A good friend of mine recently recommended a podcast on gratefulness. In it, a cute, old man by the name of David Steindl-Rast taught me this: As humans, we cannot be grateful for everything that happens, but it is possible to be grateful in every moment. Even in the seemingly least redeeming of circumstances, we are capable of making the decision to accept gratefulness or deny it.
Today is Thanksgiving and I find myself feeling more grateful than I have even been, thanks to the past 17 months living in Madagascar and its inevitable way it shifted the way in which I experience the world.
Why am I so thankful?
I am thankful for my education.
Never did I think that I would become a teacher, but here I am, filling that role to 300 students in Madagascar.
During the past year and a half as "Miss Vola," I have seen the endless obstacles students must conquer each day to receive an education. Many students walk up to six kilometers every morning to get to school, some without shoes in the scorching hot sand. Some struggle to concentrate, as their growling stomachs compete for their full attention. They sit snug next to their classmates — three, sometimes four to a wooden desk — in the hot classroom of 80 students. They rely on a notebook and pen for their studies, with zero additional educational materials. They return home to make dinner for their families, sell food at the market and take care of their younger siblings. And repeat it all, the next day.
Living in a place where the education system fails so many children — many students here will stop attending school after primary school — reminds me how much of a gift my education is. I am lucky for the teachers that challenged me and the resources made available to me. I certainly regret every time I complained that my backpack was too heavy and that my walk to the bus stop was too far.
I am thankful for my family.
Though I could not be physically farther from my family in the States, my time away has made us closer in many ways. The support from my friends and family to quit my job and start a new chapter of life in Madagascar — namely from my inspirational grandparents and rock star sister — has continued to motivate me to grow and experience the world with a new lens. Separation often acts as a test, whether it intentional or unintentional, and to my delight, I have quite the team of supporters still cheering me on, 17 months into this adventure of mine. (Not to add, I have received 84 postcards from friends all over the world to let me know that they're thinking of me).
I am thankful for the family I have been welcomed into in Madagascar.
Longo raike tikañe is a commonly used phrase I hear while living among the Antandroy people, meaning "We are one family." That sentiment fuels the selflessness and hospitality I experience each day. Living here, I have realized that family is more of a feeling than it is mother, father, sister, brother. I am grateful for the feeling of family that I have felt from the day I arrived in this village.
The culture here relies on solidarity — everyone helps each other out. While almost everyone in my village knows me by name, "Market Day" brings many people from neighboring towns into our village to sell for the day. On those days, I may hear an occasional shout of Vazaha! "Foreigner!" and some fingers pointed my way. Most of the time, I choose to ignore the "v word" and continue on my way. As I head home, I hear a gentle voice telling them, "Her name is Vola. She lives here. She is Antandroy."
Such a simple gesture, but it makes me smile every time.
I am thankful for the kindness in my life.
This experience has taught me to put trust in compassion, when feeling unsure and lost. Compassion reminds me that I do belong as surely as I was lost. Kindness appears in so many forms here — I see it in the greetings on my way to school, in my students' smiles, in the gifts in forms of sweet potatoes and corn-on-the-cob that arrive at my door, in the safety I feel each day, in the jokes I share with my neighbors, in the teamwork between my community and me, and in others' gratitude.
I am thankful for life's challenges and the values instilled by overcoming them.
It's the hurdles I had to jump in the past that make me the driven, independent person that I am happy to be today. If it weren't for the bumps along the way, I would not have had the opportunity to grow in ways that I did and continue to do.
People in my community face challenges far more difficult than challenges I have faced and ever will face. Their resilience, perseverance and unwavering hospitality in these times of difficulty, is admirable.
I am thankful for learning more about myself.
As noble as "saving the world" sounds, a majority of my Peace Corps experience has been a heroic adventure of self-discovery. I have found the beauty in stepping outside of my comfort zone and saying "yes" to self-growth opportunities. I have practiced patience, continue to learn the value of making mistakes and appreciate the importance of laughing at myself. I am becoming more sensitive to what makes me happy, and what makes me sad, and making decisions based on those observations. Self-respect starts with making decisions with your happiness (among other things, of course) in mind.
I am so grateful that my time here has allowed me to grow in these ways.
I am thankful for a gained perspective on the world and its people.
I often think to myself how lucky I am to be experiencing the world through a different lens while I spend each day immersed in a community on the other side of the world. With each culture brings unique values and it has been enlightening and refreshing to experience Malagasy values — such as hospitality, family, solidarity and conversation — and see how they take precedence over things that are often obsessed over in the American world, such as technology, material items, money and work. Life here has changed my perspective on my personal values and I am grateful for the lifelong lesson my neighbors has taught me.
Happy Turkey Day from Madagascar!