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Navigating Identities in Madagascar

Peace Corps’ Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ICDEIA) approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers with disabilities to support them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

As a Volunteer with disabilities in Madagascar, you will face a special set of challenges. In Madagascar, as in other parts of the world, some people hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with visible physical disabilities and may discriminate against them. Children can be especially cruel and direct, making fun of anyone who looks “different”.

The first deaf Volunteer served in Madagascar at the largest and oldest school for the deaf in country, with great success. She taught English and American Sign Language and was also assigned to a second school for hearing adults.

There is no infrastructure, like ramps, railings, and elevators, needed to accommodate individuals with physical disabilities compared to those in the United States. It can be difficult to serve in Madagascar, but staff are committed to exploring creative and innovative ways to support reasonable accommodations for Volunteer success.

Gender role considerations

It will be important to absorb and to attempt to understand the cultural nuances of gender roles in Madagascar. During pre-service training, you will receive an introduction to gender awareness in-country and will take time to examine your own thinking about gender roles and how they have impacted you. You’ll then learn to analyze development projects using a gender lens to better understand gender roles in your host country and how these gender roles can benefit or limit what women and men may or may not do—both from a personal standpoint and in relation to work and relationships in-country.

Generally, Madagascar has a patriarchal culture, although there is some variance in Malagasy views of gender equality. In remote villages, gender roles are clearly defined, while in larger towns, gender roles are less strictly characterized. Volunteers may also find that rural areas have more conservative attitudes towards gender equality. But wherever they live and work, the behavior of women and Volunteers who present as women will be more closely scrutinized and more often criticized than that of men. Women Volunteers should expect frequent questions from host country counterparts and friends regarding their marital status and whether they have children. Most Malagasy women get married and have children quite young, so it will often be difficult for them to understand how a women Volunteer could be unmarried and not have children.

Though women hold positions of authority and responsibility in Madagascar, it is not commonplace. Women generally have traditional responsibilities that center the home. These include caring for the family, cleaning the home, and working long hours to prepare food from scratch. Foreign women are perceived to be wealthy and well-educated. This is considered desirable by local Malagasy men, and they may pursue women Volunteers (for dating). Some of the major challenges and barriers for Malagasy women include not being decision-makers in the home or community, not given space in the village meetings to bring new ideas, and expectations to marry young, especially in rural areas, leading to young girls dropping out of school and limiting their options. Malagasy law protects people who identify as homosexual from harassment. However, the law is not known or implemented.

LGBTQI+ considerations

The Peace Corps actively supports Volunteers and staff of all genders and sexual orientations and encourages Volunteers to serve as allies to their fellow Volunteers in all aspects. Many countries that the Peace Corps serve have more restrictive cultures regarding sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identities, though some are more permissive.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers need to know that Madagascar has a strong cultural taboo against homosexuality. While there are no legal restrictions on same-sex sexual relations (over the age of 21) in Madagascar, it is culturally not accepted. However, homosexuality is more accepted among foreigners who visit the country. Just as in the U.S., LGBTQI+ Volunteers may experience varying degrees of isolation and rejection. Host community members may or may not have any experience with, and assumptions about, members of the LGBTQI+ community.

In the rural and small towns where Volunteers work and live, there is very limited understanding of expressions of gender identities other than cisgender. LGBTQI+ youth in some communities will face discrimination and bullying.

It is suggested that LGBTQI+ Volunteers explore the safety and integration implications (with the support of staff if needed) prior to sharing this part of their identity with community members. Many Volunteers feel they can be open with other Volunteers and staff, and that they are able to identify support mechanisms and networks outside of their host community.

In addition, LGBTQI+ Volunteers in Madagascar are advised to consult with the Peer Support Network (PSN) and the Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMOs) and spend time getting to know their host communities, to determine for themselves the best way to approach discussions of sexual orientation and/or gender identities.

Nevertheless, many LGBTQI+ Volunteers have served successfully in Madagascar and have positive memories of their community and service. Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers to provide them with locally informed perspectives.

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

Because of limited exposure, some community members will expect all U.S. citizens to be White, and are unaware of the racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. For Volunteers, the range of responses to their skin color may vary greatly: from being mistaken for a community member to being questioned about their U.S. citizenship, to facing behavior and language skill expectations or ridicule, to being able to get better prices for goods and services. These instances can be turned into teachable moments for the Volunteer and the community member. All Volunteers, including White Volunteers and those of color, should be mindful of the issues of race/ethnicity that are embedded in U.S. culture and within your country of service, and should be mindful of being an ally to your fellow Volunteers.

In Madagascar, as in other traditional societies, members of American ethnic minorities may feel less freedom to “be themselves” than they do in the United States. It may be difficult for them to find or establish a support network, and they are likely to encounter prejudicial beliefs or expectations on the part of some Malagasy (e.g., that they will learn the local language and adapt to the climate and culture more easily than other Volunteers, that they are not as technically competent as other Volunteers, or that they are not “real” Americans). Volunteers of all backgrounds, however, have dealt with these issues and have had productive and fulfilling experiences in Madagascar. They have also brought new depth to the Second Goal of the Peace Corps, which is to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the Malagasy people by living and working with them.

Asian American and Pacific Islander Volunteers: American Volunteers of Asian descent may not be viewed as American (this is the case for non-White Volunteers in general). It is common for all people of East Asian descent to be referred to as “Chinese” and be called “Sinoa.” Volunteers of South Asian and Pacific Island descent may also experience microaggressions and may not be initially viewed as Americans. People of Asian descent have a reputation in Madagascar for being good at business as well as hardworking.

Indian (subcontinent) Volunteers: American Volunteers of Indian descent may not be viewed as American, and termed “Kirana” by Malagasy people. The stereotype of Kirana (Indian and Pakistani) people is that they run big businesses, are very wealthy, and stay within their own community, not integrating with the Malagasy people.

Black/African American Volunteers: Black Volunteers find they blend in and may be presumed to be Malagasy. Those who may be mistaken as Malagasy may receive less unwanted attention as compared to other Volunteers, but unwanted attention generally affects all Volunteers and their service. Local people may not believe that a Black Volunteer is American or may consistently ask where the Volunteer is from. There are more expectations that a Black Volunteer should speak and understand the culture better than their peers.

Latino/Hispanic Volunteers: Generally, Latino Volunteers are not treated any differently than White Volunteers. There are very few Latino people in Madagascar, and thus there is no stereotype.

White Volunteers: White Volunteers will likely experience privilege in many ways. Navigating this and being an ally to Volunteers and locals who may not have the same experience will be important as a Volunteer. One such privilege may be not having your U.S. citizenship questioned and automatically being assumed to be American, while many of your fellow Volunteers of color may experience the contrary. At the same time, White Volunteers may stand out more and receive different types of unwanted attention because of this aspect of their identity.

Age considerations

Older Volunteers may find their age an asset in-country and will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. Malagasy people often revere their older citizens, and older Volunteers often find that they are treated with respect. Occasionally, Malagasy people will assume that an older Volunteer is an immediate “expert” in their field, which can be a blessing and a curse. They may also assume that an older Volunteer is a retired person, a tourist, or a missionary.

Elders in Malagasy communities are considered leaders and are often given great respect, though this can be challenging for Volunteers as they often feel like novices in their new environments.

Pre-service training can be particularly stressful for older trainees, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used. A 50+ individual may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may not feel part of the group. Some 50+ Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in a very structured and demanding job.

Living conditions in Madagascar are basic, and medical services are not readily available in villages. Older Volunteers need to be prepared to take special health precautions to ensure a healthy completion of service.

Religious considerations

Regardless of whether you practice a particular religion, you will probably be exposed to religious practices that are different from those in the United States. Although Madagascar is predominantly Christian, with some Muslims, the practices of fady, a ritualized system of taboos and cultural mores combined with ancestral veneration, have tremendous significance for Malagasy. There will, of course, be differences in the degree of these beliefs depending on your location. Being open to understanding views and practices different from your own will be critical to integration. Many Malagasy people are devout, and towns often have many different churches. If you do not attend church, consider attending with your host family as an integration tool.

Other information regarding religion in Madagascar include:

  • Christianity has been an integral part of Malagasy culture since Christian missionaries first arrived more than 220 years ago.
  • There is a Muslim minority mostly in the North, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest of Madagascar.
  • There is a Hindu minority in the capital city and other large cities.
  • Malagasy people are animist, and have many beliefs around life and death, taboos, and different rituals; at the same time, that they observe Christian holidays. Having animist beliefs and practices, and being Christian, are not mutually exclusive, and most people practice both.
  • Wherever you are assigned in Madagascar, it is essential that you understand and respect the importance that religion holds. Volunteers who show respect for local beliefs are more likely to be accepted into the homes and lives of the members of their new community.
  • Malagasy people may ask you which church you attend, and what religion you practice. It is unusual for a Malagasy person to not identify with a certain religious belief. Many Volunteers find that attending religious observances can aid in the integration process.
  • Most Malagasy people do not understand Judaism. They know biblical history but do not understand the modern context. There is no stereotype of Jewish people in Madagascar.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

Couples often face pressure from community members to change their roles to conform better with traditional relationships in-country. Community members will often not understand American relationship dynamics and may be outwardly critical of relationships that do not adhere to traditional gender roles. It is also helpful to think about how pressures to conform to local culture can be challenging to men and women in very different ways. Considering how your partner is being affected and discussing what, if any, aspects of you’re the relationship should be changed can help reduce stress for you both.

Men in Madagascar are viewed as the dominant gender; the man will usually be the person that all questions are directed towards. This can be trying on a heterosexual couple who may be used to being viewed as equals and should be something they discuss in advance.

Couples without children may be repeatedly questioned about why they do not have children, etc. Couples should prepare to respond to this question from the community before coming to Madagascar.

With bi-racial couples, stereotypes can be challenging, and assumptions are often made. A White man with a Black woman may find that the woman is assumed to be a prostitute, and vice versa.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

We have a staff-led ICDEIA committee that works to intentionally foster a more inclusive and equitable organizational culture within Peace Corps. The committee collaborates with and seeks input from Volunteers on various ICDEIA efforts from working to make training and programming more effective and appropriate to co-creating ideas to strengthen inclusion and belonging for Volunteers, staff, and host country partners.

We also have a Peer Support Network: a group of Volunteers who have been trained to assist their peers with challenging situations, by actively listening, connecting Volunteers to resources, and keeping confidentiality.

Other resources include:

  • Peace Corps medical officers
  • Behavioral Health Office
  • Affinity groups (led by Volunteers)