Like most recent college graduates, Jacob Siegel was considering what to do next.
“I still felt young and felt like I should travel around,” said Siegel. “I wanted to travel around, but if I had the opportunity to maybe do something good, that would be good too. Peace Corps seemed like a good option, so I applied.”
The 25-year-old West Chester University graduate returned to Wyoming County just a few weeks ago from the Republic of Madagascar, an island country off the coast of Africa.
There, he served the Peace Corps for over two years as an agriculture extension agent in the northern Sava region, which produces most of the world’s vanilla.
“We were supposed to focus on home gardens and sustainable agriculture, mostly,” he said.
While the Peace Corps ultimately decides where to station its volunteers, Siegel was able to choose his top countries and positions.
“There’s agriculture, environment, forestry, education, health and youth development, but it depends on the country,” he explained. “Madagascar only had agriculture, health and education, so I applied for agriculture in Madagascar and environmental stuff in Ethiopia.”
Madagascar was his first choice because it’s both obscure and out of the way.
“It’s kind of legendary for its wildlife, so I thought it would be interesting. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and it has pretty much every ecosystem that you can imagine,” he said. “It also has a lot of pressing environmental issues.”
This includes deforestation, habitat destruction and droughts.
“There’s food insecurity, which is part of why they have agriculture people there,” he said.
People in Madagascar already know how to garden, Siegel said, so his role was to suggest techniques such as composting and cover cropping.
“Peace Corps wanted us to focus on home gardens so that it would be just straight from the garden to the table,” he said. “A lot of people will farm far out in the woods and they’ll sell everything and they won’t actually eat it, so that’s a problem that we were there to try and help.”
Before his service in Madagascar, Siegel underwent three months of training, mostly to learn Malagasy, one of the country’s languages.
People in Madagascar also speak French, but this wasn’t part of his training. Now, however, he can read the language well.
The immersion aspect made him fluent in Malagasy, but since the country has 18 different dialects, it was still challenging when speaking to people on other areas of the island.
Life in Madagascar had some stark differences to life in the United States, including no indoor plumbing or running water, but electricity was available through solar panels on his home.
“No one really lives by themselves. It’s all in a village and it’s very communal,” he said. “You pretty much build your house right next to your parents’ house. Everyone knows everyone else.”
It’s also not considered imposing when relatives show up unannounced and stay for an extended period of time, as families are “culturally obligated” to take each other in.
During his free time, Siegel would often just hang out, play with kids in his village, go hiking, ride his bike provided by the Peace Corps and read.
“I read 55 books in two years,” he said.
Reflecting on his time in Madagascar, Siegel hopes he made meaningful connections with its people.
“I think the biggest impact we have as Peace Corps volunteers isn’t our main project that we go over there to do,” he said. “We may be the only Americans that those people ever meet in their life, so I think that’s the biggest impact you can have, just sharing cultures.”
What struck Siegel the most about his experience abroad was seeing the different conditions in which people live around the world.
“It opened my eyes to that. Madagascar is the poorest country in the world as far as people living under $2 a day,” he said. “But they get by. It’s really amazing how just happy everyone is over there, and just how they get by and how everyone helps each other out all of the time.”
Now that he’s returned from the Peace Corps, he hopes to attend graduate school for landscape architecture. But for now, he’s been enjoying connecting with his family and friends.
“It’s good to be back,” he said. “It’s been fun telling stories.”