Written by: Christina Ray Stanton
Article source: JOY! Magazine

On March 14, 2022, fourteen students received their master’s degrees in occupational therapy during a joyous ceremony in Madagascar. The graduates were walking success stories in a 10-year effort to raise up, train, and employ 100 occupational therapists in a country that had almost none in 2011. Occupational therapy (OT) helps people overcome mental and/or physical disabilities so they can better perform everyday tasks. Such therapy is sorely needed in a country where up to 15% of the population—about 4 million people—suffer from disabilities, according to the World Health Organization.

The desperate need for OTs
The programme to send OTs into every corner of the country had been created through the efforts of Madagascar’s Ministry of Public Health, a vice dean of the University of Antananarivo, and a remarkable woman named Anri-Louise Oosthuizen, a certified OT in South Africa who had come to Madagascar in 2009 as a missionary. Anri-Louise was born in Pretoria, where she exhibited concern for the poor and less fortunate from a very early age.

A nation in need
Around 2009, Anri-Louise became convinced that God had called her to move to Madagascar as a missionary. But she became very sick. “It’s like the devil was trying to keep me away from the mission field; it was very frustrating, but also a time when I had to learn how to rely on God’s timing and cling to God.” Life proved challenging from the moment she landed. “It was complete culture shock,” she recalls. “The stark poverty, the hunger, the masses of homeless people in the capital, the lacking infrastructure, the disorganisation and chaos that appeared to be in every street. I just didn’t understand it and couldn’t wrap my head around it.”

Serving The Disabled In Madagascar

Raising awareness about therapy
Anri-Louise began working as an OT, but quickly realised the dire need for training and education in order to raise up as many OTs as quickly as possible. “I could so easily see the desperate need for OTs in Madagascar; our vision was to improve quality of life through therapy but also to establish the profession in the country. But we first had to create awareness of what it even was.” Anri-Louise visited hospitals and retirement homes, campaigning to raise awareness about this unfamiliar profession. In 2013, under her leadership, Madagascar became an associate member of the World Federation of Occupational Therapy, bringing the burgeoning profession into a worldwide accountability group.

Creating a unique programme
In 2014, she created a nonprofit organisation, “Growing the Nations Therapy Programmes,” to make services more widely available. “Our first phase was to establish an educational programme and national association to train and then create employment opportunities for the newly qualified therapists,” she explains. Anri-Louise knew she had to ensure the new programme was Malagasy-owned and Malagasy-driven, so she approached the University of Antananarivo about creating a programme. “We didn’t want to base our programme on Western curriculum because the activity is contextual and cultural in many ways; we wanted them to have their own,” she explains.

The new therapists made an immediate impact
“People loved the therapy from the start,” Anri-Louise shares. “Occupational therapy made sense to everyone; people knew it was needed. Strangers would walk up to me in the street and say, ‘We need you here.’ It was wonderful to have all that validation!” She explains why OT can be so valuable in Madagascar, where poverty affects 92% of the population. “Living with a disability is a tremendous extra burden on a family. It impacts all aspects of family life: finances, physical energy, house layout, time, resources. Rehabilitation aims at healing and restoring what has been lost.”

Gaining acceptance in society
As Anri-Louise works to help disabled people in Madagascar live better lives, she is also working to help them gain more acceptance in their society. “One of my saddest moments was attending a funeral of a disabled child, because the family would not bury him in the family grave,” Anri-Louise explains. “So many believed there was a curse on disability. And when I first got here, I would go to a hospital and kids were screaming because people were using improper therapy techniques. But now it’s all different. The curse is no longer; people are showing great compassion for the disabled, and they’re increasingly being treated with the respect and dignity they—and everyone—deserve.”

Madagascar is in God’s hands
Anri-Louise now sees Madagascar in a completely different light than she did when first arrived. “I love Madagascar. I have such a deep appreciation for the culture. I love how the culture is community-driven and how they take care of people within and outside of their circles, even though everyone lives on a shoestring,” she explains. “Oh my! I can’t tell you how much hope I have for the country,” she declares. “It’s all in God’s hands. Everything is. I’m just so blessed, and I can’t wait to see what the future will bring. I will stay as long as He has me here.”

You can learn more about Anri-Louise’s therapy programmes and the work that she is doing online: growingthenationstherapyprogrammes.com

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Date published: 26/09/2022
Christina Ray Stanton worked for over a decade as Missions Director at Redeemer Presbyterian Church (Founder, Timothy Keller).

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