Two-year adventure begins far from home
In the U.S. when your parents take you for a walk after dinner, there’s a good chance you’ll go to get ice cream. In Comoros, when you go for an after-dinner walk with your host father, there’s a good chance you’re going to get sugarcane.
For those who haven’t tried sugarcane, you eat it by stripping away the bark and sucking the juice out of the meat. Two weeks ago eating raw sugar like this would not have been appealing in the least. But when you’re living in Comoros, where sweets are impossible to come by, it’s heaven on a stick. Or rather heaven in a stick.
Comoros is a country made up of three small islands off the eastern coast of Africa. The population is just under 800,000 and it is ranked as one of the poorest island countries in existence. Despite the poverty, Comoros has an extremely low crime rate, and the country has almost no homeless population.
I found myself traveling to this little-known country two weeks ago with 19 other Peace Corps volunteers. We had all met mere hours before boarding a plane together, and each had signed up to spend the next two years teaching English in this little group of islands.
Heavily populated and with a recently established government, Comoros has a difficult time with things we take for granted, such as electricity and maintaining roads. What it lacks in lights and roads it makes up for in beauty. The Indian Ocean stretches out forever in the deepest blue I’ve ever seen. And at night with almost no light pollution you can see more stars than I even knew existed.
The Peace Corps arranged for me to live with a host family in one of the larger villages during my initial three-month training period. In the next three months, I’ll need to learn Shinswani, one of the three local languages, how to cook over an open fire, how to make sure I always have safe drinking water, and – most importantly – how to teach English effectively.
The Comorian government identified proficiency in English as a priority several years ago and has been asking the Peace Corps for volunteers to assist with this need. The Peace Corps responded to that request last June and sent the first wave of volunteers Comoros has seen in more than 25 years. I arrived with the second group of volunteers on June 12.
During my first two weeks on the island I’ve tried to get to know as many of my neighbors and host families’ friends as I can. This is easily done due to the fact that Mvuni seems to have an open door policy for every home.
Neighbors, friends and family visit any time, wander in and out at will and expect everyone to visit them in the same fashion. In the evening my host father will take me “visiting,” which consists of slow walks around the village, greeting all of the many people we see and randomly stopping in at the homes of people he wants to introduce me to.
Part of training is learning how to integrate into the community and learning to exchange cultural norms and ideas. Learning the cultural norms of Comoros has been both challenging and interesting.
My group arrived in Comoros during the middle of Ramadan. Comoros is a Muslim country that observes the rules of Ramadan, such as fasting during the day for an entire month, dressing conservatively and praying more than the normal five times a day.
Though we were asked to dress conservatively out of respect, we were not required to fast or participate in Ramadan in any other way. Many of us choose to anyway, at least when it came to fasting. Fasting for Ramadan lasts from sunup to sundown and daylight only lasts for 12 hours in Comoros. I tried my hand at it last weekend, though I did cheat a little and drank some water so it wasn’t a true fast.
Though no one here expects us to or would even ask us to fast, they all get very excited when we tell them we are fasting. And whether we fast or not, we are all rewarded with a huge meal at the sundown when our host families break their fasts.
The evening meal takes most of the afternoon to prepare, and it has never failed to impress me. We eat picnic style on the living room floor, seated on a large woven mat designed exactly for this purpose. My family always serves at least one meat, be it chicken or fish or sometimes beef or goat. There will usually be some sort of bread, my favorite of which is made with mainly coconut milk and ground rice.
The coconut milk is achieved by shredding the meat of a coconut into very fine pieces and then running water through the shavings. The water will come out white and sweet, tasting like coconuts. This coconut milk is used to soak rice that has been ground down to a fine powder. When everything is mixed properly, it sits in a large pot for a while until the rice powder absorbs the coconut milk, and then the dough is fried over an open fire.
The result is a flavorful light bread like no other I’ve tasted before. It is my goal to master the art of making this bread before my time in Comoros is over.
Something tells me the next two years here will fly by. Though Comoros offers many challenges, it also offers valuable lessons in meeting those challenges, it offers rewarding moments when you realize you may be stronger than you thought, and it offers friendships I expect will last a life time.
Editor’s note: Sarah McQueen, former associate editor for the Portage County Gazette and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate, recently embarked on a two-year journey with the Peace Corps to the Comoros, a small Arabic-speaking archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the south-east coast of Africa, to the east of Mozambique and northwest of Madagascar. She plans to write a regular column journaling her experiences abroad.