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

Support education improvements in Madagascar

Ask any American and they can probably tell you about a teacher that had a lasting impact on them. A teacher who challenged students, inspired them, and encouraged intellectual growth during such a formative time in a young person’s life.

In Madagascar, it is more difficult to find such a relationship between teachers and students. Part of the difference is certainly cultural and that won’t change very easily. All too often in this country, teachers are viewed as the infallible keepers of knowledge and they pass on this knowledge through dictation and rote memorization. But part of the difference is also due to a lack of quality training for teachers. Unlike in America, formal education or training for a teacher is not always required in Madagascar. This reality is often the root of many issues in the Malagasy educational system. Students aren’t engaged. Some teachers, who never wanted to be teachers in the first place, get stuck in the classroom because it can be a reliable job.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of my job assignments is to help improve the quality of English instruction in my community. During the last year, I have collaborated with local teachers, shared experiences, listened to them more than I have talked, and offered suggestions based on my limited training. But there is more that can be done.

With the help of 5 other Peace Corps Volunteers in the SAVA Region of Madagascar (the region where we live), we are organizing a 4-day regional teacher training workshop to address the issue of instructional quality. If a person lives relatively close to one of the few major urban centers in Madagascar, they might have greater access to government teacher training programs, but such training is rarely ever a requirement to be a working teacher and thus it is not always encouraged. But with the added incentive of working with “foreign” teachers, especially Americans, we hope to attract 60 teachers from all around the region to attend out workshop. It’s important to us that we reach not only teachers in the urban centers, but also those in the more remote countryside villages with even fewer resources. To read about the success of the inaugural teacher training that we put on last year, you can read my blog post about it here.

To fund our ambitious program, I have applied for a grant through the Peace Corps. This particular type of grant is part of the Peace Corps Partnership Program, which means that the grant is funded by private donations rather than a government budget. With this type of grant, the community must contribute at least 25% of the total cost of the program, either through donated materials or in-kind donations like time and meeting space. The rest is up to us to fundraise! The grant also has to be completely funded before a single penny (or Ariary, in this case) gets to the community. When that happens, the funds will come to me and I will purchase all the needed materials. When we finish the program, I have to provide receipts for all costs and that prevents me from running away with all the money you have so graciously donated to help my community. The grant is structured in such a way that I cannot segment any of the costs during the fundraising phase, so all donations go into the general budget.

If you’d like to make a donation or read more about the project, please visit our fundraising page here.

I, and the team of Volunteers working on this project with me, would greatly appreciate any support you can give us. Whether that is making a donation of any amount or helping to spread news of our project by sharing the fundraising page with others. Every little bit of effort adds up and it can help bring some much needed resources to a great community of educators.

Mipetraka tsara

Directly translated, mipetraka tsara means “to sit well.” Other more common interpretations of the phrase can be understood as “to stay put” or “to remain steady.” When used to describe the actions of a person, this phrase expresses notions of settlement, calm, and consistency. In light of doing many different things, living a busy life, and frequently moving around, one is encouraged to slow down and mipetraka tsara.

For me, this idea has more relevance now than in any other time during my service. With the school term having ended in July, the past three months have been filled with frequent travel, sometimes for business and sometimes for pleasure, and a variety of different experiences. Between visiting other Volunteers in their communities, attending training workshops, running a half marathon, and managing a handful of other projects, there was hardly an extended period of time in the recent past where I truly felt settled. As soon as one thing was finished, it was on to the next one!

So after what feels like a very eventful and long Grandes Vacances (French term for the summer break from school), I have recently returned to my home in Andapa and I intend to stay put here for a while. My head has only recently stopped spinning after the come and go nature of the last three months. I have unpacked my bags and I’m ready to recommit myself to working in my community. It took a couple of days to deep-clean my house, reorganize some of my belongings, and mentally unwind from vacation. But now the fire in me has been rekindled and I’m looking ahead with determination and positive energy.

In Madagascar, October signals the start of a new academic year. This year, I will continue to teach at CEG Andapa Sud (middle school) and Lycée Mixte Andapa (high school). With classes starting next week, an “acceptable” one week delay from the official start date prescribed by the Ministry of Education, I am looking forward to getting back into a routine and to meeting my new students. New minds to mold! Or further confuse, depending on whom you ask. Nevertheless, having a year of teaching experience under my belt makes me much more confident going into this year. Activities at the Andapa Public Library, such as the student and adult English Clubs, will also begin again, which I enjoy because it means working with students who are generally more interested and serious about studying English.

The time I have spent moving around the country, seeing new places, and connecting with friends, has been thoroughly enjoyable. Coming back to Andapa and focusing on the year ahead does not put a damper on any of those experiences. It’s simply the next step forward. And part of that next step is settling in at home and working hard to help my community. I welcome the opportunity to mipetraka tsara and enjoy the future in Andapa.

A proper school holiday

Each February, schools in Madagascar participate in a nationwide celebration of education. This celebration, called Journée des Écoles (French meaning “School Days”), is intended to recognize the hard work and dedication of students and teachers. Last month, I was lucky enough to be a part of this celebration in Andapa and participate in many events during the 3-day holiday. 

The main gate of the CEG where I teach

On the first day, students at the CEG where I teach worked together to clean the campus and replant some of the gardens. With everyone gathered around the flagpole in the morning, the older students were sent off into the forest to collect wood that would be used for cooking later in the week. The younger students, and I, stayed at the school to clean. Most of the boys brought machetes and sickles from home and they were told to cut the grass on the field across from the campus. At first, I was slightly uncomfortable to be around so many rowdy 6th graders wielding large sharp knives. As they chopped away at the thick grass and got increasingly tired, I felt more at ease. 

Boys cutting grass in front of the CEG

While the boys were cutting grass, some of the girls were cleaning out the classrooms, sweeping the floors, and washing the blackboards. I was impressed with how coordinated their efforts were and how quickly they worked to carry heavy wooden desks out of the classrooms before deep cleaning the inside. The other girls were working in the yard to clean up the existing gardens and also dig holes in places where new gardens were to be built. “Garden” is a very generous way to describe the small patches of dirt in front of the classrooms containing a few large rocks or feeble plants within a thin border of grass. At any rate, the students treated these areas like they were part of the Gardens of Versailles. 

A couple of girls tend to one of the gardens

The festivities continued the following day with athletic competitions between some of the schools. The boys played soccer, pitting the public school students against the private school students. The girls hosted a basketball tournament, also organized between public and private school teams. I attended one of the soccer matches and got to support my public school students as they beat the private school kids. It was really exciting, almost like a campy 90’s movie where the scrappy local team goes up against the fancy and well equipped jocks with nice uniforms. They fought hard and won an honest match, and the bragging rights that go along with it. 

The final day of the celebration included a large meal for all the teachers and school staff in Andapa. It was hosted by the World Wildlife Fund, which has a conservation office in Andapa. Because of their generosity, an entire zebu (a type of domesticated ox that is more tolerant of tropical heat and drought) was purchased and slaughtered to feed all the teachers. That’s how you know a Malagasy party is legitimate: if a whole zebu is sacrificed and butchered for the crowd. The party was a wonderful gesture of appreciation for all the hard work that the educators in my community do. Preparing the meal was also a community effort, which happened to take place in the compound where I live and just steps away from my front door. When I woke up that morning to the faint smell of burning wood, I opened my kitchen window to find about a dozen women already working to start fires and cook the meat in huge iron cauldrons. Some of them were teachers, others were the wives of teachers, but all of them worked together for many hours cooking everything for the meal. I really enjoyed watching them work and talking to a few of the women about what they were doing. All their hard work was not in vain because the food was delicious! 

Some of the women preoaring food on my porch and in my garden

I thoroughly enjoyed my first time participating in Journée des Écoles and celebrating with my school. It was inspiring to know that the entire country supports the idea that schools and teachers should be appreciated and cared for, so much so that they dedicate a specific time every year to do just those things. Sometimes as a foreigner, it’s difficult to feel comfortable and well-adjusted in a new community. But this experience made me proud to be a teacher in Andapa and I really felt like my colleagues consider me to be on equal footing with them.