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Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar

by Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM

Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAJohanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAJohanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA

During the last two weeks of November I had the opportunity to volunteer with a group of practitioners with Worldwide Healthcare Initiatives (WHI) at a school in Madagascar. I have always wanted to live or do some sort of work abroad. My children are older now, so when the chance arose, I jumped on it!

Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA
Our group was led by two women who were originally from Taiwan (Eileen, now in San Diego and Wen Shu, in Canada).

Johanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAThe rest of our group consisted of several practitioners from the US (Howard, an MD/acupuncturist from Reno, Huy, an acupuncturist from Houston, and me), and a group from Canada (Melani, a nurse from Ontario who is learning acupuncture, Julie, an acupuncturist from Québec, Julie’s boyfriend, Raphaël, and Gaetan, another man from Ontario who does construction.)

Madagascar is a large island off the southeast coast of Africa. It has been on a major trade route between Africa and southeast Asia and the Malagasy people are ethnically a mixture of African and Asian ancestry. Madagascar used to be a French colony, so many of the people speak some French. All of our patients spoke Malagasy, but some also spoke French. Fortunately, half of our group spoke French, which was valuable in trying to communicate with our patients. We also picked up the Malagasy words for Good morning, Good-bye, Thank you, Yes, No, Pain, It’s better, and Come back tomorrow, as well as a few body parts.

Girls in Madagascar tend to marry around age 16 and often have children right away. I saw many babies wrapped on their mothers’s bodies and older children frequently help care for younger ones. I was really struck by how warm and kind the Malagasy people are. I never saw anyone arguing or yelling. I never saw children scolded or spanked. Everyone was very patient and people seemed genuinely happy, despite the poverty.

Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA
We spent about a week working at a small, private Waldorf-based school, SekolyTenaquip (Tenaquip School) in Ambhiborosy. The school is named for the Tenaquip Foundation in Canada, which supported the cost of constructing all its buildings.
Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA

It is located in the highlands of central Madagascar, about 1.5 hours (mostly on a bumpy, unpaved road) from the capital city of Antananarivo.

Johanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAThe school provides education to the children and youth from more than eighteen Malgasy villages, and currently educates close to 750 students ranging in age from pre-Kindergarten through high school. It has some solar-powered electricity and we even had occasional internet access, neither of which was reliable.

Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAWhen we first arrived at the school, we were greeted by a few people, including Sarobidy, the 10 year-old son of the school nurse. He had spent several years at a French school in the capital, so spoke French more fluently than most of the children. He also spoke a little bit of English. He was immensely helpful and we left him with a piezo point stimulator so that he could help his mother in treating people after we left.

Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAThe school was located in a rural area that I found really beautiful and peaceful. The area was a little bit hilly, with rice paddies surrounded by unplanted fields in the valleys. All the roads were made up of orange clay, so orange dust ended up everywhere - on feet, clothes, and in our rooms.

Johanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAIt was summer while I was there, and everyone was up very early with the sun, often before 5 am. I would be awakened by the sounds of roosters and the farmers driving their oxen and wagons to the rice fields on the heavily rutted road outside my window. Although we all stayed in rooms at the school, they varied in their comfort level and I was lucky to stay in a small apartment that had several beds, as well as a bathroom with an indoor flush toilet and a small (cold) shower attached to it.

Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAVolunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA

The children who attended the school came from surrounding villages and walked up to 2 hours to get there. They all dressed in uniform and would wave and greet us with shouts of “Bonjour! Bonjour!” when they saw us. The soccer balls that Raphaël and Gaetan brought with them were a huge hit and we needed to ration them out for play each day. Good thing, because those kids were hard on them! Two of the balls ended up bursting during our weeklong stay.

Johanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAThe children were fed lunch every day that consisted of a large plate of rice covered with a very thin soup of vegetables or beans. For some, this is the only meal they receive all day. Huge vats of rice are made each day and there is a group of women who sit outside and sort stones from the rice before it’s cooked. Rice is grown in paddies locally and there is a small rice mill just down the road from the school.
Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA
The school also had some gardens on its property for growing food for the students. There were many different kinds of fruit trees on the school property and we saved the mango seeds from our lunches so that they could be planted. Garbage was either
composted or burned.

Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAThe only animals that I saw at the school were chickens, turkeys, chameleons, and dogs. Malagasy chickens are thin and a bit small. The dogs we saw in Madagascar were almost always small, yellow, and thin, and never really seemed to belong to anyone. They probably scrounged for food in the garbage.

Johanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAThe first few days were not very busy with patients. I think that there was a little bit of confusion about what we were doing there, so it took a few days to get the word out. Here we are with the midwife (standing) and one of the school employees.

Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA
The last day was much busier. Patients sat around the perimeter of the room and we had rows of people sitting on the floor receiving treatment.

We had so many people show up that we quickly outgrew our little clinic space and started treating people as they lined up outside, until it got too hot.

Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAJohanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAThen we moved into the cafeteria building and grouped patients according to complaint: eye pain, back pain, digestive issues, and teeth. A few patients fainted because they had not eaten anything beforehand. Having never experienced that in my own office, I learned something new!

The most common problems we saw were tooth pain (most people were missing some teeth), back pain, eye pain, headaches, goiter, digestive issues, and arthritis. Some parents brought small children. There were a few patients who could not walk who were carried in piggyback and one man who had had a stroke was brought in in a wheelbarrow. It was amazing to see him walk with support while he was being treated!

Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAFran and Peter, a retired couple from Canada, were volunteering at the school when we arrived. They were visiting for five weeks and because they had the biggest kitchen and dining space in their building, we did our cooking there and we often ate our meals with them.

The water in Madagascar, as in any developing country, is neither very clean nor particularly safe for us to drink. Gaetan brought a pump purifier with him and left it at the school because the children drank from a large communal bucket that didn’t look clean. I brought my own purifier, a Grayl Geopress, with me and I’m so glad that I did! The water tasted great and I was the only one in my group who didn’t experience any gastric distress. The most challenging part about using it was pulling the pieces apart before each fill, but other than that, it was easy to use.

After we finished volunteering at the school, we still had a couple days in Madagascar. We returned to Antananarivo and did some shopping at La Digue, an outdoor shopping mall filled with local art, crafts, spices, and precious stones. Unfortunately, not everything sold there can be exported, so I’m glad that I checked with customs before purchasing anything!

Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAJohanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAWe also took a day trip to the Lemur Park, which is a small sanctuary for lemurs and other animals and plants native to Madagascar. Because the lemurs are accustomed to people, we could get near them for photos (and sometimes they would come close to us!)

Worldwide Healthcare Initiatives plans to send other volunteer groups to the school several times a year for the next five years, in hopes of teaching some of the local people more about what Chinese medicine can offer. I would love to return, if the opportunity arises!

To learn more about this project (and read their message about our trip):


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