Critical Reflection and Impressions on Madagascar

So, I’ve been in Madagascar for about 3 weeks now.  Many of my friends have asked me the question: “how is Madagascar?” And like every other time I’ve lived in another country, I’m never quite sure how to answer this extremely vague question in any meaningful way. It’s difficult to be comfortable answering this question until I’ve lived somewhere long enough to ground my opinion on more than a few nights out with staff or other expats. But nonetheless, the question demands some sort of answer. So here is a minor attempt at feeding some of the curiosity about this island.

First, lemurs sound like pigs, and are basically monkey squirrels. There, if your only reason to come here is to see these lesser primates, I just saved you 3 grand.

Second, Madagascar is home to some 22 million people. They vastly outnumber lemurs, and are substantially more impressive and complex. It can be mind-boggling for an outsider to get ones head around the various cultures/histories operating, and how the similarities and differences play themselves out politically, economically, and socially. Add in a few hundread years of suppression and exploitation by France, international geo/resource politics, domestic politics, globalization, and extreme financial/regional inequality, and the picture becomes even less clear.

Hopefully this blog entry has been insightful. If not, please ask something a bit more specific. 😛

And by the way, if what you really meant is “How are you?”, the answer is “I’m fine thanks and you.”


On my way to Madagascar

Twas the night before departure, and I had a lovely dinner with my hosts, Madam Tufo, and her daughter, Madam Tufo. For appetizers we had cantaloupe with dried meat, followed by stuffed tomatoes, pilaf, and a Pinot Noir from the blah blah region of Switzerland (apparently a place “where everyone is drunk.”).

After exchanging travel stories, we had a light conversation about racism, homelessness, and the need for social housing in Geneva. As it turns out, the city suffers from both market and government failures. To cope with this, the younger of Tufo’s described a co-operative housing project she was involved in, which centered on community development and ecological sustainability. I won’t bore you with the details, and numerous challenges, but it was inspiring to hear someone passionately discuss the creative problem solving used to address the participants social, familial, and socio-economic needs and desires. Of course, there is a risk of it becoming a white yuppy co-op, but Madam Tufo hopes to mitigate this risk. Regardless, I really admire the project, because I strongly believe that the process will be personally transformative, and hopefully create great outcomes.

Anyways, after 2 hours of sleep, I started my 14 hour journey to Madagascar. It was your standard affair. Lines, planes, reading, fear (which you can enhance dramatically by turning on the arial camera), and several dances with time-killing meals and wine. I watched Phil Spector and the The Company You Keep. They are both entertaining, but I found that The Company You Keep’s underlying themes and perpetual moralizing made it little more than an intricate cliché. Nonetheless, a tip of the hat to Shia LaBeouf, who did an excellent job of making me want to box the ears of every snot-nosed career-centric muckraker.

The most exciting part of my flight was browsing the on-flight music selection. I do this every flight, mainly because it’s how I discovered Led Zeppelin 4 when I was 10, much to my fathers chagrin. After immediately skipping all things contemporary, I hit the jack pot: J.S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, being played by none other than the Olympic weightlifter, Kimiko Ishizaka. You see, I love both Baroque and Romantic Era music. Counterpoint, absurdly larger than life theatrical pieces, and the tensions created between movements make my hair stand on end. It’s these elements that also draw me to a lot of different metal bands. And since I don’t have the vocabulary to accurately describe anything of artistic significance, let alone music, I’ll stop by saying this lady f’ing shreds. Enjoy!


So, I’ve been re-assigned!

Just yesterday I was re-assigned to a new home-stay in Geneva with a retired Swiss lady. She has been very pleasant and hospitable, and we’ve had many interesting conversations. Sixty percent of the time, she is able to communicate very well in English. For the remainder she reverts to French, and I fall back on my 9 wasted years of French education, the one year of actually trying to learn, and one year of experience living in the historically separatist pseudo-Quebec city of Hull. I loved my time in Hull, and I am liking Geneva much better now that I can buy food at the supermarket, instead of eating peoples leftover fondue and half eaten baguettes while the servers have their backs turned. Actually, I’ve never done this as it would require purchasing at minimum a $10 soft drink. In short, it ain’t such a bad arrangement.

Anyways, the plan is to get me out of here by August 30. I would like to note that I will have spent 40% of my time in a hotel, and 60% in the homestay during my time in Geneva.

So now. Why am I talking about these numbers. Maybe it’s because I had a research training this morning, which has naturally led me back down the path of quantitative and statistical analysis. My math brain is on fire right now. Or, maybe it’s because I’m like Charlie Eppes from the tv series Numb3rs, and I love making spurious numerical connections in all aspects of life. But more likely, it’s because I will now be dedicating 40% of my work-time with the host organization in Egypt, and 60% of my time with a host organization in Madagascar where I will be stationed.

This arrangement obviously brings challenges, but I am definitely more excited than anything else. I’m extremely happy to be remaining on the African continent, and to continue learning about the various regional difference. I am happy to be working with a new organization that I know will have much to teach me. I am also extremely happy that I will still be contributing to the work of the host organization in Egypt, for which I owe much appreciation and gratitude. And I am extremely grateful to the larger network for all of their support over this uncertain period. It’s pretty amazing. And lastly, I want to thank God and my fans. Without you blah blah blah pandering blah blah blah.

ps- thrash

Sunday in Geneva

So, after a fairly uneventful evacuation, I landed in Geneva. On my way into this place of political and historical intrigue, I flew over the Alps. Needless to say they were superfluously majestically incredibly amazingly fantastically breathtakingly stunning.  Of course, as I watched through the small window, the beautiful ranges peaking through the clouds, approaching ever so closely, I couldn’t help but imagine them ripping through the planes underbelly like a Swiss Army Knife to a sardine can.  What can I say, I’ve read Alive twice, and I hate flying.

My first impression of Geneva: white. My second impression: $$$. But seriously, the political history speaks for itself, and it is a lovely, charming, and ordered place indeed. There is something quintessentially Western European and inspiring about it. And of course, there is something quintessentially North American about me. So in honouring both traditions, I spent the day walking around, understanding and appreciating everything in as shallow a manor as possible, taking low quality pictures on my phone, and then posting them online with completely asinine observations. *

I spent the morning zigzagging across the lake in a taxi boat. Somewhere sorta in the middle, there is this great big fountain. It makes a rainbow!!!


Fountains like this intrigue me. Their symbolism can be taken as far as the imagination can take them.

After that, I headed into Old Downtown and to St. Peters Cathedral.


The architecture is supposed to be a something something Gothic cross-over.

Here’s some more photos from different angles



The inside


And I guess Calvin (namesake of the esteemed Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, and very influential theologian during the reformation movement) chilled here after being exiled from France, cause this was taking up space:


But of course, what I find to be the most intriguing thing of all:


REALLY! Practicing your Chip shot in a tiny park right beside an 800 year old living peace of history? This is either one of the most foolish things I’ve ever seen, or one of the greatest high pressure teaching strategies ever developed! You be the judge.

Finished with this place, on to the next. Let’s stroll down this nice road (I think Hotel de Ville).


And then…


Old timey Bazooka’s!


And a mural of Cesar, either glorifying or vilifying slavery.  If the former, gross!

Away from sad, I was extremely happy when I saw this:


It is THE bike I dreamed up to solve all of my rainy season transportation problems last year. Alas, BMW also dreams.

This on the other hand:



But this:



And then I came across this and was also quite pleased.


If you’ve ever volunteered for the Red Cross, then you should know this man, his awesome mustache, and A Memory of Solferino . If you do not, then volunteer for the Red Cross.

Then I went to the park.


Where I saw this:


Man on a horse.

And this!


Men playing with horses.

And then this!!!


Dead religious figures, including our man Calvin.

One thing that I loved about Cairo is that they had water stations everywhere in the city. And so does Geneva. And they are beautiful.


Speaking of troubling and hilarious:


Then I saw another one of these, but for the Catholics.


And I couldn’t quite figure this out…


But I do know a skate park when I see one! (Not cause I skate. No no, I gave that up cause sometimes its better to not try and not fail.)


For some reason I still can’t take in-line vertical seriously. Sorry.

And of course, I recognize Africany things. These folks set up shop as part of some sort of Food Truck/Flea Market tailgate party in the park.


But probably one of my favouritist things in all of Geneva was this. It spoke to me in so many ways. At least two.



And the last place I saw was this. Let me say the biggest let down of my 30’s. Completely created waaaaay too many expectations of proving something to me once and for all. And that is that they exist.


Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you the Smurf Building. And you know who lives inside it? Not Smurfs! Indeed, the enemies of smurfs: humans and cats.

Oh yeah. And then I walked home and took pictures of this display, primarily composed of pictures  . If I recall correctly, the central message was about the preventable barriers to providing medical treatment around the world.


Anyways, tomorrow is Monday. Hopefully, I’ll get to see some of the serious international diplomacy, human rights, and humanitarian stuff. Also, I plan on figuring out whether or not Swiss cheese is a real.

* in all actuality, I’m just not sure how long I will be here, so I rushed to soak in as much as I possibly could.

Leaving on a jet plane…

So it’s official, I will be leaving tomorrow morning to Europe. Today demonstrated that I’m in extremely good and caring hands. Within three hours, three different network offices in three different countries (that’s a lot of threes), were able to plan and start initiating an evacuation plan. It was very impressive, and now it’s just a matter of executing.

Once out of Cairo, my understanding is that we’re either going to wait out the situation or I’ll be re-assigned (look out other Fellows!). I’m pretty torn about it for the obvious reasons: I didn’t see the pyramids up close or ride a camel; I didn’t get to experience Egypts rich history, culture, and subcultures; I didn’t get to learn and practice Arabic, and I didn’t get the chance to meet many more amazing Egyptians. Less obvious,  I’m also pretty down about not getting to work with my host organization. Everyone there is extremely kind, dedicated, and hard-working. My supervisor was amazing, we clicked well, and the I found the work I was doing incredibly interesting.

On the plus side, I did have the privilege of seeing some really nice things and places, drinking great coffee and eating Shawarma, and meeting some cool people. Hopefully, I’ll get to return soon, but I understand the current safety concerns.

All those things aside, I’m torn for a much more ideological and existential reason (Yeah, I know I told you I wouldn’t go this route). And it probably sounds stupid and obvious, and in many ways it is both those things. And this isn’t specific to Egypt, but I think more fundamental in terms of being a Westerner involved in the international development industry.  And it ain’t about guilt. It’s an almost absolute fact that, no matter how much I’m inclined to think I can understand a situation, or that I have in common with others facing difficult circumstances, separates us from the people in our host countries.  For me, it’s key in remembering and understanding my own privilege: When shit hits the fan, I can leave.

and now for something completely unrelated:

My thoughts on the current situation in Egypt.

I already told you I wasn’t going to give my thoughts! There is more than enough thoughtful analysis, speculation, and rubbish tripe floating about online. As I said to a friend on Facebook yesterday, I have basically been inside for the last two day watching and reading the news. Perhaps I have the added advantage of being able to talk with some Egyptians, but some additional opinions does not a qualified commentator make. What I will say is that no matter your view, the current situation is a very difficult and complex one indeed.

Have I seen anything? Not much. Have I heard anything? Sure. Yesterday when I would go outside by the rooftop, I could hear gunshots, and of course, in a Monty Python’esque fashion, elevator music humming in the background.  At other times, I can also hear and see  fireworks that have lit the Cairo skies at night since Eid. I told you the situation was complex.

Anyways, I just thought I would use this post to let all those concerned that I am safe. The Western Media’s back-to-back display of violence and suffering may leave one with the perception that all of Cairo is ablaze. It is not, and Insha’Allah it stays that way. In many ways this probably speaks more to peoples’ war infatuation and short attention spans than it accurately represents the entire situation in Cairo.

Nonetheless, the situation is tense, somewhat unpredictable, and therefore, unsettling. Hopefully though, years of being overly cautious, and numerous experiences facing sketchy situations* (usually with the benefit of close friends and loved ones), have given me some of the requisite tools for staying safe. Indeed, I was just devising an evacuation plan with a close friend of mine: jump into the Nile, and let it float me downstream, back to Yugoslavia, from whence I came.

Seriously though, and especially because tomorrow is gearing up to be another whirlwind, I have been in close and regular contact with all relevant parties, and we are discussing the current options. If for whatever reason, I am not able to be in touch with folks, I have already made arrangements for info on my happenings to be communicated directly with family, and to everyone else through Facebook and this blog. Thanks again for everyone’s show of concern and well wishes.

So, in short, let me leave you with this song:

*Nikki, one of these events is a house fire, that luckily with the help of Sean O.G. and Erin Cummings was escaped with only minor burns.

“You know nothing”

Said a colleague after I told her I was going to write a blog about my experience in Cairo. Her sentiment is completely correct. After being here for a little over week, there isn’t much I can say about this time, in this place.

Also, I hate writing. That is, I hate writing personal and reflexive pieces for public consumption. I find the process time consuming, difficult, and violent.  Certainly, the process of reflection is very rewarding, and sharing those reflections with others can lead to very interesting dialogue and personal growth. But sitting here wondering whether or not I’m articulating myself properly, if what I’m saying is all around interesting/witty/exciting etc., and going through the excruciating process of deciding where to put a comma is not my cup of tea. I prefer less vulnerable and less committal spaces (re: talking with friends and loved ones), especially after a day of action-oriented research and writing.

So what should one expect from this blog? Basically a place where I can impulsively spew exceptionally mundane observations, update family and friends, sometimes rail against or in favour something, and post pictures. So here we go:

– Egypt is warm.

– Everyone I’ve met has been very welcoming.

– Majority of the larger Western Press is doing a good job at making me paranoid, when I’ve seen little reason to be paranoid. Most areas in Cairo are very safe. And I’m not going to even consider commenting on the political situation. My opinion on the matter is poorly informed and utterly meaningless.

– Not speaking Arabic is becoming embarrassing. I hope to start taking lessons this week.
– I’m really enjoying the work I am doing and the office, but see previous point.

– I should have a place by the end of the week.

– The people in the room next to me do not appreciate when I blast metal.

– My computer has great speakers for a laptop.

– I don’t know, but suspect, many people think I’m from, or some how related, to the region. Certainly once I speak it is obvious that I am not. Then again, not totally true (re: Ottoman Empire).

– The Koshari I ate today is mashing my stomach right now. This is not being helped by the 5 coffees I drank.

– I still have jetlag.

– So far, I’ve been to several places in Cairo. They illicit a range of emotions.