18 November 2014


I don’t really consider myself a ‘food’ person. Don’t get me wrong, I love to eat, but I don’t own a single cookbook, I’ve never watched Food Network, and don’t spend hours in the grocery store or kitchen dreaming up new concoctions. To be honest, I felt more out of my comfort zone the first time my host family asked me to cook for them than I did getting on a plane and coming to Madagascar in the first place. The first few times were pretty rough. At one point the Chipotle-esque rice bowl I was dreaming of (complete with fresh salsa, cheese, guacamole, and lots of flavor) ended up being a pile of rice with white beans and tomatoes. But over the past few months, I’ve learned a lot (mostly with the help of a Peace Corps cookbook). Recently I made chicken teriyaki with pineapple (and rice of course).

It was delicious but I can’t take any credit because anything with pineapple is automatically delicious. 
Here’s a list of the things I’ve learned so far…

-Rice is essential. It is said that the Malagasy people consume more rice per capita than any other country in the world. No meal is complete without rice. And rice is never just the side dish, it’s the main course. In Malagasy this is called vary sy laoka (rice and accompaniment). The accompaniment can be anything from French Fries to soup to greens. Some of my favorites so far include peas and carrots, ravitoto (crushed cassava leaves) and tsaramaso (beans). There is often a vinegar-y side salad (lasary) with sliced tomatoes, carrots, onions, or cucumbers. And if there is meat we usually have chicken, beef, pork, or fish.

-Fresh, local, seasonal ingredients are amazing! I love that whenever my host family cooks a meal, they go out to buy the ingredients that morning. We have a small dorm size fridge but we usually don’t keep much in it. There are some basic ingredients such as oil, onions, and garlic kept on the counter, but everything else is available just down the street. I’ve been a wannabe vegetarian for the past few years (curse you barbecue chicken and bacon!) so the VERY fresh meat here has been an adjustment. I do realize that the outcome for the animal is the same whether or not it is hanging in pieces on hooks at the butcher shop or neatly packaged in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, but if I have to eat meat I still prefer the latter. The day we had the chicken teriyaki, I road home in the backseat with our chicken sitting calmly at my feet. She must not have read the lunch menu before she got in the car.

-It is possible to live without cheese. Most of my favorite meals have a very high dairy content. Even the soups I like are thick and creamy. But cheese just isn’t a big part of the diet here (it also tends to be pretty expensive) so I’m learning to live without it. Street food, on the other hand, is found in abundance and quite affordable. So if I am craving mozzarella I can compensate with a hot nem or a deep fried banana for about a nickel. Yum!

-Food is a gift. Since preschool, I have said the same prayer before almost every family dinner. God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. It became such a ritual that I barely even noticed what I was saying. Hunger is something that affects people in every country in the world, not just in Madagascar. But here I have witnessed hunger on a lot more personal level than I have before. And so as we sit down to pray before and after every meal, I am beyond thankful that no matter how many times the words ‘Mom, when is dinner? I’m starrrrving!’ have come out of my mouth during my life, I have never actually been hungry, ever, much less starving. And I pray that those here and around the world who truly know hunger will be fulfilled. 

-Meals are much less about the food that is eaten and much more about the faces around the table. Sharing food and conversation with friends and family new and old can make even the simplest of meals feel like a feast.

Mazotoa! (Bon appetite! Enjoy!) this is a very useful phrase that the Malagasy say often, especially before eating.

08 November 2014


I stop in the kitchen to say good-bye to Henintsoa, my sister, before I leave for class. “See you!” She says. Out in the yard, Boule, our dog, is keenly observing life on the street from her favorite position-- crouched in the dirt with her nose wedged under the fence between two worn cobblestones. I close the gate and walk up the hill. There are two little boys in matching blue smocks (school uniforms) and superhero backpacks walking hand in hand with their moms just ahead of me. At the top of the hill the street levels and I turn to walk towards town, the early afternoon sun beating down on my freshly sunscreened skin. It takes twenty minutes to walk to church. A bit longer if I match my pace to the people around me. 

As I pass my favorite shop, the owners, (sisters I think) wave hello and ask what’s new. “Inona vaovao?” “Tsy misy,” I reply. No news. Mandra-pihoana! See you later! A few shops away, the shopkeeper, a guy about my age, greets me in English. Good afternoon! We practice each other’s languages whenever I stop there to buy crackers. His Cincinnati Bearcats t-shirt always reminds me of home. Across the street there is a small gathering of people at the local “coffee shop” enjoying small tin cups of coffee and mofo ‘gasy or Malagasy bread made from rice flour and fried in circles. I walk a few hundred yards and then turn on to a busier street. 

At the intersection, the taxibe or public bus is waiting for passengers. The driver is honking the horn and the guy at the back door shouts the destinations, hoping to add a few more people before they drive off. The town hall is on the corner. The Malagasy flag hangs on a pole out front, but traces of French colonialism are still present, most noticeably in the reservĂ© parking sign for M LeMaire (Mr. Mayor).A few guys on the corner call out ‘bonjour vazaha’ (hello foreigner) to me and the calls are echoed by some kids climbing a brick wall nearby. 

I keep walking and enter the tsena kely (small market) area. There are vegetable stands and butcher shops on both sides of the street. Women sit and shred carrots into large stacks, pausing occasionally to weigh a kilaoof potatoes or bargain the price of lettuce with a customer. A cart rolls past me and the two men who are pushing it stop at a butcher shop to unload one of the bags. It’s a pig. Well, half of a pig. The other half stays in the cart and the men move on to make another delivery. Later the pig will hang in pieces on hooks so that customers can choose the heny kisoa (pork) that will accompany their rice. There are lots of other shops selling yogurt, brooms, coke, soap, phone credit, and rice. Other stands sell used clothes, peanuts, charcoal, bananas, or cooking pots. I pass the cyber cafĂ© where I go once or twice a week to check email. 

Halfway to the church now, there’s a gutter on the side of the road. There are chickens picking through some of the trash that’s been left behind and water runs through from a nearby spigot. It’s pretty clear at the source but it picks up dirt as it moves downhill.  A Toyota pick-up truck beeps as it comes up behind me, reminding me that pedestrians don’t have the right of way. On one side of the street is a large cement house in the typical French building style. The ground level is a gym which offers weight lifting and Zumba classes. This afternoon the equipment is in use and there is loud American music coming from inside. I recognize the song as one by the band that played at my college’s spring concert last year. 

I hum the melody and keep walking, now with the company of a brother and sister on their way back to school after lunch at home. He is about eight and she is five or six. He carries his own backpack and her Dora the Explorer bag on one shoulder. He makes sure she is paying attention before they cross the street and continue on without me. At another house there is a barefoot woman hanging up clothes to dry. She washed them by hand this morning with water she carried from the public pump down the street. She hangs the clothes and two pairs of black children’s size shoes donated by TOMS on nearby fence posts. There’s a lumberyard just down the street from the church and the smell of freshly cut wood reminds me of summer campfires. Is it morbid that I like the smell of dead trees? 

Arriving at the church, I enter through the ground level parking garage. Some of my level one students see me and come over to say hi. “Good afternoon, Miss! What’s news?” “Not much,” I reply. Today I’m teaching level 2 so we all enter the classroom and the students take their seats on wooden benches. They take out their notebooks as I pull out my dry erase markers, we pray together, and then we begin. The power is out but there’s plenty of daylight so nobody seems to notice. Outside the window, a few of the kids from the lunch program I help at are playing near the wooden scaffolding of the bell tower the church is building. I wave to them and they smile and wave back. 

I’m so blessed to have a community that’s starting to feel like home.