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A Malagasy in Washington - 2002-05-15

English Programs Feature #7-36286 Broadcast May 13, 2002

The Washington area is home to a community of about 1000 immigrants from Madagascar, a large, lush island in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa. Today on New American Voices a young Malagasy environmentalist talks about her adjustment to life in America.

When Corinne Razafintsalame came to the United States from Madagascar in 2000 to work for an environmental group, she didn’t know what to expect.

“I was expecting that it would be very different from my environment, because it’s a – how to say it, a very powerful country. The people would be different, it’s a completely different world, but I didn’t know exactly what to expect – but, you know, I’m open to changes.”

The country in which Miss Razafintsalame grew up is known officially as the Malagasy Republic. It is the fourth largest island in the world, ringed by golden beaches and date-palm trees. The interior varies from equatorial forests to grassy plateaus to volcanoes.

“It’s a kind of exotic country. It’s known in the other parts of the world as being the land of the lemurs, vanilla, orchids – it’s like kind of an exotic tropical island.”

The natural beauty of Madagascar and its wide variety of flora and fauna are threatened, however, because the island is a poor country with few resources available to dedicate to environmental protection. After graduating from college with a degree in accounting in 1996, Corinne Razafintsalame went to work for an organization called Conservation International, or CI, whose goal in Madagascar is to support the government’s efforts to preserve the island’s unique natural environment.

“Madagascar is what we call a “hot spot” because of the high degree of threat. It has a high level of endemism [uniqueness] in terms of species and animals and plants. That’s why CI was present there for so long, because of the natural heritage that tends to be completely overexploited and will probably disappear if nothing is done.”

After working for Conservation International in Madagascar for four years, Corinne Razafintsalame was transferred by the organization to its headquarters in Washington. Like many immigrants, she says she felt a little bit lost, at first, particularly since her English wasn’t very good. There were other aspects of life in America that took some getting used to.

“I would say the rhythm of life is different. Like here it’s always like running all the time. Well, I had the same schedule of work, but here it’s different. The cost of living is very high. When I first came I thought, well, okay, I will be able to live like decently. But the price of everything, especially rent, was very high, so right now I’m living in Maryland and it’s like a three-hour commute every day. And that was the tough part of my adaptation.”

Miss Razafintsalame says that her transition to life in the Washington area was made easier by new friendships she formed here.

“Actually, I made a lot of friends here in America. It’s very different. Because in Madagascar, society was more, like, watching everything you do, there are some traditions that you need to respect. So I didn’t have many friends there, it was more family. Here that was the thing I really appreciated when I came here, because you have this opportunity to meet a lot of people and a lot of cultures. So here I have American friends, I have friends from Latin America, from Russia, I have friends from Indonesia, from China, almost everywhere. It’s very interesting. I’ve really learned a lot.”

Miss Razafintsalame says that she also keeps in touch with members of the Malagasy community, mostly when they gather at the Embassy of Madagascar each year to celebrate Christmas, New Year’s and Easter together. Although she feels that after two years she has adjusted well to her new environment, she says she’s still not quite comfortable with the competition that’s such an integral part of life here.

“That’s something about the society. It’s very good actually, because it pushes you to make a lot of effort, to like fight to get something. But I would say there are some values that I find important, that for me are more important that earning a lot of money or something like that. Sometimes I have the feeling that people are a little bit material[istic] here. I don’t say it’s a bad side, but I’m just not used to it.”

Miss Razafintsalame says that for her, the biggest advantage of her new life in America is the independence she has here.

“Especially this freedom, this ability to do whatever I want to do. If I make mistakes I will just be responsible for them. You know, I would not make decisions based on what people think. That’s something that I really like about it.”

For the immediate future, Corinne Razafintsalame plans to stay in the United States and go back to school to earn a master’s degree in business and information technology. And she would like to continue to work on behalf of conserving the unique natural heritage of her native Madagascar.