American Canvas and Malagasy Yarn Or Malagasy Yarn and American Canvas (It depends how you look at it.)


I wanted to bring back to America something I could show my family and friends. I knew that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers’ stories ware out quickly with those who have not had similar experiences so I wanted something people could see that would, perhaps, lead them to ask me questions. 

I had a piece of American needlepoint canvas with me. I remembered the amounts of free time I had had when I was a volunteer in Iran long before I went to Madagascar. Not having a TV really gives you lots of free time. I can only read so many books and the fear of “Idle hands being the tools…,”  I decided to sit with my veranda door open and needlepoint my neighborhood.

Getting yarn was a problem. There were a couple of places in the market that sold yarns but the colors were limited.  I had to do the best I could.

First you need to know the cardinal points. To start, put the sunset in the bottom right. The moon always came up kinda behind that palm tree in the east.  The Kabba in Mecca is to the north of Madagascar so that’s where I put it. The four stars of the Southern Cross are up in the upper right.  

Through the center of the picture is Rue de l’ Ankarana, the main street into Antisranana, Madagascar.  The town is also known as Diego-Suarez and usually just called Diego. That main street was the best paved street in town.  Everyone had to come into town from the airport on that street and I’m sure the constant repaveing of it was meant to impress all visitors.  The street has been repaved so many time that parts of it came up over the sidewalks. There was only one pothole in the whole length of the street.  Unfortunately, it was caused by a leak in the pipe that brought water to my house from the main feed from the water company.

My house is just below the somewhat recognizable Peace Corps symbol.  The picture is as I saw the street from my house so I started with the building just across the street: the two story one. 

Indian Moslems owned the building across the street from my house.  Old Monsieur Discount had a shop on the first floor.  He was called M. Discount because ‘discount’ means ‘miss count’ in French and the guy was famous for giving the wrong change, sometimes to your favor and sometimes to his. He was just old. He died the third year I was there. His family lived above the shop. For some reason, unknown to me, all Indians around me had swings on the porch. You can see the one chain of the swing. On the other side of the porch – balcony you can see the little electric meter. I had so many disagreements with the electric company that I thought I would remind myself of them with M. Discount’s meter.

As I say, that was the first house I needlepointed. The next morning when I took the just started canvas out to see how I had done, I found that there were five planters in front of the shop.  I went across the street and showed it to M. Discount’s son who was now running the shop. “The four years I have lived here you have had the same three planters.  Why are there five now?” “I will remove them tomorrow.  They are just getting a little sun light before I move them to my house,” he assured me.

The house just east of there ( with the moon over it ) was home to one and a half brothers.  The house directly across the street was also owned by one and a half brothers.  Ali, the half and half brother, moved between the two houses. Ali had diabetes and lost both legs at the knees.  He got along quite well with two prostates and one crutch. In the mornings when the east side of the street was in shade he sat on the bench you see on the sidewalk in front of his brother’s house. In the afternoons when the west side of the street was in shade he sat on his other brother’s porch. He greeted everyone who walked or drove by. He had encouraging words for all the students on their way to the high school down the street. He knew every taxi driver by name although I never say him ride in one. When someone came to my door and I wasn’t home, Ali would call them over and tell them where I was.  I could understand him knowing when I left but how he always knew my whereabouts was a mystery to me. When I was expecting PCV visitors from other towns and knew I wasn‘t going to be home when they arrived, I would give the key to the house to Ali. When they arrived, Ali would call them over, talk to them for a while to make sure they were indeed, PCVs and then give them the key. When M Discount died I went to Ali to ask about the way to give my condolences to the grieving family. I had been to other Moslem funerals in Iran and Egypt but wanted to make sure I was acting correctly for an Indian Moslem funeral.  He outlined everything I should do and say. Sometime later, when I was attending Ali’s funeral, I realized that he had taught me the proper ways of paying my respects and now I was using that learning at his funeral.

The house next to Ali’s was not really that pink. That was the best shade of pink I could find in the market. The family had a daughter and a son. The daughter was at the university where I did some teaching.  The son was a high school student. They both brought me their English homework so I could check it.  I pointed out their mistakes and taught them the grammar rules but never give them the answers. They never asked me to help them cheat but were more interested in learning that getting perfect homework papers.  Cleaver students. After making their house I took the unfinished work over to show them.  I was a little worried  about how pink the house was. Straight away the husband and wife got into a fight.  It seemed that the house should have been that pink but the sun had faded it.  The wife had been after the husband for years to repaint it exactly the shade you see here.

The house next to the pink one, on the corner, was really not more than a shack. I didn’t know the people there at all.  There was always one man living there with a number of ever changing younger women. I thought perhaps they were his younger sisters or nieces or female cousins. A PCV who did AIDS awareness work with ‘professional sex workers’ told me the women were not related but like I said, I really and truly didn’t know the people at all.

The lot to the south of M. Discount,( with the blue wall ) was just an empty lot. When I first went to live in Diego there was a huge lychee  tree there. The owner got some of the tree hacked down but stopped when a branch hit and broke a piece of the wall.

I’m not going to mention much about the last two houses in the south side of the street for two reasons. #1, if I went on and on about the people in every house this would be much too long and no one would read it. #2 I didn’t know them very well. I will say that the old lady on the corner used to take a woven mat across the street and take her afternoon nap in the shade of the large lychee tree. See the mat?

That brings us to my side of the street. 

The people with the large lychee  tree sold the fruit when it was in season. They always gave me a hand full of fruit when I passed. Sweet!

Another Indian family owned the second house. It was another shop with the family living behind it in this case. When I first went to Diego the mother and father had one daughter living with them. The father invited a nice Indian man from India to marry his daughter with the promise of giving him the shop.  I was invited to the wedding of that daughter. The parents moved out, painted the inside and out,  and the newlyweds took over the shop and house. The new husband was overly happy to meet me. His second language was English.  He knew no French or Malagasy. I was the only non-Indian he could talk to.  The poor fellow was really lonely. We were good friends.  When I took the finished needlepoint to show them, the wife asked if she could borrow it for an evening so she could take it to show her parents. I  immediately agreed. The husband protested. “No! No! No! I wouldn’t think of being responsible for such a beautiful and valuable piece of art.”  The wife tried to talk him into it but he was steadfast. When we were alone, the husband told me the real reason he didn’t want to take the needlepoint.  When his father-in-law had the building painted he had his own name painted out over the front of the shop. I had stitched in the place where the old man had had his name and where the new owner had yet to paint his. The father-in-law was after the guy to write his name there but the son-in-law didn’t want to.  If the father saw that empty space, it would only restart the discussion about the missing name. Sometime after that I saw my friend’s parents-in-law outside the shop and showed them the picture. Sure enough, my friend was right. The missing name was the first thing he noticed. I got some dirty looks from my friend but we laughed about it later.

The lot between my Indian friends and my house held three small shacks.  They shared a bathroom and water tap. I had thought they were three different poor families but they were not as poor as I had thought. One New Year’s Eve the twenty-something year old boys of one of the families got into a drunken fight with a man much smaller than either of them.  The guy died as a result of his beating The family was able to buy the boys’ way out of prosecution with a number of zebus, a large amount of rice and more money that the Peace Corps gave me to live on in a year. There are more stories about the people who lived there but we will move on, skipping my house for the moment.

The house north of mine was owned by one of Ali’s brothers. The three brothers owned small general stores in little towns outside Diego.  I took part in another funeral of that family. The two year old daughter of one of Ali’s nephews died suddenly one day.  She had had diarrhea.  No matter how much they gave the baby to drink she lost it all and died of dehydration. I tried not to show how upset I was. I had packages and packages of re-hydration salts in my Peace Corps medical kit. Added to a little boiled water they could have helped the poor child. 

North of that house was a lumber yard. The sellers sat on a bench under a while umbrella waiting for customers.  When they needed to deliver the wood they used the rickshaw that stayed on the sidewalk. When I showed them my hand work they knew why their palm tree was a different color than the others on the street. It was beginning to die. A very short time after I finished the project, the tree was no longer there.

The house on the north corner actually faced the side street.  The red door was their side door.  The house was build as mine was with one part for the living rooms and bedrooms and a separate building for the kitchen and bathroom. The only difference between that house and mine was that mine had had a roof build connecting the two roofs so that the middle of my house was covered.

Now for my house, the one right below the sorta Peace Corps symbol. It was with my metal veranda door open that I could see the other side of the street I have shown to you. Since the only street light on the block was right beside my house I had a good view of the neighborhood at night. The sidewalks on both sides of my street were the most perfect in town except for right in front of my house. Every day, after the siesta, young men sat in front of my house and sold “qat” to people as they drove by.  Qat is considered a “soft” drug in  Madagascar. It contains cathinone, a natural amphetamine which produces a high after prolonged chewing. Taxi drivers and others wanting to stay awake into the night chew it. It is brought into town on my street from farms not too far away.  It is best chew within a short time of being picked. I wouldn’t know. I was told that the first time a person chews qat they are violently ill. I had been violently ill enough times chewing what was billed as food without bringing illness upon myself. And, my morning coffee give me enough of a ‘high’ to keep me going till the after lunch siesta. Why they chose in front of my house, I have no idea.  However I was happy to have them.  They were nice guys.  They were always ready to lend a hand when I needed any help. They kept crazy people from bothering me.  More than once some drunk who was getting too close to my door was taken by the arm and guided down the street to be send on his way. 

There you have it: Rue de l’ Ankarana, my street in Antsiranana, Madagascar. My hat is off to you for reading this far. Imagine! I’ve just scratched the surface of the stories I brought home from more than four years in the Peace Corps in Madagascar.  I’ve taken my hand work to schools, gatherings and meetings where I have gotten to share these and other stories about Peace Corps and Madagascar. This is one way I bring home my experience. 

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.