Monday, September 20, 2010

Operation Smile

I have spent the last week here in Antananarivo translating for Operation Smile, a medical NGO that does operations on people with cleft palate. Mostly babies, some older children, and a few adults had the surgery--a total of 179 patients had the surgery in the past week.

I am currently pretty exhausted and hard to imagine I am about to go from the busy fast-paced not-much-sleep week back to the village where I spend the days trying to figure out what to do with myself. I hope that my cat remembers me and that my garden isn't dead, but really I just feel somewhat anxious about the culture shock that will hit me this afternoon, going from here to there...hopefully that feeling will fade once I get back "home."

I think all the weight of the week is just hitting me--the part that was hard like all the needles (yes, I watched and assisted as IVs were taken out of small babies)and constantly having crying babies all around, to the part that was profound, like all of the children that were just so changed through this operation. Each day's activities kept me busy, translating for the doctors and nurses, forcing kids to drink juice, handing out antibiotics and searching for a way to explain everything in Malagasy, so busy that I would almost forget the significance of all that was happening in their lives. Then it would hit me and I couldn't let myself feel it too much or I'd be overwhelmed and just probably cry!

One mom with about a four year old boy did make me cry. I think I was storing up all my reaction to the needles, to the witnessing of kids' pain and tears, to the exhaustion of working 12 hours a day and sleeping in the noisy Peace Corps hostel... Then there was this mom who came upstairs from the operating room with her son, who was around 4 years old. Much of the time, the family members come from the surgery looking anxious, wondering if their kid is alright, or still in shock that this has all just happened. Add to that people who have come from far away in a village and are dealing with their own shock of being in the city, around all these white people with their fancy medical instruments, gauze, medicines, white coats. But this mom had no anxiety. She arrived in post-op with her face just beaming with joy. I turned around from helping the bed next to her son's and saw her smiling, and asked her "Faly be ve ianao?" (You're really happy, aren't you?!) And she nodded. I went to give her a hug, and she just grabbed me into such a strong, wonderful hug, tears were coming to our eyes.

Yesterday was the last day of surgery. Each patient has a chart with their picture in it, taken during the pre-screening days. One beautiful 12 year old girl was sitting in her bed recovering with her family. I opened up the folder and showed them the picture of her from before the surgery. They looked at it and at her with a kind of awe.

Everyone was so thankful, so grateful. Of course, because we Peace Corps volunteers were the translators, the ones who could actually talk to them, we got to hear all of these thanks. It felt good to do something so useful, so basic. It was also so good to work with such amazing people. The nurses were wonderful, I especially enjoyed working with two from Namibia, one from Virginia, and one from South Africa. The Namibian woman was so calm, kind, and good with the children. We became friends and shared bits and pieces of stories from our lives as we went together from bed to bed, her checking vitals and me translating.

It's been one of those weeks that will stay with me, that made me stronger and taught me about the strength that people have, mothers and fathers and their children. There is much more that I could write, but I must begin getting ready to go home. I have a bus ride and a bike ride ahead of me today, lots of time to think about it all on the ride home.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Nature Camp - Vondron'Ankizy Tontolo Iainana!

Mila Mikarakara

When it comes to children, well, there are many.
The small ones sing out my name
when I enter the village, coming home--
the same song my neighbors sing to announce
their grandmother arriving from the fields.

Everything is a plaything.
The rocks that tell stories,
the old plastic that forms a kite,
the mud we are using to build a house.

Each child has a container--just their size--
for fetching water.
They watch me (an old woman!)
with some hilarity.

They are the first to befriend you
and the last ones you must push
out your door in the evening.
“It's getting dark,” you can say.
“Time to go home.
I need to prepare.”


Sept. 5, 2010

The first annual Nature Day Camp in my village is now completed—my first project! It went really well—though there were many things to learn from and improve on for next year. We had 32 kids between 8-12 years old, and four of the teachers from the school in my village taught the lessons I had translated from a bunch of environmental education materials and books I got from the Peace Corps office. Several Peace Corps volunteers came out to be “camp counselors” and I must say that without Sara T., I couldn't have done it. Thank you Sara!

The kids dissected a bean seed, played “Stop Erosion Tag,” learned about food chains, built a human tree, and played “circle sit” (or “circle-fall-over-laughing”) to learn about working together. They had binoculars made from my toilet paper tubes, “nature notebooks” to draw and write in, and I even found two magnifying glasses at the fancy store in the capital that we used to look at leaves, water, and everything else. Many of them said that their favorite activity was learning about the water cycle, where they tied a plastic bag over leaves of a tree to learn about evapotranspiration.

It was challenging, wonderful, and exhausting, and I am still working on it, typing up all the activities to make a book for other volunteers and teachers to use (and still waiting on the evaluations from three of the teachers). The one teacher who has given me her evaluation wrote that she wants to do it again every year, and wants to do environmental education during the school year as well, so if that's not a sign that the camp was at least a bit inspirational, then I don't know what is.

The last day we walked an hour and a half to the forest and the president of the VOI was our “guide”, telling the children about orchids, vines, and all the kinds of trees. Walking back to the village, a lot of kids ran on ahead, but a group of us planted six trees around the school with the teachers. Last time I checked, they were still alive and probably happy to be out of their little plastic bags.

We split the kids into three groups, each with a name. "Riana" (waterfall) was my group. As I was biking out of my village last week, one of the little girls from my group called out “Riana! Riana!” as I went by. And as I've been going house to house doing my farming and food survey, I've seen the nature notebooks hanging in special places in the houses, parents proudly showing me the drawings of the water cycle and insect habitats that their child did. Hopefully, as our six trees grow, they will be a reminder to the kids of the things we learned about together.

Antsy Be

September 1st 2010
When I first came to my village, I used to think about what would happen to me if I broke my leg, or was delirious with malaria or in some other situation when it would be difficult or impossible for me to walk or bike the 8 kilometers to the main road. A few weeks ago I was rinsing out my dish-washing basin and saw four men walking with a stretcher built of sticks hoisted on their shoulders, upon which lay a man who had cut his leg with an antsy be while chopping eucalyptus for charcoal. Ansty means knife and be means big. The antsy be is used for everything—making charcoal, clearing a field for planting, chopping firewood, peeling cassava root, cutting up vegetables.


The men were headed 10 kilometers down the road to the Centre de Sante de Base—the health clinic in my commune. I realized that if something ever happened to me, I would be carried out to the road like a wounded princess. Another method to transport the sick is on the rack on the back of a bike. One man who cut himself with an antsy be about two months ago was transported to the “good” road this way. When I went to visit his family later, he showed me his wound and how it was healing. He was lying in bed and still couldn't work.


Today I was biking home from a quick trip to the market, internet and post office. As I biked along, I began to notice bright red drops on the dirt road—lots of them. My first thought was that it looked like blood, but there were so many drops—too many. I was trying to think of other things it could be, when I saw some kids on the road and asked them about it. They told me that my friend Lala's husband had cut his arm with an antsy be while clearing his field.


As I kept going, following the fresh drops of blood the whole way back to the village, I felt sick thinking about whether he had made it to the clinic in time, thinking about the distance to the clinic and how people struggle to get there, thinking about his family and his field, still only partly cleared, and how this accident will affect their year—what they are able to plant, what work he is able to do. I thought about the antsy be and how important it is for everything in their daily lives, but how dangerous it is too. Sometimes it just strikes me how different things are difficult here. An infected wound, a few weeks delay on planting, the distance to the clinic, the tool you use every day slipping in your hand.