FYP’s Grant Writing Intern Laura Leeson served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small rural town in Madagascar from 2013-2016. Madagascar, although one of the poorest countries in the world, is most notable for its rich biodiversity and welcoming people, the Malagasy.
Those who harvest the most pumpkins are the ones who lack the pots to cook them. – Zimbabwean proverb
Why is it that the brightest children are so often born in places where there are the fewest resources and opportunities for them?
While dumping dirty dishwater over the second-story balcony of my house and home for the past two years in the rural highlands of Madagascar, I see my friend Maro walking down the street with a boy.
Hey Maro! Come here, I haven’t seen you in so long!
The 16-year-old high school student climbs up to my porch and I give her one-armed hug. She welcomes me back from America, where I spent the last few weeks visiting my family and attending my brother’s wedding. We exchange news. I perk up my eyes toward the boy still on the street and give her a sly smile.
Ohhhhhh, is that your boyfriend??? I haven’t seen him yet…
He’s my husband now, she says. I’m pregnant.
My smile fades and I glance down at her belly. Sure enough. Six months, she says.
Philomene is pregnant too! She informs me. She’s only 2 months along, but she throws up all the time. She doesn’t endure being pregnant that well.
It feels like my heart is in my stomach. All I can think is: WHY HER?
I first met Philomene while sitting outside church by myself one day, waiting for the Sunday service. She came up and spoke English to me, quite a rare occurrence, for generally female students are too shy to approach me, let alone try to speak English. She shared her songbook with me during the service and tried to translate the priest’s sermon into English. Also quite unusual was that when I asked her what she wanted to be when she was older, she knew.
I want to be a teacher and teach English, she said.
We became friends.
When do you come to visit me at my live?! she always asked.
I would visit Maro and her (they are cousins) in the small room they rented in a house in town so they could study during the week. Their home was a 2-hour walk into the countryside, so they would only travel home on weekends, with class beginning at 7:00 am and getting out at 6:00 pm on weekdays. Their room contained a shared mattress – a large woven sack stuffed with hay – on the floor, a table and chair, and a pot with a few dishes. We ate sweet potatoes and alternated chatting in English and Malagasy, teaching each other new phrases.
Maro and Philomene were in their final year of school. They would be taking the national final exams in August. The exams not only determine if students complete their secondary education, but also permit them to apply to university or find trade jobs. Despite completing all other levels of study (a task only a small percentage do), many students in their final year never pass the exams, and therefore never graduate from high school. They become farmers like their parents.
The dedication of some of these students to finishing their secondary education is like nothing I saw during my time as a student myself. They wake up at 3:00 am and study by candlelight before class. During Christmas and Easter vacation they go to school. Passing the exam is not only a means to a better future, but also a great source of pride and standing. People ask me all the time if I have passed the test (I always say I have, although the process is different in America). When I say I have gone on to study four years at university they are surprised and impressed. Maybe it is because I still seem young, or because university seems like such a far and abstract and exotic thing from the rural place we find ourselves, something that only a few get the privilege of experiencing.
I go and visit Philomene at her “live” in the countryside a month or two after meeting her. It takes about an hour and half of half-riding and half-pushing my bike on the dirt road up and down the mountains. I meet her grandmother and grandfather who she lives with. They are embarrassed by their crumbling house and profusely apologize, even despite my protests that I don’t care about that.
Philomene delicately pulls out a photo album – quite often, one of a family’s most valuable possessions – and shows me pictures of her when she was younger, her father in his teenage years, and various relatives. Her father lives somewhere in the capital city now, she hasn’t seen him in years. Her mother is dead. It’s not hard to deduce that she died during childbirth, an all too common fate of women in developing countries. She then pulls out, with equal care, her worn English notebooks from previous grades for us to look through.
Philomene’s situation is not any different from the majority of Malagasy people. She and her family are extremely poor. I really don’t concern myself with it, though. Philomene is now just now one of my girlfriends. We gossip and talk about boys. I tell her about my crush on a local policeman and swear her to secrecy. She teases me.
I put this question to you! She giggles out. Do you want to kiss on his face? She points to her cheeks. And barely able to control her laughter, she finishes, OR do you kiss the MOUTH?!?
I am gone most of August (this being the fall of 2013) and when I get back Philomene has already moved back to the countryside. I find out sometime later that she has passed the national exam. Maro, too. When I see her next she is living in the nearby city with Maro’s older sister and another girl, again renting out a small room and all three sharing a bed of hay. She is determined to study at university, but first, she must learn to use a computer.
Taking a 2-month computer course in the city costs Philomene about $25. I know that money was not easy to come by. To get into university she must also send money to get her high school transcripts, pay money to take an entrance test, and pay the school an enrollment fee. All in good time, of course. For now, she just needs to get a certificate saying she knows how to use a computer.
Philomene passes her computer course and returns home to the rural countryside. I sporadically see her when she comes to teach me Malagasy or I go to work in her small village. When we chat, we almost always talk about her future. Her boyfriend from high school has moved to the capital city to work as a vendor and he constantly begs her to go live with him. But she is smart.
I need to finish my studies. I don’t want to work as a seller. Life will be hard.
I agree with her. When I ask if her boyfriend is as smart as she is, she laughs.
Ha! No! He is not smart, she says matter-of-factly.
Philomene’s grandpa dies on her 19th birthday. Her boyfriend does not remember to call. She is devastated. When we talk, I always pursue the notion of love. What does it mean? Why does she love her boyfriend? She offers no real substantial answer. She is a smart, caring, and beautiful girl. I always suggest that she finds a new boyfriend, one who is equally as wonderful as she is, when she studies at university. I see the idea begin to take hold in her mind, but she is still not completely convinced she could do better.
Philomene decides it is most financially realistic if she attends university in the nearby city, instead of the bigger universities further away. Even though this means she will not be able to study English specifically, she can still get a degree in Communications. She studies hard and takes the entrance exam.
A few months pass. Every time I see Philomene she is working the land, planting rice, sweet potatoes, cassava. I ask about the results of the test, but she still has not heard. She is stuck in the countryside, for now. Her boyfriend is still pressuring her to move in with him. In a sort of declaration of his love, he travels from the capital to her village to ask her and her grandma if she will go back with him. She says no. But I can tell he is wearing her down. She still hasn’t heard back about the test. There is nothing for her at home.
Busy with work, conferences, and traveling, I don’t see Philomene for another few months. One Sunday I bike the mountainous seven miles to go to church in her village and meet up with her. She has news.
I passed the test, she says with a sad smile. But I’m going to live with my boyfriend.
She anticipates my reaction. She tries to console me by telling me that she will earn money by working with her boyfriend and apply for the university in the capital city. I plead with her. But really, what can I say to convince her? I know that although she passed the test, it is a long and difficult road trying to secure the money to study at the university nearby. The total tuition only being a couple of hundred U.S. dollars.
I can convince myself that there is some truth in what she plans to do, and that it will work out. I talk openly with her living with her boyfriend, about the consequences of getting pregnant at such a young age, and about how she can prevent it. She seems optimistic about the path she’s chosen (to the extent that she has chosen it) so I wish her the best. I try to convince myself that I’ve done all that I could. Talk about cognitive dissonance at it’s finest. A month after she has moved to the city, she is pregnant.
The only difference between Maro and Philomene and I are the opportunities I was given as a first-world citizen.
Many of those opportunities undeniably stemmed from my access to technology. Having a computer and home broadband growing up was an open door to information, ideas, and connections.
I genuinely believe that if there was a Find Your Power website available to Philomene, she would’ve been successful in directing her future. She had just learned how to use a computer; the next step was taking advantage of online resources and opportunities that would enable her to achieve her life dream of becoming an English teacher. With FYP, she could have easily found educational scholarships or grants, took online courses to sustain her passion for learning, watched and read inspirational stories about girls like her who were able to gather the resources needed for college, or connected with other women around the world who may have helped her achieve her dream.
My friendships with Maro and Philomene solidified my belief that it is our responsibility to work so that everyone has access to the same opportunities as we did. Find Your Power provides that platform, in a digital form, and on a global scale. We have the opportunity to make things better, and isn’t that the greatest opportunity of all?