A Letter to President Trump From A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Who Served in a 'Shithole' Country

This post was originally published on Jan. 19 and removed on Feb. 14 due to an alleged violation of Peace Corps' political expression policy. For more on that, read here

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Dear President Trump,

I was disappointed to hear your recent comments referring to Haiti and African nations as “shithole” countries. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in one of these so-called "shitholes" located off the southeast coast of Africa. It’s the fourth largest island in the world, in fact, and home to thousands of incredible species found nowhere else on Earth and 25 million Malagasy people. This “shithole” is called Madagascar—have you ever heard of it?

In case you haven’t paid a visit to this “shithole” yet, let me tell you exactly how shitty it is.

A chameleon on the top of Peak St. Louis, the highest peak in Fort Dauphin.

Madagascar is a place where giant cockroaches hiss and monkey-like lemurs sing songs of overwhelming beauty. It is a land where creatures you may never have heard of—fossa and giraffe weevils, aye ayes and sifaka—thrive in a magical anomaly among curious plants like the baobab tree and traveler’s palm. One thousand years ago, 880-pound elephant birds called the island its home. It’s a place so, so different from any other place on this planet and it will surely astonish any visitor.

A rice paddy in Sandrandahy in the Highlands of Madagascar. 

Although roughly only the size of Texas, Madagascar’s diverse scenery resembles the geography of dozens of countries combined. I first fell in love with this country while wandering along the raised edges of the rice paddies. There was something soothing about the inexplicable beauty of the neon green terraced fields.

The Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990.

Beyond the stunning landscapes of the Highlands of Madagascar, to the West, is the limestone forest made of impressive peaks, known as the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. "Tsingy" comes from the Malagasy word: to tiptoe, because the karst pinnacles of the rocky limestone plain surge up so close together, the Malagasy say you can’t even put your foot down. The Tsingy—resembling more of a set for the latest Sci-Fi movie than any earthly national park—are adjacent to the Avenue of the Baobabs. The massive trees, as old as 6,000 years old, tower over the puny plants below. Though a mystery to me, I’ve heard a baobab is a case of symmetrical perfection: their roots stretching wide below the ground, just as freely as their finger-like branches scatter across the sky.

To the East, the handsome beast called the Indri—Madagascar’s endangered and largest lemur—howls a beautiful song. The humpback whale of the forest, the Indri’s beautiful songs give life to the Andasibe National Park. They live among more silent neighbors, including the minute leaf chameleon, small enough to fit on your index finger; the bamboo lemur, so cute you’ll want to shove it in your pocket to save for later; and the blue coua, which striking shades will have you twisting your neck for a second glance before it flies away.

Travel south, to the mountainous peninsula of Fort Dauphin, where tidal waves greet the rigid alps behind them. Only a few hours west, depending on your mode of transportation, will bring you to a land of burnt-orange sand and towering walls of prickly cactus. The Androy desert is the most impoverished area of the country, hellishly hot and home to the hissing cockroach. It is also the home to the most resilient people I have ever met and a home I proudly began to call my own.

It’s hard not to get lost in the wonder of wildlife that is largely unique to Madagascar. But what I find especially comforting about this island is the people and their rich culture. Madagascar is a place full of compassion, kindness and hospitality.

As you insult this country you’ve never visited and label it as a “shithole,” remember that it is a home to 25 million people—people so kind, I know that if you ever decided to visit, they would call out “mandroso” as a kind gesture to join them over a heaping bowl of steaming rice.

Madagascar isn’t a rich country and life is hard for many people living here. They face conditions harder than you have ever felt. But that doesn’t stop any of them from waking up each morning with the hopes of starting fresh and working toward a brighter future.

I’m curious, though. Did you think that your hateful words would be heard 8,864 miles from Washington, D.C.? Because they are. I haven’t lived in America since you became elected President of the United States, but don’t think I haven’t felt the ripples from your tide of arrogance. Fellow middle school teachers in my remote, rural town ask me about you. They ask me, “Why does Donald Trump hate African people?” For many of them, I will be the only American they meet. I am trying my best to be a positive representation of America, showing them the  virtues of kindness, volunteerism and peace. But to be honest, you aren’t helping.

My middle school students don’t know much about our country and it is part of my job to teach them. Their innocence is a blessing to me—many of them still don’t know who you are (a fact that may make you angry). But they will soon, as they walk to their local health center and can’t afford the birth control that was once provided for free by Marie Stopes, an organization that was forced to shut down after the loss of USAID funding, dedicated to family planning here in Madagascar.

One of my 5th grade classes and me after class. 

They will soon know Donald Trump as the man who denies the climate change that is killing their sisters and brothers. As you mock the issue and continue to call it a “hoax,” children in the southern drought-stricken region of Madagascar will be dying of hunger. Instead of inventing policy change, Americans under your leadership will continue to contribute to the carbon admissions that are disproportionately accounting for the wilting harvest and subsequent 1.3 million children suffering from malnutrition across southern African countries.

I’m only 26 years old. But in those years, I’ve learned a thing or two about leadership. (And it’s not from observing you).  I know that good leaders bring out the best in people. They empower others. By bringing out all of our superpowers, we become a stronger team. I’ve got proof that it works, from my time as a reporter. I’ve seen a newsroom full of motivated journalists and editors work to bring out the truth and provide a noble service for the public. I’ve got proof from my time as an English teacher, too. I’ve seen a small classroom, packed with 90 sixth graders, become a safe space for learners that I tried my best to empower with the passion to learn and the bravery to make mistakes.

Since living in this “shithole,” I’ve met many inspiring leaders. I want you to meet Josoah, an example of the many role models I have worked with while serving in this country. He lives in the southernmost region of the island, known as Androy, where he is an active leader in the community. He was the first person I met after crawling off a dilapidated taxi brousse, after being packed with three times the amount of passengers there were seats. He greeted me with a goofy grin, which made me immediately smile. He has worked with many Peace Corps Volunteers in the past and he quickly introduced himself to as my “counterpart” or the person I would be working with on projects while living in the rural village of Ambondro for the next two years. I soon learned that Josoah is one of the most motivated individuals I would ever meet in my life. He has his challenges of his own, including taking care of his five children and growing number of grandchildren among the harsh conditions of the south, but the needs of the people around him are always on the forefront of his mind.

Josoah and I worked together with the community to build a community library. Here we are standing on its foundation back in May 2017. It is now complete and adults and children of all ages attend English club and read books inside. 

Early on in my service, we worked together on a project to plant moringa trees in a village, 15 kilometers away. Itwas called Salamamanintsy. No more than 50 people called this isolated place “home,” but it was clear how proud they were of their land, though dry, their homes, though small and their sons and daughters, though tired and hungry. Josoah and I traveled in a wooden cart pulled by two zebu in order to tote about 45 moringa seedlings to their village. We taught them how to take care of these plants packed with nutrition.

The adults of Salamamanintsy told me that it was important for all of the children living there to learn how to care for the moringa plants. Sustainability and the building of a fruitful future for their community started with educating their children. Though the nearest water source was at least 10 kilometers away and the price of a jerrycan of water was surging, they put their faith—and savings—in the moringa. Josoah and I handed each child a seedling and they held them close to their bodies while singing Madagascar’s national anthem on the way to the empty, dry field. They gathered sturdy fronds and tied them together to provide shade against the ruthless, southern sun. 

Since that first project, Josoah and I have helped build schoolhouses in the countryside, a library, and lead a beekeeping training.. In his spare time, he grows a successful permagarden despite the little rain his region gets and teaches others how to do the same. He sells an assortment of trees to people around the region, hoping to fight against the threat of deforestation. There is never a moment when Josoah isn't thinking of a plan to improve the lives of his neighbors. 

It’s the leadership qualities we find in Josoah and the pride and motivation we find in Salamamanintsy that make this country so wonderful. Maybe they could teach you a thing, or two.

But seriously, what a “shithole” Madagascar really is! All of this shit must be the reason why I decided to extend my 27-month term and stay for a third year to live among my friends that became as important as family. It’s the most beautiful “shithole” I’ve ever seen and I feel like the luckiest American to be living in it.

I just thought you should know.

Best wishes,

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Olivia
Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Madagascar
2015-2018

 

*The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

**To read more about what makes this country so magnificently shitty, please peruse the remaining contents of this blog.