I met Bao Zoma, mother of four and grandmother of seven, while taking a bike ride through the countryside of Madagascar. In September 2015, I joined Bao Zoma as she traveled to the Operation Smile medical mission in Tana with her middle grandchild, Sandra, who was in need of a cleft lip repair. Now that Sandra has a beautiful smile, Bao Zoma is motivated to find more children in need of critical surgical care and bring them to Operation Smile. She has become a spokesperson for Operation Smile in the part of her country where radios do not reach and many cannot read the posters that are taped up at the health huts around the village.
When asked what motivates her to find more children suffering from cleft lip and cleft palate, she responded: “My grandchild once suffered from cleft lip. My grandchild Sandra was teased, dropped out of school, and was a shy girl. Now I can’t keep her in the house, she has many friends, and is constantly smiling. She is beautiful. I would like to give that gift, the gift of smiling to others like Sandra.”
Bao Zoma recently recruited two other patients for the upcoming medical mission here in Madagascar in April.
She walked eight kilometers, crossed a river and hiked another two kilometers to reach these children– a young boy by the name of Gino and a young girl named Nordine. I am happy to report they will be joining me on the medical mission in April.
Thank you Bao Zoma, not only for serving as a spokesperson for Operation Smile, but also for being an amazing grandmother.
Check out my story on Operation Smile’s Blog: A grandmother’s wish
The primary objective of this project is to educate adolescent girls about issues related to health, education and life goals through a five-day GLOW, or Girls Leading Our World, camp. We hope to empower participants to lead healthier lives and give them the tools to achieve their life goals related to work and education by learning about opportunities available to them, and in turn teach other girls in their communities about lessons learned. The camp will be held in the capital city of Antananarivo for 100 girls and 20 women chaperones from 20 different communities across multiple regions of Madagascar.
The GLOW curriculum will focus on issues relevant to adolescent girls and specifically leadership development, self-efficacy, goal setting and life planning – including higher education and work. In the short term, we will encourage the girls to reflect on and discuss the subjects addressed during the camp, and then transfer knowledge gained to peer groups in their communities through additional trainings and discussions. In the long term, we hope that the girls will adopt healthy habits and become role models to other individuals in their communities, encouraging behavior change and eventually empowering themselves and others to lead their best possible lives. The community contribution includes supplies to promote a good learning environment for the girls throughout the camp, time donated by chaperones to help the camp run smoothly, and materials donated to facilitate learning in the communities after the camp has ended.
This project has been designed to expand access to education for girls in Madagascar as part of the Let Girls Learn Program. Learn more at letgirlslearn.peacecorps.gov.
Please donate to our project!
“I am now the best looking man”
Lezoma, 33 years old, ostracized from his community for being different. Since a young age he was teased for his different face. Children would scream and point fingers at him, calling him names. At 11 years old he decided to drop out of school and work the rice fields. He found peace in the solitude of the rice fields, no one calling him names, no one yelling mean slurs at him. He worked as a farmer and helped out during the various fruit picking seasons to make a living.
My first encounter with Lezoma was in January 2014. I heard there was a young man who had a double cleft lip who lived in a small village off the main road called, Tsaravinany. I took my chances and biked out to the village, before no time I crossed Lezoma on the path. He carried bundles of banana leaves and two large jackfruits which hung from thick piece of wood. I greeted him in local dialect. He looked at me surprised, even chuckled a little at the sight of a foreigner speaking local tongue. I asked if we could talk, that I had something important I wanted to ask him. I explained about the mission, Operation Smile was arriving in April to the capital, Tana, and I would love to have him join me. His face brightened. He immediately answered, “You can fix this!” and pointed to the large gaps in his face. I explained that if he trusts me and would like to come up on to Tana with me I would be leaving the first week of April and I would pick him up on the main road. He agreed.
Lezoma walked into the operating room barefoot, nervous yet calm. I was present for the entire surgery and held his hand through his fear. Lezoma’s surgery went amazing, his before and after pictures were tremendous. His courageous spirit was a highlight of the mission.
6 months after we had returned from Tana, I biked back to Tsaravinany, the small village lined with rice fields and banana trees. To my surprise, young kids whom I had never seen before, ran up to me screaming, “Lezoma! Lezoma!”. My heart beat accelerated as I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing that they were screaming his name. I arrived at a small coffee seller, and there sat Lezoma. His dark brown eyes looked back at me, and small wrinkled formed on the sides as he smiled. “Charlotte! Mandroso!” he welcomed me to sit. I ordered a small coffee with sugar cane syrup. “How are you? How is everything? Tell me about you.” I requested. He stood up, “Charlotte, I have a problem! A big problem!” My heart dropped, thoughts raced, what could it be, an infection? Another health problem? “ I am so good looking now, all the ladies in town want me!” He chuckled, that familiar chuckle I had heard when first meeting him. I exclaimed “ OH MY! Yes you are a good looking man!”. We exchanged smiles. Later that afternoon I headed back home, as I turned around he waved once more, and said “Thank you, thank you.”
Why did you apply to Peace Corps?
When you think about life, about what a life holds, for me it holds purpose. I know this may sound cheesy for some or generic yet I took this moto for life very seriously. From a young age service had always been a large part of my life. I remember having a world map in our bathroom growing up and my mother would pin point a place or even sometimes have me chose a place and we pack our bags and go. Once at this destination whether it was Belize, India, Nepal, China, we would spend some time visiting and touring and the other time giving back. This idea of service never stopped at the small trips we took but became a ritual. A giving ritual. During the holidays I spent my time volunteering at food banks, wrapping Christmas gifts, visiting Veteran hospitals. This became my idea of purpose. I saw what it meant to people that I gave my time. I saw that it meant a difference and produced happiness for them. I saw a purpose. I heard of Peace Corps when I was in Middle School. Unlike other children around that age instead of going to the movies or buying new clothes, I was at dog shelters walking pups, or cleaning trash at the local park.
Once I graduated high school and entered college, I began revisiting the idea of serving in another country for a long amount of time. I enjoy learning about new cultures, seeing new places, and felt that many challenges I could foresee I had already met in my previous travels. .I felt ready. I felt that Peace Corps could provide me with tools to help people serve themselves. Indeed after being here in Madagascar for 18 months, I have learned so much about myself and about how to work in the field. I am grateful to have had this opportunity.
Some people ask, ” What are your biggest challenges being a Peace Corps volunteer?”
A couple things come to mind…
1. Using holes as toilets and getting overly joyous when a kabone (hole in the ground) doesn’t have swarms of flies or larva flying around. Ew..
2. Forgetting what water pressure feels like and when the opportunity is available for a hot shower you burn yourself because your skin squints as the foreign heat approaches your body.
3. Being squished, okay squeezed, okay piled on top of people in a taxi brousse. Where normally 4 people sit comfortably you find yourself side by side toppled over 8 in one row. Don’t forget the chickens pecking at your heals, the baby gnawing at your purse strap, and the woman asking you to hold her voandalana (gift to bring home) while your butt cheeks have lost all sensation from sitting on the hot withered brousse seats.
4. Having people look at you all the time, let me repeat ALL the time. Kids yelling VAZAHA, while running circles around you.
5. Missing market day and making crazy concoctions of food for dinner- hoping for a good outcome. Personal favorite- (rice [of course], sakay [hot sauce], parmesan cheese [lifesaver! thanks mom] and some sardines) Don’t forget the PROTEIN!
With these every day challenges comes the joys, the ups, the reasons why we volunteers do what we do. Some great examples of these joys in the past year of service:
1. Waking up to my two little sisters (neighbors, but you know everyone is family once you live next to one another long enough) singing at 5 am. Then when they see that my door is open at 5:15 am they peak their heads in and yell “GOOODDD MOrrrrrNING CHARLOTTTTEyyyyy! Now that is a wake up call and a beautiful one.
2. Malagasy people are some of the most giving, sweet, and nurturing beings I have met. Yes there are those days where I have missed the market, taught 8 hours and wasn’t able to buy food for the night. I come home lay down on the floor (where it is much colder believe me it is HOT out here) and just here my tummy rumble. All of a sudden I here my Neny (host-mom) yell through the wood and palm tree panels separating our homes, “Mandroso SAKAFO!” This translates- “Come get some food girl!” I smile, and walk over to a pile of rice and my favorite, homemade lentils with garlic- we eat together and enjoy each others company.
3. Sometimes having people look at you all the time, curiously investigating your freckles and assuming you don’t shower, can be difficult. (People have told me I need to shower more because I have dirt dots on my skin… freckles are mysterious things- who would have known.) Yet, the benefits to having people look at you all the time is that you can then look at them all the time too! This leads to the ritual greetings, “Manakory, Ino vaovao?” Hey Whats up? Next thing you know you are having a full on conversation about their kids, their family, the rice fields, the weather. And, after all that you have either been invited for lunch, to the wedding ceremony next week, and undoubtedly to attend church with the family this coming weekend. Stares are a beautiful thing- get used to it, and embrace it.
4. Rice. I repeat. RICE. I had a love hate relationship with RICE when I first landed in Mada. Now, I can’t live without the white grains on my plate! I don’t feel full without eating rice and all my meals MUST include this beautiful RICE! haha.. okay really though I have grown to enjoy it- even if many times it involves cracking parts of my teeth on pebbles (or rocks) which were hiding in the grains.
5. My favorite UP this year and my most joyous moment: speaking Malagasy. I remember trying to learn Malagasy greetings through a Youtube video when I received my acceptance letter for Peace Corps.
youtube: repeat after me “Salama”
me (thinking): oh…goodness here we go..
Now a year later, I am impressed not only with how I have been able to adapt to this new culture, and new way of life, but how I have been able to express myself in Malagasy. I think in Gasy, I speak in Gasy, I even sometimes have DREAMS [I kid you not] in GASY! I love surprising Malagasy people with my Malagasy. They automatically think all foreigners are French (due to the fact that Madagascar was colonized by France, many people speak French here). They see me they revert to French, when I answer in Malagasy- an enormous smile appears. That smile is worth many many nights reading a Malagasy dictionary!
My experience thus far is beyond words. In 5 months I have moved four times within Madagascar, lived with numerous host families, and become an expert at cooking rice! Since being in Mahanoro, I have begun teaching at the middle and high-school. My 6th grade class has 118 students! Classroom management skills required! My high-school students are amazing, motivated, and know more about pop-culture then I do!
For my birthday I was gifted a puppy and a kitten! My puppy’s name is Koko and she is a spunky little girl! My kitten’s name is Tantely, which translates to ‘honey’. They are great company and keep me busy. Not to mention I have numerous chickens and geese that run freely in my yard and hang out in my ‘ladosi’ – traditional shower.
I recently moved homes, into a traditional ravinala palm leave home. I share land and walls with a wonderful Malagasy family. The father also works at the high-school. The mother, my ‘neny’ has completely taken me under her wing. She insists that I learn everything there is about the Betsimisaraka culture (culture of the east coast). This has turned into a daily routine of papaya grating, frying bananas, eating sweet potatoes, cleaning fish, pounding coffee, and wearing traditional lambas ( beautiful cloth wrapped around your waist). She has been pleased with my integration efforts! I also have 9 siblings, the youngest 3 and oldest 25- we play cards, go to the beach together, and go running every saturday!
I have acquired a new hobby- gardening! So far I have planted four pineapple plants, a papaya tree, multiple flowers – all gifts from my students. Thank goodness we are coming into the rainy season because watering plants every morning and evening is some tough work! Strong arms from pumping water!
Whats next? In December I will return to the capital city to participate in a in-service training. It will be great to be reunited with all my fellow volunteers. I will be celebrating the holidays and New Year in the North of Madagascar with some friends! Upon my return back to site in January I will begin my secondary projects some of which include:
– Radio English course ( to be broadcasted once a week on the local radio!)
-Girls Empowerment and Motivational Club ( this group would include open forum discussions, Successful Malagasy Women Guest Speakers, and of course yoga!)
– Educational prenatal classes for new mothers and expecting mothers. (many women have approached me asking for information on how to properly take care and nurse their babies)
– Malaria prevention work ( I was voted the new Malaria Representative on the East Coast- malaria is prevalent among the East Coast due to the humidity and wet climate. Many families are not well educated about safety precautions and malaria in general.)
– HIV/AIDS educational theater group ( the idea being that my students would present small skits raising awareness about the effects of HIV/AIDS and discuss the various prevention methods)
My life and my passion to create real change in this world stems from one thing, that the beauty of life comes from the dedication we give to others. Growing up, I have always found tremendous wealth through the ability to better other lives but it is now that I am in my village in Madagascar, after 5 months of Peace Corps service that I have realized that my dedication to developing the lives of the impoverished is my calling. It is where I truly belong. Sending you love from across a couple oceans.