‘I have one grasshopper but I will break it in half and give you half’: A resilient country – Madagascar

By Molly Seaman
May 4, 2017

Photo submitted by Heidi Yanulis

“I do not know about all of you but 10 years ago, my image of Madagascar was the movie. I love that movie, it has great music. But then I got to know a lot about Madagascar through my work with CRS and with Josh. [Country Representative for CRS in Madagascar]. It is a country with great richness but also a country with of great challenges too.” -Maureen McCullough (regional director for Catholic Relief Services Northeast/Mid-Atlantic regional office)

Recently, a humanitarian with a heart the size of Africa visited the Main Line. Josh Poole, the country representative for Catholic Relief Services in Madagascar, grew up in Ohio and was looking for an education of the heart all his own.

“I knew I wanted to travel and experience overseas. As soon as I graduated from university, I joined the Peace Corps. You do not really choose where you want to go in the Peace Corps. I got the letter and it said ‘Kyrgyzstan.’ Probably like many of you, I had to get out the map and see where it was,” Poole said.

“A few weeks before I was set to deploy, there was a civil war in Kyrgyzstan. So, we were unable to go. But they said, we have another group and they are about to go to Madagascar. Since you know French, you can go in that group. Like so many things in our lives, fate pushed me to Madagascar.”

Madagascar is located right off the southeast coast of Africa. Known as the “Big Red Island,” it is home to 24 million Malagasy people and roughly the size of Texas. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

According to Poole, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world that is not affected by conflict.

Much of this poverty is being directly caused by the effects of climate change on the island and severely damaging the very basic and vital resources that human beings and the Malagasy people require to survive.

Drought and Effects on Agriculture

In recent years, Madagascar’s climate has changed rapidly. For years there has not been a decent rain, and severe droughts have taken place especially in the deep South where there are now desert-like conditions.

“The rain patterns are shifting,” Poole said.

“There have been cyclical droughts for many years. Previously you might have had two to three months of lean season as we would call it; now that lean season lasts all year round.”

Photo submitted byHeidi Yanulis

Now dried into small puddles, this river previously was one of the largest and most thriving in the south 15 years ago.

“Now you see people trying to dig individual holes about two to four meters down so they can get a little bit of water. Enough to fill a jug or two.Then they walk 20 to 25 kilometers (12-15 miles) back to their village,” Poole said.

Crops that used to grow in certain seasons do not grow any longer. The ground is dry. Crops do not grow. Food is scarce.

The only thing that has been growing continuously in Madagascar is cactus.

“They used to survive off of red cactus fruit,” Poole said. “However, now they have taken all of the cactus fruit. So all of the fruit is gone. There is nothing left now, so they have resorted to eating the cactus leaves.”

“They pluck off the cactus and remove the prickers. Sometimes they cook it if they have water but other times they just eat the cactus raw,” Poole said. (Recently, New York Times reporter Nick Kristof featured the effects of climate change in a short video.)

Photo submitted by Heidi Yanulis

Poole explained that if CRS and other organizations were not in those areas providing food and resources, the Malagasy people would only have cactus to eat.

“Even if you give them the seeds and they plant them they’re not going to grow. You need rain,” Poole said.

“We had a few drip irrigation systems that we put in so that we could irrigate some fields. However, that is a small scale solution for a larger problem.”

The Cyclone

Last month, Cyclone Enawo struck Madagascar’s northeastern coast and displaced more than 10,000 people.

Photo by NASA from Wikimedia Commons

This major storm received only a 30-second segment on CNN.

“We were fortunate to have a large USAID-funded project in one of the affected areas and have been responding with immediate food assistance as well as WASH Kits [Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene], Protection Kits (for pregnant women, children and handicap) and Education Kits,” Poole said.

After the storm hit, Poole and his team traveled around the island to meet with the villagers in order to discover their immediate needs.

According to Poole, what he heard from the people was “thank you, CRS, for distributing the [emergency] kits but what we need is a house. Our house is gone.”

Poole then challenged the CRS team to change their approach a bit.

“We now have an approach called B.B.B. or build back better,” Poole said.

“As a team and an agency we pride ourselves in rolling up our sleeves and not saying ‘here, do this’ but ‘hey let’s do this together. How about you call some of your neighbors and we will create a little group and just do one at a time.’ Everybody helps each other. This type of support, people will never forget.”

However, the cyclone not only destroyed the people’s shelters and homes, it also obliterated one of their main exports and crops, vanilla.

80 percent of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar. More specifically, the area that was first hit by the cyclone produces 50 percent of the island’s crop.

“If any of you are bakers, you know that vanilla extract is quite expensive. A tiny little bottle is about eight to 10 dollars. Now it is going to be a little bit more expensive. In four to five months when that crop is supposed to come due, there could be some international vanilla shortages,” Poole said.

Photo by Pkhun from Wikimedia Commons

Lack of Food

More than 50 percent of all households in Madagascar can be classified as food insecure, and 90 percent of the country’s population lives on less than $2 a day.

“There is a white rock that has some calcium in it and when the folks get really really hungry they scrape off some of this white rock and make a white porridge out of it. It’s very chalky, it does not taste good and they do not really have any other options,” Poole said.

“They really just eat it to feel full. It has a little calcium in it but other than that it’s not doing anything but filling them up.”

According to Poole, the malnutrition in the country really hits to the “why” CRS is present in Madagascar.

“We are there because we want to try and fill a need. We want to help bridge the gap in the lean season. Otherwise, these children are in jeopardy. There were kids dying in the past year from starvation,” Poole said.

Culturally in Madagascar, malnutrition is defined as being very taboo. Understandably, parents and grandparents are ashamed if they have a child that dies from starvation.

“If I went to the government office and said ‘how many children have died from starvation they would say zero,’” Poole said.

“From our ties in the community, our ties to the church, our network of sisters [in Madagascar] that are amazing and doing some really great work we know informally that dozens of kids have passed. The families wait until the middle of the night and bury them then because they don’t want people to see.”

To help fight malnutrition, Poole and his team work with the community and invite members to come together each day to cook food and distribute it to people in need.

Photo submitted by Heidi Yanulis

“Cooking in the house can be a burden,” Poole said.

“You have to go out and get water and many of them have sold off their pots and pans, which is something that happens when they get desperate. They’re a little bit embarrassed and ashamed if we give them dry food to say to say ‘I do not have a way to cook this.’ However, they’re very very happy to come and work with the sisters to get that hot meal each day.”

Access to Education

“Kids are having to walk 10, 12 and 15 kilometers (six to nine miles) to get to school,” Poole said.

Education is available to many of the Malagasy children. But some find the long walks to be too difficult and that they feel they are unable to make the journey there.

“There are not any water sources along the way so it is quite difficult for them. When they get to the school, there are no school meals present,” Poole said.

Many children stay home and help their families in the fields or with other chores that may need to be completed that day.

“As a parent, if you had to ask yourself ‘do I want my child to go work in the field today because we are hungry or am I going to send them to school?’ That is a tough decision especially if you are not confident if the quality of education is going to benefit you and your family and your children down the road,” Poole said.

Photo by Lemurbaby from Wikimedia Commons

Money from the U.S. McGovern-Dole Food For Education Program is used to help feed children in  desperate conditions around the world.

“This is a program that helps feed school-aged children, helps us screen them for assistive devices like hearing aids, wheel chairs, glasses and it also helps us to make sure the kids are getting a quality education,” Poole said. “It is not enough anymore to give a kid a school lunch. That gets them in the chair. But what we really need to look at is when we get them in the chair, are they getting something that they are able to use? Are they learning how to read? Are they building up the skills that they are going to need?” Poole said.

Wanting to strengthen the education system in Madagascar, CRS had recently applied for money from the McGovern-Dole Program.

“That will help us to work with the ministry of education to help improve the skills of the teachers. If you are going to walk 15 kilometers to get to school, I hope that it is worth it,” Poole said.

According to Poole, more than 50 percent of the population is under 25-years-old. The younger Malagasy people tend to flee the rural areas to the urban areas in searching for a way to make a living so they can have access to resources.

“I was making a visit the other week to the capital and there was a neighborhood that was basically a garbage dump. People are living there and have made structures inside of the garbage dump. I was really struck with that picture of poverty in an urban setting versus in a rural setting,” Poole said.

Poole and CRS are looking into many different programs that deal with trying to keep the youth in their homes instead of traveling to the overcrowded urban areas. They are looking at many programs that deal with agriculture and schooling.

“I really want  to do some small projects in the urban settings now. Just with clean water and access to education and school materials. A small amount can really make a big difference,” Poole said.

Faith and Hope

If crops are not able to grow because of lack of rain, provisions are not able to be provided to the people because of cuts to the budget and children are eating cactus, what comes next?

“Security is a priority as it should be. If we stop funding at the levels we are currently funding, it is going to destabilize not just Madagascar but many other regions. You have got uneducated populations that are desperate that do not have enough food that are going to be driven to do things to provide for their families. They have nothing to lose,” Poole said.

In the short term cutting the budget might save a little bit of money but a few years down the road we are going to have some serious security issues.

“What would you do to provide for our family?” Poole said. “I know that I would do anything for my children.”

“Sustainability is something that is a key point for the donors. There is a point where you have to say ‘these food distributions are not sustainable’ but we need them right now to get them through this period.”

According to Poole, some of the Malagasy people are not traditionally fisherman. However, due to their close proximity to the ocean many have learned to fish to provide food for their families as an alternative.


There is a Malagasy saying, ‘Valala iray ifanapahana.’ It means ‘I have one grasshopper but I will break it in half and give you half.’ That is the spirit of the Malagasy people. They may have nothing but whatever that nothing they have they are willing to share that,” Poole said.  

“You can see it their eyes. You can see in their face. They have hope.”

1 percent does a world of good. You can help urge Congress to #SAVETHEAID through Catholics Confront Global Poverty here.

Molly Seaman

Managing Editor of the Loquitur at Cabrini University. Colorado Born and Raised. 21 years old with a deep love for people, travel and education.

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