Letters from Madagascar: Homestay Challenges

Fort Dauphin, Madagascar

-Post by Hannah –

Hello again!

I live in a small, stone house not far off of the main road.  My family is well off, relative to most of Fort Dauphin.  The main house has three rooms, all of which are about the size of a smallish or average Yale dorm room.  There is even a refrigerator, and, for special occasions, a washing machine.  Like almost everyone in Fort Dauphin, the cooking is done on a small charcoal burning stove that sits in the yard.

My host family's front yard

My host family’s front yard

My room is separate, sandwiched between our house and the house immediately behind it.  I have my own door and key, and even though it’s only about 150% the size of my bed, it’s amazing to have my own space.

Zaharah, the youngest at 16,  ceaselessly tried to set me up with her older brother, Solofo

Joujou, my host-dad, is a higher-up at Jirama, the electricity and water company.  He thinks that he can speak French, but I have yet to see him demonstrate sufficiency.  My mom stays at home.  She speaks only Malagasy.  They have four children, but only one, Zaharah, still lives at home. Two others are over for dinner about 4 out of 7 nights of the week, and the last is home for University for the month of September.  Zaharah, the youngest, is 16, and speaks enough French to communicate, mainly about make-up and boys.  Since I’ve arrived, she’s ceaselessly tried to set me up with her older brother, Solofo.  On the second day of the homestay, she told me that she was worried he was 30 and not yet married.  She also said she would love to have me as a sister-in-law.   I laughed awkwardly and tried to brush it off, thinking that when Solofo arrived, he too would brush her ideas off as teenage daydreams.

Princilia, my little host cousin/sister

Princilia, my little host cousin/sister

Unfortunately, not so.  The day after Solofo arrived from Tulear (where he studies), Zaharah told me in a hushed tone that he really liked me.  She then preceded to walk with us to the beach before leaving us alone on a sand dune, much to my protestations.  In the next days and weeks, he continued to have long conversations with me whenever possible.  While I appreciated the chance to discuss international politics and speak French with someone who was close to fluent, I began to tire of his condescending tone.  Whenever he spoke to me, it seemed like he thought he was teaching me how the world works, opening my poor, naïve eyes to his knowledge and wisdom.  Oh, how real the patriarchy is.

Solofo began to make more overt advances, telling me repeatedly that we needed to talk in private

I began to avoid spending time at home, leaving first thing in the morning and staying at Hotel Kaleta until the sun began to set.  I would exit conversations with him as soon as was politely possible.  During the conversations, I tried to make my disinterest clear.  Apparently, it wasn’t enough.  Solofo began to make more overt advances, telling me repeatedly that we needed to talk in private, away from home.  He ignored me when I said that no, we didn’t need to talk, and no, I didn’t want to talk.  He just kept smiling at me, leaning back in his chair, acting like he owned the place.

So, I began to be increasingly rude to him.  That didn’t work either.  Then, he just asked Zaharah to ask me why I was being rude, and to tell me that he was sad that I wasn’t being kind.

So, I continued to avoid home, and conversations with him.  But Solofo apparently has a uniquely thick skull, and couldn’t wrap his brain around the idea that a woman could possibly not want to be with him.  (Oh, the patriarchy.)  One morning, I woke up and had a text message from him that declared his love to me before God.  This was two weeks after I met him, and he did indeed use the word “love.”  Well, actually, it was “Je t’aime beaucoup,” but same difference.

  So, as any girl would do when faced with an unwanted host-brother suitor who can’t take a hint, I made up an imaginary boyfriend

So, as any girl would do when faced with an unwanted host-brother suitor who can’t take a hint, I made up an imaginary boyfriend.  When I texted Solofo back and told him that I was in love with “mon petit copain” back home, he backed off.  If he had a tail, it would have been tucked between his legs.  I have never seen a Malagasy person finish a meal and leave the table as fast as he did that night.  Apparently, when I am already claimed by another male, I have the right to say no (though not as an independent female).

I also talked to the academic director the next day, and he said he would talk to my family.  The day after that, SIT left on a camping excursion for several nights (tent! Yay!).  When we got back, I spent 3 days at home, enjoying watching Solofo skitter away whenever I entered a room.  Then, it was off to the village stay for a week.  I was convinced that Solofo would be gone by the time I returned.

Nope.  He’s still here.  Somehow.  My sister also talked to me the other day about how she wished that I hadn’t talked to the academic director about the situation, and that I had just dealt with it in the family.  She implied that I had brought shame to the family.  Solofo also called me, I think to apologize, but I’m not really certain, since I cut him off and told him I was not going to have any one-on-one conversation with him.

Every day here is an immensely challenging experience, but is also incredibly rewarding.

I’m leaving Fort Dauphin on Friday.  So, all of this should be behind me.  I know that this post has been predominantly a negative reflection of my time in Fort Dauphin.  That is not the impression I want to leave.  Every day here is an immensely challenging experience, but is also incredibly rewarding.  I have learned how to say no, how to speak up for myself, how to dance in public, and how to take a shower with a single bucket and bar of soap.  Transferable life skills!

All joking aside, the fact that I truly feel balanced and home in this place despite the myriad of challenges is a testament to how incredible this experience is.

Just to reassure those who worry, I have never felt unsafe in my homestay.  Merely excruciatingly uncomfortable, which is just an inevitability of existence for me.  I am also sad that I had to avoid my homestay family for so long; whenever Solofo is absent, I love spending time with the family, even if we don’t really have a common language.

  Whenever Solofo is absent, I love spending time with the family, even if we don’t really have a common language.

Well, this is the end of the Fort Dauphin chronicles for now. It’s also almost midnight here, which makes this one of the latest nights I’ve had here.  Time for me to hit the sack.

Sending much love from a small mosquito net in a small room in a small house on the edge of the Indian Ocean,

This strong woman is sending out love to all of you on the other side of the world.

This strong woman is sending out love to all of you on the other side of the world.

*For more on Hannah’s adventures check out all her Letters from Madagascar

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