On my first day in Madagascar this past November, I went on a four-hour road trip from the capital, Antananarivo, to the Vakona Rainforest. Since it was the weekend, my internship had not started yet, so my boss was taking me to do the first thing on every tourist’s list: Take awesome pictures with as many lemurs as possible.
Although I did succeed in this bucket list activity, along with many of beautiful hikes in the rainforest, I honestly think the road trip to and from the capital had more of an impact on me.
I, of course, had many pre-conceptions of what the country would look like based on my knowledge of the animated film franchise “Madagascar,” and was quite surprised at the landscape that passed by me during my time in the car.
At times, the overpopulated markets with rickety stands squeezed up against each other reminded me a lot of the scenes in Africa I experienced before. But in other ways, the enormous, lush, green rice fields reminded me of places in Southeast Asia I have seen.
I asked questions about what I saw, and learned a lot about the unique identity of the Malagasy people. Their history of both Asian and African influences has produced a unique and wonderful culture and a truly beautiful people.
My internship in Madagascar was for JSI John Snow International, a public health firm working in international development. I was accepted as a communications intern. Working for JSI’s Community-Based Integrated Health Program in Madagascar has been one of the most informative and influential experiences of my college career.
During my time in Madagascar I gained half a dozen mentors, from Antananarivo to Vohemar, who showed me what tremendous care they put into their work on the locally known MAHEFA project. From the Behavior Change Unit I learned about all of the cultural obstacles to overcome when implementing new health practices and saw how successful they have been in rallying community support since the start of the project.
While traveling to various sites in the SAVA region of Madagascar, I spoke to several community health workers who proudly shared with me their recent successes with the implementation of CHX and Misoprostol and even observed a consultation from one community health worker to a pregnant woman.
Through interviewing various members of these communities, I learned the importance of communicating the human face of these beneficiary populations. I was fortunate to contribute to this in a small way by writing a success story on MAHEFA’s community health insurance program.
My experience with JSI taught me most of all the importance of approaching development work with a humble and cooperative attitude. I am so thankful I had the opportunity to work for an organization that approaches their mission with the clear purpose of “teaching the community how to fish instead of giving them fish,” as the saying goes. I hope one day to return and say “salama” once again to my Madagascar mentors.
Even though this was not a Union program, I would never have had these amazing experiences if it weren’t for the community here who supports me both as a student and as a person with diverse interests. When I was accepted to this public health internship in Madagascar, I wanted to accept so badly, but it was a pretty big financial hurdle to overcome.
It seemed like I was going to have to pass on the opportunity until a professor got me in touch with the International Programs Office. Members of the International Programs Office met with me and explained the grants available to students with interests like my own.
I realized how deeply the professors and administration care about students to take such an interest in my pursuits. I owe my wonderful experiences to them and to the entire Union community for being a part of this incredible support network.