The water filter

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Side view of my water filter

This is my water filter. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My water filter is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.

Without me, my water filter is empty. Without my water filter, I am thirsty. I must filter and chlorinate my water before drinking it. I must filter out dirt, sand, and parasites that are trying to give me giardiasis. I must chlorinate after filtration to kill any remaining viruses and bacteria.

Before the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer), I swear this creed. My water filter and I are the defenders of my gastrointestinal health. We are the masters of our liquid consumption. We are the saviors of my life.

So be it, until clean water is mine and there is no dehydration, but my thirst is quenched!

-Adapted from the Rifleman’s Creed

In Madagascar, and I would venture to say all other Peace Corps countries, each Volunteer is given a water filter to use in preparing potable water. Within days of arriving in Madagascar, I was practicing safe water preparation and getting used to filling up my water filter every few days. It’s a relatively simple, yet vital, part of my experience and something that most of my readers might not be familiar with.

The water filter that I use consists of two chambers, one stacked on top of the other. After I get water from a local source (public pump, well, faucet, etc.), I pour it into the top chamber which contains two ceramic filters. As the water slowly gets filtered, it drips into the bottom chamber. The water in this reservoir is fairly clean, but still not ideal for drinking yet. This is because the ceramic candles are able to filter out macro-organisms, but there are rare micro-organisms that can still be present after filtration. The final step in the process is to chlorinate the water, essentially killing off any remaining harmful entities. For every liter of water, I must add 3 drops of chlorine.

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A look inside the top chamber of my water filter, showing the two ceramic filters

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Examples of a clean (left) and dirty (right) ceramic filter. The filters need to be cleaned with an old toothbrush periodically to remove dirt, sand, and other debris leftover from the source water

With proper maintenance, this water filter will last for my entire length of service. I use it every day that I am at home for drinking water, cooking, and cleaning certain foods. When traveling, I take other water safety measures. This filtration system is highly effective and so far I haven’t been sick from contaminated water (knock on wood!).

While this is a great option for clean water at home, check out this video for another Peace Corps style DIY charcoal water filter.

Business meets adventure in the mysterious Sud Est

There are a handful of regions in Madagascar that hold an alluring mystique. Whether it is because these places are isolated in the deep countryside, tucked away off distant coastlines, or nearly impossible to reach by conventional means. The Sud Est (South East) is one of those regions. In my mind, it is an untamed and legendary place down on the eastern coast of the country. The Volunteers in that area exhibit a cultish loyalty to all things Sud Est and are extremely proud to call it their home. They shamelessly uphold traditions from Volunteers that served in the area generations ago, which is part of why it feels so different than other regions. It’s a part of Madagascar that I’ve wanted to visit for a while, but it takes some real dedication to make the arduous journey. Passing through a wide range of landscapes and enduring hundreds of kilometers of open road, anyone with a healthy sense of curiosity and ample amounts of patience can put their travel skills to the test with a visit to the Sud Est.

As luck would have it, one of our Peace Corps Medical Officers recently invited me to accompany her on a trip to this fabled land. The purpose of the mission was to visit health care facilities in the region in order to asses what medical services are available (or more accurately, what isn’t available) and to update contact information for physicians and clinics. We visited some current Volunteers along the route and got a taste of the mystifying Sud Est culture. Through this visit, I learned a lot about healthcare in Madagascar, enjoyed the beautifully diverse scenery of the area, and gained a better appreciation for the hard work that our Volunteers are focused on.

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Map of the area covered during this trip. Ignore the comically optimistic travel time estimate, because clearly Google doesn’t understand driving in Madagascar.

The statistics of the trip are telling of our work. During five days, we covered more than 723 kilometers (450 miles) roundtrip from Fianarantsoa headed east toward Mananjary, then south to Manakara and Farafangana, and all the way back to Fianarantsoa. Our team visited 11 healthcare facilities including rural outpatient clinics, private Catholic hospitals, and large government hospitals. This allowed us to see a varying range of care levels and meet with a number of dedicated doctors and nurses. We also got to see 11 Volunteers in their communities, which was a special look into the realities that they live in every day.

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National Road 25 winding through the densely forested mountains between Ranomafana and the rest of the Sud Est

Covering as much ground as we did gave us the opportunity to see many stunning terrains. From the onset, the road from Fianarantsoa glides through the highlands countryside, with sprawling rice paddies laying at the base of formidable rocky mountains. As we approached Ranomafana, the scenery changed to steep hillsides covered in thick rainforest. There were quite a few landslide areas along the road leftover from Cyclone Enawo and the subsequent heavy rains. Continuing down the windy road to the east, we passed the Vatovavy mountain. This gorgeous massif is part of the region’s namesake, Vatovavy-Fitovinany (Female Rock-Seven Estuaries). From Mananjary south through Manakara and further on to Farafangana, the road mostly runs parallel to the coastline and offers occasional views of the Indian Ocean. On the more inland portions of road, the landscape is a mixture of heavily deforested hillsides, scrublands, gorgeous rolling hills covered in nothing but soft grass, pine trees, and iconic Malagasy Ravenala. 

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View of the landscape surrounding the Vatovavy mountain (center)

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Grassy hills from a portion of the inland road

While visiting the various healthcare facilities, there were some noticeable differences between private clinics and government posts. For the most part, the private establishments were funded by religious organizations that could provide a much more robust source of income compared to the government. This is where we saw the more advanced medical equipment, the larger laboratories, the most patients, and the proper amount of staff to make it all work. The government buildings were more likely to be in a disheveled state, the equipment was more likely to be out of date, and the facilities sometimes lacked qualified personnel to offer specialized care. Another aspect that I noticed across the board was the fact that despite a tremendous number of patients and their families coming to the facilities, none of the hospital staff seemed to be in any particular rush. I don’t mean to say they were being lazy or inconsiderate to the patients, but they all appeared to have a calm and methodical focus to providing compassionate care. The doctors that we met humbly took us on tours of the clinics and proudly showed off whatever equipment and laboratory space was available.

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A kitschy beachside bungalow hotel in Mananjary

For me, the most rewarding aspect of this whole trip was the chance to visit other Volunteers in their communities. Every site where a Volunteer lives and works is unique, so seeing these locations first hand allows me to better support Volunteers and advocate at the administrative level on their behalf. During the five days of travel, we met with Volunteers from all three project sectors (Health, Education, and Agriculture), saw almost all of their houses, met many of their friends and work counterparts, and learned a great deal about their experiences. I was impressed by how tamana (settled, well adjusted) these Volunteers are and how well integrated into the community they have become. The Malagasy work partners that we met all had great things to say about their Volunteers and they were so delighted to talk about the positive outcomes of working with an American. In one particular village, the timing of our visit happened to coincide with an official opening ceremony of a clean water project that a Volunteer had been working on. We attended most of the ceremony, witnessed a government official conduct a ribbon cutting, and celebrated the culmination of a fantastic community collaboration.

No matter where we visited, it was obvious how each Volunteer has become a real part of the village family and how their Malagasy peers have gone the extra mile to make their American neighbor feel right at home. Further proof that if you are willing, Madagascar can steal your heart.

Men as partners

A primary focus of many development projects is empowering women and girls, which is a very important issue to address. One example is the Peace Corps’ initiative, called Let Girls Learn, that focuses on increasing access to education for young girls around the world. Another popular program that Peace Corps Volunteers in various countries organize, called GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp, is designed to develop the leadership skills of girls and give them the opportunity to explore a variety of relevant health, environmental, and educational topics.

In addition to educating and encouraging women, it is also important to share these ideas with men in the spirit of cooperation. Men and women should work together to accomplish any community development goal. To address this need in Madagascar, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer recently organized a training for young men in the SAVA region. The MAP (Men As Partners) Camp was designed to “explore community development through a feminist lens,” according to the lead Volunteer of the project. The training was held in Antalaha and brought together 60 men, their ages ranging from 16 to 35, for a 4-day workshop. I was lucky enough to participate in this project and bring some men from my own community. During the course of the training, the men engaged in thoughtful discussions on a variety of topics including gender roles, sexuality, men’s health, community development, HIV and AIDS, and healthy relationships. Each session was led by a different local leader who brought his own perspective and style to the discussions.

All the participants on Day 1 of the MAP Camp

All the participants on Day 1 of the MAP Camp

The men who participated in the MAP Camp come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are students, others are tour guides, and a few work for other NGOs in Madagascar. Some of the men live in the larger regional cities while others come from smaller villages. Some have wives and children. Despite what they do or where they come from, these men came together and quickly bonded over a shared desire to improve their communities and help the women in their lives.

The men sign a banner with a pledge that reads “Every woman is a daughter or mother or wife to a man. To respect all women is to respect the women that you know. Today we pledge to end violence against women”

The men sign a banner with a pledge that reads “Every woman is a daughter or mother or wife to a man. To respect all women is to respect the women that you know. Today we pledge to end violence against women”

The first day of the camp began with a welcome from the Mayor of Antalaha and an introduction to the purpose of the program by the organizers of the MAP Camp. One of the first activities was a chance for the men to express their opinions on a variety of topics. To do this, we created four lines that corresponded to the opinions “strongly agree”, “agree”, “disagree”, and “strongly disagree”. Next, the facilitator read statements out loud (for example, “men are smarter than women” and “homosexuality is natural and acceptable”) and directed participants to stand in the line that was closest to their personal opinion. Each line of men had an opportunity to explain themselves, listen to others, and then they could change their position before moving on to the next statement. I was impressed by how the men respected each other when they had a difference of opinions and they were willing to listen to what others had to say. It was a powerful way to begin the program and set the stage for some meaningful discussions.

The men standing in four lines according to their opinion on a given statement

The men standing in four lines according to their opinion on a given statement

The second day of the camp had a more informational approach. One session explored the influence that different forms of media have on the messages about gender and sexuality in Madagascar. I even learned a lot about what men in the local communities hear and see from radio, television, film, religious groups, and schools that effect their understanding on gender. Next, the men had a candid and transparent discussion about the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. Most of them had very relevant and mature questions that showed a true desire to understand the complex ideas. I was, again, pleasantly surprised to see this kind of participation coming from men that live in such a heteronormative and traditional society.

A discussion facilitated by the local Imam

A discussion facilitated by the local Imam

On the third day, the participants addressed the issue of men’s health and sexual health. Activities began with a game to test the knowledge of participants on the subject of HIV and AIDS. The men knew many of the basic facts, but they also learned a few new things to help them make healthy life choices. Next, the group headed to the beach and played a few games. The first game divided the men into two groups and they stood shoulder to shoulder in a line facing each other with arms and hands behind their backs. Then, a soccer ball was put in the hands of one of the men and the team had to shuffle the ball up and down the line without the other team being able to see the ball. Each team took turns doing this while the other team watched closely and attempted to guess where the ball was after one minute of being passed behind the backs of their rivals. The symbolism behind this game was that the soccer ball in the hands of a man represented a person with HIV or AIDS and the other team couldn’t always accurately guess the person with the “ball” just by looking at them. It was a fun, yet important, lesson in equality and awareness of those around you. The next game had men dribbling the soccer ball through a series of obstacles that represented choices and consequences in life. The first set of choices, such as “having unprotected sex” or “having sex with multiple partners”, was spaced out enough that it was fairly easy to dribble the ball through the line. If a man kicked the ball into any of the obstacles, it represented him making that particular bad choice. Next, the obstacles got closer together and each one represented either contracting HIV or an STI. The final line, with the obstacles placed even closer together, represented either developing AIDS, having an early death, or not being able to work. As the men dribbled the ball through the lines, they realized that it’s easy to make one poor decision but it can lead to a much more difficult consequence later on. Everyone enjoyed a few hours on the beach, especially those men who had never seen the ocean before!

Playing a game at the beach about knowing a person's HIV/AIDS status

Playing a game at the beach about knowing a person’s HIV/AIDS status

Dribbling the soccer ball through the "obstacle course of life"

Dribbling the soccer ball through the “obstacle course of life”

The program finished on the fourth day with a discussion of things that the men could do after the training to continue spreading these ideas and helping their communities. They divided into 4 groups, based on the District where they live, and worked together to develop a work plan. Each group made a presentation and shared what next steps would be taken after the training. This is a crucial step in making the information relevant and useful to the men. It was great to see them feel empowered and realize that they have the ability to help others in their communities. Not only did they make some new friends during the course of the program, but they learned so much.

A few participants presenting their work plan to the group

A few participants presenting their work plan to the group

This was an extremely well-organized event and I feel grateful to have participated and shared this opportunity with some great men in my community. The main theme of the project was to encourage men and women to work together, and I think we got a great start on that. I look forward to working with these men and helping coordinate other resources so they can make a difference in our local community.

Group photo in front of the Antalaha Mayor's Office at the end of MAP Camp

Group photo in front of the Antalaha Mayor’s Office at the end of MAP Camp