After 10 Weeks, I Finally Left Madagascar

You know it’s been a good summer when you can’t tell if the dark spot on your leg is from dirt or a bruise.

Was it an easy summer? Not exactly.

Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Now that I’m back in the United States, it almost feels like Madagascar was a dream and I just woke up to my real life. Except it was my real life, and it was amazing.

“Volunteering in Madagascar has reminded me how important it is to set realistic goals and move toward those goals one step at a time, until you reach them and get to set new ones.”

The peaceful walk to Ampang — over jagged rocks and sandy beaches — is the polar opposite of my walk to campus, with cars, bikes and skateboards whizzing past on a busy road lined with houses and apartment complexes. I appreciate both worlds, though.

One theme from this summer has been acceptance. We all have things we’d like to change, whether it’s an aspect of ourselves or an external circumstance. Some things make us who we are and don’t need to be changed. I’ve been focusing on recognizing the difference between things that I can change and things that I can’t or don’t need to change.

For example, it was easy for many volunteers — including myself — to feel discouraged because there’s no way to make large-scale changes during a short volunteer trip. Once you accept that institutional change is not a realistic goal for a short-term volunteer, you can move forward and still make a difference in your sphere, whatever that sphere happens to be.

Most of the Malagasy people that I know don’t like their current president because of corruption. In my advanced English class, the students would brainstorm ways to transition to a better administration. There are no easy answers because there’s no accountability within the government to hold an honest election. It’s heartbreaking to watch the students struggle to support their families on a modest income while their taxes go directly into administrators’ pockets instead of providing much-needed services like improved education, infrastructure and social services.

This is one thing that I realized I couldn’t change during my 10 weeks, but I was still able to make a tiny difference in individual people’s lives by helping them improve their English, which in turn helps their job prospects.

Doing forest conservation work was important because many of the locals’ livelihoods depend on the environment being healthy and productive. And helping to build the medical clinic in that rural village on the mainland was a very tangible way to make a difference because that clinic will provide a safe, sanitary location for the doctor to hopefully save and improve many lives in the years to come.

I may not have made large-scale changes while I was in Madagascar, but that’s okay. Acceptance is not defeat, it’s not resigning yourself to a life of meaningless work because you don’t feel like you’ll ever make a difference. It’s about being realistic and honest with the one person to whom it matters the most: yourself.

It’s not easy to confront uncomfortable truths about our lives, but in the long run it’s a much healthier habit that will bring more peace than shoving things under the rug. When you set realistic goals and expectations, you can reach your full potential and eventually that can lead to bigger opportunities and bigger changes.

Volunteering in Madagascar has reminded me how important it is to set realistic goals and move toward those goals one step at a time, until you reach them and get to set new ones. This summer I gave 110 percent, and I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity. It was an eye-opening experience and I met some amazing people who have impacted my life far more than they realize.

Thanks to everyone who supported me throughout this adventure. Stay tuned for the next one!

Kristen Burgess is a sustainability major and geography minor. She volunteered in northwest Madagascar all summer doing forest conservation work through International Volunteer HQ.

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