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A cross-continental friendship between local residents Jalana Lazar and Naysan McIlhargey and their 14-year-old friend Bli Toto of Madagascar brought Bli to live and attend school in the village for a year.

Malagasy student visits YS

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Jalana Lazar’s stint with the Peace Corps in Madagascar began inauspiciously. On her first day in the country, she was driven to the village of Nosiarina and dropped off with little fanfare. Remembering her initial dismay, she said, “They left me on the side of the road with a bike and my steel trunk.” She figured out the logistics of her new life on her own.

Lazar was Nosiariana’s only Peace Corps volunteer from 1999–2001 and she stuck out in the small community for some obvious reasons. She was one of few whites, and she did not speak Malagasy, the native language of Madagascar. She was also a stranger in a tight-knit village, where most people were related by blood or marriage. She had few friends until a fateful encounter with one of the village’s tiniest residents.

“I met Bli because she was running across my courtyard,” Lazar said. “I asked her how old she was and she told me that she was 8, and I thought ‘Oh my, stunting and wasting is much worse than I thought!’” Stunting and wasting are malnutrition disorders that are common on the African island. Someone who is stunted has a lower than average height for their age, whereas wasting indicates a lower than average weight.

It turned out that Bli, whose full name is Priscilla “Bli” Toto, was not nearly as underdeveloped as Lazar feared. In fact, she had an overdeveloped imagination. The volunteer soon found out that the mischievous little girl was actually only 5.

“She was playing and another volunteer asked Bli how old she was, and she said 5. Then her eyes got all big because she realized that I knew she had been lying to me,” Lazar said.

It was a forgivable mistake, and one that did not stop the two from becoming fast friends. Lazar and Toto began to spend afternoons together cooking, drawing and swimming in the river. Eventually, however, the college graduate became interested in the more substantial matter of Toto’s education.

The school system in Madagascar can be difficult for many students to navigate. The country has two heavily weighted tests after the fifth and ninth grades, covering subjects as varied as physics, geology, French and history. The tests are given over several days and for as long as six hours per day. Students are required to pass the tests before progressing to the next grade level, and many do not. Fortunately, Toto was not among that number, and much of that may have been due to Lazar’s foresight.

Lazar knew the importance of an education, particularly in a region like sub-Saharan Africa, where so few people can afford to buy the books and other materials required to attend school. After discussing the situation with the girl’s mother, a rice farmer and secretary at the village mayor’s office, Lazar decided to pay for Toto to attend a boarding school near the village.

“Before I left Madagascar, I went to the headmistress and said that I had a small girl that I wanted to send to the school,” Lazar said.

All of the classes at the school were taught in French, the country’s official second-language. However, French verbal skills are not always emphasized in the classroom, and Toto, like so many other Malagasy children, had been taught French, but could not speak it. As a 7-year-old heading to the fourth grade, she was far enough ahead of the other students that Lazar felt that she could repeat the third grade in order to gain a better mastery of the language.

The certified nurse practitioner kept tabs on the girl’s progress even after she had moved back to her native New York and then Yellow Springs after marrying Miami Valley Pottery owner, Naysan McIlhargey. The two met shortly after Lazar returned to the U.S. from Madagascar.

Lazar would send money to Toto over the years and estimates that the fees for the boarding school were less than $1,000 per year.

She said, “No one else I know was doing it, but I think a lot of people would like to. It’s hard not to because you spend $4 on a cup of coffee here and you feel like a heel.”

Nevertheless, as time passed, Lazar began to consider bringing Toto to the U.S. for a year of study. Now 14 years old, the curious teen had expressed an interest in visiting the U.S. As a former exchange student in both Germany and France, Lazar believed the trip would be beneficial. McIlhargey, who had met Bli when the couple flew to the island to celebrate her passing the fifth grade exams, agreed.

Because there is no official exchange program between the two countries, the couple had to work outside the box. Most high school exchange students enter the U.S. on a J-1 exchange program visa, for which Toto was ineligible. Instead, she would have to apply for the F-1 visa, which is typically given to college students.

It was a complicated process that required the couple to fill out stacks of paperwork and ask for support from local and state politicians like Ohio Senator George Voinovich and Congressman Steve Austria (OH-7).

McIlhargey was elected to make those phone calls.

“I told them what we were doing. We were bringing a student from Madagascar and we would like for them to send a letter of support,” he said.

After months of slavishly working on the application, Toto was finally interviewed at the American embassy in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city. Lazar recalls how nervous she was during the wait, but she and McIlhargey were relieved when Toto stepped into the hallway with a small note that read: “Your visa application has been accepted. Please, come back and collect your visa tomorrow at 4 p.m.”

The couple and their new dependent left shortly thereafter, but not before bidding an emotional farewell to Toto’s mother, who will not likely be able to visit during her year-long stay in Ohio.

Still smaller than the typical American her age, the sprightly Toto has spent the last six weeks adjusting to a new world. The transition has been fairly smooth with the exception of an incident involving the Yellow Springs High School soccer team. Bli was informed shortly after joining the team that she was ineligible to play because she was not part of an official exchange program. Lazar and McIlhargey attempted to fight the law, created by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, but all of their appeals were denied.

Nonetheless, Bli said that she likes her new school. Her favorite classes are French and world history. She still has trouble speaking English, preferring to have Lazar translate her comments. But there are some things that she is very clear about. When asked what cultural or educational lessons she hopes to learn during her stay abroad, she succinctly answers, “All of them.”

*The writer is a freelance contributor to the News.

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