And then it was over

So here I am in Tana airport, seated airside and approved by the luggage arbitrators, the Malagasy emigration authorities and the Plague Police to leave the Red Island. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

The past month was always meant to be relatively calm and conducive to wrapping up and winding down. I finished most of my teaching by the third week in August, and then had three marvellous weeks travelling with my parents. The students wrote exams the last week in September, and we’ve had two visiting teams from Common Ground Church in Cape Town here for a bunch of nice projects.

But it would not be Madagascar if things went as expected. The country went all out to make my last few weeks here memorable, revisiting all the usual sources of drama (vehicle breakdowns, unannounced university schedule changes, malfunctioning banks, staff ups and downs) and throwing in a few special gems. The outbreak of plague (yes, as in Monty Python, “bring out yer dead” and the obliteration of 60% of Europe’s population) was a noteworthy feature. Not an unusual occurrence in itself (it happens most years), but on a bigger and scarier scale than usual. Interestingly, the Malagasy tradition of “turning the bones” (i.e. hauling out the remains of dead relations and parading them around town) plays a role in the annual upsurge. It seems this is just as unsanitary a practice as it sounds.

The year in numbers:

  • 9 months. Of which I estimate 4.7 days went according to plan.
  • 213 hours of teaching, which does not sound like a lot. This does not include prep time and course development, exam setting and marking, clinical supervision, assignment marking, curriculum preparation, and a lot of cancelled lessons due to university admin days, unannounced timetable changes, the students not actually having the timetable, other lecturers not being informed of courses they were meant to teach, and a strike when it was July and none of the students had yet been paid their living allowance. (If you think having a living allowance from the Government sounds cushy, consider that most of them come from fairly average Malagasy families whose monthly income is around R250 per month. Also that university resources include classrooms with blackboards (bring your own chalk) and a medical library featuring textbooks from 1965 (closed lunchtimes, weekends, and after 4pm), and that internet access is at own cost, your choice of cyber café or smartphone, if you have one).
  • 2 130 000 Ariary: what I have earned in the course of the above duties. Which sounds more impressive than its rand equivalent, which is about R10 650. Which would still be nice to have, but given that the university is still processing salaries from 2015, I’m not holding my breath. (Incidentally, this is at the same hourly rate as the other Fac-Med lecturers, and like them, we are only “paid” for actual teaching hours, and officially at the end of the academic year. Which is why everyone has five jobs).
  • 8 ready-to-qualify, first-generation Malagasy ergotherapeute (OT’s). It’s true!! And they are awesome. In 2018 they will be employed by the Ministry of Health, and ergotherapie will officially be out there in the national health system.
  • One completed three-year license-level ergotherapie curriculum, submitted to the World Federation of OT for Minimum Standards approval. Which it should get. And the Masters program already under discussion.
  • 112 bird species, mostly endemics – very nice.
  • 28 Agatha Christie novels. Seriously, she’s awesome.
  • 2 complete listening-throughs of the entire works of Jane Austen on audio-book
  • 18.2 jars of peanut butter: consumed as meal replacements when shopping and/or cooking fell by the wayside (conservative estimate)
  • At least six good stories that start “So I stopped at Shoprite on the way home to buy gin…”
  • Enough tonic water consumed that the deposits on the bottles bought a Malagasy child’s school stationery for a full year (we do it for the children).
  • Approximately 2427 shouts of “Salut vazah!” received, with about a 43% response rate (“Salama Gasy!”) on my part
  • Near-death-experience-rate during scooter travel averaging 14 per hour. With, I’m pleased to say, a 100% survival rate
  • Daily exposure to toxic chemicals probably banned in other countries since 1972: classified
  • Percentage of days on which I wore shoes AND make-up: 430% up from any previous record
  • Threshold for registering shock or surprise at anything at all: raised to virtually out of sight.

Among my proudest achievements of the year I count:

  • Learning enough French to read Terry Pratchett and Jojo Moyes (slowly) and tell when my students are talking nonsense, and
  • Enough Malagasy to buy coffee, haggle in markets and tell when I’m being talked about
  • Becoming a biker chick
  • Exposing Malagasy youth to the concepts of interest rates, internet banking, budgeting and saving the rainforests
  • Learning to make sourdough bread and successfully rearing a unique Tana sourdough culture
  • Surviving with my mental health intact. Seriously.

Things I will miss:

  • Being able to shop for awesome clothes on the side of the road. Endless choice, cheerful environment, average price R10 – 20. I have stocked up, and hope not to have to enter a mall for at least 5 years.
  • Roadside coffee stalls. Cheap coffee, fried goodness, friendly company. Everywhere.
  • Falling asleep to the smoky scent of mosquito coils. Even in winter.
  • People singing along to taxi music, out loud. And everyone knows the words.
  • Being the tallest person in the public transport queue (not kidding).
  • The distinctive smell of coconut oil in everyone’s hair. Especially when you’re treating a kid, and that whiff coincides directly with the moment you notice they have head-lice.
  • Being able to buy antibiotics and anti-parasitics over the counter, for cheap.
  • People wearing t-shirts with writing they evidently don’t understand (my favourites, off-hand: “Acne studios”, “ANC Militant Youth Wing” and “Feminism: the radical belief that women are people.” Worn muscle-top-style by a very smooth young man with greasy hair).
  • The taste of the bananas. I will never be able to take supermarket fruit seriously again.
  • Being a vazah rather than an umhlungu. Nothing more than a curiosity, nothing worse than an irrelevance. It’s been restful.
  • Tana taxis: riding around town in a vintage Renault or Citroen, without having to be a hipster.
  • Clinical work! I still love it.
  • The Malagasy passion for rice. It’s more than a food. It’s life.
  • The appreciation gained for small things. The ATM that dispenses cash. Water coming out of the tap. Toilets that flush, have toilet paper and don’t require squatting.

And now I’m going home to catch up with my beloved family and friends, and I foresee a lot of conversations involving the question “So, how was Madagascar?” I’m not sure where to start. It’s been… remarkable. Incredibly tough, and a lot of fun. Often baffling, regularly bizarre. Heart-breaking and beautiful. Many parallels with home, especially the TK, and very much its own thing.

It has been an incredible privilege, and very clear how the last ten years of my mad life prepared me for it (which does make me wonder what this year has prepared me for). It was a crazy idea – financially, professionally, and also personally. I left frontline work in 2011 due to no-longer-ignorable mental illness, and wasn’t sure I would ever be able to go back to a “normal” job, never mind something like this. But – God. I made it, enjoyed it, and was even quite useful.

No small thanks for this are due to my housemate, boss, scooter-pilot, gin-buddy and partner in madness, Anri-Louise. An eight-year veteran of Mada-ness, director-person of Growing the Nations Therapy Programs, an epic OT and an exceptional human being. Very, very few people could I live, work, relax, argue, navigate crises, laugh and cry with for nine months straight, and not go nuts. Not many people’s characters can stand up to that level of pressure and scrutiny and retain respect, let alone increase it. I can say, with authority and based on extensive evidence, that this woman ROCKS.

There is every reason why this year should never have happened – not just for me, but also in terms of what has been achieved. A few years ago, Handicap International (a big-cheese disability NGO) completed a feasibility study for starting OT in Madagascar, and demonstrated conclusively that it would be impossible any time in the foreseeable future, because the country simply wasn’t ready for it. Just six years later, it has happened. This has been the result of incredibly hard work by many partners, including GNTP, but hard work alone cannot account for it.

Crossing the line decisively into the impossible and insane, because God has asked you to, means agreeing to live with miracle or disaster – and usually both. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but you are never, ever bored. In two weeks, I’ll be heading up to Maritzburg to start a “proper” job with a salary and leave and other unfamiliar things, but I’m not looking for safe. I’m sure I’ll be back in Madagascar in the future (the masters program is already under discussion), but also know there will be no shortage of adventure in the next chapter on this side.

Here’s to the Mad(a)ness. Let’s keep it coming.




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