Minnesota native Erika Storvick learned how difficult—yet enriching—it is to be a foreigner after voluntarily spending a year in Madagascar.
The now 24-year-old journeyed in August 2016 to Fianarantsoa, Madagascar, to serve in the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program, teaching English to primary, secondary and deaf students alongside
“It’s probably the place that is most different from Minnesota,” she said of Madagascar. The first night I was there, I was so overwhelmed. ‘Why have I chosen to live on the other side of the world for an entire year? This is so insane; this is the craziest thing I’ve ever done.’ ”
Crazy or not, the experience reshaped Storvick’s perspective on the world. Initially, she joined the ranks of other 21- to 29-year-olds who embark on YAGM placements as a means of traveling abroad with more intention than simply vacationing. But as she taught others, she learned life lessons she now tries to share with others: punctuality isn’t everything; education doesn’t necessitate technology; community is about giving.
“It was such an eye-opening and, at times, challenging experience, but it was absolutely worth it,” Storvick said. “I think I’m a better person because I did YAGM. I think I’m so much more open-minded. It taught me that [from] the places and people I least expect, you can grow friendships, and even in very humbling situations [when] you know nothing or none of the answers—those are the places I saw God.”
To offer a YAGM program in Madagascar, the ELCA partners with the Malagasy Lutheran Church, or Fiangonana Loterana Malagasar (FLM), which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year.
Not only does the Malagasy church ensure overall safety for the six to 10 YAGM volunteers placed throughout Madagascar each year, it provides accommodations, sets up workplace agreements and organizes sightseeing opportunities, said Toromare Mananato, vice general secretary and the first woman working at FLM headquarters.
“It was such an eye-opening and, at times, challenging experience, but it was absolutely worth it. I think I’m a better person because I did YAGM. I think I’m so much more open-minded. It taught me that [from] the places and people I least expect, you can grow friendships, and even in very humbling situations [when] you know nothing or none of the answers—those are the places I saw God.”
The Malagasy church is very aware of the impact YAGM volunteers have made. “[The] YAGM program is very helpful for FLM,” Mananato said. “We wish that in [the] future, you will send more [volunteers] for us. We know our cultures are different, [and] YAGM volunteers might face culture shock, but the cross of Christ binds us together.”
Fighting the odds
As they navigate a new country with a unique set of challenges, the volunteers quickly learn the Malagasy combat challenges with “a forward motion,” said Kirsten Laderach, YAGM country coordinator for Madagascar.
In Madagascar, the majority of the population doesn’t have electricity, and the country suffers from an extremely unreliable infrastructure, Laderach said. “People understand there’s nothing,” she added. “You can count on your neighbors, but you can’t count on the government. If you sit here and wait, you may wait forever. So, no matter what the scenario is, you just keep moving.”
In the face of loneliness, Storvick said she learned to embody that Malagasy spirit of forward momentum. Normally, YAGM voluntweers find valuable friendships within the choir at their local church. But Storvick’s choir didn’t meet for the first several months she served, leaving her more isolated than most missionaries.
“She had to find her way through not only this, literally, foreign environment, but she didn’t have some of the pieces that we thought would help her connect [to her site],” Laderach said. “It was a struggle, but she stuck with it. She just kept asking questions, just kept doing the work that you do when life’s not easy, which I really appreciate about her.”
As she served, Storvick became aware of the inequalities found across international borders, particularly in education. Each of the two schools at which she taught had one computer for the entire school, she said. Today, as a special education paraprofessional at a middle school in Minnesota, Storvick points to how technology is taken for granted in the U.S., noting many schools now have a computer for each student.
“We are so focused on other things in our education system,” Storvick said. “It would solve problems if we had more understanding of other cultures, of alternate ways of doing things.”
Storvick said it took grit and fortitude to stay positive as she immersed herself into her new community. “It can be an incredibly isolating experience, so it takes confidence in yourself, a willingness to step outside those bounds and to be uncomfortable and to talk to people who have lived vastly different lives than you,” she said. “It’s hard to be the foreigner, and I think that’s one of my biggest things I took away.”
The Malagasy spirit also embodies being intentional with others, to the point where schedules and punctuality take a back seat as one focuses on the person at hand.
“Malagasy culture is one of such extreme hospitality, of patience, of being present,” Laderach said. “[The concept of] ‘my time’s up, we don’t have any more time to carry on this conversation’ doesn’t exist in this country. [If] you’re right in front of me, what’s most important is our conversation. Everyone will expect that I gave you the attention that you needed. It’s wonderful.”
Storvick said conforming to this fluid concept of time took some adjustment but was rewarding. “I was a very overscheduled, overinvolved person before, so at first my life felt empty if I didn’t have something scheduled for every minute of every day,” she said. “But … you have so many more opportunities to grow if you don’t schedule every minute.”
She also learned what “community” really meant. “As a YAGM volunteer, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I experience community here in Fianarantsoa,” she wrote in her blog. “I’ve realized that it is often in the little, easily missed things. … My young friend Ny Antso is enjoying a caramel candy. Upon seeing me, she reaches into her mouth, splits it in half, and offers me a piece. Not being one to turn down candy, I take it. It is a bit slobbery, but delicious.
“I’ve learned that giving is really what it means to live in community. To make room, to give out of plenty, or even out of scarcity. This spirit of giving is what makes a place a community.”
Did you know?
Madagascar—about the size of Texas with nearly 25 million inhabitants—is home to 3.7 million Lutherans, roughly the size of the ELCA’s membership.