brownies from margarine and chocolate bars had failed miserably (though a rather scrumptious cake was invented in the process) due to the lack of ingredients. To redeem myself pancakes were unanimously agreed upon, as ingredients for crepes were readily available. Eggs were collected from the neighboring food stalls, a small packet of baking powder (levure chemique) was found, and my host mom produced a bag of powdered milk proudly. I couldn’t recreate my mom’s buttermilk pancakes but this would work! Conversions were executed, powders were weighed on an ancient scale that looked like it once had been used in a doctor’s office, and finally a batter was created.

 

Voila!

A different din was present here, a collection of noises vying to be the loudest. Shouts from pousse-pousse drivers in the street, banana vendors calling their merchandise, roosters screeching, and hymns blossoming from the next-door church set the ambiance for the constantly blaring french television set (sputtering in an out with electricity) and my 2 year old host brother speaking to himself in a mix of Franglache (French and Malagasy) amidst the curt but careful scolding of my host mother.

As I started to produce pancakes, I instinctively said to my host mom, my own mother’s voice in my ear, “Eat them while they are hot!” To this, she gently replied, “We eat when they are all done.” Slowly as the pile mounted and my host mom giggled with me at my Mickey Mouse pancake and my lack of dexterity with the spatula, the feeling abated. Together, as a family, we sat around the television, drinking an absurdly sweet orange frizzing soda, eating cold pancakes smeared with eucalyptus honey.
Ethann and Mickey Mouse

A Wild [honey] Chase

From the back of a rusting, once white, one gear bicycle rented haphazardly from a man sitting on a curb in the market, I get to see a different scope of the countryside surrounding Manakara. I cycle behind my guide and collaborator Bruno, who enthusiastically gesticulates as he describes the places we are passing, and in warning of approaching dangers. It is overwhelmingly green here. The countryside fades into one blur of vitality as we zoom by, broken by the occasional cluster of decomposing tree stumps from slash and burn agriculture and charcoal collection. Bemused shouts fill the air as people tune into the fact that there is an odd, shorthaired vazha biking past (no helmets to be found, Mom please don’t panic). Tall traveler’s palm stand sentry along, Route 12, the main mode of transportation along the Eastern Coast Corridor, taller than any other palm I have seen. The road is its own challenge course: large trucks with commercial goods push past with little regard for the small pousse-pousse runnings, pulling their clients on small rickshaws. Other cyclists are visibly put out by being passed by us, however I am awed by the fact that they are even capable of cycling with such large stacks of rice or lumber strapped vicariously on their seats as they stand to peddle. Women balancing water and baskets filled with freshly picked fruit on their heads walk determinedly in the road, letting others navigate around them, staring straight ahead. Children strapped to their backs with colorful lambdas giggle amongst themselves, watching the busy scene.

Bruno and I are off on our own wild honey chase. I received word the previous night that a honey collection was going to happen 10 km from the city from a modern grove, and would I like to attend? Yes! Communication and arrangements were difficult due to the electricity going in and out, but somehow we made it to the office of the honey cooperative where I borrowed my bee-suit, or as Bruno likes to call it, my “vêtements extra-terrestre,” (alien clothes) and set off. We didn’t know the address but we had a vague idea of the commune that we could find the beekeeper. As we biked, Bruno called out to passersby, asking if they had any idea of a beekeeper in the area. No one did and for the most part, people were scared to respond. Their eyes furrowed when they saw me, a different response than the friendly chatter I receive within the city. Bruno had warned me of the distrust of foreigners—only recently there had been disappearances of children due to the organ trade, and to them, perhaps I was a collaborator.

Suddenly, Bruno slowed his bike down and took a large inhale. I followed suite. The air, usually thick with the smell of wet earth, had a distinctly different smell to it. A musky sweetness, of flowers and something else… something familiar but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until… “Tantely!” Bruno exclaimed. “Honey.” Yes- we had found our way by means of our own noses!

With the help of a few friendly manioc-pounding women we pushed our bikes up a neverending hill into a thicket of eukalypus and lychee trees. Next to a primary school we found the results of the honey collection: two large leaves spread out with lamba covered hives. We were met by a group full of intrigued children (who is this alien?!) and men lugging more hives on their shoulders up a large hill. From this thicket we descended into the rain forest, through densely packed trees and around little rice fields. We stepped over the old railroad tracks, a colonial reminder, and entered a charming picture: tall lychee trees, half a-blossom, draping over about 30 hives, nestled in the security of the shade. From far away a slight humming could be heard, and as we approached the drone rose in volume until it was a vibrating, insistent sound.

 

I stepped into the grove and was immediately engulfed. Bees filled every cranny of space. I was abuzz. The rest of the world tuned out as I tuned into the bee reverie. A paean of bees. I became indoctrinated in a bee-ontology. It was the first time since I have arrived here that I have felt completely at ease. I was back in a place I fully understand. Bees will be bees will be bees.

So why do I find myself in a honey grove in the bee capital of Madagascar? For the month of April, like all other SIT students, I will be completing and independent research project. While many have set off to examine lemurs, I have chosen the bee. Why? I believe the interactions of bees and humans can provide some information on our precarious situation within the Anthropocene. For the next month I’ll be hoping (and biking) around, interviewing and being a participant observer to traditional and modern beekeepers and subsistent farmers. I’ll speak to healers and traditional figures to understand what would be lost culturally as well as biologically in this region if the current decimation of bee population continues. I want to ponder the reciprocity of inter species kindness as a model for change. By considering the bee and the traditional ecological knowledge surrounding bees and their relation to agriculture, I ask those around me to consider the bee. And so on. We are not victims to the anthropocene, not simpering, docile bodies. Rather, we have the capacity to transform our own surrounding, seize our own agencies and adapt, much like the bee itself.

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Into the Field

I remember watching the movie, “Into the Woods,” on a plane a few years ago, with my sister conked out on my shoulder and a Belgium gentlemen politely tapping my shoulder every 5 minutes to escape to the bathroom.

While I don’t remember much of the movie, as I am not one for musicals, one scene that has made its way into the crevices of my mind, is when the main character, little red riding hood, jovially skips off on her on into the woods. As she scampers, she trills the song that the musical is named for, and is trailed by forest critters and magical beasts alike harmonizing in the refrain and joining in on her adventure. It is all very jolly and innocent. Into the woods, she went! Into the field, I go!

While I won’t make a ridiculous claim that “the field” is akin to a musical, the same magical unknown and exhilaration does surround this rite of passage. This morning, I woke at 5:20, in dim red tinted light, to scampering footsteps from above, feet tromping up and down the stairs, muffled voices peppered with giggles, and my friend bustling around, last minute details packed away in her never-ending suitcase.

In sensationalistic, NatGeo adventure lingo: 17 SIT students, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, will be set loose across Madagascar, embarking on a 4-week long independent research expedition. The voices I heard were small groups departing for their individual taxi-brousses, unsure what their overnight trips will entail and what their end destinations will bear. We will be scattered across the country, from the Northern coastal city of Diego Suarez, to the rural southeastern bush. Some will be miniature Allison Jolly’s, bushwacking through forests, scrambling over slippery slopes, recording the interactions and behaviors of the lives of lemurs. Others are stalking city streets, eyes to the landscape and architecture, understanding the colonial handprint embedded into the structure of the cities and land rights. Some are skirting around nature preserves, among rural communities, asking the people’s perspective on the new parks that have unfolded in their own backyards and territory. Others will be keeping an eye on the greens, identifying medicinal plants used in traditional healing here or examining the minutia of the digestive juices of carnivorous plants. From one program, a range of projects has blossomed.

No matter the discipline, it is our very own initiation and first venturing into the so-called, “field.” A murky unknown. “The field,” isn’t a definitive, clear-cut place, it is a boundless object, an experience that isn’t mark-able by a time stamp or GPS coordinates. However, whenever it begins, it is a time to test our new tried and true methods we have developed throughout this semester, to use our skills of observation and engagement. Its thrilling and of course hopelessly naïve. We can’t forget that in the scene in Into the Woods, the sly wolf scurries behind little red riding hood. Of course trials and tribulations will be encountered, language difficulties and cultural confusions, weather drawbacks, and minor hiccups bumped into. But that’s the joy of it.

My next installment will be from Manakara, a small coastal city, fixed amongst rainforests and essential oil plantations. My search: beehives. But, that will be explained later.

I am Juice

This blog post is not a deep philosophical reflection of the liquidity of my nature (hah) nor a description of the assortment of juice I drink throughout my day (tangy passion fruit for breakfast, velvety mango for lunch, subtle baobob for dinner). I am “juice,” really is a tongue and cheek remark about my own religious placement here.

While I was in the States religion was always an omnipresent force in my life- I grew up going to Hebrew school twice a week, had a Bat-Mitzvah, and for the most part kept the Sabbath with my family. I would like to separate these rituals and practices from my own spiritual identity—because that is something even I have not managed to figure out quite yet. However, spirituality and belief aside, my own upbringing led me to identify culturally as a Jew. My moral thinking I am sure is shaped by the ethical framework upheld in Judaism. And despite my own personal thoughts on certain political manifestations of Judaism, I am still proud of my heritage. Yet, I am not deeply religious. I am mainly a high-holiday Jew, I don’t attend services weekly and my family no longer celebrates the Sabbath unless we are all in town. While this is the case, I still am a Jew.

But the thing is, I didn’t really think about my own religious affiliation all that often. While embedded in my own cultural milieu, it wasn’t an everyday mental thought or reflection. Judaism is just part of my life, in a quiet, supportive way.

This perhaps was one of the largest changes since I have arrived on the 8th continent. Here, religion is sewn into the daily quilt of life. The first question my host parents asked me was, “Catholic or Protestant,” and the first thing I noticed upon walking into my new home was an “I love Jesus!” sticker on our front door. On the walls in our small house hang bible verses in Malagasy and every meal we pray. As my family is a mix of both Protestants and Catholics, my little sister leads the protestant prayer and my father the catholic prayer.

Placing someone into a religious context is an important social marker here. Not to undermine the importance within the United States, but it truly is brought to a whole new level. I am constantly asked which church I attend (there are 7 in the small city of Fort Dauphin) and whether I attend church at home in the States. The trouble is—I don’t attend church in the states. When I am attending anything it is a Synagogue. In the states, I don’t treat Sunday as a holy day, and I don’t pray to Christ before I eat. That is because, obviously enough, I am Jewish. I have my own cultural practices. However, these “don’ts” are more important than my religious affiliations in most discussions I have here.

I get asked “Protestant or Catholic” and I respond neither. Puzzled, sometimes a whole new flurry of options is shot at me “Mormon? Jehova’s Witness? Quaker?” No, I respond “Jewish. Je suis juive.” Befuddlement ensues. While each conversation is different, I usually use the same storyline. I try to explain the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, how the Torah fits into this, and when the religions separated. Regardless of the audience, I am an oddity and novelty. Some accept my explanation, having some semblance of understanding that I belong to an entirely different religion (a select few recognize me as “Jews” which sounds exactly like “Juice”), while others, upon realizing that the Old Testament is the Torah, place me into a new conception of weird Christianity.

My host family was not quite sure what to make of it. My first week I attended church with my mother, as this was an important part of my family’s week to week routine and honestly I was curious. I did not return after that first week—it was 7 hours long and usually I have to much work to do. However, what was interesting to me was how different this experience was for me than for my classmates. For certain other students, it was comforting as it was familiar—languages were different and certain tunes changed, but the basic customs and interactions were similar to their own churches back home.

For me, as an already outsider, I felt even more outside. Church was an ornate ordeal—everyone is dressed in their highest finery, and packed like sardines, as tightly together as physically possible into many, many pews. I was squished beside my mother, thankfully I didn’t lose her in the frenzy to get the best seats, and a stranger who was very kind as I continuously messed up the stand up-sit down routine. I wasn’t accustomed to giving charity, but luckily had a few notes that I slipped into the basket of the collector. I didn’t understand the language, but more significantly, I didn’t know anything about the ceremonies.

Communion was done very publicly. As I was obviously neither baptized, nor confirmed, I was not permitted. This was entirely fine with me—I wouldn’t take communion regardless. One by one, each pew in church stood up as the little wafers and water were passed around. Each person went through a ritualistic exchange which I can’t quite describe as they received the body and blood of Christ. Initially in church, despite my obvious confusion, I was not labeled as an outsider to the faith, just the usual “vazha” (stranger) status. Communion changed this. As it was a public affair, and everyone was particularly excited to see the odd foreigner do everything, my own rejection of communion caused a flood of whispers around the church. My own mother before had told me, very sternly, not to accept the offering, as I was not allowed. I knew this and was relieved that she had granted me that escape. However, it did not provide relief from the many eyeballs raising my neck hairs.

I think the reason I was so uncomfortable was that, until that moment, saying yes, even if it was outside my own normal cultural framework, was an important tool in integration. This was the first time I said no (the discussion of food is a whole different realm and post) to something. By saying no, I was rejecting something that was deeply cultural but also it proved to me that religion exists in a different sphere. It is part of culture but it also stands aside—my cultural difference wasn’t what caused me to reject the communion.

After the 4-hour service, a lunch followed, highlighted by the sacrifice of a Zebu (cow) who a member had donated to celebrate the new roof. I was left to fend for myself as my mother, with all the other women, had to see to the distribution of food. I sat, by myself, quietly. It was the most out of place I have felt the entire time I have been in Madagascar. Usually a plethora of people surround me in most of my daily experiences, speaking and chatting, interested in where I am from and why I am here. While smiles were exchanged with people surrounding me, and the father of the church and his wife greeted me warmly, for the most part, I was ignored. I am not sure if this was socially because all were excited about their weekly chitchat and food, or if I somehow stood out more than I had thought.

My own reputation of being, “Jews (Juice)” sprinkled through the CURA students we studied with. I was approached multiple times, with curious questions regarding my practices. Some students had learned odd things in their own Sunday Schools about Jews and posed multiple, confusing questions to me. Each time, I did my best to represent what Judiasm was, but often felt like I was drawing up short. Judiasm is complex and I may not be the best example of a practicing Jew. This was pointed out to me, when one student said, “You say you are a Jew and you follow the Old Testament. Then why do you have tattoos? That is forbidden?” Yet, as a minority I was asked to speak from a place of expertise. In my own life of privilege, this is the first time I have had this experience.

I was explained the significance of hell earnestly. My older host sister spends some of her weekends going into villages to, in her words, evangelicalize the lost. However, no one within my own family space tried to convert me. Rather, my mother found me an old English bible and gave it to me, telling me that it included the Old Testament and may be nice to read. This was the first of two bibles I received, the second coming from my own Malagasy counterpart, who said it was the only book in Malagasy he owned, and wanted me to have it to practice my language skills. I now know how to say apocalypse in Malagasy. These gestures were beyond kind, and even if it did have religious undertones, it speaks to the care and generosity that this culture necessitates.

One night at the dinner table, my father was discussing religion. In particular, he was explaining the large population of practicing Muslims within Fort Dauphin. I asked him about his own conceptions of religious difference. I am ashamed to admit I was waiting to hear intolerance in his response. Rather, eloquently and earnestly, my father explained that this is not a country of intolerance and that rather, all are welcome. He used the example of 18 ethnic groups existing in relative peace and then, turned the question around on me. How can I be from such an intolerant country, where immigrants were rejected and people were targeted based on religious affiliation? I had no answer.

The Cemetery of Development Projects

When one envisions Madagascar through the popular conception, images akin to the Garden of Eden spring to mind. Lemurs leap through dense forest patches, teeming in the humid rainforest air with flittering insects and swooping bats. Unusual, vibrant flowers conceal camouflaged lizards. Seldom does one think of the human inhabitants. In fact, the most common question I received before departing was, “There are people there?” Curse Disney and its silly movie. This enchanting picture does actually exist in certain areas, yet the past week and a half have been a lesson in the other extreme of life here within Madagascar.

“The President doesn’t like us people in the South. So, he bought all the rain in the sky to punish us.” My village stay host father explains to me as he sits next to me on a traditional woven natte (mat). His face is illuminated by my headlamp that I arranged to shine into my bright blue Nalgene water bottle. This makeshift light casts an oceanic blue gleam of light around the circle that has gathered around myself and the 3 other students. This artificial brightness is the only source of light within the Village (I will not name the village for privacy purposes) at this time of day, but the lack of electricity is of little to no concern.

To my right sits the other SIT student who has been assigned this village as well for the following 6 days, to my left our two Malagasy counterparts, comrades, students, cultural and linguistic translators, guides, and most importantly friends. A small crowd of about 20-25 people, the majority young children, clusters around the natte to look into this odd glowing object.

As part of SIT we spend 6 days in a rural village homestay learning and applying PRA (participatory rural appraisal) research methods. PRA is a method that is used in order to develop not only the collection of information but also the integration and use of that information for the community and by that community in the future. It is founded on the respect for human dignity and subsidiarity, or the value of knowledge of all participants. The village stay also serves as the most absorptive cultural exchange of the program, living and learning within the community itself. We have asked our father, a man of small stature and quiet competence, to discuss the current agricultural situation of this village, and this specific response was to the question, “Why are the dry seasons getting dryer?”

This small circle is the first night of our time here. After arriving we spoke to the Chef du Village for his approval, wrestled with our tents (to the amusement of the villagers) and were rapidly coerced into watching a dancing performance of the little girls to prove that if small children can do the dance, so can clumsy Vazsha. And so we did, in due course.

This village is located in the Tandroy region of Madagascar, in the very South. This region has been named “the Cemetery of Development Projects,” due to the failure of most aid interventions. The landscape is marked by the remnant “tombstones” of old development placards and monuments, slowly disintegrating in the heat and sun. This is the region that suffers the most in Madagascar and we are arriving in the time of worst famine and drought in 30 years, due to the El Nino.

This region is also the home of the CURA students who we have been collaborating with for the last 2 and a half weeks. So as we Americans arrive open mouthed at the sheer scarcity of the region, the Malagasy students overflow with joy and excitement to show us that what this region lacks in food and water, it is rich in culture and hospitality.

From Fort Dauphin to Ambovombe (the largest city within this region, which still barely counts as such) it is 7 hours, on unpaved, rocky roads. I refrain from looking out the window, as I would be too horrified to actually understand what we are driving on. All 34 of us piled into the ironically named “No Problem,” cargo truck, sitting on mats on the floor and on top of one another, as the radio blasted Malagasy and American Pop songs. As you drive from Fort Dauphin, within the Tanosy region, to Avovombe, you ascend and descend a mountain range. The change in climate is abrupt and striking. As we climbed the mountain, rain pelted in from all sides of the open slated truck, and then suddenly stopped. The green that had enveloped us disappeared and the landscape became a monotonous shade of rusty red. Rolling sand burnt hills and prickly cactus dominant the scenery, with the occasional tamarind tree bent over, crippled by the unyielding winds, but resilient and determined nonetheless.

As we drive in, the CURA students begin to sing and point out people in the road they know, their aunts and uncles who are busy selling goods. The whoops of delight set the scene for what I will soon experience for the next week—this is a region where the wealth lies within the people. As we stop briefly on the road to check the inevitable tire problem, boiled corn on the cob is passed through the truck slates by small children vendors, quickly distributed by the CURA students to the Americans. They are eager to show and share their own “base alimentaire” or food staple with us.

Despite the glee of arrival, it is hard not to notice the people in the streets, bent over murky puddles of water, collecting as much as they can in plastic tanks. With luck, we have arrived with the first rain of the year, out of the usual 3. Ultimately, this makes the village stay easier, as water is slightly less of a problem, but still a bucket of water here, in local value, is the equivalent of 100 dollars.

I outline the conditions of water and famine not to be overdramatic or sensationalistic. Rather, this is the lived reality and I have learned that this situation, while grim, does not mandate a pitying viewpoint from the outside. If anything, I have left my week in the village with an awe and respect for people of the Tandroy that is paramount to any other group I have ever met. Like many other students within the “study abroad experience,” my own cultural notions of right and wrong were challenged and then transformed. However, I do not want to dismiss this experience as trite just because it is common for those visiting drastically different cultures. I do not wish tokenize this shift of perception. But, I have to acknowledge that it was a significant moment for my own conceptualization of the world and its many inhabitants– an example of the fallacy of “universal truths.”

Perhaps the starkest example of this was how family worked within my own village, and its age make up. My entire village was related, as in usually the case. Land here is connected to the ancestors who are buried here, tanindrazana. My father came from this village, as had his father and his father’s father. My mother had come from a surrounding location and was my father’s third or fourth wife. While polygamy is common in this region, it was emphasized that each individual wife had been “divorced,” or that is to say, the traditional marriage linkage had been broken. This explained why my father, who is 46, has 8 children; several were in their early and late 20s, whereas my host mother is 17, pregnant with a 3 year old.

From a western perspective, this is undoubtedly uncomfortable. However, from the transnational perspective, I worked to move beyond my initial cultural bewilderment to really understand how this family structure and age dynamic worked. For some, trying to find the merit in a 14 year old marrying a 43 year old and having a child is impossible. I myself find it hard to fathom that 14 could be an age of marriage, let alone childbirth. And, to be honest, I was shocked at first. But, it is not my place as a white, western foreigner to neither judge nor impart my own opinion. Rather, this was an opportunity to develop a newfound flexibility and comprehension.

As I spent time with the family, I found that my own frameworks of conceptualizing family and gender did not work here. The entire structure was different. I am aware that my time was insufficient and not nearly long enough to draw long claims, but I will say that in my 6 days I saw what I can only describe as happiness and kindness exchanged between my parents. While my father took on typical “masculine,” activities, the farming and hauling of resources, and my mother the domesticated tasks of food preparation and childcare, this was not as strict a dichotomy as one would see within even the United States. Women also farmed and men also cared for children. Power was demonstrated not by large acts of strength, but my small actions. With a focused eye, I could see how much power really did lie within the female sector. Furthermore, the maturity and knowledge of my mother was on a different scale – I couldn’t try to make a comparison to mothers or young girls in the USA because that is unfeasible and unrealistic. However, I will say that the competence and skill, and ability to read social situations that I saw within her impressed me to no end.

From a western perspective, this region is “crippled,” (I echo the use of able-ist language here within the discourse of development, and for this reason have put this word in quotations) lacking in infrastructure, nutrition, water, and education. I agree that all of these are important, but after a week working with and observing, I can’t stress enough the consequence of letting the people decide amongst themselves what they want and how they want to address their own issues. Some believe that this region is a “cemetery,” of development projects because of logistical issues, due to the extreme climate. However, I believe that perhaps it has more to do with the nature of these projects and the imposition of unwanted and most likely unnecessary techniques, which were neither incorporated nor instigated by the communities themselves. There is no place here for the western savior.

 

Some photos:

Our trusty vehicle
Our trusty vehicle
One of my CURA counterparts who I did my Natural Resource Portfolio interviews with
Eric, one of my CURA counterparts who I did my Natural Resource Portfolio interviews with, my new brother
3 times a day during the Village Stay, while our family only ate two times a day
Eaten 3 times a day during the Village Stay, while our family only ate two times a day
My incredible homestay mother
My remarkable homestay mother
Resource Flow Map
Resource Flow Map
My incredible homestay mother and her 3 year old son
My incredible homestay mother and her 3 year old son
90 year old grandfather pictured with his two wives
90 year old grandfather pictured with his two wives
The little girl who was the village rebel rouser and bad ass dancer!
The little girl, RojoSoa who was the village rebel rouser and bad ass dancer!
My father's mother, the woman who patiently explained to me over and over how to tie my lamba (traditional skirt covering)
My father’s mother, the woman who patiently explained to me over and over how to tie my lamba (traditional skirt covering)
My homestay family in his traditional dancing gear
My homestay father in his traditional garb, while dancing
A snippet of the landscape
A snippet of the landscape
An invasive species that is now an integral part of the ecosystem and culture
An invasive species that is now an integral part of the ecosystem and culture
The two on the right (Rodin and Parfait) were our friends, team members, and cultural and linguistic translators for the village stay
The two on the right (Rodin and Parfait) were our friends, team members, and cultural and linguistic translators for the village stay
Me amongst the throngs on the "No Problem" bus
Me amongst the throngs on the “No Problem” bus