Leaving their world to change the world

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For most of the past year, Aaron and Jenny Christman have been tying up loose ends: selling their cars, moving out of their Westminster apartment, preparing their wills and income tax returns - and brushing up on their Malagasy, an official language of Madagascar.

The two Carroll County teachers are scheduled to leave today to serve with the Peace Corps for two years and three months.

The married couple is expected to fly to Philadelphia this morning, where they will stay for two days while they receive immunizations and an overview of their assignment in Madagascar. The South African island, located in the Indian Ocean, is the world's fourth-largest.

On Tuesday, they will fly to New York, then to Senegal and on to South Africa and, finally, to Madagascar. The trip from New York to Madagascar is expected to take two days - 21 hours of it to be spent on airplanes - the couple has been told.

"This is something we've wanted to do for years," said Jenny Christman, 28, who for the past three years taught eighth-grade earth and space science at Sykesville Middle. Her last day was two weeks ago.

"Some of my students think it's really neat," she said. "Others think it's a little crazy."

Jenny said that ever since her days at Gettysburg College - where she traveled to the Dominican Republic and Jamaica as part of community service projects - she has wanted to join the Peace Corps.

Aaron said he loves traveling overseas and also has long wanted to volunteer with the international service organization. At McDaniel College, from which he graduated last year, he majored in French - the other of Madagascar's official languages - and minored in Spanish.

Since receiving the news last summer that they had been accepted into the program, they have been selling and giving away many of their possessions - "You really find out how much you don't need," Aaron quipped - because each volunteer is limited to 80 pounds of luggage.

"I'm anxious to leave [for Madagascar]," Aaron said from the living room of his mother and stepfather's Reisterstown home.

The Christmans say that a major challenge will be overcoming the language barrier.

Because they will be in a rural part of the country, they have been told it is unlikely they will come across people who speak French, let alone English.

To get ready for the transition, they have been studying simple Malagasy phrases, such as "SalM-ame," which means "Hello."

"The first sentence I learned was 'Mila vary aho,' which means, 'I need rice,' " Jenny said. A couple weeks ago, "I learned 'Mila rano aho,' which means, 'I need water.' "

Aaron said learning Malagasy has not been as difficult as the other languages he has studied, in part because Malagasy has only three verb tenses. In comparison, he said, French has 14 tenses.

"We've been reading so much about [Madagascar], and now we're ready to just go and experience it," said Aaron, who taught English for Students of Other Languages at several Carroll County schools.

While in Madagascar, Jenny will work as an environmental education volunteer - pitching in at schools along the rural countryside - and Aaron will be an agroforestry volunteer.

He figures he'll be spending most of his time "in the dirt," he said.

Their primary objective will be to teach the Malagasy people how to identify environmental and developmental needs and help them preserve the impoverished island's endangered forests and wildlife.

"There is a huge deforestation problem there," Jenny said.

The Christmans tried to share some of what they have learned about Madagascar with their pupils before they left them.

"Since I'm an earth science teacher, I've been able to incorporate lessons about the tropics," she said. "It has been kind of neat teaching them about a place they know so little about."

She said when she told her class that the rural areas where she and Aaron will be living lack electricity and running water, the response was what one might expect from an American youngster.

"They couldn't believe I'd have no TV," she laughed. "And they have this funny idea that I'll be able to check e-mail every day."

It takes anywhere from one to three months for regular mail to travel from the United States, and the couple will likely have access to e-mail only once a month when they venture into town, they said.

"They've told us not to expect to have access even then," Jenny said.

Even so, they are hoping to keep in touch with pupils, colleagues and family by writing letters and e-mails as often as possible.

A Peace Corps correspondence program will help them keep in touch, Jenny said.

On her last day at Sykesville Middle, Jenny's pupils presented her with a scrapbook and a journal, both filled with photos and well wishes.

One pupil wrote:

"You were always the kindest, most nice person I have ever met and I think it's a very sweet thing you're doing to give up everything to help people you don't know. I wish I was brave like that. I can truly say that you are my hero and I'll look up to you for a long time. Good luck and stay safe."

The Christmans say they'll miss their pupils and their schools, but they are buoyed by the knowledge that they will be helping people who are far less fortunate than those they are leaving behind.

They say they want to steep themselves in the culture and the community and hope to build lasting relationships with the people they meet in Madagascar.

"I know this will make a difference in my life," Aaron said. "I know we'll be changed by this."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

Facts about Madagascar

Official languages:

French, Malagasy

Population:

18 million (2005 estimate)

Population below poverty line:

50 percent (2004 estimate) Infant mortality rate: 76.83 deaths per 1,000 live births (2005 estimate)

Life expectancy at birth:

54.57 years for men; 59.4 years for women (2005 estimate)

Location:

Southern Africa, island in the Indian Ocean, east of Mozambique

Geography:

Slightly less than twice the size of Arizona, it is the world's fourth-largest island.

Climate:

Tropical along coast, temperate inland, arid in south

Environmental issues:

Soil erosion from deforestation and overgrazing; surface water contaminated with raw sewage and other organic wastes; several species of flora and fauna unique to the island are endangered.

[Source: CIA - The World Factbook]

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