What I Learned in Madagascar
Grant Berger, Video Production and Communications Manager for UNICEF USA in New York, recently traveled with UNICEF colleagues and partners to Madagascar, one of the world's poorest countries, to document how UNICEF is making a difference for children and their communities. This is his story.
Madagascar, an island nation about the size of Texas, is a breathtakingly beautiful country, rich in natural resources and wildlife. But there are signs of poverty all around.
We are in the southeast region of Vatovavy-Fitovinany. Very few roads are paved. Getting from place to place is slow going, even in our SUVs. It is easy to see why local economies struggle. It's difficult to transport goods or building materials, and there is almost no cell phone service or Internet access. Most people rely on radios for information, including cyclone warnings, which are routine here.
We spend most of our time visiting small villages and schools and meeting with community leaders who help ensure that UNICEF-supported services are reaching the children and families who need them most. I'm amazed at how the different programs complement and reinforce one another — how the support schools and kids receive through Let Us Learn, for example, works in tandem with the cash assistance provided to help parents cover their kids' tuition fees. Thanks to these programs, more teachers have what they need to keep teaching, and more kids can keep learning.
In the town of Marofarihy, we visit a village kiosk, where local residents come to get their solar-powered lanterns recharged. The lanterns have been made available for rent at low cost with UNICEF support. They are a welcome alternative to kerosene lamps, which are a fire hazard. Most homes don't have electricity, so kids would be forced to go out at night to find a street light somewhere to do their homework. With the solar-powered lanterns, the kids in this village can now study safely at home after dark.
We visit a school that has been newly constructed, with UNICEF and partner support, to be cyclone resistant. It is solid and sturdy and bright, with great drainage and metal shutters. We sit in on an English class. The teacher tells us that she has the textbooks and other materials she needs now thanks to UNICEF.
It is at the Marofarihy secondary school that I meet Odile, 14 (pictured above, studying with a solar-powered lantern). She is an enthusiastic student, eager to learn. She tells me that she hopes to become a policewoman someday, so she can protect others. Her teacher tells me she thinks Odile would make a great attorney, because she asks questions like one.
After class is over, Odile shows me the house where she lives with her great aunt. I am grateful for a glimpse into this part of her life, for a chance to see how students from this area live day to day. She is excited to show me the space where, by the light of her solar-powered lantern, she will study her history and geography notes later. But first, there are chores to do. To help prepare the evening meal, Odile gathers a leafy plant that grows nearby, and mashes it into a paste in a large wooden mortar, wielding a pestle that's as tall as she is.
Odile is very lucky. Like all kids who live in these small villages, she has to walk to school, but hers is only 10 minutes away on foot. Other children have to walk for an hour or longer. Odile is lucky in another way as well. Many young girls drop out of school because their family can't afford the fees, or they get pregnant. Child marriage rates are high here, something else UNICEF is working to address. Odile believes child marriage should be outlawed. "There is a saying in Malagasy: 'Education is the best inheritance'," she says. "All young girls should be motivated to go school. And parents need to be told send them."
We are in Marofarihy the day that cash assistance is distributed. The women who have come to receive the help are dancing and singing and celebrating. It is joyous. This coming together is also an opportunity for community leaders to share information about other services that are available. When there's no phone or Internet, communication has to happen face to face.
It's clear to me that this is why Samuel and Felana from the UNICEF Madagascar country office, who were with me on this trip, are so effective. It's because they are embedded in these communities. They go school to school and village to village, building relationships with the elders, getting to know the people and linking them to where they can bring their babies to get immunized, for example, or treated for malnutrition.
As I travel around the country, I am heartbroken to see the many obstacles people must overcome just to cover the basics of life. But I am also inspired by how hard everybody is working to create a stronger, more vibrant future for Madagascar.
Sonja Hönig Schough (above left), President of Zonta International, a supporter of Let Us Learn and UNICEF USA's partner since 1972, was also part of my travel group. I like how she puts it in her own personal account of our journey: that while we can't reach everyone, we can reach some. And that is a start.
Above: Grant Berger with schoolchildren in Madagascar. Photo at top: Odile, 14, of Marofarihy, Madagascar, is determined to finish her education. All photos by Abela Ralaivita for UNICEF USA. All GIFs by Grant Berger.