Sunday, September 26, 2010

International Language

“We English club association at AVENIR COURSE are very delighted to write this letter to you. So, we’d like to invite you to discuss with us here at our school about English language...Please! Give us a chance for discussing with you in English because we want to be able to speak English very well like you.”

So says the letter that the students bring to our door at the WWF office in Vondrozo. And, of course, we cannot refuse.

Saturday morning finds us sitting awkwardly in a row of desks at the front of a classroom. A sea of thirty students, aging anywhere from 15 to 45, stare at the vazaha with wide eyes and rapt attention. We aren’t exactly sure what they want us to do, but their teacher saves us from lesson planning and prompts them to introduce themselves. “Thank you for listen to me and watch me, as my teacher demanded,”stammers one girl. “You can call me Manja. I am student at the lycée. My family is very big because I have 3 sisters and 4 brothers. I am single. My favorite past-times is reading a book and listening to rock and roll.”

We swap words in Malagasy and English, using French—and the extraordinarily multilingual Kuni—as an intermediary. For some reason, it turns into a wildlife course. Lemur is variky, gecko is atsatsaky, chamelon is sakorikata, crocodile is voay, caiman is mamba, and on we go. We explain that a new Peace Corps volunteer, Ericka, is arriving this week to teach English in Vondrozo; hopefully, her lessons will be a little more structured than ours. Right now, our teaching style vaguely resembles Madame Victorine’s.

“Why do you want to learn English?”I ask the class. “Because English is international language,”says one young man. I think about how far away I am from home and how still, there are two other American volunteers and a Canadian in Vondrozo, Madagascar, of all places. Yes, I conclude—fortunately for me and unfortunately for him—he must be right.
Our reputation precedes us, and more invitations are issued. Sunday morning finds us squashed shoulder-to-shoulder on a couch in a dark Malagasy hut. We have been invited to our first Malagasy circumcision fête. “I knew you’d be invited to one of those at some point,”says Christa’s mother on the telephone. “I just didn’t know it would happen so soon!”

“I want to practice English with you. Can you teach me?”sputters the man sitting on the couch next to me. He is the math teacher at the local high school, and, according to PCV Brian, he is drunk most of the time. “But the students seem to love him!”says Brian. I guess his drink doesn’t interfere with his algebra.

A nauseous five-year-old boy sits on the table in the center of the room, looking anything but celebratory, but all around him, his friends and relatives are animated and excitable. They sing, they clap, and we turn our eyes first left, first right, trying desperately to follow the words in mingled French and Malagasy that fly around the room. For a brief moment, I wonder how I ever managed to find myself in such a place.

It is 10am, and we sip Coca-Cola and Fanta soda, yet, there is an abundance of Malagasy beer—so authentically named Three Horses Beer—at this fête. Most of the beer is forgotten, however, for it is the reek of “gasy gasy,” the famous Malagasy moonshine, that permeates our nostrils and satisfies the thirst of most of these revellers. My friend the math teacher starts out our conversation in English—the international language—but as sip after sip of gasy gasy goes down his throat, his jumbled words dissolve into French and, finally, Malagasy. More frequently now, he accidentally spits on my face.

A woman demands something of me in animated Malagasy, and I haven’t a clue what she is trying to say. She thinks she is speaking French, but it is not a French that I, or even Henintsoa, can recognize. At last I agree—“Eka, eka!” Yes, yes!—just to calm her down. I trust to the international language—not of English, but of alcohol—that she won’t remember her demand, whatever it might have been, come tomorrow.

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