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he expression “ It’s all relative” kept coming to mind as we left Toliara to go to Sakaraha to teach about 22 students last week. Sakaraha is a two-hour drive to the north and east of Toliara. Toliara is poor, Sakaraha is dirt poor. Dirt poor, hmmmm, I’ve heard this common American expression before, and have read about the debate of it’s origins. Most say it was coined during the American Depression when some people were so poor that the floor of their home was simply dirt.

Is there an expression for even being poorer than dirt poor? Poorer than poor doesn’t work. It’s too “rich”. Abject poverty doesn’t work either, it just seems too politically correct. It neatly brings to mind some beautiful National Geographic pictures taken in developing nations of little children running and smiling.

In Sakaraha, the children are running and smiling, but the living conditions? Quite simply put, they simply live in survival conditions. Makeshift homes made of bamboo shoots and mud, outdoor receptacles filled with coal chips to cook food on, this isshelter. Lambas are wrapped around bodies as men’s, woman’s and children’s wear or as jackets or blankets, these lambas areclothing. Zebu and chicken are killed before the meal, rice is farmed in the many rice paddies all around, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, onions, ginger, potatoes and collard greens are grown in the garden. This is food. Food, clothing, shelter, they have it all. They survive, and quite well if your definition of food, clothing and shelter is stated above.

After being in Sakarah, Toliara seems nice. The people of Toliara have some infrastructure. The roads are dirt, but there is a town center where residents of the village can buy actual products. Not only food is sold, but also clothing (used items probably donated to the country), pots and pans, small tools, supplies and bags. In Sakaraha there is also a small town center. Here, people come to sell the food item they have grown, or raised or hunted. There is a place or two where women sell coffee or tea or food dishes they have prepared. When I see this setup it makes me thing of the shops of the ancient city of Pompeii, which was destroyed in 79AD.

Sakaraha is dry and dusty and so are the Malgasy who live there. They own very few clothes (besides the lamba). The shirt, or skirt, or shorts that they wear have a history (we sometimes see them in t-shirts such as one I saw a man wearing the other day. On the front there was written: '84 Boat Race, Cape Town. That shirt was absolutely from 1984). The clothes are faded and have a brownish tint from only having been washed in a bucket or a stream over the years. These articles of clothing haven’t experienced a washing machine or Tide detergent since they entered the country.

Many of the children come to class barefoot, the norm of most people in the town. I felt a pang in my heart the first time I saw the feet of children that looked like they belonged to an eighty year old man, but I very quickly learned that because of the dirt and dust it’s impossible to keep a pair of shoes. I quickly abandoned my pretty ballerina flats for flip-flops after they ruined in three day’s time.

The students did their best to come to class neat and clean and did their best to look well kempt. Some of the younger children came with a cough and a runny nose. They were quite dirty as well, yet too young to really care. In a place like here, it’s just something I’ve learned to look past (with the exception of the babies who I constantly had an urge to scoop up and scrub in a warm soapy bath.) Life is hard. They do their best, and being dirty or having a runny nose is low on the Malagasy list of concerns. Despite the hardships, these children were happy and eager to learn.

The computer camp went extremely well. Julien and I were so impressed by the motivation and the ability of the students. There was one three-hour class in the morning, then another, for three hours in the afternoon every day. We tried to give the students a break halfway through class, but they never wanted to take it. They wanted to take advantage of every minute of computer time. We also had to coax them to go home at the end of the day. The morning students would beg to come back in the afternoon, so we set up a system where they could come back and assist in the afternoon class. This actually worked out well because they reinforced skills learned in the morning and helped us with translation at the same time. We had a translator every day, but our translator, a young man named Gauthier, was only fluent in French, not English. We would explain the instructions to him in French and he’d translate them into Malagasy. Of course many of the expressions related to technology such as backspace, file/save, shut down and boot up. Gauthier didn’t speak “technology” in any language. It didn’t matter because in friendship communication requires few words. We did just fine. The students enjoyed the projects we gave them to do, especially the PowerPoint we asked them to make about themselves and their village. They were thrilled when I handed them the Sony Bloggie and told them to go around taking pictures to include in their presentation. The look on their faces when I uploaded the pictures to the computer was a joy to see. I’ll also never forget the day we were able to get a modem and therefore an Internet connection. The kids lined up for us to create e-mails for them so that they could get on Facebook. The phone company here, Telma, gives free access to Facebook on their pay as you go phones, but Facebook requires an e-mail and setting up e-mail requires a computer, and the internet, which none of them have.

After we finished the week I wanted to leave my heart in Sakaraha, with those beautiful, appreciative, small town Malagasy, but I had to say goodbye and prepare for our next adventure in Ft. Dauphin.

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