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Flora, Fauna, and Families
Spreading health--and love--in Madagascar
by Marilyn Berlin Snell

From nutrition and family-planning education in Berongo (above) to tree-planting parties in Ampahitra (below), Madagascar is sowing the seeds of sustainability one village at a time.
ON THE ISLAND NATION OF MADAGASCAR, off the southeast coast of Africa, well-wishers at traditional weddings bless the lucky couple with a common phrase: "May you have seven sons and seven daughters!" they say. Alison Jolly, a British biologist who's been working in Madagascar for more than 40 years, says simply, "Children are the one wealth here."

The wish is not so different from the one farm families in the United States had not so long ago. Yet it's also an indication of how traditions in this poor and isolated culture are crashing up against the realities of a rapidly changing, crowded, modern world. The very thing that once brought wealth may well bring ruin now.

Almost half of Madagascar's 18 million inhabitants are under 15, and the population is expected to double by 2025. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which began a rural development and environmental program in Madagascar in 1990, the country's high fertility rate of 5.2 children per woman has contributed to food shortages and poverty. These desperate circumstances have, in turn, led to the loss of flora and fauna.

Named one of the world's "biodiversity hot spots" by Conservation International in 1999, the country has a stunning array of plants, birds, and mammals--80 percent of which are found nowhere else in the world. An acre of forest lost here reduces global biodiversity more than an acre lost anywhere else. Yet Madagascar's unique species are disappearing at a frightening rate. Illegal loggers and the nation's poor, who cling to survival by slashing and burning the landscape for cropland, fuelwood, and zebu grazing, have already consumed the lion's share of the country's natural inheritance. Only 10 percent of the original forests remain.

One person who is working to stop the spiraling devastation is Masy Aolia. At 23, this health educator is the keeper of secrets in Berongo, her parched and dirt-caked village in southern Madagascar. Men and women tell her the most intimate details of their lives. Aolia has a sweet openness about her; it's easy to see how she puts people at ease. On a scorching fall day, when smoke from slash-and-burn, or tavy, agriculture in the nearby mountains chokes the air, she is candid about the harsh realities of life in a country where people live on less than $260 a year. She's also not the slightest bit embarrassed to discuss health, sex, and contraception, something she does almost daily with those who ask for advice.

"It's not difficult, because they know me," says Aolia of her fellow villagers in Berongo, where simple wooden huts shelter about 900 souls and a giant old neem tree offers precious shade and a center for village life. Her own hut has a bed, table, and chair and contains the tools of her trade: for educational presentations, a woven rice-shaker basket onto which a condom, birth-control pills, and injectable contraceptives are attached; water-purification pills (tens of thousands of children die annually from contaminated water); and antimalarial mosquito nets.

IN 2001, AOLIA AND ANOTHER WOMAN from Berongo were trained as community health workers by one of Madagascar's nonprofits, in coordination with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The integrated program, which teaches villagers about family planning, nutrition, and natural-resource protection, began in Berongo ten years ago and has increased contraceptive use there from zero to 61 percent--one of the highest rates in the country.

It's a three-hour walk to the nearest health clinic, but Aolia makes the trek each month to buy supplies. Though the nonprofit gave her money for the first batch of products, it doesn't pay her. She says she makes enough profit from her supply sales to buy things like bread.

We tour Berongo, and Aolia proudly points out her new latrine, built at the border between the village and the desert scrub that surrounds it. As children follow us, whispering and giggling, we duck into the shade of a simply constructed schoolroom to talk. She calls the people she helps her "clients" and says they get the money to buy supplies from her by growing corn. As we communicate through an interpreter who translates the rhythmic dialect of Malagasy--as the language and people of Madagascar are called--chickens jump up next to us and squawk loudly. Slats between weathered, gray wood planks let in the sun. We look like caged zebras amid the stripes of light.

Aolia had 12 siblings; two are dead. "My family didn't have enough money, so I had to leave school after the fifth grade," she says. She learned to read and write, though--something she's clearly proud of in a nation where 46 percent of the population is illiterate--and spells her name in my notebook in fat, loopy schoolgirl letters.

"I tell my clients that they won't have to go to the doctor and spend their money all the time if they have fewer kids," Aolia says. "And I tell them that the kids they do have will be healthier and able to stay in school; they won't have to stay home and take care of the little ones." The profusion of lethargic children with red hair in villages like Berongo puts a human face on the chronic malnutrition that afflicts almost half of those under age five. (The red tinge on normally dark human hair is a condition called kwashiorkor and is caused by severe protein deficiency.)

Unmarried with one child, Aolia considers herself a leader in her village and sits up straighter when she says so. She adds, "If there are too many people, they will use up the forest. If there aren't too many people, then the forest will not run out."

Continued
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Photos by Marilyn Berlin Snell


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