Last Update: 7/9/2014 11:14 PM
By Marlow Schindler
The verb “to eat a meal” in Malagasy translates literally as “to eat rice.” Homegrown rice is the staple food of people in Madagascar, served at every meal. Rice is so highly regarded that it is used as a currency and a prized gift.
John Shen served in the Sava region along the northeast coast of Madagascar. He lived in the tiny village of Mahevadoany (population 155, plus or minus throughout his stay). An immigrant from China as a child, luckily, he already loved eating rice. His family back in the States agreed with his new family that a meal without rice was hardly a meal at all.
John spoke Malagasy with the people in his village. He didn't know French and none of them knew English. His official counterpart was one of the village elders and a doctor (though not formally trained as such). He had tremendous respect in the community; however, he didn't have time for friendship with the village’s new Volunteer. He acted as a mentor to John, but left him largely to his own devices.
John was a Health Volunteer, but he wasn’t fulfilled by his primary project—educating the local population on specific health topics, such as water and sanitation, maternal/child health, and nutrition. John questioned if his work at the clinic was sustainable. He questioned it even more when he discovered that his unofficial counterpart at the local health NGO was corrupt.
Despondent about his purpose in village two months after moving to site, John accepted an invitation from his neighbor to join his family in the fields as a distraction. The whole family mobilizes for the planting and harvest (the growing season is much less labor intensive). John transplanted seedlings in the rice paddies with one family one week and stick-planted in the hillsides with another family the next week. Unlike household chores, rice planting was not gender-defined, so John had an opportunity to speak with everyone. He worked three days a week in the fields for about three weeks.
John had not had any agricultural experience before Peace Corps, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have had any experience with the local long-handled shovel used by farmers with neither mechanized farm equipment nor plows. Local rice production was characterized by physical labor with the adoption of few improved agricultural technologies.
At first, John was embarrassed by his work. Women and children could work faster and produce perfect lines of evenly spaced rice seeds or seedlings. John’s rows were haphazard, and he returned home to his bamboo house blistered, exhausted and sunburnt at the end of each day. Day after day, whichever family he was assisting that day, insisted that his rows were fine, if not exactly pretty. Slowly the blisters turned to calluses and John got accustomed to working in the unforgiving Malagasy sun, known locally as the “flamethrower.”
In Madagascar, community relationships were of paramount importance – more so than one’s status, accomplishments, or job. The worst possible character flaw was "miavona" or "arrogance." Miavona people considered themselves above the community. Working with the villagers was John’s way to demonstrate his value as a contributing member of the community.
“I started farming rice with the villagers as a way to build rapport and for something to do, but then I started to look into other agricultural projects that could increase local production.” John recalls. Ultimately most of John’s experiments failed, but in his second year of service, he started a secondary project drying fruit as an income generating activity that met with enough success that it allowed him to switch primary projects.
On top of building strong relationships and helping him find his purpose in country, John got an even more tangible benefit from his work in the fields – rice. In thanks, every family he had helped, brought John sacks of rice that he himself had planted.