Every Volunteer is a Malaria Volunteer

When I first heard that the Peace Corps initiative Stomping Out Malaria in Africa had a vision of every Peace Corps volunteer being a “malaria volunteer”, meaning every volunteer regardless of sector would be active in malaria awareness projects, I was a bit skeptical. As a Community Health volunteer I have an obvious interest in disease prevention and eradication efforts. My job description in a nutshell is helping the Malagasy live long and healthy lives. Malaria is a very serious and often deadly disease, cutting lives tragically short. It is a public health threat of the gravest nature. Therefore, my role as a health sector volunteer naturally encompasses malaria prevention.

But although I am for obvious reasons a tad biased in favor of health volunteers, the Peace Corps family is made up of a colorful variety of volunteer sectors filling every niche imaginable. In Madagascar we currently have volunteers in four sectors – health, environment, community economic development, and English education. I knew that my fellow health volunteers would pursue the goal of eradicating malaria with gusto. But I seriously doubted the enthusiasm of volunteers in other sectors. Why would an English teacher take the time to create lesson plans about malaria? Why would an environment volunteer stop planting their garden and plan a malaria parade? Why would a community economic development volunteer halt their current project and make a mosquito piñata? Malaria is clearly a health issue, isn’t it? So doesn’t it follow that only health volunteers should be involved in the initiative?

As the Regional Malaria Coordinator for the Antananarivo area, my role the past month was recording the malaria activities of every volunteer in my region. As the phone calls, text messages, emails, and Facebook messages from volunteers rained down I came to an amazing realization. I had been completely and utterly wrong. Peace Corps volunteers regardless of their sector were engaging in malaria prevention work. There were community economic development volunteers teaching about malaria to their partner organizations, environment volunteers writing malaria awareness blogs, and education volunteers dedicating a day or even a whole week of lessons to malaria. I have a few shining examples from my region that I’d love to share.

Travis Pringle is an English education volunteer working in a town called Ankazobe. Travis teaches CEG (middle school) and LYCEE (high school) students. On April 25, World Malaria Day, Travis dedicated all of his classes to malaria awareness and prevention. His students learned malaria vocabulary, made posters about malaria prevention, practiced setting up and using mosquito nets, played games to understand malaria transmission, and made Neem Cream, a natural mosquito repellant. Not only did Travis educate his students but he also ensured that all students would be exposed to malaria prevention messages by sharing a malaria English lesson template with his fellow teachers. In that one day alone Travis shared malaria information with 499 students. That’s 499 students who are more likely to live malaria-free lives.

Some of Travis's students learning how to use a mosquito net

Some of Travis’s students learning how to use a mosquito net

In Sandrandahy English education volunteer Carolyn Cella and community economic development volunteer Amy Wallace teamed up to plan four days of interactive lessons to be delivered to all of Carolyn’s students. The lessons they created combined English education with essential malaria messages. The first day was dedicated to learning malaria basics such as cause, symptoms, danger signs, and treatment as well as essential vocabulary in English. The second day the students were asked to draw upon what they learned the previous day to create malaria awareness posters with messages in both English and Malagasy. The third day the students worked in groups to write brief speeches or dialogues about their completed posters. And on the final day the students gave their speeches or read their dialogues in front of other classes. The students went from receiving the information on the first day to actually sharing the information with others, becoming teachers themselves, on the last day.

Travis, Carolyn, and Amy are just a few examples of volunteers dedicating themselves wholeheartedly to the Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative. And they serve as proof that every volunteer can indeed be a “malaria volunteer” regardless of their sector. After all, improving lives is a goal that transcends sector classifications and unites all Peace Corps volunteers. Shame on me for being a doubter in the beginning. But I’m quite happy to have been proven wrong.

Teaching a mixed English/malaria lesson

Teaching a mixed English/malaria lesson


Malaria – It Has Something to do with Mosquitoes, Right?

A nuisance – that’s the word most Americans would use to describe mosquitoes. In general it’s an apt description for the small insect that announces its presence with that annoyingly high pitched buzzing in your ears, inevitably followed by a fit of frenzied slapping on your part. And of course they always manage to bite you in the most inconvenient places – the bottom of your foot, between your fingers, dead center of your forehead. But for millions of people living in malaria endemic regions of the world a mosquito is much more than a mere nuisance – it is the carrier of a potentially fatal disease.

Malaria is caused by the bite of an Anopheles mosquito that is infected with the Plasmodium parasite. When a mosquito takes a “blood meal”, the parasite is passed from the saliva of the infected mosquito to the human’s bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the parasite travels to the liver where it grows and matures typically within the window of 5 to 30 days. With some rare forms of malaria however the parasite can remain dormant in the liver for up to four years. After maturation the parasite re-enters the bloodstream to begin a hostile takeover of red blood cells. The parasites multiply within a red blood cell until it bursts and they spill out in search of new red cells to invade. The rapid destruction of red blood cells by the parasites is what causes most of the recognizable symptoms of malaria including high fever, alternating chills and sweats, headache, dizziness, and fatigue. If left untreated the disease can worsen resulting in confusion, coma, and eventually death.

In 2010, 216 million cases of malaria were recorded worldwide and of that number 655,000 were fatal. About 90% of malaria related deaths occurr in Sub-Saharan Africa, the majority children under five years old. With such a startlingly large percentage of malaria deaths concentrated in one region of the world it makes sense that prevention and eradication efforts are similarly concentrated. In recent years there has been a huge international effort to decrease those grim statistics in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Peace Corps is one of the organizations contributing to that effort. In 2011, Peace Corps announced its new initiative “Stomping Out Malaria in Africa”. This initiative unites approximately 3,000 Peace Corps volunteers working in 23 African countries (Madagascar included) in the common goal of eradicating malaria. Volunteers in these countries are working hard to educate people about prevention methods such as sleeping under insecticide treated bed nets and going to the health clinic to be tested for malaria when symptoms arise. On World Malaria Day (April 25) volunteers will be giving speeches, teaching at schools, setting up informational booths in markets, painting murals, building mosquito piñatas, organizing parades, and countless other activities all to forward the goal of “stomping out” malaria.

The road to complete eradication will no doubt be a difficult one. Due to the nature of its transmission, malaria is epidemic prone. A single infected individual could be bitten by a mosquito that then transmits the parasite to ten other people who are then bitten by more mosquitoes and transmit to even more people and so on until the situation reaches epidemic level. But with thousands of dedicated volunteers working within the communities most affected by the disease and a new global awareness that brings in much needed resources we may yet find ourselves in a world where there are no more malaria carrying mosquitoes to stomp.

Don’t Help the Possums, They’re Not From Around Here

I have a message for you. Not the kind of message you leave on your friend’s voicemail because she is mad at you and has been screening her calls to avoid talking to you. I mean the kind of message that is basically a declaration of opinion delivered in a way that asks you to reassess your own perspective on the issue. That kind of message. The problem with those sorts of messages though is that nobody really wants to listen to them. No matter how eloquent the delivery it always ends up feeling like someone is forcing their opinion on you, and we as human beings don’t like that one little bit. So to share my message I decided to utilize a method that people have embraced for countless generations – that is, to tell a story about cute, fuzzy animals and cleverly hide the message as the moral of the story. Here we go.

Once upon a time there was an enchanted wood and because it was enchanted all the animals in this wood took on alarmingly human-like characteristics such as talking, cooking, wearing clothes, and complaining about shoddy cell phone service. In a big pine tree at the edge of the wood lived a family of raccoons. And by a family I mean a huge extended family – there was mother and father raccoon of course but also various aunts, uncles, cousins, children, step children, and in-laws. Just a ton of raccoons. Generally speaking, the raccoons did pretty well for themselves. They had all kinds of nifty skills like weaving, fishing, gardening, and they all could play a mean game of golf. In fact, the raccoons had more food, clothing, and other stuff than most of the animals in the wood. That isn’t to say that the raccoons were without their own problems. On the contrary, they had hard times too. Sometimes there wasn’t enough food for all of the raccoons and some of them went hungry. Sometimes a really bad storm blew through and damaged their pine tree. And for some reason they always seemed to be fighting with the badger across the way. So yeah, they had problems but in general life was good.

On the opposite end of the wood in an old oak tree covered in ivy lived an equally large family of possums. Things weren’t going quite so well for the possums. They never seemed to have enough food so the possum babies were really small and undernourished. Since they were undernourished they got sick easily and the sight of their little baby possum faces streaked with tears and possum snot would be enough to break the hardest heart.

Well one day Mother Raccoon, being the proactive animal she was and seeing how the possums suffered, decided she was going to do something to help the possum family. She sent some of her eager raccoon children over to the possums’ tree with bundles of food, blankets, clothes, and books. Not only did her little raccoon minions give those much needed gifts to the possum family but they went one step further and started helping the possums in other ways. The raccoons shared all their best gardening, weaving, fishing, and golf playing secrets with the possums. At the end of the day the little raccoons, pleased with what they had done, skipped merrily home with smiles on their faces.

As soon as they entered the pine tree however they were confronted by Uncle Raccoon, the mean and awkward one that nobody likes to talk about. “Why are you helping the possum family?” he demanded with a scowl. “Don’t you realize that we have our own problems? What about the hunger season? What about the damage to our tree? And you know we are still fighting that darn badger across the way! How dare you give away our precious resources to those possums! They aren’t raccoons! They aren’t even from around here! I heard they moved here from Cincinnati!” he snorted.

The little raccoon do-gooders sat in silence for a moment. Then the pluckiest of the bunch spoke up, “We are simply doing what we think is right. We saw the possums suffering horribly and we knew that we could help. We know we have our own problems to deal with but does that mean we should completely ignore the suffering of others? And if you are insinuating that we shouldn’t help the possums because they aren’t raccoons well that is just bigotry and a load of crap. We’re all mammals” (the little raccoon had a bit of a smart mouth on him).

The mean and awkward Uncle Raccoon was momentarily stunned into silence by the little raccoon’s boldness. After a brief hesitation and much grumbling he decided it was better to shuffle off to the kitchen and find something new to complain about, perhaps with a less vocal audience this time.

A few months went by and the raccoons all noticed that the possum family was doing much better. The food and clothing and other goods had helped immediately of course but the lessons on gardening, fishing, weaving, and golf had given them the skills they needed to improve their lives in the long run. Their children were growing big and strong and leaking significantly less possum snot. Mother Raccoon and her little ones were most pleased with the result. The End.

Cute story, yes? I like to think so. But more importantly, did you guess what my message was about? If you were too distracted by mental images of talking forest creatures to make abstract associations then here it is: the raccoon family represents the United States and the possum family represents the poverty stricken developing country of your choice. Any clearer now? And who, you may ask, is the grumpy Uncle Raccoon? He represents the alarmingly large and annoyingly vocal number of people who believe that the US shouldn’t offer aid to foreign countries because we have our own problems to deal with. Mind you, the analogy in my story isn’t perfect, but you get the picture.

So…that little story in itself is sort of my response to those who think we are stupid for helping other countries. Yes, I acknowledge that the US has quite a colorful variety of its own issues. Yes, I would like to see us resolve those issues. But no, I don’t think we should be so callous and self-worshipping as to ignore intense suffering happening in the world when it occurs outside of our national borders. While reading the story you liked the little do-gooder raccoons, right? And you thought that Uncle Raccoon was a real jerk, yeah? And why is that? Because you felt that the little raccoons were doing what was right by helping the possums. Now I’m not going to launch into a moral/ethical discussion of right and wrong – I’m just going to venture to say that helping others is generally a good thing. Or at least that’s what several other well known stories involving cute, fuzzy animals led me to believe as a child.

And another point I’ll bring up briefly is the scale of poverty in the developing world. I’m only going to touch on it briefly because in all honesty it is a concept that is difficult to grasp if you have never spent a significant amount of time in a developing country. It is almost impossible to describe the scale of poverty that is the reality in some places. After nearly two years of living in Madagascar I am only just beginning to appreciate the true scope and repercussions of poverty here. After two years of seeing people with bleeding feet from not having shoes to cover them, babies with arms like sticks and skin like tissue paper from severe malnutrition, women fetching dirty water from the river which they will then drink, and children carried 10 kilometers in the arms of their parents only to die at the doorstep of the health clinic from a completely preventable disease – after all that I am beginning to understand the heart breaking and terrifying scale of poverty in the developing world.

Since this whole blog started with a story, I’ll share another one really quickly. A few of you may have heard this one before. So there was this really unfortunate guy who got the crap kicked out of him. He’s lying there on the side of the road covered in blood and dirt and generally not having the best day of his life. A few people pass by, even some people from his hometown but none of them help him. Things are looking pretty grim. Buzzards are circling, life flashes before his eyes, that kind of stuff. Then one really cool guy happens upon the scene. He doesn’t know the injured man but immediately he helps him find a ride back into town and gets him some much needed medical attention. And when the hospital has a fit that the injured man has no insurance the cool guy pays for it out of his pocket. Sound familiar? It’s the story of the good Samaritan from the Bible – although I admittedly may have tweaked a few details. I think people would agree that the Samaritan was…well…pretty darn good. When others turned away, perhaps thinking that they had enough problems on their plate without adding this man’s too, the good Samaritan swooped in Superman style and saved the day. I don’t know about you, but if I had to choose a role to play in that story I would most definitely want to be the good Samaritan. Those other guys just kind of suck.

Now that I’ve already tread into sensitive territory by sharing a Bible story (Oh no! Religion! Everyone freak out!) I’ll throw caution to the wind and actually quote something from said book – love thy neighbor. And I don’t care if you get your spiritual guidance from the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the tea leaves at the bottom of your cup, Oprah Winfrey, or your own naval lint…those seem like pretty wise words to live by. Love thy neighbor. It isn’t love thy fellow Americans or love thy fellow comfortably middle class or love those who speak your language or love thy neighbor but only when it’s convenient…its love thy neighbor. I take that to mean love your fellow man. Be compassionate. Help those in need. Make sacrifices for the benefit of others. Do good deeds whenever and however and for whoever you can. Basically, don’t be a selfish a-hole.

Great. Now let’s all get in a circle and sing Kumbaya.

Peace Corps Madagascar 3 023


Yep, Still Here! :)

I know it has been quite awhile since I posted a real update but I have actually been busy since returning to Madagascar following my amazing Americaland vacation. So what have I been getting into since February? Well, I went to something called Training of Trainers (TOT) to prepare lessons for the new stage of volunteers, performed two dances for a huge crowd of people on International Women’s Day, worked with the American Embassy to rebuild stairs in my town, held a training for local community health workers on HIV/AIDS and condom use, and traveled to the Peace Corps training center to act as Yoda for the new health volunteers. This unprecedented level of productivity in my life has caused me to neglect certain things, this blog being one of them. So sorry for that. So without further ado, here are some lovely pics of the happenings I just described.

Our dirty but still pretty river in Andramasina

Our dirty but still pretty river in Andramasina

Getting my dance on at the International Women's Day celebration (March 8)

Getting my dance on at the International Women’s Day celebration (March 8)

And a native dance too

And a native dance too

Stair reconstruction with the Embassy

Stair reconstruction with the Embassy

The stair reconstruction project was a pretty big deal for be because 1) I was actually involved in constructing a physical object 2) I was working with the American Embassy on the project and 3) it was initiated by a local group (Red Cross) so there were a lot of people anticipating the result. After the project was over the Peace Corps Madagascar country director asked me to write a brief article sharing my experience with the project. I included the write-up below. Mazotoa (enjoy)!

A Step in the Right Direction

Tantely and I stood on the hillside like a pair of statues completely consumed in our task of watching the distant roadway. Our straining eyes searched for any sign of an approaching vehicle. When a large white truck rounded the bend I saw her previously frozen expression break into a smile. I knew in that moment we were thinking the same thing, “The stairs really will be built!”

A month prior to that afternoon on the hillside I had been approached by several members of the Andramasina Red Cross. They hoped that if we worked together we might find a solution to a pressing community need. In the town of Andramasina there are stone and cement stairs that connect the main road to the entrance of the public elementary school. The approximately 300 students who attend this school must therefore use those stairs multiple times a day. This past December however, a large section of the stairs was destroyed by heavy rains and runoff. The local Red Cross volunteers had noticed with alarm that children continued to use the heavily damaged stairs in spite of their dangerous condition. The volunteers were concerned for the safety of the students and that of the countless other community members who used the stairs. The solution was simple  – the stairs needed to be rebuilt. But how to accomplish that goal? The Red Cross could supply workers and easily acquired materials like sand and water but a vital question remained: where would they find the money to fund the cement and stones?

After my conversation with the volunteers I went to work writing a small grant proposal which I immediately sent on to Peace Corps for review. I hoped that perhaps I could get enough funding through PCPP to purchase the needed materials. However, that turned out to be completely unnecessary. In a stroke of amazing good fortune, the consulate section of the American Embassy heard about my project proposal and contacted me with a proposition. They offered to completely fund the stair rebuilding in Andramasina and they only asked for one thing in return – the opportunity to come to Andramasina themselves and help with the construction process. I of course enthusiastically accepted these terms and shared the news with the ecstatic Red Cross volunteers.

That is the reason why a month later Tantely, the local Red Cross president, and I were standing so intently on that hillside. We were both eagerly awaiting the arrival of the consulate members and the bags of cement they had promised to bring. The first sight of that white truck glimmering in the distance brought with it a feeling of peace; the kind of peace that is felt after something long anticipated is finally realized.

The consulate section members were true to their word. They brought with them bags of cement, funds to reimburse the purchase of stones locally, and most importantly boundless enthusiasm. The consulate section, the local Red Cross volunteers, and I worked together most of the day to mend the damaged stairs. The only break taken was to eat some local food prepared for us by Andramasina residents as a sign of their appreciation. At the end of the day, there were ten or so very dirty people gazing with satisfaction on the newly rebuilt stairs.

As those of us in international development are well aware, projects can and do go horribly awry. Even the most carefully planned projects rarely go exactly as expected. So why was this particular project successful? First and foremost, it was truly community initiated. It was the local volunteers who identified the community need and dedicated themselves to discovering a solution. This was critical to its success because the community as a whole felt they had ownership in the project and were thus motivated to see it to completion. The stairs were their project, not the product of outside opinions or pressure. And secondly, this was a project made possible through collaboration. The consulate members, the Red Cross volunteers, and the community at large worked together to achieve a common goal. None of these parties alone could have achieved as great a result as was realized through working together. The pitter patter of tiny feet going up and down those stairs every day remind me of just how great the result truly was.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words (so you are spared my ramblings)

Teaching nutrition with another volunteer in Antanifotsy

Teaching nutrition with another volunteer in Antanifotsy

TOTEM girls

TOTEM girls

And more TOTEM girls

And more TOTEM girls

TOTEM unity

TOTEM unity

This chick has got some moves

This chick has got some moves

Frip Prom - the guys

Frip Prom – the guys

Frip Prom - the girls

Frip Prom – the girls

A walk through Andramasina

A walk through Andramasina

Can you tell its rice season?

Can you tell its rice season?

Fight the Good Fight

When we believe we are doing something that is inherently good, something altruistic for the betterment of mankind, opposition to that belief can be a hard slap in the face. I received such a blow very recently and I’ll admit it still stings. In my last blog entry I discussed my perspective on the reality facing women in Madagascar and also the group of young women that I lead in Andramasina to help address the problem. When discussing the creation of this group with American friends in particular, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. I suppose that is to be expected since our nation prides itself on equality. I have received almost as many positive responses from Malagasy friends concerning my girl’s group. Peace Corps certainly seemed to think it was a good idea since they fully funded the project. But the lesson I recently learned is that in anything – whether it be a fully formed project or simply an idea you dare to say aloud – there will be someone who opposes it. And the opposition can come from unexpected sources. Here’s what happened.

I had just finished leading my girl’s group, TOTEM, in their weekly basketball practice so I was tired, sweaty, covered in red dirt, and not particularly in a conversational mood. As I climbed the stairs leading up to the hospital where I live I saw that two hospital employees were sitting at the top of the stairs – a male nurse and a female secretary. As I muttered the usual greetings and replied that yes, I had indeed just finished teaching basketball, the nurse asked when I was going to teach him and his friends to play basketball. I had heard similar requests many times before and I gave my usual two second response – that this project and thus the basketball equipment is specifically for young women in Andramasina – sorry. Generally, that brief explanation is enough, but not this time. The nurse started to debate with me whether it is good or bad to have a group specifically for women. “Okay,” I thought, “it might be nice to delve into this a little further with someone.” So I began by explaining that the young men in Andramasina already have organized sports and activities but often the girls are excluded. I want the girls to have something that will make them and everyone else see how strong and capable they are. Also, we don’t only play basketball, we also discuss women’s health issues and life skills like setting goals and avoiding peer pressure. To my surprise, the nurse continued the debate. I should mention that this nurse is someone who I see almost every day since I live at the hospital. I wouldn’t say we are friends but we are more than mere acquaintances. Being an educated man working in the realm of healthcare I simply assumed he would see the merits of a group meant to empower young women and encourage them to set goals in life. I assumed wrong. I won’t recount every detail of the conversation but suffice to say he does not see what I am doing as even close to a social good. At one point he even informed me that I have a “ratsy saina” – a bad mind. I tried everything I could think of to convince him otherwise although the necessity of having this conversation in Malagasy put me at a distinct disadvantage. I explained that I’m not against organized groups for men at all but I want to focus on young women because I feel like often they don’t have much power or say in Malagasy society. The positions of power in Madagascar such as the military police and politicians are overwhelmingly male. And even at the family level women are often forced into traditional gender roles where they care for the children and home while the men work. If the woman chooses this, then so be it. That’s fine and dandy. But the whole point is that they should have a real choice; there should be opportunities for women outside of those traditional roles. Girls should think about these opportunities while they are in school and imagine a bright and beautiful future for themselves. No, I do not hate men. I don’t even think men need to be taken down a notch but rather women need a boost upwards. Of course, I’m sure this was all much less eloquently expressed in my broken Malagasy. After all that, he still had not swayed. I was still an American with a bad mind. Perhaps the most shocking statement came from the female secretary who was listening to this whole exchange. At one point she said, “why don’t you teach the girls how to cook?” These words came from a woman who probably had to work very hard in school to gain her position at the hospital.  A woman who probably saw many of her female classmates get pregnant and drop out or get married with no plans for continuing their studies. And she wants me to teach the girls how to cook –something which they already learn at home from a very young age by watching their mothers and grandmothers. In essence, perpetuate the gender roles I’m attempting to eliminate. I’ll admit that by this point, I was no longer emotionally neutral. I was getting ticked off. In the end we all had to agree to disagree as they say.

In retrospect, it would have been better to keep a level head. After all, everyone is entitled to an opinion and as native Malagasy, their opinion perhaps counts for more than mine. But as I stated in the opening paragraph – unexpected opposition to what we view as a truly altruistic effort is a hard pill to swallow. I still believe that what I am doing with my girl’s group is beneficial and important. I guess you can’t really know the strength of a belief until you’ve had to defend it. Now excuse me while I jot down some notes and prepare my next defense.

The Land of Milk and Honey

I know what you’re thinking. “Wait just a minute here. It looks like she’s starting another blog entry under the same date heading.” Congratulations, Sherlock…that is precisely what I’m doing. I got myself so worked up about the little transgression with the nurse that I completely forgot to mention something rather significant: I was in the good ol’ US of A for Christmas and ringing in the New Year. It seemed too disjointed to include this with the previous discussion so here we are – two blog entries in one! Yesssss. So was Miley Cyrus correct? Was there really a party in the USA? You betcha. That is, if by party you mean amazing calorie laden delicious food, marvelous brain rotting television, and mind boggling shiny new technological innovations. Of course the best thing was being with family and friends for the first time in a year and a half.

Seriously though, do you want to know the most common response a PCV has when asked how a trip to the US went? “Everything was so…clean.” I kid you not. That’s the very first thing that strikes us. When you’ve been dirty for an extended period of time to the point that when you wash off one layer of dirt there is another layer lurking below it, you realize that clean isn’t just something perceived by the eyes. Clean isn’t only a sight – it’s a feeling, a smell, a taste. It’s flippin’ fabulous. Never take your cleanliness for granted. In fact, don’t take most of the things in your life for granted because odds are there are millions or even billions of people in the world that must do without whatever that thing is you’re currently complaining about. I know I have ventured into the potentially dangerous realm of advice giving but my message is simple: don’t complain so much and you’ll be happier for it. Most of what we (yes, I am including myself in this as an American) complain about would fall under what is referred to as “first world problems”. That is, problems that aren’t really problems when you consider the big picture. In calling attention to these first world problems I don’t mean to make anyone feel guilty. My goal is not to prompt you to carry around a leather whip and flog yourself every time you dare complain about something that doesn’t really warrant complaint (although the mental image is indeed amusing). I actually hope to make you realize that you have so much to be grateful for, so much to be happy about. So for the sake of your happiness (you’re welcome), here are some examples of the oft uttered first world problems complete with my own snarky comments in response.

 First World Problems:

–           “The water pressure in this shower really sucks!”  **Okay, not only do you have access to clean water, but you also have indoor plumbing. And not only indoor plumbing but a hot water heater! Would you rather fetch cold, dirty water from the river in buckets? Thought not.

–           “This road has so many potholes!” **But there’s a road! And it’s PAVED!

–           “Uuugh…the internet connection is soooo slow right now.” **No comment

–          “Cell phone service is so spotty here. It’s ridiculous.” **Is it ridiculous? Is it though?

–           “Man I really hate doing laundry.” **And by doing laundry you mean tossing your clothes in a MACHINE that does the washing for you? And then you throw it in another machine to dry it? Yeah, that’s tough.

–           “I wish I had a nicer car – it’s embarrassing being seen in this old junker.” **Would you be more embarrassed to have to walk everywhere? Or instead of an old, beat up Mustang to actually have an old, beat up mustang of the hay eating variety?

–           “All these fast food options are so fattening.” **You mean you’re problem is that you’re OVERnourished? Huh.

–          “Flu season is the worst!” **Is it the worst? Worse than dengue fever, malaria, typhoid, and the plague?

–           “A gazillion channels and there’s nothing on TV. Lame.” **Once again, no comment.

–          “I have absolutely nothing to wear.” **Do you have a shirt? Pants? Shoes? And your problem is…?

Feeling happier yet? Okay, so maybe I was a little overly snarky in my commentary but I couldn’t help myself. And I’ll be the first to admit that I complain about all of these things myself when in the States – sometimes all of them in the same day. I’m a whiner, what can I say? But I really hope that even after returning to the US I’ll be able to recognize the absurdity of an ad like the one I saw recently in Time magazine for AT&T. It read, “Only AT&T’s network lets you talk and surf on iPhone 5. It’s not complicated. Doing two things at once is better.” You find that funny too, right? Okay, good.

Lolo looking exceptionally adorable

Lolo looking exceptionally adorable

I think I was successful in teaching how to give a thumbs up

I think I was successful in teaching how to give a thumbs up

Plus side of the rainy season - lush, green landscape

Plus side of the rainy season – lush, green landscape



You Go, Girl

You are a girl born in Madagascar. By the time you are about five years old you are deemed mature enough to begin helping your mother with household chores – washing dishes, washing clothes, preparing meals, fetching water, sweeping the house, and so on. This is your mother’s work and it will be your work too. Mother belongs in the house and father belongs in the fields. That’s just the way it is. By your seventh birthday your mother has given birth twice more. Your mother breastfeeds the shrieking newborn and you carry the older baby on your back as you go about your usual chores. A good harvest one year means you finally get to attend school. You are thrilled but nervous. You do well and progress from the elementary to the middle and finally the high school. You begin to secretly dream of impossible things – moving to the capital, attending the university, becoming a nurse. Then you meet a boy at school and begin dating him. He pressures you to have sex. You don’t know what to do. Your mother and teachers have never told you much about sex – it’s taboo. You have heard of AIDS but aren’t really sure what it is or how you get it. You like this boy and you want him to like you. You want to say no but you don’t know how – no one has ever taught you to be assertive. So you say yes instead. Four months later you find out you are pregnant. You are forced to drop out of school. You will never move to the capital, you will never attend the university, you will never become a nurse. You give birth to a girl.

The purpose of that little narrative is to illustrate the reality that so many young girls in Madagascar face – the endless self-reinforcing cycle which continues to oppress Malagasy women. Many girls never even make it to school at all. If a family is under financial pressure and only one child can be allowed to study it will more often than not be a son. From the moment they can speak girls are taught to fill traditional gender roles – the woman cares for the home and children, the father tends to the fields and animals. They are taught that men are always the decision makers and moreover that is their natural role. The few girls who beat the odds and succeed at their studies, even dare to secretly dream of life outside their village, are often tragically hindered by the education of their upbringing and prevalence of traditional gender roles. They enter into relationships in which they have absolutely no negotiating power. After all, what more could a woman want than to find a husband, care for the house, and raise children? That was the life her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother led. Who is she to have other aspirations? She gets pregnant, drops out of school, and the tireless cycle makes another turn.

Of course this is by no means a phenomenon limited to the island of Madagascar. Although it features most prominently in developing countries, the issue can still be found in developed countries including the US, particularly among the lowest socioeconomic groups. So what is the solution? There is no single solution but rather a multitude of interventions which together create the effort to arrest the cycle and open opportunities for young women. These interventions include increasing access to education for girls, implementing reproductive health education in schools for all students, ensuring availability of contraceptives, offering scholarships for university study, and encouraging women’s small enterprise development. Human Rights Organizations, government programs, and various NGOs are already knee deep in this effort across the globe, but as someone who currently finds themselves near the front lines of this battle I can tell you the progress is sometimes infuriatingly slow going. With sufficient backing, increasing educational access and opportunities for women can be achieved relatively quickly even in a place like Madagascar, but changing a cultural mindset – that can take decades of effort, and even then the goal may not be realized.

To better illustrate the power of a cultural attitude I’ll share an anecdote. I have spoken many times before of my Malagasy “family” and my particularly my “mom” Hanta. Not long after I was installed at my site I noticed that most people in Andramasina don’t call Hanta by her given name but rather they refer to her by the word meaning “toothless”. That wouldn’t be an unusual nickname for quite a few of my Malagasy friends who don’t exactly enjoy an abundance of teeth but I thought it an odd nickname for Hanta since she has the majority of her teeth. I recall asking her about it several times during my first few months at site and her response was always the same; she simply laughed and shrugged her shoulders. Very recently however, I finally heard the story behind her strange nickname. Hanta’s husband has been dead for a number of years but when he was alive they used to attend church as a family. One Sunday, Hanta got ready for church and put on a new skirt she had bought. As soon as her husband caught sight of her he was outraged. He claimed the skirt was entirely too short and demanded that she change immediately. She refused, denying that the skirt was too short and reminding him she had just bought it so she would have something nice to wear to church. His response was to punch her in the mouth, knocking out four of her front teeth. Were her friends and family outraged? Did others rush to her aid? Was the husband condemned for physically abusing her? No. Most claimed that she was in the wrong for brazenly defying her husband’s wishes and insisting on wearing “provocative” clothing. She had willfully denied her role as the subordinate woman. The children in town started calling her “toothless” because of her missing front teeth. She got false teeth years later but the nickname remained. Building schools is relatively easy; changing a cultural mindset is excruciatingly difficult.

So why in the world am I choosing to write about this now? What set me off on this particular diatribe instead of sharing the latest amusing antics of Lolo? I am writing about this now because leading the group Tovovavy Tena Mendrika (Exemplary Young Women) or TOTEM has brought these issues to the forefront for me. TOTEM is a group I created for high school aged girls in Andramasina. We meet twice a week with two primary objectives 1) learn to play basketball and 2) talk about essential life skills and reproductive health. Through learning to play basketball the girls not only get a viable alternative to household chores but they can show others and themselves that they are capable, skilled, and powerful. Through the guided discussions of life skills and health they get to explore topics that their teachers and parents likely never introduce – goal setting, healthy decision making, being assertive, relationship skills, contraceptive use, sexually transmitted infections, etc. Since these are largely novel topics for the girls in TOTEM progress is slow – but it’s still progress. Of course, I have no grand illusions of radically changing social norms in Madagascar with this one small group. I fully understand that TOTEM is only a handful of girls from a single tiny town in the center of the huge expanse of island that is Madagascar. But if even one of my girls is aided in making healthy life decisions, if even one of them follows her dreams and studies at the university and becomes a doctor or an accountant or a bank manager, well…then that’s a start, isn’t it? And maybe, just maybe, when she is older and decides to start a family of her own she’ll teach her daughter the same.




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