Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ave Maria

She is only fifteen. With her frail posture, shy smile and drooping shoulders, she looks like an average Malagasy school girl. Modest, timid, sweet. She is wearing a simple black dress with a bow tie on her back, and shiny sandals with low heels. 

Susan Boyle-effect
She has been invited to sing at a Christmas party hosted by John and Jen, American friends. A small orchestra of musicians in black suits with classical instruments is present too. A real Christmassy atmosphere. Then the girl starts to sing 'The First Noel'. She hardly opens her mouth while singing but WOW...she sounds like a CD! Or's like the Susan Boyle-effect. 

Musical genes
It's true..the Malagasy people are extremely talented for music. Every Sunday you can hear hundreds of thousands of people in their best outfits singing beautifully in church choirs all over the country. In every family there is at least one person who plays guitar or piano. Karaoke bars are frequently visited. Singing is part of the culture here; it's in the genes.

One of the many many choirs in Madagascar
Goose bumps
The girl then starts the Ave Maria. Goose bumps run over my arms! It is out of this world how she sings, her voice deep and steady, yet so seemingly effortless. Her Enya performance is equally spectacular. 
I talk to her afterwards. She says she's 'just' a girl who sings in church, and how much she enjoyed singing for us.  

American Idols
I wish there was a Malagasy version of American Idols, or Mada Has Talent, so that Simon Cowell could 'discover' her. Not like Susan Boyle at the age of 50 but at 15...what a joy she can bring for many more years to come. 

Merry Christmas everybody!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

One Night in Bangkok...

Forget Mauritius, forget Reunion…if you are living in Madagascar and you need a break, go to Bangkok. Hop on an Air Mada plane in Tana and hop, 8 hours and 735 euros later you are in Bangkok. The flight goes on to China so you ‘ll have to put up with endless rows of Chinese who take off their shoes and haven’t changed their socks since seven days, but apart from that the flight is easy.

Shop until you drop
I am participating in an EU contest for international development jobs, and for that I had to computer-based test. Numerical and verbal reasoning, logical thinking – that kind of thing. Obviously, most test centers are located in Europe. In Africa the choice was between Nairobi and Johannesburg. I choose Thailand to combine pleasure with duty, and spent literally one night in Bangkok. Absolutely loved it. After Madagascar Thailand seems so developed, so cosmopolitan, so clean and efficient, so funky, such great food, such gentle people, and surtout, such great shopping! Ok, if you are looking for shoes with heels lower than 4 inch, or a bra size over 75A you'll have a hard time. But for clothes, books, running shoes, souvenirs, funcky jewerly and gadgets Bangkok is the place to be! 

Shop Until Your Drop in Bangkok

I took a many-star hotel in the heart of the city, at a stone's throw from major malls and from the test center. Had a Starbucks latte, a Big Mac and great Thai food like Tom Ka and. Literally shop until you drop. Everything was perfect and went well, except euhhh…the test.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

My First Malagasy Pumpkin

There is always a first time for everything. Even for pumpkin carving. Even in Madagascar. Even for me.

Scary costumes please
As kids we'd only vaguely heard about Halloween, something with pumkins and horror stories. It's only since we've been living abroad, and have met many Americans that I know Halloween. And I've come to really like it! But only when it's about wearing scary costumes, not just any costume. Of course you can argue about the defination of scary, and my friends Johnson and Johnsen's outfits as Amy Winehouse and WWE Wrestler definately count as scary to me!  But wearing a jester hat, being little red riding hood, or slipping into a Hawai shirt does not scare me at all. I want to see blood!

Pumpkin carving for beginners
Pumpkin thin'
In Tana we are invited to several Halloween parties, and the American school is organizing a Trick or Treat this Friday. Soleine has her witches' outfit ready. But a whole new world opened to me when we were at a pumpkin carving party. Amazing really. The Americans always have plenty of gadgets; they had pumpkin knives, scoops, mini saws and what not. It was actually much easier to do than I had imagined. Of course I stayed at beginner's level of two triangles as eyes and a ragged mouth, but it looked quite good.

Sarah Palin
Seeing our friend Johnson pricking holes in the pumpkin with a pin fork for over three hours really puzzled me. What was he doing? And why did it take so long? When it was finally finished I could not see much on the pumpkin. Until he put a light in it...One bloody good example of pumpkin carving for advanced users. WOW.

Happy Halloween! Happy Carving!

Advanced pumpkin carving: BEFORE
Advanced pumpkin carving: AFTER

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Super School Trip

With Alice Pippitt, Soleine's teacher
Picture yourself at the age of seven. Now try to relive that exciting feeling of going on a school trip!!
Remember the beardy, big-bellied bus driver? The song singing, the warm sandwiches in the lunchbox, the sleepless night before departure, the sticky hands? And hiding under the seat when the bus arrived back at school to let the awaiting parents believe the bus is empty? I remember all of this vividly. But as hard as I am trying now, I can for the love of God not remember where we went or what we did.

Just like chicken
Soleine went on her first real school trip yesterday - on a bus that is. To the Crocodile Farm near the Airport in Tana. Exciting that she was! The bus driver was not big and beardy but bald and beardless. The warm sandwiches were actually cold rice and chicken. There were no sticky hands (thanks to the mother of American inventions: sanitizer) but sun burn and mosquito bites, despite sun screen and mozzie cream. 
The songs were about a boy called Tim, who went into tub to see if he could swim. And something about a lady with an alligator purse. How appropriate. Because at the croc farm you can buy croc leather shoes and eat crocodile meat. "Tastes just like chicken, mama".

Spot the animals
The trip had an educational purpose, the Grade 2 kids had just learned about amphibia, reptiles, birds and mammals in class.  I hope she will remember any of this, and if not, she can read back this blog and see the pictures that she (yes!) took during the school trip. But personally I need some help, can you spot the animals in the photos? I can not even see them, let alone tell you whether they are amphibia, reptiles or mammals!
I am afraid I'm not much of a rabbateur. You?

There should be something in this picture somewhere

It's probably just swimming under water
And you are?
Is it a leaf or something else?
The brown thing on the top is a branch, there should be a snake in here somewhere!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Le Rabbateur

The Trivet Maker 
It amazes me each day how many professions one can find in Madagascar. Many of them no longer exist in our society (or don't exist yet!), such as the milkman, the knife sharpener, the glass bottle collector, the garbage sorter, the basket weaver, the sausage maker, the firewood seller, the sock darner, the wash woman, the green-leaf grinder, the herbalist, the wool spinner, the rope twister, the car washer, the DVD copier, the ID-card laminator, the baby hat knitter, the exhaust pipe welder, the chair upholsterer, the MP3 song downloader, the trivet maker...

Shall I go on?

I am making this list up as I'm writing, but there is actually an excellent photobook entitled: Madagascar, Le grand livre des petits metiers, by Laurence Vanpaeschen.

The old fashioned knife sharpener

Special skills
I really did not realize there were so many ways to make (a very modest) living. Then there is the 'rabbateur'. Something I had never heard off before coming to Madagascar. A rabbateur is an animal spotter. He is like a guide but with a specialty to spot rare animals like lemurs and chameleons. The rabbateur has the eye, he can make the animal sounds to lure them, he can climb in trees or run upon hills. In short, he too has some pretty special skills.

Lemur on the phone
Not long ago we visited the Ranomafana national park in Madagascar. Our rabbateur was able to spot many animals, including rare birds, hidden spiders and a camouflaged chameleon not bigger than my pinky. But what amazed me most was that this and most rabbateurs in Madagascar are using new technologies; they actually have animal sounds on their mobiles. Our rabbateur proudly told us he had ten different lemur cries on his Nokia! Luckily he was out of battery when we were there!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fete du Pain

Today was a special day for me and for the center for steetchildren I volunteer at. We were invited to participate at la Fete du Pain, a big event near the Tana train station, organized by LMM - Les Moulins de Madagascar - a large flour mill in Antsirabe. The objective of the day was to promote flour, and bread, and cakes, and rolls, and baguettes, and croissants, and..... Well you get the picture, right?

Bread versus Rice?
You may wonder why such basic products like flour and bread need any special promotion in Madagacar?

General rehearsal, Wednesday 4.35 PM
Well, that is because Madagascar is traditionally a rice-consuming nation. It's rice, rice and rice again here. Three times per day preferably.

LMM reopened his mill in Antisrabe a few months ago, and to celebrate this event they organized a day with baking demonstrations, speeches, workshops for bakers, and the like.

Hand-embroidered bread bags
As I am friends with Mark and Karen Reed, he is the administrateur general de LMM,sometime in June we were brainstorming about this day.  I then proposed that the streetchildren of the Akanifitahiani center could make hand-embroidered sacs a baguette. as a nice give-away for the invitees. They liked the idea, and more even, they asked the children to come and sing some songs, and Alex to make a speech to promote the center.

The Real Deal...this morning Thursday 11.55 AM
Petit Pain au Chocolat
So there I am breaking my head over finding a song in French that has anything to do with bread. Then Michel helps my out...Joe Dassin's famous Petit Pain Au Chocolat! Yes, got it. We rehearse and rehearse. And finally went for general rehearsal on stage yesterday.

The big day
Today was the big day. The LMM bus picked up the kids at 11 AM, we dressed them in their LMM caps and t-shirts and went on stage. They sang like nightingales!

And as far as their preference for rice or bread is concerned...these pictures speak for themselves!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Boers TV

I am sure I already told you that it can get fricking cold here in Tana. Don't ask me why but this week King Winter decided he wanted to stay on for a little while, giving us all the chils and shivers. I am talking 11 to 15 degrees Celcius. For some reason I am always 'underdressed', as if I refuse to believe that it can get really cool in a tropical country. I never seem to learn..

Our very own boers TV
In the evenings we sit and watch our fire place. Which reminds me of a great expression the Afrikaner Boers in South Africa use: they call the fire the 'boers TV', or farmers TV. Watching the fire in the bush is like watching TV. Cute.

Smoke from the tellie?
So we were quietly watching our boers TV last night, until smoke started to appear from our 'television'. (I reckon that 80% of fire places in Tana are not properly built and 'leak' smoke). That was the end of the boers TV and we switched back to Canal Satellite, to watch Ajax and Lyon draw blank in the Amsterdam Arena. Nice to have teenage son at home...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Carrot with a Disability?

I have started a consultancy assignment for  UNICEF. A very interesting job, to conduct an assessment of UNICEF's partners' capacities in order to develop an overall capacity strengthening plan for partners and UNICEF staff. How I will manage to capture all the different levels of competence - organizational, technical and cross cutting, of over 400 different partners divided over 6 sectors (health, education, protection, nutrition, HIV AIDS etc) into one plan is still a big question to me, but that will be for later concern.

Range of target groups
UNICEF has quite a large program in Madagascar, with many different target groups. I name a few: teachers, students, primary school students, parents of students, infants, children up to 59 months, youth, mothers, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, sex workers, MSM (Men having Sex with Men), local authorities, doctors and health personnel, girls at risk of abuse, boys at risk of abuse, persons with a handicap, etc. All together this can cover almost the whole population of Madagascar, except perhaps the odd male rice farmer, tough I am sure he's targeted in some of the nutrition projects.

Handicapped? Or disabled?
What strikes me most with working with the UN is the jargon. For example I wrote: person with a handicap. Can we still say that? Or should it be 'disabled person', or 'person with disability', or 'differently-abled person', or invalid? Terminology changes over time, and for the best. Saying: 'a disabled person' actually implies that the entire person is disabled, which is nonsense. I kind of like the 'differently abled' word, though it almost implies something positive...

Carrots with a disability
Anyway, I thought of all this when our gardener pulled at a bunch of carrots that Soleine planted in her little garden some months ago. They came all kind of handicapped. With half a leg, or shriveled up bottoms. I have no idea why, can anyone tell me? Have they been in the soil for too long? Is it because the seeds were thrown in haphazardly, like they do here in Mada?

And the final question: should we call a carrot with a handicap, or with a disability? Or differently-abled carrots? Ha ha! What say you?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Where the *&%$ is my Sugar?

So we've landed back in Tana. Usually I feel a little rocky when traveling between the first and third world, if I may use this old-fashioned, politically incorrect term. My mother's favorite saying that translates into something like: men may travel on a horse but the soul follows on foot, is even more accurate these days when you can cross a distance of 5,000 miles in 11 hours.

Lost in my own home
Although I am used to living in two worlds, returning to our house in Mada felt different this time. I took a rather long  break, the longest ever, during which time I did not think very often about Madagascar. I have to admit that in my country, Holland, Madagascar does not really live. Anyway, when we came back home last night after having traveled in six countries where we slept in at least 20 different beds, I had the strangest sensation: I felt lost in my own house. Literally. For example: I could not find the sugar anymore, nor the coffee cups and I kept opening the wrong cup boards.  This has never happened to me before.  For a little while I thought I was  having a few senior moments, but my daughter had the same: she too could not locate the sugar anymore!

Home is where...
Fortunately it was only a matter of time, after a day I opened all the right kitchen cabinets again. But it made me re-think about the question: where is my home? What does 'home' mean to me? Home is where the heart it, says the famous proverb, but what does that mean? Is my heart where my family is, where my roots are, where I'm working and living, or where I can find the sugar without any trouble. These questions are particularly valid being an expat.

I've found my answer: home is where I open the kitchen cabinets and at once  find exactly what I need without any hesitation!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Taste of Madagascar in Belgium

To get a visa for Antoine, my stepson who will come live with us in Mada for two years, we went to the Madagascar Embassy in Brussels yesterday. Michel had prepared the visa application very rigorously and as such it was not a problem: we got a three-month courtesy visa in no time. Amazing!

Madagascar restaurant
To celebreate this remarkable event we went to the one and only Malagasy restaurant in the Belgium. Probably the only restaurant from Madagascar in northern Europe. Located at St Catherine Place in Brussels, a hip neighborhood where you can eat from all continents in the world, it's called Madagasaskari and it's very small  but cute. On the menu are of course Malagasy national dishes like Ravototo, Romazava and brochettes. The mango and guave juices are not fresh but bottled yet very tasty. They even have Three Horse Beer and rum arrangĂ©  - rum flavoured with vanilla or pepper.  The restaurant is owned by Thierry and his wife, - he happens to be the son of friends of ours in Tana. Thierry explains that there are about 250 Malagasy in Belgium, this sounds about the same as the number of Belgians in Madagascar. Only 5% of his clientele isactually  from Madagascar, he estimates, but they are proud to have a national restaurant in Belgium.

Cute decor

Comparing the goods
Of course we could not help comparing the dishes from Madagaskari restaurant with those in the real Madagaskari. Our verdict: as tasty for sure...but the portions and prices are disproportionate. A Malagasy from Madagascar would fall of his dining chair when he'd see the miniscule portion of rice and the big prices.  Obviously - and understandably - they have been adapted to the context of being in hippest area of the capital of Europe. And that is worth something too.

Brochettes with peanut sauce - yummie

Madagaskari restaurant owner Thierry and us in Brussels

Thursday, July 28, 2011

When in Rome ...

Not many Romans at the Colosseum, lots of Bangladeshi!

When in Rome do as the Romans do....I could not help thinking about this proverb when I visited my friend Karen in Rome last week. Visiting Rome was like a dream come true. Didn't somenone say 'First see Rome, then die? No that was Napels. The other proverb: 'Rome was not built in one day', yes that is clear from walking around those massive, impressive bridges, fountains, churches and theaters.  But I most like 'When in Rome do as the Romans do'. But what does that mean? What do Romans do, actually? I suppose they do not visit the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Fontana di Trevi, the Vatican, like us tourists.  Here's my selection of what Romans do after spending five days in the most beautiful city in Europe.

Have coffee all day long: Espresso Lungo, Macchiata, Ristretto. Hot, strong and cheap - sometimes only 50 cents. However: a Roman will NEVER order a Cappuchino after dinner!

Metro and busses: Cheap and easy
Take the metro: Rome has a relatively small but efficient metro  network. The bus is also great and cheap, one Euro for 75 minutes! Romans want to extend their metro network but as soon as they start digging they stumble onto some old foundations of century-old buildings. End of the digging.

Capreza in well known colours

Eat eat eat. Starters, first dish, second dish, sweets, coffee with liqueur. Pizza, pasta of course, but also Carpaccio, Caprese, Bruscheta, Vitello Tonnato, Osso Bucco, Pancetta, Pana Cotta, Limoncello and Grappa.

Drink drink drink.  Wine for lunch and dinner; Italy is still the biggest wine producer in the world. Or drink water the many water fountains.

Drive cars and Vespa's Italian style. Like in any big city traffic is plenty in Rome, Vespas and Motorninos (scooters) are a huge pain for drivers, and parking is limited. Double parking, completely blocking off the right lane of a street seems totally acceptable in Rome.

Over 300 flavoursof  ice cream
Go into the Gelateria. I fully subscribe to that habit! Italian gelato is famous and rightly so. We went in every day, had two favours each (we were three) every day, hence we had 30 flavours. I think we covered maybe only a third of all available flavours, if that.

Via Condotti: unafordable but nice

Buy shoes. Shopping can be done at the famous Via dei Condotti, if you have a big cheque book, or at any shop with saldi (sales) during summer. Lovely, fine Italian shoes in abundance.

Karen and I with our brand new shoes
Get out of the city in the weekend. It was not very hot in Rome when we were there, but the thermometer can easily hit over 40 degrees Celsius during summer. Many Romans have holiday homes at the sea or the lakes surrounding the city. My friend too,in Trevignano Romano.

And if that is not enough to do during a short holiday, do not forget to visit the Fontana di Trevi to make a lucky wish. Then throw in a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder. This guarantees that you will return to Rome...

Making a wish at the Trevi Fountain
We'll be back!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Op de Fiets!

I will share a little secret with you. My daugher is almost seven years old now (six and three quarters as she likes to say) and she can not yet ride a bicycle... What's the big deal, you may ask?

Well, it is a BIG deal for a Dutch girl where children learn to ride a bike when they're three, or four. Everywhere you see mothers with boys and girls much younger than Soleine riding to and from school. Embarrassing really. So why hasn't she learned it? We never have had proper roads where you could learn to ride a bike safely. In Belize we lived on a dirt road, in Madagascar roads are too narrow and dangerous.

When I went to Ireland last week to see my friend Catherine and her daughter Zoe the conditions were perfect. A large enough yard with a concrete path around the house, and a purple bicycle just her size. It took her two and half days to learn how to ride. She was ready for it.

Soleine op de fiets and Tuurtje buurtje

Back in Holland at my brother's house now. The 8-years old neighbor boy Tuurtje het Buurtje kindly lent his bike to this girl who lives in Madagascar, speaks three languages, and who has learned to ride a bike in Ireland. Strange but true!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Madagascar Wins Award for Being Most Photogenic Country

Look at these pictures! Madagascar really deserves this award...which has been invented by me :-)

Pictures shot by our Belgian friend Micheline Reusch on their two-week trip in Madagascar: Tana - Antsirabe - Ranomafana National Park- Isalo National Park, Tulear - Tana - Nosy Be - Ankarana National Park - Diego.

Thanks Michou!