In a shocking change of scenery, we left green Scotland for the jungles, plains, and deserts of Madagascar. Madagascar has the poorest economy in the world that is not in conflict and we immediately felt it was one of the most rural countries we had ever visited. We saw kids no older than five or six looking after even younger children, carrying firewood or rounding up chickens. Eight or nine year olds were herding zebu (local equivalent of a cow and a status symbol) and fourteen year old girls looking to be or already married.
At first glance, it seems like a childhood-stealing culture, but after many hours spent looking at villages as we drove through, it occurred to me that hard work is an essential part of their childhood. By our standards it seems unfair, but by the way they live, it is a normal activity. As long as they can remember, they’ve been helping their mothers with the laundry, working in a field or carrying water for their family. A hard day’s work is no different from any other day, instead of something to prepare for.
As we drove through the villages and towns, I would see many young girls, all younger than myself, accompanied with an infant and an older man. At first I thought they were looking after a younger sibling, but then when I asked our guide, he explained that those were their babies and the older men with them, twenty years or older, were their husbands.
At first I was shocked and a little horrified to imagine not only being married but having a baby at my age. However, as I spent more and more time thinking about an equivalent in our society, I realized that we are expected to go to middle school, high school, get a drivers license, go to prom, and possibly go to college or work before getting married. The pressure of marriage is just as intense, just on a different timeline.
The last time we were abroad, I was eleven. In most of the countries we visited, I wasn’t “on the map” or expected to be married, so I didn’t feel uncomfortable and wasn’t viewed any differently than my brother. However, now that I am in my “marital prime” in some countries, I have found myself being treated very differently. Men rarely look me in the eye and instead of being timid and shy, children are more likely to approach me than my brother because I am similar in age to their mothers. When I mentioned what I was noticing to my mother, she said that just like I say it must be sad to have lost what we would consider a childhood, they may be saying how lonely I must be without a husband and kids to keep me company. It reminded me of a theme I appreciated during our last trip – that because something is different does not mean that it is bad.
Madagascar was one of the most challenging countries we have ever visited, with its harsh landscapes, foreign culture, and struggling economy. However, it is one of my favorite countries because of its kind and cheerful people and eye opening opportunities. Seeing girls my age in a different culture made me reflect on societal pressures I have experienced. Because these pressures are different doesn’t mean they are any less fierce.