Payson Pair Return From Madagascar Determined To Help


For Rim country residents Norm Tucker and Howard Shurtleff, Thanksgiving is going to be especially meaningful this year.

Tucker and Shurtleff just returned from Madagascar, an island off the eastern coast of Africa, where they spent three weeks working on and around a school that is operated by the Nazarene church. The pair both members of Payson First Church of the Nazarene were part of a group of 18, all but one from Arizona, who made the long trek to the poverty-stricken island.

While the island, which, at 594 square miles, is the fourth largest in the world, was once a French protectorate and still has many French influences, it's the Russians and Chinese who've had the most recent affect on the island's inhabitants.

"During the cold war, the communists had their run of the place, and they pretty much destroyed its infrastructure," said Shurtleff, a retired carpenter.

With gasoline costing $4 a gallon, inflation is out of control.

"What makes that really bad," Shurtleff said, "is that the average wage for a skilled tradesman is just 30 cents an hour. A common laborer makes about 90 cents a day."

While Madagascar currently has a democratic government, many people still live in cardboard boxes under overpasses.

"The police are supposed to run them out, but they pretty much look the other way," Shurtleff said.

For Tucker, who manages Northern Energy, the trip was his first venture overseas. One of his most memorable moments, he said, was when he gave a native boy a sucker.

"He didn't know what to do with it," Tucker said. "So I unwrapped it for him and he still didn't know what to do with it."

The little boy had a deformed foot, probably due to malnutrition, Tucker said.

"The natives pretty much eat rice," he said. "You see lots of deformities."

Sanitation is another problem.

"In the children's school, this one boy held up his hand and asked to go to the bathroom," Shurtleff said. "A minute later he came tearing back into the classroom.

"He said, 'They've got a toilet!' The whole class got up and went to look at it."

Another morning, one little girl didn't come to breakfast, said Tucker, who has four children of his own.

"She was about 8," he said, "and when she didn't show up that morning we went to look for her.

"We found her still in bed. She had never slept in a bed before, and she wasn't about to get out of it."

Shurtleff found another telling indication of Madagascar's poverty level on a sign outside a restaurant.

"In kind of broken English, it said 'No Catless Soup Today.'

"In other words, today was a good day because the soup had cat in it," Shurtleff explained. "I never did see any cats on the streets over there."

Shurtleff and Tucker paid their own ways to Madagascar, but they said the experience was more than compensation.

"It makes you realize there's a big world out there," Tucker said. "It keeps you from being so introverted."

Shurtleff, who has done similar work for his church in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Brazil, England, New Zealand and South Africa, said such experiences never fail to have an impact on him. "It gets you to thinking: Why do we have so much and they have so little?

"The people of Madagascar are small," he said. "Their life expectancy is 47 to 51. You just don't see any old people over there."

While Shurtleff spent much of his time working on the school and Tucker most of his helping to dig a huge hole for a septic tank in red clay, they did have time for a little fun. One of the trip's highlights was a tour of a rain forest full of lemur monkeys and gecko lizards.

And nearly everywhere they went, they said, the people were outgoing and friendly. The exceptions were those they encountered while trying to negotiate their way through heavy traffic in the capital city of Antananarivo.

"They still have a lot of rickshaws, probably a holdover from the days when the Chinese were there," Shurtleff said. "Then there are people walking in the street, there are bicycles, and there are these really old French cars."

"There are no traffic signals or street signs," Tucker chimed in. "I'll tell you, it brings a real meaning to the expression 'road kill,'" he said with a laugh.

Another lingering experience, Shurtleff said, is a strange ceremony the natives hold in their above-ground family tombs, structures made of brick or natural stone that are often nicer than their homes.

"They go in there on the birthday of the deceased," he said, "and they wash and turn the bones of their dead relatives and put a new shroud on them.

"They invite family and friends, and then they feast and dance in the tomb. Then they leave food or presents as a kind of offering."

Now that they're back home, Shurtleff and Tucker have decided to do something for the poverty stricken people of Madagascar. They are organizing a clothing drive so they can ship a 40-foot container of children's clothes to the island.

"The kids are literally dressed in rags," Tucker said. "Many of them couldn't go to school because they had nothing to wear."

Shurtleff and Tucker plan to enlist the help of Nazarene churches around the state, and they're looking for local support, too.

"People can start saving clothing right now," Shurtleff said. "It doesn't get real cold there, but they can use sweaters on occasion, and, of course, anything else."

Once details are finalized, the pair will announce a community drop-off point for used clothing.

In the meantime, they said they're both looking forward to Thanksgiving. Although they know a 40-foot shipping container of clothes won't do much to change the world, they've seen how something as simple as a sucker can light up the face of a small child.

"You have to do what you can," Shurtleff said, "because if you're not willing to change things, it won't happen."

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