Students from Kamaka’s English Club pose with him after a weekend class. - Photo: Courtesy

By Kamaka Dias

I first heard about the Peace Corps when I was studying abroad in Spain back in 2014. I overheard my resident director talking to some other students about his time in the Peace Corps. It sounded like everything I wanted – the opportunity to help others, learn a new language and culture, travel, and challenge myself.

I like to think that Madagascar chose me. When you apply for the Peace Corps you are able to choose three countries in which you would like to serve. Since I minored in Spanish and studied abroad in Spain and Argentina, I was set on going somewhere in South America. My mindset was: join the Peace Corps in a Spanish speaking country, become fluent in Spanish, meet my Spanish speaking wife, bring her back to Hawai‘i, pop out some Kamaka juniors, and then live a simple Hawaiian life – mixed with Spanish.

Three years later none of that happened. Do things ever happen exactly like you plan them out in your head? Of course not. But a man can dream, right?

So ending up in Madagascar was a blessing in disguise. I never wanted to go there, but I believe it was always meant to be. When I was looking at the list of countries on the online application, I selected Peru and Costa Rica as my first two choices. I needed to fill up a third slot so I could continue to the next page. I was scrolling through the “M” section and that’s when I saw Madagascar. I thought, “Oh cool. Madasgascar. Just like the movie!” So I chose it, not even thinking it would be a realistic option. But my third slot was full, and I was happy. South America here I come!

Or so I thought.

A week later I was asked to interview for an education position in MADAGASCAR. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go there; I was so set on going to a Spanish speaking country, plus I knew nothing about the 4th largest island in the world (Madagascar). But I gave it a chance and went to the interview. The man who interviewed me told me about the similarities between Hawai‘i and Madagascar and suddenly I was interested. I left in June 2016 and didn’t return home until October 2019; after I finished the required two years I extended for another year because I loved it so much.

My primary job was teaching English in a rural community of about 8,000 people called the Alatsinainy Bakaro. I taught two sections of 50 sixth graders and two sections of 70 tenth graders. I loved them but grading 240 papers and managing a class of seventy isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Well I did say I wanted a challenge.

My secondary project was opening up a computer lab for my community. I raised $3,000 and was able to buy 11 computers – one for our local radio station, one for my middle school, one for my high school and eight for our community center. We also got some books from a previous volunteer, so our English center is now equipped with books, computers and a world map that I painted with the help of some students.

During my third year I moved out of the countryside and into the capital city of Antananarivo to work for a local community health organization called Mahefa Miaraka. I was a communications officer and helped them create and manage a Facebook page to disseminate the important work they were doing in various regions of Madagascar related to family planning, maternal and childhood health, sexual health and emergency transportation.

I like to think of Madagascar as my second home. The Malagasy people are so good at making people feel at home. Their culture is very similar to Hawaiian culture in that ‘ohana is very important to them. They are unbelievably welcoming and love-giving. The thing that surprised me the most is that they are one of the poorest countries in the world and don’t have a lot to give, yet they still do. We can learn a lot from the Malagasy.

I learned so much about myself and others during my time in Peace Corps Madagascar. I feel like I am a better person because of the experiences I gained during my three years in Madagascar. The confidence that I have now is due to my time there. I learned that we are capable of doing so much more than we think we can. It all starts by stepping outside of your comfort zone.

The Peace Corps was the most transformative experience of my life so far. I gained an understanding of others and grew so much just by being put into new situations. I strongly believe that the more you understand others, the more you will understand yourself.

I would encourage anyone to join the Peace Corps, especially young kānaka ‘ōiwi. My perspective on the world has changed and I am so grateful for all that I have in life. You don’t realize how small your world is until you leave Hawai‘i. It may seem scary at first, but don’t let fear stop you.

I didn’t realize how blessed I was to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world and speak its native tongue until I left the islands. It’s sad that I needed to leave Hawai‘i for a few years to finally see the importance of my own culture and kuläiwi.

You can’t outrun your kuleana for too long. I left. I learned. I came home. And now I’m ready to use all of my experiences and the knowledge that I’ve gained from traveling to give back to my community. It’s my responsibility and I’ve never been more excited to fulfill it.

Kamaka Dias, 26, is from the Big Island of Hawai‘i. He is a graduate of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa with a degree in Communications and a minor in Spanish. He is fluent in Hawaiian, Malagasy and speaks some Spanish. Kamaka encourages other ‘ōiwi to travel and see the world because he believes that the more you understand others, the more you will understand yourself. Kamaka just finished three years of service in Peace Corps Madagascar and is back home living in beautiful Hawai‘i.