Over the Easter holidays, I was lucky enough to be invited by the charity Water Aid to go on a trip of a lifetime to Madagascar! Unsurprisingly, I leapt at the chance.
Water Aid are one of the charities who UK Scouts are partnering with as part of A Million Hands; an initiative to get our half a million members to join together to help make positive changes in our communities, and change the lives of other people. By travelling to Madagascar we would be able to see first-hand the huge impact which clean water and good hygiene makes on people's lives, and to learn from the Malagasy Scouts, who are leading the way on this issue.
During our week's visit, we spoke to hundreds of young Scouts, all of whom were passionate about helping other people. The Malagasy Scouts work closely with their local communities, providing them with education on the importance of hand washing, using proper toilets, menstrual hygiene, clean drinking water and more. They do this through campfire songs, sketches, puppet shows and more, and have proven hugely effective in their campaign! It was incredibly inspiring to see the enthusiasm and ambition of the Scouts, whose numbers are far less than here in the UK. They operate with limited resources (many of the Malagasy Scouts cannot even afford their uniform) and in communities where poverty is rife (70% of the population are classified as 'poor' by the World Bank), yet still retain a real sense of fun and adventure throughout their community work. And from speaking to local people across Madagascar, it was clear that the Scouts' work was making a huge difference. People we spoke to told us how they were healthier and happier now they knew about good hygiene practices, and children were better able to attend school and play with their friends.
During our trip, we also visited a community where Water Aid have not yet installed clean water and toilets, to help understand why this issue is so important for Scouts in the UK to help tackle. In Madagascar, 11.7 million people (almost half the population) don't have access to safe drinking water, a truly shocking statistic. The community we visited collected all their water from a small, dirty pond at the bottom of a steep slope several minutes away from the village. This pond was also used for washing clothes (including babies' nappies!) and people, and for collecting water for cooking. Seeing with my own eyes how dirty the water was, shocked me. You see on TV the images of children collecting dirty water, but nothing can prepare you for seeing it yourself. The girls who showed us round were responsible for collecting water anywhere from 2 to 5 times each day, carrying huge jerry cans back up the steep slope each time. The cans were so heavy, that none of the UK visitors could lift them - we instead had to carry half-full cans! It was heart-breaking to watch, and were it not for the knowledge that soon Water Aid will be providing these girls with clean water, hygiene education and proper toilets, I think it would have been easy to leave feeling hopeless.
But I do not feel hopeless. In fact, my trip has left me more optimistic than ever that Scouts can help to change the world for the better. In Madagascar, Scouts are known as 'change makers' by the community - they are trusted, respected and admired for their work, and communities across Madagascar have benefitted from their actions. I firmly believe that by taking part in A Million Hands, Scouts here in Oxfordshire and across the UK can also be change makers. We can make a difference to the lives of others, and it doesn't need to be difficult or scary. I have seen first-hand the power of Scouting to improve the lives of others. I have seen the power which enthusiasm and teamwork holds. I have seen the smiles of young people when they realise that they have made a difference.
I hope that Scouts from every corner of the county will sign up to A Million Hands if they haven't done so already, and start taking action on issues which matter to our local and international communities. There are fantastic resources available at www.amillionhands.org.uk, which make programme planning a doddle, and have hundreds of great ideas for all sections. I have been inspired by Scouting in Madagascar, and hope we can follow in their amazing footsteps as we become change makers in our communities just as they have done in theirs.
Becky Alexander - County Scouter