It started with a seed.
Together, we located a potential home for the seed—a place in the garden that received some shade from the roof. Zucchini would be its neighbor.
We dug a small hole in dry ground, tossed the seed in, covered the hole with the sandy soil and gave the seed a nice, long drink of water. And then we waited.
We continued on with our busy lives—my neighbor Josoah was actively leading development projects in our community and I was spending most of my time teaching English at the middle school. So, we checked on the seed from time to time, when it crossed our minds, always hoping to see a soon-to-be-sunflower.
(My friend, Sylvie checked on our seed, too.)
But, the sunflower didn't make it past a sprout.
It wasn't ready to grow.
It wasn't time.
During the months that I lived in the south of Madagascar as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Josoah became my mentor. He was the person I often went to with questions about the Malagasy language, the southern Antandroy culture and potential projects. We often discussed ways to improve Ambondro, our small, rather isolated community in southern Madagascar.
No more than 3,000 people live in the commune of Ambondro—at least two-thirds of those being children. Two wind turbines stand tall on the outskirts of the village, providing the community with electricity for three hours of electricity on a typical day. Water comes into town on wooden carts pulled by zebu. Children leave their homes at dawn to the natural wells to collect water and then return to the center of town to sell it at 200 ariary (or six cents) per jerry can. The south of Madagascar is the most undeveloped region on the island. The Antandroy, those living in the southernmost region of Madagascar, are resilient people, enduring droughts each year and severe famines.
Life isn't easy for the Antandroy people. Yet, they never seem to lose their spirit.
Josoah and I talked about the lack of extracurricular activities for the youth. In Ambondro, like in many remote, underdeveloped towns in Madagascar, boys start drinking as young as twelve years old. It wasn't unheard of for a 13-year-old student to get pregnant. If she didn't have the support of her family, she often dropped out of school shortly after giving birth. There was no place in the community for students to study after school hours. Books were no where to be found.
We stumbled upon the idea of a library and considered its possible effects on youth culture. We surveyed the community and they responded positively toward the idea. They are a community of people who see promoting education as a worthwhile investment. In order for a library to become a reality, the community needed to contribute 25 percent of our final fundraising goal, or approximately $600. They paid in sand, water, and labor and transportation fees. The rest of the money was donated by my generous friends, family, and former colleagues in the States.
We worked as a team for many months, but as in any project, there were hiccups. Estimates of the materials were too low. Costs rose. Quickly it became my time to leave Ambondro and the project was far from complete.
I was anxious to leave a such a big project behind and sad to say goodbye to the people I had worked so hard on it with. But after 27 months living in my community, my service came to a close. I handed Josoah a new packet of sunflower seeds as a parting gift, we hugged, and said goodbye.
Over the course of two years, I found my place in the tight-knit community that once felt foreign. A Peace Corps service is an interesting one –in that we arrive with the role to foster change in the community – yet, it's ourselves that do the most changing. It quickly became clear to me that these people have changed my life forever. As my service came to an end, I was sure that these people would stay close to my heart, no matter where I was in the world.
At the same time, it was hard not to ask myself the question, “will they remember me?” I found myself struggling with the concept of 'leaving a legacy' in the small, southern town, while also realizing how selfish I sounded. I eventually found comfort in knowing that success can exist in ways not immediately visible to me. My anxieties were settled after reminding myself that Peace Corps Volunteers, as agents of change, are often planting the seeds to a tree we may never sit under.
Or the seeds to the sunflowers we may never see to grow tall.
We keep in touch, thankfully. Josoah is a devoted Facebook user and I often wake up to pictures of familiar faces sent through Messenger. He also makes sure to send me photos of Ambondro Library. Though I left the south of Madagascar with the library unpainted and without shelves or desks, I'm happy to see that the community remains dedicated to the cause. A group of adults meet weekly to attend English Club. High school students stop in between classes to study and listen to English lessons on donated iPads. Toddlers sit together, their eyes wide, as their tiny fingers turn the pages to books for the first time.
Here are some photos Josoah has sent to me:
In front of the library, a dozen sunflowers stand tall.
Their bright yellow petals greet the sky with the support of their thick, rough stems. They thrive under the ruthless, southern sun. They wilt at the end of each day, tired from the day's long work. But they return the next day with their faces held high toward the sun.
These are Ambondro's sunflowers.