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* getting Circumcised again? Not interested!

Here’s a real live example of why one (at least me) needs to be careful in how ignorant I am of wearing clothing whose meaning I don’t understand.

I was doing training for Peace Corps once in Antananarivo, Madagascar. A couple days of it on cross-cultural miscommunication, something I felt I could speak about with some knowledge and experience, at least from my side of the fence as I was pretty good at this (the miscommunication part). I also had Øyvind Dahl’s (1999) wonderful dissertation which later became the book Meanings in Madagascar: Cases of Intercultural Communication to work from.

The first morning I proudly put on the long, one piece flannel “shirt” (<<lamba>>) that goes down below one’s knees, with long pants pousse pousseand a regular shirt underneath (it’s cool to cold up in the highlands that time of year). This is what many Malagasy men living in the countryside in the highlands (where we were) wear. I felt pretty good about having it to lend some additional “authenticity” to my training. I am a lot taller than most Malagasy, so I’d had my <<lamba>> custom made for me at the market in Antsirabe, the town where we lived (3 hour drive south of the capital city where the Peace Corps training was happening).
However, in walking by several Malagasy men on the way to training, as far as I could tell they very visibly started to laugh at me. Curious at this, I stopped to ask them “Why? What was so funny?” To my horror they said, between laughs, that they needed to congratulate me because I was obviously going to my circumcision! The real kind! In retrospect I should have asked them why this is how they saw me, as that hadn’t been part of the conversation while I was ordering and buying this garb 3 hours south of where I was doing the training. And maybe I did ask and maybe they told me it was the length, at least in the capital city region as they had different customs? I honestly don’t rememgber. But I was not looking to become circumcised and was so embarrassed by it all that I pondered taking it off immediately. While I did wear it to the training, using the experience to provide me and my trainees with yet another great reminder about why I needed to be emphasizing mis-communication in the training I did.
I never wore that <<lamba>> again. And I concluded that “Be thou careful in what thou chooses to wear that ye has no concept of the meaning(s) of!”

And that’s all I have to say about that!!


* Shipwreck of the “Margaret Oakley”

The year was 1836. A US ship, the Margaret Oakley, was sailing towards Madagascar on its way back to the US, margaret-oakleyreturning from a trip to the far east, when it was forced to anchor in the Fort Dauphin bay as rats had eaten through six of its water casks. And then things went downhill from there, as while building new water casks, the ship, having lost an anchor chain in a sudden gale which came up, was driven ashore.

Having seen this happen before, many of the Malagasy living in that area went to the beach near where the shipwreckMargaret Oakley had run aground. As described by someone who witnessed what happened next:

“Two hundred Malagasy villagers had collected on the beach, all willing to lend a hand, and the captain got them to form a chain reaching from the vessel to the shore, some in boats and canoes, others standing in the water. The Malagasy soon landed the cargo, but ‘amid a scene of great confusion,’ with ‘many a box of costly silks, satins, crapes, and handkerchiefs ornamenting different parts of their persons, while under their arms were boxes of tea, bundles of sewing silk, and other valuables the like of which the natives had never before seen.'” Morrell [the ship’s captain] “paced the beach to and fro like a maniac, with a brace of pistols in his hands, threatening to blow out the brains of the first man who broke open a box. But he was not ubiquitous, and the moment he turned his back, open went a box, and away ran the … contents.”

Captain Morrell could only despair, his vision of the wealth he was going to earn from this voyage shattered and his ship sunk. A hundred bottles of medicinal cajuput essential oil that he had purchased in Singapore? Lost. The sago he had acquired? Ruined by seawater.  In addition Captain Morrell, “though frowning with a cold ftu-harborcommand directed at those who, antlike, emptied his colossal wreck,” which was now destined for the sandy depths that has swallowed beached ships in the Fort Dauphin harbor for hundreds of years,  could not police the chaos involved in saving what was possible, and so he lost a fair amount of the cargo he was able to save to those who had come to “help.” As described above, before long costly silks, satins, crapes, and handkerchiefs were being worn by his “helpers,” even as some hauled entire boxes of tea and bundles of silk up the beach and away from the growing pile of rescued goods.

Once the cargo that could be saved was unloaded, and the crew ashore, Morrell put the remaining chests and crates he’d managed to retain control of under armed guard, securing them initially under tents made from his ship’s sails.

In all, Morrell officially claimed to have saved only 115 of vintage-tea-chest400 full tea chests, 230 of 450 half tea chests, and 380 of 630 tea boxes–only about 40% of the tea cargo he had brought into the harbor. He also recuperated 360 cases or boxes of silks, which was by his estimation about half the total he’d had before the gale that blew his ship ashore. Three cases of chinaware, a case of ink, and eight cases of pearl shirt buttons were also among the items recovered.

And then, just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, some of the boxes of “curiosities” Captain Morrell had gathered from around the Bismarck Sea (north of Papua New Guinea), drifted ashore at the foot of the bay. When an inquisitive Malagasy opened one of these, he was more than a little shocked to find it stuffed with dried skullsskulls [which Captain Morell had stolen from villages on the islands of Arawe (New Britain) earlier in his voyage, as he felt they would sell well in New York and Philadelphia when he got them back home to the US]. As Jacob writes, the Malagasy were horrified and

“held a convention over them, and concluded that the crew of the Margaret Oakley were a set of piratical cannibals, who had been cruising along the shores of Madagascar, eating the people and preserving their skulls. This came near to causing a bloody outbreak of savage fury upon our party, and it was only by consummate tact on the part of the captain that the enmity of the natives was allayed.”

Before long Morrell had secured a warehouse for his precious, remaining cargo while he waited for a ship to leave on. In the meantime, it took so long for word to get back to the US that the crew was still alive that everyone assumed they’d been lost at sea.

Perhaps in part because of growing questions about just how much of his cargo had been lost, Morrell eventually managed to get what he had left of his cargo on a British ship bound for England (not the US as he should have done), not wanting to face growing suspicions of the owners and insurers of his voyage who ended up facing massive losses from his ill-fated voyage.

* waves

Growing up on an ocean gives one certain advantages. In img118 (2).jpgmy case it was the warm Indian Ocean that surrounded  the town of Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, where I grew up. So unlimited swimming year round. While I didn’t fish in the ocean there were those who did, some from shore, others from dug out <<lakana>> (canoes).

While I loved swimming, what I enjoyed even more was watching waves come in. Who knew how far they’d traveled or what they’d encountered along the way?! Sometimes very big, crashing on the reefs and rocks which surrounded the peninsula we lived on with enough force img124.jpgto make the ground hum. Sometimes as still and calm as glass. Mostly somewhere in between. Always coming in, running up the beach, making the sand glisten, erasing your footsteps. In a way a sort of tick-tocking of an ocean that seemed almost alive.

I miss it. Deeply.

* beans vs. raw meat

To be able to better understand and in turn do one’s work it pays to  have a philosophy tanambao meat marketof what you’re doing and how. In the community development work I was involved with in Madagascar we framed it as being somewhat similar to what  it takes to find protein at a local, open-air market. In terms of the “what” we were doing, then, both literally and figuratively, this became helping to provide additional protein in the lives of those we were working with.

Using the open-air market as a metaphor, there are two very different places to find protein. The first is the meat market section, which generally is given the nicest part of the market, under the best roofing, with lots of energy and excitement surrounding what goes on there. Big men, loud voices, lots of laughter. And flies. Sometimes so many one has to wave your hand over the meat just to be able to determine what kind of a cut it is?

A second very different place to find protein is from the piles of beans for sale. These are generally not found under the roof, but often out in the open sun. Little old ladies with big straw hats to keep the beating sun off them as they wait to make their sales. Also using an umbrella given the glaring sun if they had one. No roof, no big men, no excitement, no flies.

The way we would describe what we sought to do in our community development beansefforts was the latter, beans approach. While not nearly as exciting, it doesn’t attract nearly the flies, either. And in many ways, though less expensive, the protein is of a higher quality, more sustainable, less tempting if you will.

So how did this relate to our community development efforts? Our focus was on working with some of Madagascar’s poorest in ways that were low key, highly interactive, emphasizing Malagasy <<lasin’ asa>> (somewhat similar to the Amish barn-raising process). As such they weren’t high budget, with lots of paid staff, equipment, etc. But the process worked–and generally very well, too.

And it kept the flies away.

* the project that never was

I was just a driver, so the whole story of what we were doing took several days to malagasy roadsunfold. It was a major visitation by donors (quite a few of them) from both Europe and the US, something done every several years for the donor reps to check up on what was happening with their funds. Because there were so many donors, I had been asked to also drive some of them, so had already spent several days driving, visiting various job sites, etc. Being just a driver, I wasn’t privy to conversations going on, documents being exchanged, etc.

But this day seemed different somehow. There were private discussions happening, some arguing going on and some firmly set jaws (I’d been with them long enough to have some confidence about facial expressions). We finally all crawled into our caravan of vehicles and headed out country from Morondava, a fairly good sized town on the west coast of Madagascar, where we’d been visiting a variety of projects. The day was hot and sunny as it is for most of the year there, the road, once we left the pavement, a dusty red gash through the forests. Having driven for an hour or so, we


pulled over at a very small village at which point quite a lot of discussion was had which finally resulted in our disembarking from our vehicles and started walking. However, we didn’t get very far before the whole venture was called off and we were back in our cars, heading on to the next destination. Being just a driver, I wasn’t privy to the conversations, but was able to learn the following from one of the donor reps who was riding in my car.

The whole point of this visit had been for the donors to be able to verify something they had been growing increasingly concerned about, which was whether a reforestation project they had funded, from which they were getting glowing reports of progress being made, actually existed in real life? They had very specifically asked to see this project and then insisted on it when attempts were made to change the plans for what was to be seen that morning. And in so doing they had just verified what they’d feared, which was that the project existed only on paper and in the form of quite a bit of donor money which had been spent, apparently only theoretically on reforestation. While vehicles had been purchased, they weren’t being used on the project. Buildings may have been built somewhere, but again, not for the project. Salaries had been paid, but it was more than a bit mysterious as to who had actually received this money?

Here in the US we have a saying from a famous movie about baseball, “If you build it, they will come.” In this case the saying was more something like, “just because you paid for it doesn’t mean you necessarily built it”!

I was very thankful to have been just a driver that day!

* “Helping people help themselves.”

Before we returned to the US in 1995 I spent the first 20 years of my working life focused on international development. This due to what I felt was a Calling to invest my life in doing this which began as I came to realize how unjust and inequitable the world was during my high school years in Madagascar (see ?).

Having newly arrived in Madagascar after 6 1/2 long years of engineering school, shallow welltasked initially with working on a shallow well program, but already having had this job changed to something much more mysterious, I was asked by several German donors about the shallow well program they were funding, which at that point in time, was one of their most expensive programs of this kind in the world, even though most of the wells seemed to be going in at a location where the soil was sandy and the groundwater wasn’t so very far below the surface. Having heard a fair amount about this project by this point in time, how resources supplied for one use were also being used for several other things, I helping-people-help-themselvesrather snidely (in retrospect) asked them if they were there to “help people help themselves?””Oh, yes,” they replied, “that’s it exactly!” To which I responded that I thought they were very much  in fact achieving their goals, with the only not so small caveat that some people were helping themselves much more than others.

Needless to say, it was quite a few years before any German donors again asked me any questions.


* the lost boys

When taking youth on a missions trip, it’s best not to lose any of your kids. Even temporarily.

Helping to chaperone youth mission trips with our church is generally an easy, fun to do task. So far I’ve accompanied youth to Queens, NY, Beattyville, KY, Chicago, IL (twice), Duluth, MN, Atlantic Mountain, SD, Wind River, WY and Juarez, Mexico (twice). In all those trips save one we’ve never wondered where any of our youth were at any time during the trip. However, there was once when this was not the case.

We were on our way home from one of the toughest trips I’ve ever taken. To Juarez, Mexico. In July. Where temperatures had been over 10o degrees all week long. While it deserves its own story, we were exhausted. And finally, with a night at a nice, air conditioned hotel in Albuquerque, we were looking forward to debriefing the week with our kids. All until, at about 9pm at night, we found 3 of our boys missing.

Now this is not good. The whole idea of having chaperoned trips is to prevent this from happening. While we were at a nice hotel, it was near the airport in a not-so-nice part of town. So what to do? We’d been dropped off at the hotel, so didn’t even have a vehicle to use.  Several of us walked the blocks immediately around the hotel, but not knowing which direction to head, chose not to head out further. Assuming they’d return, we gave them an hour. Then two. Finally, about 11pm with our boys still missing, we decided we needed to start calling parents to let them know what had happened, as by this time it was already midnight in the US. And then, shortly thereafter our boys returned.

Had there been a flight still that night, we would have flown them home early. But there was none before our flight the next day. So we gave them a room for the night and the next day, with our young boys to men looking very guilty as they sat by themselves, we flew home together.

Lessons learned? Clearly explain repercussions of disappearing before and during a missions trip. Keep an eye on kids, something we found quite difficult to do in a hotel. Potentially group kids in small groups of 5 or so to see if this would help ensure compliance on not wandering off. And if kids do go missing again, possibly call parents and the police sooner. And if they don’t, then remember to thank the good Lord whenever you return home with everyone having been accounted for the entire trip.