Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Madagascar
From Peace Corps Wiki
Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service considered normal in the United States. If you expect U.S. standards of mail service, you will be in for some frustration. Mail takes a minimum of two to three weeks to arrive in Madagascar. Some mail may simply not arrive (fortunately this is not a frequent occurrence, but it does happen). Advise your family and friends to number their letters and to include “Airmail” and “Par Avion” on their envelopes. Packages take six to nine weeks by airmail and about six months by surface mail. If someone is sending you a package, it is a good idea to keep it small and to use a padded envelope; that way it will be treated as a letter.
Despite these delays, we encourage you to write to your family regularly and to number your letters. Family and friends typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so it is a good idea to advise them that mail service is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly.
Volunteers in Madagascar may receive packages but are responsible for all duty fees, which may be imposed on food and cosmetics and are based on the items’ value. Also be aware that packages containing valuable items may occasionally get lost or held up.
Your address during training will be:
"Your Name", PCT Peace Corps
Corps de la Paix
Poste Zoom Ankorondrano
Once you have become a Volunteer, you will receive your mail directly at your assigned site.
You will not have routine access to a telephone during training, although the training site does have telephones for emergency use. While international phone service is available in major cities, it is very expensive. Calling cards (such as those available from MCI, Sprint, and AT&T) do not work in Madagascar. So while calling the United States is possible, it can be a frustrating experience, and if you are calling from outside a major city, it will take longer to get a line. Writing letters is the best method of regular communication with family and friends.
Few Volunteers have phones in their houses although many are now buying personal cellphones so family and friends can call them. But, many of the Volunteer sites do not have cellphone service so these can only be used when the Volunteers go to a larger town.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Few Volunteer homes have electricity, so bringing a personal computer to Madagascar is not recommended. Computers are available for use by Volunteers at the Peace Corps office. Although some of the major cities have Internet cafes, it is best to assume that, at best, you will have only limited access to the Internet and e-mail.
The staff at your post in Madagascar would like to request that you set up a unique email address to use during your Peace Corps service. You can leave this address with all friends and family before you leave. And having the email address that we request will greatly facilitate communication with you once you are at your site.
Please set up an email account at yahoo.com that looks like this: email@example.com. So, for example, if your name in Samson Thomas, your e-mail address would be: firstname.lastname@example.org. We appreciate your assistance in helping us communicate with you!
Housing and Site Location
Volunteers are posted throughout the country. Housing conditions here vary from mud houses with thatched roofs to modern cement houses with running water and electricity. Your project, the area of the country, and the availability of housing all have a role in the type of home you will have. Many Volunteers have only a pit toilet and a thatched shed for taking bucket showers. Environmental Volunteers tend to live in more remote areas (near the national parks and protected areas), while education and health Volunteers generally live in areas of greater population density.
During training, you will live with and have most of your meals with a host family. A homestay is considered one of the most important aspects of the training program and is required for this period. Trainees generally stay in a village with three or four other trainees and one or two staff members. Volunteers often form strong and lasting friendships with their host families.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer, you will receive a modest living allowance that will allow you to live on a par with your colleagues and co-workers. The amount of the allowance is based on regular surveys of Volunteers and the cost of living in Madagascar. The living allowance is usually deposited quarterly, in local currency, in Volunteers’ bank accounts, so an ability to manage funds wisely is important. The allowance is currently equivalent to approximately $128 per month. In addition, you receive a monthly travel allowance.
You will also receive a leave allowance of $24 per month, which is standard across all Peace Corps countries and paid in local currency along with your living allowance.
Volunteers suggest you bring cash and credit cards for vacation travel. The amount depends on the amount of traveling you plan to do while serving in Madagascar. Some local banks offer ATM cards, but only for local accounts. Only a few Malagasy establishments accept credit cards, so they are mostly useful for travel to other countries.
The local currency is the Malagasy ariary (MGA). The current exchange rate is approximately 2,150 ariary to the dollar.
Food and Diet
The staple food in Madagascar is rice, which is eaten with vegetables, beans, or meat. Many fruits and vegetables grow in Madagascar, and with a little creativity one can enjoy a varied diet. Most Volunteers prepare their own food. Some, after becoming more familiar with their site, hire someone to help with household work, including cooking. Meat and dairy products are available in the larger towns, but they can be expensive.
If you are a vegetarian, you will be able to eat well in Madagascar after you learn about local foods and their preparation. Some Malagasy are not familiar with vegetarianism and will not be prepared to serve a vegetarian meal if you are a guest in their home. However, a sensitive explanation of your preferences will be accepted. Most vegetarian Volunteers have no difficulty after an initial adjustment period.
Volunteers’ primary mode of transport is public buses and taxi brousses (small vans usually loaded with people and goods). Buses and minibuses travel among towns on irregular schedules (i.e., when full), so travel in Madagascar is never a timed affair.
Many Volunteers use mountain bikes. If you plan to ride a bicycle, wearing a helmet is required, and we ask that you bring one with you from the United States. If you do not have one when you come, Peace Corps will provide you a helmet, but it will likely be one that was used by former Volunteers. The Peace Corps issues men’s bikes to Volunteers, which can be difficult for a woman in a skirt to ride. Many female Volunteers wear shorts under their skirts to solve this problem. Volunteers are not allowed to drive or operate motor vehicles or motorcycles (two- or three-wheeled) in Madagascar.
Geography and Climate
Madagascar is south of the equator, so its seasons will be the opposite of what you are accustomed to. At the winter solstice, for example, when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, the weather is warm. Conversely, at the time of the summer solstice in June, the weather is cool.
Madagascar has a tropical climate with rainy and dry seasons. During the rainy season (November to March), southwest tradewinds drop their moisture on the eastern mountain slopes and blow hot and dry in the west. North and northwest monsoon air currents bring heavy rains in summer, decreasing as one moves southward, so that, for example, the rainfall in Fort Dauphin is half that in Tamatave. During February and March, eastern Madagascar can be hit by cyclones, which may impact other areas, particularly in the north. The dry season runs from April to October.
Seasonal changes in temperature in Madagascar are also influenced by altitude and latitude. From December to April, the coastal regions are very hot and dry in the west but very hot and wet in the east. Average midday temperatures in the dry season are 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30°C) on the coast.
From December to April (summer), the central plateau is warm, with periods of rain. In June, July, and August (winter), the central plateau gets very chilly, while the west coast is warm and dry and the east coast is warm with occasional showers.
There are several radio stations in Madagascar, some of which play popular music. Many Volunteers bring shortwave radios so they can listen to international broadcasts (BBC, Voice of America, Radio Nederlands, etc.). Madagascar has no cinemas.
The most common form of entertainment is socializing with friends and neighbors. Music is very important to the Malagasy, and singing together can be a lot of fun. While Volunteers are encouraged to remain at their sites to develop relationships with people in their community, the Peace Corps recognizes that occasional trips to the capital or to visit friends are also a necessity. Vacation time is allotted for non-work-related and approved absences from one’s site.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
One of the challenges all Peace Corps Volunteers have is attempting to fit into the local culture and act like a professional while at the same time maintaining one’s own cultural identity. It is not an easy thing to resolve, and we can only provide you with guidelines. You will be working as a representative of a government ministry and will be expected to dress and behave accordingly, whether you are in training, traveling, or on the job. While some of your counterparts may dress in seemingly worn or shabby clothes, this is undoubtedly due to economics rather than choice. The likelihood is that they are wearing their best. A foreigner who wears ragged, unmended clothing, however, is likely to be considered an affront.
Malagasy regard one’s dress as an expression of one’s respect for others. Neatness of appearance is valued more than being stylish. Unfortunately, just one inappropriately dressed Volunteer could cause a Malagasy host agency to form a negative opinion about the Peace Corps and share it with other officials at national and regional meetings. Volunteers are therefore expected to dress appropriately to avoid jeopardizing the credibility of the entire program.
Following are Peace Corps/Madagascar’s guidelines for Volunteers’ dress. (They have been formalized in response to advice from people in Madagascar and other countries where the Peace Corps works and are meant to inform, not to offend.)
- Women’s dresses and skirts should fall to or below the knees.
- Men and women should wear shorts only at home, when exercising, or when doing work for which Malagasy counterparts are also wearing shorts. If shorts are worn in public, they should be of walking length for both men and women.
- Hair should be clean and combed. Men’s hair should not be longer than shirt-collar length, and beards should be neatly trimmed.
- Men should not wear a hat indoors.
- Flip-flops should not be worn as professional footwear.
- Female Volunteers should wear appropriate undergarments, including bras and slips.
- Excessive body piercing or tattoos should not be visible.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Madagascar Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Madagascar. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although the potential for job satisfaction is very high, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations.
Perceptions of time are very different from those in America. The lack of basic infrastructure can become tiring. Host agencies do not always provide expected support in a timely manner. The Malagasy generally perceive Americans as very rich. Adapting to a new culture as a Peace Corps Volunteer is often described as an intense series of emotional peaks and valleys.
As a Volunteer, you will be given a great deal of responsibility and independence in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you will ever have. Often you will need to motivate yourself and others with little guidance. You might work for months with little visible impact and without receiving feedback on your work. Development is a slow process. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
The AIDS pandemic strikes across all social strata in many Peace Corps countries. The loss of teachers has crippled education systems, while illness and disability drains family income and forces governments and donors to redirect limited resources from other priorities. The fear and uncertainty AIDS causes has led to increased domestic violence and stigmatizing of people living with HIV/AIDS, isolating them from friends and family and cutting them off from economic opportunities.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will confront these issues on a very personal level. It is important to be aware of the high emotional toll that disease, death, and violence can have on Volunteers. As you strive to integrate into your community, you will develop relationships with local people who might die during your service. Because of the AIDS pandemic, some Volunteers will be regularly meeting with HIV positive people and working with training staff, office staff and host family members living with AIDS. Volunteers need to prepare themselves to embrace these relationships in a sensitive and positive manner. Likewise, malaria and malnutrition, motor vehicle accidents and other unintentional injuries, domestic violence and corporal punishment are problems a Volunteer may confront. You will need to anticipate these situations and utilize supportive resources available throughout your training and service to maintain your own emotional strength, so that you can continue to be of service to your community.
To overcome these difficulties, you will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, and resourcefulness. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave Madagascar feeling they have gained much more than they sacrificed during their service. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, your service could be a truly life-altering experience.