Aza kivy. In Malagasy, these two words invoke so much meaning. Don’t be disappointed. It is such a simple concept, and yet so easy to forget working in the development sector—not to get discouraged.
I was reflecting on this recently.
Living in Madagascar, a country that ranked 11th on a list of the 20 poorest nations in the world last year, a place so isolated and forgotten from the global arena, the “lost” island, the eighth continent—it is not hard to feel overwhelmed or disheartened when your work does not seem to be making the impact you want it to. When it seems as if everything you have invested for the past several months feels like an illusion born of altruistic ideals.
For the past year, I have been living among people who live off of less than $1 a day, in a village with limited access to potable water, without electricity. It has been quite the adventure to say the least, for the girl who seriously considered packing her beloved Chi hair-straightener with her Chacos (the latter yet unused in country).
My time in ambanivohitra, the countryside, has taught me how to live without these modern conveniences, and how to live comfortably. It has taught me how to live with other less appealing things too—rodents and roosters, and spiders and centipedes; cold bucket baths and bad warm beer; pit latrines and persistent children who see you, the village vazaha, as primetime TV (but at all times), a kind of Santa Claus with inexhaustible resources and energy; and living among their parents who don’t dissuade these misconceptions and, in fact, continue to perpetuate them.
Despite the challenges though, in all aspects—mental, emotional and physical—I have thoroughly enjoyed my first year of service here.
As most people keen to volunteering abroad, I’ve developed adaptability and an open mind. I learned not to expect things like “efficiency” and “productivity.” In fact, I’ve redefined what I think of as “success,” and have learned how to celebrate the small things.
Like most volunteers, especially those committed to longer term projects, I’ve gone through the roller coaster range of emotions, and several times over—elation, guilt, frustration, anger, melancholy, resignation, elation again—and I’ve developed coping mechanisms to dealing with the more difficult emotions. I’ve become more active, by jogging, hiking and doing Pilates and yoga. I’ve been diligent with keeping my diary. I make sure now to take time for myself to decompress and I don’t feel guilty about it.
There is an analogy that comes to mind when I think about my service in Madagascar.
My current position working with a USAID organization providing trainings on Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) to at-risk and vulnerable communities in the highlands of Madagascar, recently led me to the east coast of the island, to a place called Mahanoro. We were doing field visits and observations of successful VSLA groups, and that particular day had to get to a remote village by way of two hours of bumpy, unpaved roads and a makeshift wooden raft with slats so large, I was sure that I’d fall through into the water.
But the water was beautiful, blue and glassy, like the bright expansive sky, and I was enjoying the day. I was taken aback though by how slow it seemed we were going. It seemed as though in our little ferry transporting people and their chickens alongside 4x4s, that we would never reach the other side of the strait.
It wasn’t until I looked back at the ripples in the water, and back at the bank we had left that I realized how far we had come.
That river crossing, I have come to understand, is a lot like my experience in Madagascar—slow, gradual, but surely and steadily progressive. And that has been, for me, the most encouraging.Add this article to your reading list