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Madagascar is eye-opener for SHS graduate

Kara Leavitt spends two years in the program


by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - In the town of Ambonidray, Madagascar, where Kara Leavitt served, she helped the townspeople build five wells, which were funded in part by the Sons of the American Legion at Sherwood Argonne Post 56, and here some grateful kids hold up a thank you sign.

Kara Leavitt took a path less traveled following her graduation from Sherwood High School in 2007: After earning a degree in biology/animal science from Oregon State University in 2011, she joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Madagascar.

“I’ve probably always known about the Peace Corps, and it was always my plan to join after graduating,” said Leavitt, adding, “When I applied, I had no choice where I was going, but now people are given three to five choices.”

Madagascar is unique in several ways: It is an island country that includes the fourth-largest island in the world and is located in the Indian Ocean off Southeast Africa; geologically, the huge island split from India about 88 million years ago, which allowed for the development of unique native plants and animals, 90 percent of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

“The population is 40 million, and they speak 18 different dialects of the Malagasy language, which is based on the Indonesian language,” Leavitt said. “You learn the language really fast.”

There were 30 volunteers in Leavitt’s group, which left from Washington, D.C., in late February 2012 and flew to Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo. From there, they were driven to a training center two hours away in Mantasoa, where besides working on their language skills, they were taught about the technical aspects of their work; safety, security and medical issues; and the local culture.

Training for volunteers lasts from one and three months, and Leavitt spent two months at the center. Peace Corps Madagascar had previously combined its environment and business programs into an agriculture/food security program, which is the one Leavitt was involved with.

After three weeks, her original group was split up based on the dialects spoken where they were going.

“During my time in Madagascar, I lived with the Bezanozano tribe of people - the name means ‘many buns’ and refers to the way women wear their hair,” said Leavitt, who was sent to Ambonidray, a site close to the training center but 80 kilometers away from the nearest Peace Corps volunteer.

She lived in a clay house with a nearby outhouse and shower house but no electricity in a town that had no paved roads. “My town was very safe,” Leavitt added.

In Madagascar, the Peace Corps works with local community forest protection groups “to make farming more competitive and efficient to prevent slashing and burning the forests,” Leavitt said. “Madagascar is 90 percent deforested with only a strip of forest left along the eastern edge.

by: COURTESY OF KARA LEAVITT - While serving in the Peace Corps in Madagascar, Kara Leavitt had time for a little fun, including posing for the obligatory lemur photo.

“The group I worked with wasn’t very well formed, so I set up my own projects. The first three months you do a community diagnostic survey to learn about the local people’s attitudes and needs. My town had a population of 2,000, and I probably interacted with 500 of them.

“My first project was a school garden for kids ages 3 to 18. They grow vegetables we are familiar with such as lettuce and tomatoes. Where I lived, the climate was more temperate, which was ideal for growing, so I taught the kids techniques to use in the future and to teach their families.

“Usually they grow rice and root crops because they think they can’t grow other things without fertilizer. They can’t afford fertilizer, which is why they don’t grow other crops.”

Leavitt also spent four months leading a gardening group for 15 women using USAID funds to purchase tools and seeds to grow edible gardens.

“They definitely kept up with it after the project ended,” she said. “When I would ride my bike through town, they would call me over to see what they were growing.”

A third project was working with middle school girls to use washable pads during their periods, which previously had not been available in the town. “They were using banana leaves, which were not very effective, so they would stay home from school during their periods,” Leavitt said.

“With USAID funding, you must include instruction on HIV/AIDS, although it was not an issue there, and USAID provided funding for fabric pads with inserts that can be washed and reused. Another part of the project was that I had to bring condoms and demonstrate how to use them with the school administration, which was all men.”

A fourth aspect of Leavitt’s work was leading a girls-only empowerment camp called GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), which is taught wherever the Peace Corps operates. In Leavitt’s case, groups of five girls ages 13 to 17 plus one adult chaperone went to the nation’s Capital for a week.

“None of them had ever been to the Capital,” Leavitt said. “They toured the U.S. Embassy and the zoo and took sexual health training. The idea is to open their eyes to what is beyond their town.”

Leavitt’s fifth project was building wells, of which five were completed under her leadership.

“There was no running water in my town,” she said. “There were no pumps, but there were some existing privately owned wells. Most people carried buckets and used the river, which was not very clean, that runs through the center of town. It took two days to dig a well by hand, and we built covers made from rebar.”

Leavitt noted that the Sons of the American Legion at Sherwood Argonne Post 56 donated money for the well project. 

The sixth and last project that Leavitt worked on was re-introducing a system of rice intensification, dubbed SRI, which ironically started in Madagascar but now is used more extensively in other parts of the world.

“The technique is very counter-intuitive to the way they now grow rice, which is less productive,” she said. “We formed a new farmers’ group and bought each farmer a hand-push weeder for $15 and brought in a teacher from the local extension service to teach them the more-productive technique.”

During her stay in Madagascar, Levitt had very little contact with other Americans, noting, “If you’re white and speak Malagasy, they know you’re Peace Corps.

“The Peace Corps is amazing. I learned so much, and I’m glad I did it at this point in my life.”

According to Leavitt, the Peace Corps provides its volunteers with a living stipend, medical care and plane fare plus funds to readjust to life back home. She received $7,425, noting that the amount increases slightly each year. 

Leavitt, 24, left Madagascar April 4, 2014, and spent three weeks traveling in Asia before coming home to Sherwood, where before SHS she attended Hopkins and Archer Glen elementary schools and Sherwood Middle School. She is spending the summer working at a landscaping job and in the fall will start a four-year program at Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

by: COURTESY OF KARA LEAVITT - Kara Leavitt wears a clay mask, which is traditionally used as sunscreen in the northern part of Madagascar.

The Peace Corps

The Peace Corps, which was established in 1961, sends Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world. Volunteers work at the grassroots level toward sustainable change that continues long after their service.

Although times have changed since the Peace Corps was founded, the agency remains true to its original mission, which is 1) to help people in interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women; 2) to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and 3) to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

More than 215,000 Americans have served in 139 countries to date since 1961, and 7,209 volunteers and trainees are currently in 65 countries.

Peace Corps volunteers live and work alongside the people they serve, collaborating with local governments, schools, communities, small businesses and entrepreneurs to create sustainable, community-based projects that address the changing and complex needs in education, health, community economic development, agriculture, environment and youth in development.

Volunteers typically serve for two years following in-country training, receiving housing and a living stipend to cover food and incidentals; the minimum age to serve is 18; and there is no upper age limit, although volunteers must be U.S. citizens.

In 2013, 46 percent of volunteers served in Africa, 20 percent in Latin America, 13 percent in Eastern Europe/Central Asia, and 10 percent in Asia, with the remaining percentages serving in the Caribbean (4 percent), North Africa/Middle East (4 percent) and Pacific Islands (3 percent).

For more information, visit peacecorps.gov or call 1-855-855-1961.




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