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* Minneapolis to Paris Orly to Djibouti and beyond! 1966

I was a big bad 3rd grader. Well big for my age anyway. Kind of like now I guess!

My family and I were on our way to Madagascar for the first time and everything was a Commissing parents (2)bit bewildering for me, anyway. We’d started out in Minneapolis with a flurry, as my grandma Eide, who worked for what was then Northwest Orient Airlines, had gotten to the gate too late to see us off, so she’d talked the ticket agent into coming onto the plane to see us off (before security, but still quite a thing to do!). And almost flew with us as by the time she turned to leave they’d shut the door and were not happy about having to reopen it! But God bless her, she’d given us a box of Fanny Farmer chocolates which would save us boys later in the flight.fanny farmer

Later in the flight. It was now very late for us to be eating (7 pm?) and still no food. And then, with the flourish only Air France could make with what was airline food, it came. Fresh salmon. First, I’m not sure we’d ever even eaten salmon and B. it was cooked in some obscure fashion I’m sure the French enjoyed. Us little guys, however? Not so much. So enter Fanny Farmer chocolate to the rescue!

And then we got to Paris where we fortunately had an overnight in a hotel (airlines used to just give these to you back then). I don’t remember much as I’m pretty sure I spent most of the time sleeping. But there are a few things.

plate of beets

The funniest was when we went for supper, where my parents, who didn’t speak French, pointed at something on the menu, hoping for the best, which turned out to be beets. Just beets. Not our favorite food. They then ordered something else that worked much better as someone spoke enough English to see us through to something less beetish.

And then, on our way down a hall, maybe to our flight(?), I grabbed my little brother Johnny B’s arms and he fell down. On his chin. Blood everywhere. And a big cut. So then we soins medicauxwere all off on an unanticipated (and so much preventable–naughty me!) adventure of trying to find somewhere that could deal with this injury at Orly airport. For a family which spoke no French. Thankfully, there was, though instead of stitching up the cut like they probably should have, they put a big bandage on it.

The next thing I remember was flying through the night in what was either an Air France 707 or DC-8. What was magical was the blue “stars” (lights) the plane had on theb.1770 ceiling. What was awful, in those days before there were even no smoking sections of a plane, was the air was so smoky it was blue on that long flight. A fair amount of it I assume from the infamous Galoise and Gitanes cigarettes. Small, white and strong. Very strong. And a French movie, one of those I most likely wouldn’t have understood even if it had been in English. Of course, I was only a 3rd grader.

Foreign Legion

And then a middle of the night stopover for fuel in Djibouti, which was still a French Territory in those days. As we landed the windows totally misted up as the outside of our plane went from well below 0 to the “cool” 110 degrees it was there in the middle of the night, blocking our view of most of the little which was visible. Getting out, we walked over to a one-story building that wasn’t so big as I remember it which may have been the airport in those days? Walking up the stairs I remember staring up at two very big men with big boots with carefully rolled socks, short pants and holstered pistols. And to literally “top” it off, some of the funniest looking hats I’d ever seen–the French Foreign Legion, providing a lot more security than was usual in those pre-hijacking days. I have no idea why they were needed?

The only other things I remember from the flight was first the hot towels they gave us in pain aux choclat (2)the morning as we flew on towards Madagascar. Heavenly! And the food which wasn’t so much heavenly. French food, which back then I didn’t enjoy. Thankfully I liked a French breakfast better than whatever we had for supper on that flight. And the strangest water. Spring water I assume. In little plastic cups with a plastic cover. I suppose we didn’t realize we could have requested plain old water. And oh, yeah. It began a love affair with pain aux chocolat which has lasted a lifetime–the coffee came quite a bit later. Ah yes, the joys of travel!

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* getting reCircumcised? 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

DCIM100GOPRO

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.