Mark in Madagascar: "I love the people here"

Expat interviews
  • Mark in Madagascar
Published on 2013-09-19 at 02:00
Originally from the North East of the USA, Mark left the US 30 years ago to join the Peace Corps. He settled in Madagascar 10 years ago where he got married.

How long have you been living abroad?

I left the US about 30 years ago to join the Peace Corps, and except for a few years to get a grad degree back in the US, I have been in a dozen countries and I enjoy learning about new cultures, though it can be difficult at times.

Why did you decide to move to Madagascar?

It was a twist of fate for me, as I was working for an international non-governmental organization (NGO) in Egypt, and they wanted to send me to Angola. The civil war there flared up and I ended up in Madagascar. I was really excited about it because since the early 90's, every time a documentary about Madagascar came on television, I would get all fidgety and just wish I could visit the country.

How was the moving process?

Since the organization handled the logistics of the move, everything went rather smoothly. Some special-ordered things took a while to get here, but nothing was missing. I was also very wrapped up in the orientation process during the first month, so I didn't really have a life beyond work and the hotel.

Did you face some difficulties to adapt to your host country (language, culture, do's and don'ts)?

I already had a basic knowledge of French from previous experiences. I was also fortunate that the director of the organization had a good relationship with the director of the Peace Corps in Madagascar, and that my arrival coincided with the start of their three-month pre-service training. Hence, I spent two weeks studying French and two weeks studying a local dialect of Malagasy, in addition to attending some cross-cultural training sessions.
One thing about the culture here is an almost "island" mentality, as in "No man is an island". Well, some of them think they are a step ahead of the rest of the world. It has to do with pride, I guess. For example, when someone has a recurring problem, like a motorcycle malfunction, I keep my distance because everyone is an "expert" or so they think. I may toss in a suggestion or two, but as a foreigner, I'd never get the credit for solving the problem. Also, we did a workshop for our program, based on experiences from over 60 countries, and one of the top national staff said the model was not applicable in Madagascar.
There is a lot of respect for the elderly and people in power (whether they have earned the respect or not). Educational levels in rural areas tend to be low, but people may have considerable practical experience. And, in order to stay amused, I guess, gossip and small-town mentalities are common.

What surprised you the most in Madagascar?

There is quite a diversity of cultures among the people. It's a large island, and there are some 26 different dialects of the languages.

What are the formalities to get married in Madagascar?

Nothing too complicated. There is a civil ceremony, usually at the mayor's office, and a church service is expected to be held. There are, of course, the associated fees to be paid, and the large reception party to be held. Frankly, they were all enjoyable events. There are different types of visas for foreigners wishing to be resident here, and I established mine after getting married, and it is of the type dependent on being with Malagasy family.

Could you please share with us something you like about Madagascar and something you don't like?

In spite of all of the above, I love the people here. They are kind, have a sense of humor and can be quite supportive of others during difficult times. On the other hand, we are living in the wake of a "political crisis" that took place in 2009. Most international donors have cut off funding (except for some environmental programs and emergency relief - the cyclone season runs from October through April or May). This means that until this "transitional government" gets around to holding elections, there will be little to no infrastructure work, including roads, schools and hospitals. It's sad for the general population.

Tell us more about your day-to-day life in Madagascar:

For now, it's a bit routine. I live about a ten minute walk from the beach, though it is on a bay so not quite as enchanting as the open Indian Ocean. I have volunteered to teach English to students who are on vacation, which takes up much of my time between going to the market and job-hunting on the Internet. My dog makes me walk her near the bay every day after I get back from the English lessons.

Is there any habit from Madagascar you have adopted since living there?

I'm sure there are a few, but the one that pops into my mind is that in order to pass by someone in a tight spot, or cut through a group clogging the way as they converse, I have to assume a semi-bowed-over posture and lead with one lowered but extended hand to chart my path. A consultant saw me do this once and said I had gone native.

What do you miss the most from the US, your home country?

I have found that the US is, as the saying goes, "a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there". So, I enjoy short periods back there (though the last one was in 2008!). I miss certain foods, and some of the conveniences of supermarkets.

You have lived in several countries: how did these expat experiences impacted your life?

In some ways, I have become a bit jaded and less adventurous. It's definitely not a case of thinking I have seen it "all" but there are some traits that people from every nation seem to share. And the (developing) world is much more complex and conflicted than it was many years ago. It may be particular to the places I've lived and worked, which have generally been Third World because of the type of work, but as a foreigner I find myself to often be a target of petty theft or just not getting fair prices in the market. That is also part of the game, though, and haggling can be fun, too.
As for impacting my life, I would say that I am still very interested in finding out about new places and people, but I am quick to pick up on people's perceptions of having a foreigner in their midst. I try to maintain a low profile, but it can be extremely frustrating, depending on my role/purpose in that country (work, pleasure, or residence).

Which advice would you give to people wishing to live in Madagascar?

People should be open-minded about what they see and hear. You need to try to learn some of the local language, even if it's just greetings, though you can get by with French in larger towns and urban areas.
The French were apparently quite domineering during their colonial period, and I have found some resentment on the part of locals to the presence of an expat, as some Malagasy think foreigners have unlimited wealth and are immediately elevated to the role of "patron". A generalization, but it can affect relationships. Much of the population lives on less than $1 a day, so relatively speaking expats are wealthy if you ignore differences in lifestyles. You can't be doling out the money for everybody.

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