Once upon a saga - Madagascar

Published: 5 August 2016 9:00 CET

Torbjørn C. Pedersen, a goodwill ambassador with the Danish Red Cross, is currently travelling the world, aiming to visit all 190 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Travelling on a budget of just $20 USD per day, Tor is undertaking his journey without the convenience of air travel, something no one has ever achieved. While visiting the Malagasy Red Cross Society, Tor learns how the National Society continues to promote behaviour which will help eradicate the plague from this Indian Ocean nation. To read more about Tor’s journey, visit: http://www.onceuponasaga.dk/.

Madagascar has a very unique flora and fauna, with 90 per cent of its wildlife found only here. It's a very beautiful island nation which attracts tourist from all over the world. The food is good, people are friendly and there's generally a good vibe to be enjoyed. Unfortunately, the uniqueness also applies to some of Madagascar's challenges in healthcare.

I locate the Malagasy Red Cross Society's headquarters in Tana (Antananarivo) which is the capital of the 23 million-strong nation. I am greeted with kindness and shown to the office of Daniela Ogliastri, the country coordinator for the Danish Red Cross. As a forward thinking National Society, the Malagasy Red Cross Society works closely together with three Movement partners, the Danish, German, and Norwegian Red Cross Societies.

As Daniela's exotic name might already have given away, she is from Colombia. She tells me about the "Mendrika" project, which goes on in a less privileged area of Tana. Its name translates into dignity and is quite fitting since the project covers the development of the local economy, education, health and prevention of violence. Components which, together, aim to lift people into a new beginning. Psychosocial support is at the core of the project.

We arrive at a school and are welcomed by hundreds of students, parents, teachers and local politicians who were gathered at a large event that is about to begin. Daniela and I are shown to the "VIP section" and all around us there is the Red Cross emblem. Perhaps more than 40 volunteers are wearing Red Cross "Mendrika" vests. It is quite an impressive site.

One speech follows another while the students patiently watch and listen. These students are just small children. Daniela leans over and explains that they are from primary school and have been preparing for an examination which will decide if they advance to secondary school. "The pressure on these children is immense," explains Daniela, "as a failed exam will almost certainly mean an exit from the educational system for life!" Only 3 out of 10 finish primary school and the schools commonly do not have enough space for children to repeat a year. 

Three Red Cross volunteers get up on centre stage and do a little acting, singing and dancing. Theatre is a common way of relating information to people in Madagascar, especially to children. The acting includes demonstrations of proper hand washing, and the kids scream and clap with joy.

Introducing psychosocial support to traumatized communities

Psychosocial support is really something new in Madagascar. No one else is doing it and it could be a real page turner for a lot of people in the country. Three specific focus areas for this work consists of emergencies, violence and schools.

Daniela tells me about a concert which was held not long ago. There was a bomb attack which took three lives and left more than 90 people wounded. Fortunately, the Malagasy Red Cross Society was there with volunteers and ambulances. And even more fortunately, they had recently received hand held radios which enabled them to communicate more efficiently and save more lives. Also, the volunteers, with appropriate psychosocial training, were able to address the victims in a way like never before. An overall success in terms of response to an otherwise terrible event.

The Malagasy Red Cross Society was founded in 1963. It has had an interesting story parallel to the history of Madagascar. Ten years ago, Fanja Ratsimbazafy sat down in the chair as Secretary General of the National Society. Much has changed in that time and it is only fair to say that the Malagasy Red Cross Society today possesses a very strong structure. Highly competent staff and volunteers are able to implement the tasks and visions at hand. I sit with Fanja in his office. "We have come far since 1963," he says. "And we still have far to go. Psychosocial support will have a much larger part to play in the future. Like at the market fire which took place not long ago. We had volunteers there among the first responders. Shop owners were left with nothing, but our well trained volunteers were there to listen to them. To make sure that they were not alone. To make sure that the shop owners voices were heard. To listen is in many ways the first step of repairing a broken soul.

The plague still exists

"We deal with all sorts of things here in this country. We still fight against the plague, although free treatment is provided by government. We also deal with typhoid, malaria, dengue and various types of parasites. Tropical storms sweep across our nation and rip houses apart. The rivers rise and create devastating floods. Poverty is prevalent in many parts of the country. All of this and more create the basis of what our 14,000 volunteers deal with every day."

Fanja is right. There is much to do in Madagascar. It's a country twice the size of the U.K. and road access to many parts of the country provides a challenge. I am curious to know more about the plague and am told that the Red Cross starts by sensitizing a targeted population before intervening. Next step is to train and help with hygiene and cleaning while handing out rat cages and general knowledge. This is followed by creating an early warning system and a community-based surveillance system to identify an outbreak as early as possible. It's working - but it's not an overnight solution. It takes the commitment, understanding and cooperation of many people.

Before I leave Tana, I stop at the International Committee of the Red Cross, where I meet Christoph Vogt, who is in charge of the delegation. Experienced, with a calm persona and a great sense of humour, Christoph gives me a tour of the premises and introduces me to Angelo Willy Botolahy who's responsible for their cooperation with the Malagasy Red Cross Society.

Angelo explains how the ICRC is working with 27 of Madagascar's 41 prisons. The work consists of improving the living conditions for the detainees in various ways. The ICRC is also a member of PIROI, a regional Red Cross platform for intervention of tropical storms within the Indian Ocean (Plate-forme d'Intervention Régionale de l'Océan Indien). As part of the PIROI initiative, the ICRC assists in dead body management training.

Angelo smiles and shakes my hand as I walk out onto the street. Surrounded by traffic my mind is racing! Psychosocial support, dead body management, prisons, first aid, plague, schools, youth, future and a competent staff to back it up. At least I know one thing for sure: in Madagascar, the Red Cross is always present.