The Power of Pencils: Will You Help Me Send Two Malagasy Girls to School?

This past week, I camped in a fragment of forest near a village called Bevoahazo, and I nurtured a dream. As my colored pencils wore down to nubs, this dream grew stronger. I want to raise $1,200 and send two Malagasy girls to high-school for a year. Will you help me?

The kids of Bevoahazo show off one of our collaborative ecosystem drawings, complete with stream, frog, trees, a domestic duck, and a wild parrot labeled in English and Malagasy. 

Living in Madagascar has meant living amid poverty at a level I have never before experienced. At times, it has been a lesson in humility and gratitude. At other times, I feel shame because I don't deserve the resources I have while others lack shoes, food, medicine, and the chance to send their children to school. And there is part of me that feels paralysis, because I do not deserve this power to pity and donate. My capacity to be generous, raise money, and be thanked -- all these are just more privileges associated with my undeserved economic status. Yet, to do nothing is not a reasonable solution. As it happens, I have an undeserved amount of resources. What to do?

A close-up of our ecosystem drawing.

The answer came to me when I learned of a scrappy, young charity called Madaworks. It was founded right here in Ranomafana two years ago, in November 2015, by a Long Islander named Diane Powers. I read about Madaworks while flipping through VaoVao ValBio, the newsletter of the rainforest research station where I'm currently living. An excerpt:

"Madaworks is improving development in the Ranomafana region through: access to secondary education for girls from rural villages and economic empowerment of women. ... To date we have graduated one student (Julie Rakotozafy) from Sahavondronona. Her achieving her high school diploma inspired her to begin university studies in nursing. In the fall of 2016 Madaworks funded two girls (Avontrinaina Louise Sarah and Ravosolo Paquerette) on the path to a fully funded three-year high school education. Two more students will be selected to receive scholarships September 2017. Next year we hope to support at least 10 more girls. Centre ValBio staff provide support and logistical assistance in distribution of scholarship applications and disbursement of funds to the schools and the students."

For every $600 Madaworks receives, it can fund one year of high-school education. Unlike too many charities in Madagascar, Madaworks is accountable to their students for the long-term. They only take on as many students as they can fund for an entire secondary education. Best of all, Madaworks checks in on their scholars regularly, providing guidance and mentorship.

They've been featured by Mongabay and Women Deliver for their dual benefit to people and biodiversity through empowering girls.

There are more needs in this region that I could ever hope to meet as an individual. Everything I offer is accepted into grateful hands: extra band-aids, a bottle of ibuprofen, a sewing needle, sunscreen, pens, leftover soggy rice. The shoes off my feet would be put to use here if I could spare them. So how did I decide to support girls' education?

Two moments clarified this mission for me.

1. When I spoke with my wonderful guides, Menja and Zaka, both explained how their lives revolve around the unreachable goal of funding their children's education. I have met smart, ambitious girls who want to go to school. No matter what sacrifices their parents make, no matter how badly their village wants to support them, no matter how ingenious they may be, these girls flat-out cannot afford it. Even public school costs money here, and most rural children must drop out after fifth grade. To attend high-school, students have to live in rented housing in the city, away from their families, and pay tuition. Menja and Zaka work hard, and they earn less than $2 a day. Free public education is something we take for granted in the United States, and here it is an unthinkable luxury. It shouldn't be. 

2. On my first day at camp this week, after lunch, three children appeared at the edges of our tarp. They were hoping for leftover food. Silent, still, they made themselves nearly invisible, not wanting to intrude on our privacy. Our team cook, Mana, handed them a bowl of soggy rice and salty beans with three spoons. The food disappeared in seconds. The children hovered, intrigued, tentative. I pulled a notebook and a bundle of colored pencils from my backpack.

"Inona no biby tianao?" I asked. "Sahy?" What's your favorite animal? Draw?

Quickly they took the invitation. All three replied with the same animal: varika, lemur. So we drew lemurs. More children appeared up the slick clay path through the forest. They didn't mind that we had no more rice to offer. They circled around and accepted one piece of precious paper each, with outstretched hands and soft thank-yous. We traded vocabulary, they writing the Malagasy and me adding the English. House, trano. Butterfly, tataro. Duck, giroka. Tree, hazo. Mosquito, moka. Parrot, kevaka. Vine, vahy. We graduated from organisms to ecosystems, swapping papers back and forth, weaving together vines and lemurs and frogs and streams and trees.

More children arrived every day, and I had to get creative to find hard surfaces for everyone to draw on. An upside-down bucket for 12-year-old Fano. My bird book for 6-year-old Vonona. A plate for 11-year-old Lalao. Then I had to get creative about subjects, the usual lemurs and parrots having lost interest. I sketched my study organism, a mouse lemur, tsitsidy, and held it up as an example. A dozen kids drew their own unique tsitsidy in response.

My first mouse lemur, labeled in Malagasy, English, and Latin. A dozen more were offered by the kids. Take a look at each one below. They're all different and they're all awesome, like their artists.

One afternoon, we did an exercise in scientific illustration. I asked each kid to gather one leaf -- "ravina iray" -- and bring it back. We each drew our leaves in realistic detail, not a cartoon idea of a leaf but the thing itself. How many spines? How many veins? What shade of green? We investigated weeds, compared ferns. I learned the names of a dozen trees in Malagasy.

Lemurs, trees, and humans coexist in this paper forest just like the real one around us.

Then we moved on to animals. We gathered frogs -- sahona -- and tadpoles -- boboka -- and even a swimming spider -- hala -- from the stream and drew those. When the kids proudly showed me their drawings of the spider, I told them they did a great job -- miatsa tsara -- but challenged them to count the legs of our arachnid friend.

"Tongotra hala firy?" I asked. How many legs does the spider have?

The kids leaned in over the bucket, jostling for position. They counted. "Valo!" yelled the first confident voice. "Valo! Valo!" agreed a chorus. Eight legs. They amended their drawings.

Then we moved on to the giant pair of twig-themed stick-bugs on a nearby plant.

"Tongotra biby-hazo firy?" How many legs does the stick-bug have?

"Enina!" Six.

"Tongotra vorona firy?" How many legs does the bird have?

"Roa!" Two.

"Tongotra varika firy?" How many legs does the lemur have?

"Efatra!" Four.

Then, just for fun: "Tongotra hazo firy?" How many legs does the tree have?

A small voice answered. It came from the seven-year-old named Vitatsara, with twin dimples in her cheeks and a quiet firmness to her presence.

"Iray." One.

"Eka," I laughed. Yes. I believe she was right. I'd noticed her the day before when an older boy had ripped her colored pencil from her hand, and she'd let it happen without a fight. I'd worried that she was too passive, allowing herself to be bullied. I realized now that she was simply too wise to engage in a petty fight. Today, she sat in front of the crowd, pencil firmly in hand, eyes focused on me.

Vitatsara and a few of her organisms.

When I brought the stick-bugs down off their leaf for show-and-tell, most of the girls recoiled in terror. Vitatsara watched me carefully, noting my calm handling of the harmless insect. She slowly extended one hand, offering a platform for its six legs. For the next half-hour, she and I passed the insect back and forth. It would crawl slowly up her arm, and just as it began to tickle her neck, I'd rescue it onto my own palm. When it reached my neck, she'd rescue it from me. The older children watched in fascination, and one by one they offered their hands to the tickling sensation of a six-legged stick.

Vitatsara shows off her new friend, the biby-hazo or stick-bug.

Biby-hazo namana, stick-bug friend!

What did I accomplish these afternoons? I had fun, and I passed my hours while the lemurs slept. All evidence suggests the kids had fun, too. Maybe a few of them learned English words, as I learned a few in Malagasy. I hope I helped cultivate biophilia: a love of nature, a curiosity about ecosystems and a compassion for organisms that nourishes my own life. Above all, I was filled with a desire to help these focused, curious kids continue to attend school for as long as they wish. I want them to have paper and colored pencils to sketch spider-webs after I leave. I want them to read books about the environment, about national politics, about anything and everything they please.

The bird and mammal field-guides I had provided as tables turned into the main attraction. The kids were fascinated to look at color photos of their neighborhood wildlife.

This desire means asking for help. I want to raise $1,200 for Madaworks. That's enough to send two girls to high-school for one year each. I hope that Vitatsara and the others girls who sketched leaves and lemurs will apply. I hope, by then, Madaworks will have enough funds to support them all the way to college. Will you hope with me?

Here are three native animals I sketched for the kids as gifts: a blue coua, a red-fronted brown lemur, and a greater vasa parrot.

I considered making Go-Fund-Me page, but those things keep a percentage of the money, so I decided I will ask for donations directly. If you are inspired and able to help, please send a donation of any amount to my PayPal, my Venmo, or the Madaworks website.


Venmo: @Nina-Finley

Madaworks website:

If you send the money to me, I will donate it to Madaworks. If you send money to Madaworks, please post a comment or send me a message letting me know so I can add it to the total for my $1,200 goal. I'll post regular updates to the blog so you can watch our progress as we work together to send girls to school.

Rasôna thanks me for a sketch I drew her of her favorite animal, varika, a male red-fronted brown lemur. Help me give her more than a drawing. Help me give her the chance to keep going to school.