Elodie and her friend Beatrice left at the beginning of 2019 as volunteers for Ecoles du Monde and spent 5 weeks at the school in Besely. Elodie is a nurse and nutritionist, it was her first experience as a volunteer on site. On her return to France, she told us, in her pretty southern accent, about her experience in Madagascar. She spoke about the children, of her mission, about volunteerism in general and what affected her most there.
Elodie, what made you think of being a volunteer in the bush of Madagascar?
I knew Madagascar a bit, I went there on vacation in 2012. I wanted to return to do volunteer work, it’s a marvelous country, there are many humanitarian organizations there because there is a lot to do there. I contacted Ecoles du Monde by email. In fact, I didn’t know of the association beforehand, it was really just a coincidence.
What did you do there during your mission?
My mission was oriented towards nutrition, the dietary balance of children most notably and we worked hard on the menus of the school cafeteria. My friend, who traveled with me, isn’t a nurse but she very much helped me with her knowledge and skills.
I had to first determine what the children ate, then look at the eventual deficiencies and try to put into place balanced meals adapted to the budget and the local eating habits. I worked a lot with the school nurse to include her in the project in order to understand the local habits in terms of diet and the life of the children. At the end of my mission, we had put in place model balanced menus for 3 weeks. Today, things are changing at the school: there is a cook and new kitchens. We’ll need to put in place our plans for menus on the long term.
Until now it was the parents of the students who came to make their meals in the cafeteria on a revolving basis. The children arrive in the morning with their rice. Rice is the basic food source there.
Breakfast is served when the children arrive. It is offered to all the children for a good start of the day! Next, only the children who live far away from the school (2 or 3 kilometers) have lunch at noon in the cafeteria. The children make a small contribution for the midday meal. For the parents, this helps, one less mouth to feed for lunch, and this promotes attending school.
With the school nurse, we also took the time to weigh and measure all the students. We decided to continue doing this once a month in order to evaluate the evolution of growing curves, to see if the children grow taller and put on weight.
We paid special attention to the personal hygiene of the children: the importance of taking showers, washing hands and brushing teeth. It was complicated because there wasn’t enough water in the well and the children couldn’t take showers every day! But every Friday at least, the children have the right to a shower. That doesn’t seem like much, but the parents often don’t have notions of personal hygiene, they live in mud huts where there isn’t running water, nor toilettes. If they don’t take showers at school, it’s not at home that they can.
We collected money to buy toothbrushes. The children already had a notion of brushing their teeth, last year another volunteer told them about it but there were no new toothbrushes! After a year, it was normal that we had to talk about this again. We spoke to each class about personal hygiene thanks to a game created by the WHO for children. They understood well, and know how to do it, but at home it’s not possible. There is a real gap between school and home. At school, there is a real comfort, not understood elsewhere. Luckily, there are other wells constructed by Ecoles du Monde in the village, the villagers get there water there. At school there are showers and toilettes, a new habit.
What marked you most during your time in Besely?
First, the love of life! Although the children don’t have much, they are kind, very curious, not at all afraid of us when we arrived, and they are happy and surprised at the comfort at school. They play with what little they have, a ball made with string in the courtyard for example, there is a huge gap between rich countries, but they are happy, not at all envious because they don’t know that luxuries exist elsewhere. Certain students have been to the city, in Majunga, but most only know the bush. They can’t imagine the rest.
Access to healthcare is deplorable in the bush. It’s a shame there is no doctor. There needs to be a doctor every month to see the students but it’s complicated to find a doctor willing to come to the bush. The school nurse’s role is to treat the students, give them medicine, as best she can. The wealthiest people in Madagascar are vaccinated but not the others.
The children don’t have visible nutritional deficiencies, they are in rather good shape even though they are generally low in the growing curves. They eat enough but not necessarily with all the nourishment they need. This is why the fruit trees being planted at the school are so important, as well as the vegetal plots because fruit and vegetables are expensive, it’s complicated to buy them, so producing them on site allows the children to diversify their diet at a lesser cost.
What are you going to remember from your experience?
I learned a lot, it was a wonderful experience. To understand the life they lead, the reality of local life. We communicated a lot with the children, with their teachers as well, we shared their daily life. We exchanged freely about their lives, and ours as well. It’s crazy the gap between the two. The chance to be born in the right or wrong place, it’s such a little thing.
In addition, living in the bush, on learns to live with little, to get along. We stayed without water sometimes the entire day for example. There is such a comfort level in France, we don’t realize how lucky we are, we don’t appreciate the small things that make life so easy.
Volunteerism brought you much ?
It was my first volunteer experience and I would be very happy to return a little later. For Ecoles du Monde, why not, to continue the work that we stated this year.
I understand there are many people who want to become volunteers today. People who want to help, give their time for others. But you need to know how to go about it, know who you’re dealing with, under what conditions and be open to others without feeling like a white colonialist coming to save the lives of poor Africans. I hope they learned from us, but I learned even more at their sides.
In fact, it’s not obvious to find an association with which to do a volunteer mission, certain are not as well run as Ecoles du Monde, sometimes you have to pay to for the travel, pay for housing on site, it’s become a real business. Also, there is a lot of corruption and scams at all levels of business. You have to be careful when you go on a mission.
What is your opinion about what is happening at the school in Besely, apart from the subjects already discussed?
There are so many projects to do! Ecoles du Monde is developing many other projects. The junior high school for example, it’s fantastic! There are too many children who have to stop school after elementary school because their parents don’t have the means to send them to the city to go to junior high school, it’s so sad. They had access to a very good primary school education and then have to stop.
There’s also the question of sensitizing the older children about contraception, especially the girls. It would be really interesting to work on this subject because young girls between 12 and 13 are often already married or have children. We met an association there who sensitizes people about contraception in the bush. They ought to be in contact with Ecoles du Monde now.
One last word?
It was on site that I was able to understand the importance of human values and the essentials in life. Human values take on all their sense there where there isn’t the comfort of here in France. We obviously appreciate comfort, but I feel an overabundance of it becomes noxious for humanity. We need to stay close to human values, appreciate our good fortune and get to the essentials.