Travel to a place that will break your heart

There are chickens running around the courtyard, patches of grass here and there, an old ambulance parked out back, the halls smell of illness and hunger, the windows need to be cleaned, the walls are in need of paint, but worst of all this hospital doesn’t have enough medicines or personnel. It is in a completely dilapidated state. What’s even more alarming is that this is the hospital that serves the second largest/most populated region of Madagascar. It’s located in Tamatave.

The man giving the group I’m with me the tour is the Chief of pediatrics. I dubbed him “The Real Super Man”. This man literally works day and night—he even has a bed in his office so that he can get one or two hours of sleep and keep working. He goes home to see his family every 48hours. Makes sure that they have what they need and goes back to work.

He showed us a room with women and children under 2. These babies were being treated for malnutrition and though they’re bodies were looking frail, he assured us that their progress from weeks before was tremendous. Then The Real Super Man took us to see a baby that had once been in that room and now was facing a completely different reality. He was on his death bed.

This 2 year old child was gasping for air as his little withering body faded away. His parents were next to him caressing his head-as if trying to ease any pain away. The doctor explained to us that he had been admitted as a malnourished patient. He was being treated with supplies provided by UNICEF, but during his stay at the hospital he contracted tuberculosis. The combination of tuberculosis and his malnourishment was killing him.

All of us, saddened and alarmed, asked if there was anything that could be done. That’s when my heart really broke. The Real Super Man explained, “You know, I received my medical training in Lyon, France. There I learned everything! And I brought this knowledge back to Madagascar excited to help my people. But I have all the knowledge in the world, and yet I lack the resources that would allow me to put it into use. The government built a beautiful state of the art hospital just a few kilometers away, and yet, we are not allowed to use it and we are not provided with the necessary resources to treat our children. I am able to treat malnourished children because of resources I’ve been able to procure from UNICEF, but beyond that, I have very little. In the case of this little boy, if we were in France I could save him, but here I don’t have the resources. It’s just a matter of time.”

This doctor is The Real Super Man not just because he spends day and night working toward saving lives, but because he is the voice that cries out for the families who aren’t being heard. His voice may not be the loudest, but it roared like thunder with my heart.

I wish I could say that this is when I realized that everyone needs to travel to a place that will break their heart, but at that moment it had the opposite effect on me. I felt exhausted, I felt that I didn’t want to keep going on this journey—I just wanted to go home.

peak-a-booIt honestly wasn’t until about two years after my trip that I had an epiphany and internalized the thought that everyone needs to travel to a place that will break their heart and make them question everything in life.

You need to go to a place that at once will make you feel helpless and hopeful. I know you’re probably thinking “Why in the world would I ever purposefully want to do this?” and the answer is simple—to feel human again.

In our ever growing culture of social media, iPhones, and likes we are forgetting the essence of our humanity. We are forgetting the true struggles of keeping ourselves and loved ones alive. We are forgetting the struggles whole communities face on a daily basis. We are forgetting to love strangers because we are too worried about our individual lives and how many likes we got on our latest Instagram post.

Disconnect from all the individualistic nonsense and go to a place that’ll make you yearn for home like you never have before—because only then will you truly appreciate the privileged life you lead. Go to a place that will make you want to give everything you have and more.

In the spring semester of my first year in grad school I excitedly signed up to be a part of the Madagascar study tour of summer 2013!! And oh man oh man, I didn’t know what I was in for.

What I thought I knew:

Intellectually I knew that I was going to visit a country with the 4th highest rate of child malnutrition and stunting. I knew I would see people in need. I also knew that there was bound to be a little bit of culture shock, but I didn’t realize that it would probably be the biggest culture shock I’d experienced yet. I just didn’t know it would get to me. I didn’t realize I would actually feel angry, exhausted, depressed, annoyed, frustrated, and at times happy.

Basically I thought I knew everything, but in reality I knew nothing.

Reality:

Since my arrival to the capital—Antananarivo (aka Tana) — I couldn’t believe my eyes. The country was absolutely stunning. It is clear when looking at the scenery that its soils are rich and the natural resources are abundant. Yet, it was also clear from time of arrival the entire country is stricken by poverty, social inequalities, and corruption.

There were entire families living in the streets or at best in tin homes.

From day one in Tana I saw the same little girl with a baby on her back  begging in the streets for food and money (pictured as the “featured image”). She weaved her way through traffic trying to convey her need for survival. Her eyes are honey brown, with depth that is rare, and filled with stress. Every day that we drove by I gave her granola bars—It’s all I really had. She eagerly took them and fed the baby on her back and herself with them. I felt absolutely helpless. I felt that there was no social system in place for me to direct her to. And even though I wished with all my heart to just bring her home with me I knew that was impossible.

Hope amidst the helplessness

Not everything was gloom. There was some light in this journey. And when there was it was so bright that it could’ve been blinding.

 

We met people who are working hard every day to make a difference. Though the Real Super Man’s situation is dire there was hope in the fact that there is someone who cares so much about these children and their families that he spends each day fighting for them.

There is a group we visited called HELP Madagascar. This group provides lunch for school age children that would normally have nothing to eat—they feed 300 children each day. They also provide school materials and advocate on their behalf.

HELP Madagascar
HELP Madagascar Co-Founder Colin and his three children

We visited ADRA Madagascar where they have agriculture programs in different areas teaching the Malagasy people how to farm, providing drought resistant seeds, and nutrition knowledge.

However my favorite visit was in Tana to l’Atalier de Violette et Dieudonne. This center was created by Malagasy couple who hires disabled homeless people and they turn them into artists. They also provide education for their children and knowledge about farming and nutrition.If you’d like to know about the awesomeness that was this experience, please refer to my blog entry written on April 4, 2015, titled “The Real Captain Planet”.

Madagascar was such a paradoxical world. It has so much to offer, yet such a great part of the population has nothing. I used to say that I would never go back, but if you ask me to go again today I’d be the first with my bags ready.

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