Sometimes described as the Eighth Continent, Madagascar is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. The fourth largest island on Earth is also one of the poorest places in the world. Nine out of 10 people live on less than $2 per day, according to the 2012-13 Millennium Development Goal survey. Peace Boat has visited the country several times, where it collaborates with Azafady, an award-winning British charity partnered with an independent NGO from Madagascar. However, the 90th Global Voyage has been the first one to make a stop in the port of Ehoala in the Anosy Province, in southeast Madagascar. This is the area where Azafady has been working since the NGO was first founded in 1994.
Before arriving to the former French colony, Peace Boat's participants were able to learn about the country from Tsina Endor, who was onboard as a guest educator for the third time in the last few years. Ms. Endor has been working for Azafady since 2005. The mission of this NGO is to alleviate poverty, develop communities and preserve the highly endangered and diverse forest environments by empowering some of the poorest Malagasy citizens to establish sustainable livelihoods. As Head of Volunteering for the organisation, Ms. Endor works with up to 100 international volunteers a year, ensuring that the NGO's projects on school building, community planting programmes and English language teaching are effectively implemented. She is based in Fort Dauphin, which has a population of some 300,000. Onboard Peace Boat, Ms. Endor spoke about Azafady's activities, as well as about Madagascar's culture, politics, environment and the living conditions and status of women in the society.
A focal point in her lectures was the topic of education in her country. In the region of Anosy, 65% of the population is illiterate. According to UNESCO, 50% of school-aged children in the area have never been to school and more than two-thirds have not completed primary school education. "The situation is very serious. Over 50% of the adult population has never had any formal education. The poverty cycle is perpetuating", she explained. Because of this critical situation, Azafady has focused much of its efforts on educational issues since its beginnings. It has built 24 schools, each of which facilitates 200 children, and 2,000 school desks and benches, being used by over 5,000 children every year. Currently, one of the projects they are working on is in Manambaro, a small town about an hour away from Fort Dauphin.
During the ship's visit to Ehoala, a group of participants travelled to the village, met the residents, learnt about the project and even helped in the building of desks and benches to accommodate more students. Those who participated in this activity were warmly welcomed by dozens of school children. They held a parade around town and showed the visitors traditional songs and dances. It was a fun and colourful welcome on a very hot and humid day. Once at the school, participants met some of Azafady's international volunteers. One of them, Nicholas Lynch, is a British volunteer who arrived in Madagascar on October and plans to stay for a year, working on the NGO's educational projects. Lynch introduced the Peace Boat participants to the Manambaro project and spoke to them about the difficult time that education is going through in this African country, a situation that has seriously worsened after a political crisis in 2009. "Already weakened by long-term political instability, the island has seen both poverty and environmental damage significantly increase since then, as a result of the political coup. During the troubled years of transition, government spending on education dropped by 82%. There were also major cuts in international donor support, which amounted to nearly half of the total national budget in the past", he pointed out.
The Head of Azafady's Construction Department, Hasoavana Mahalomba, explained the specifics of the Manambaro project to the visitors. At present, the school has two buildings. "Classes hold between 60 and 80 students each. They have to reject between four and five hundred students each year. With these two new facilities we are building, many more students will be able to attend classes there", he said. Once these buildings are finished with the help of international volunteers and donations, the government has committed to pay for the necessary teaching staff, although the budget is usually scarce and it is the students' parents who often have to cover the salaries of some teachers at their own expense. These extra costs make it impossible for many parents to pay for their children's education.
After the lecture, participants visited the new buildings under construction. The aim is to finish them in one year. Later on, the visitors had some time to eat and have a chat with the volunteers. One of them was Mateo Gres Jander, from Chile. This Environmental Engineering student is in Madagascar for ten weeks, while participating in the building of the new school. "It's hard work; we are constantly working under the sun, from Monday to Saturday. But it is also very rewarding. It is a good project and people here treat us very well", he said. The only girl in the group was Kathryn Harrison, from England. This Environmental Consultant is also spending a couple of months in Madagascar. "I'd wanted to work as a volunteer for a long time. I currently live in Paris and I wanted to visit and get to know a Francophone African country in depth. I discovered Azafady and its work on the Internet and thought it would be a very good option. So far, it has been a brilliant experience", she commented.
After a traditional meal, which consisted of beans, rice and vegetables, it was time to get back to work. Peace Boat participants helped to build several benches for the students. The group, of around thirty people, had to cut dozens of pieces of wood. "It was harder than I expected. I thought it would be easier. Now I can better appreciate all the gestures of the volunteers who work here",said Arabela Chou, one of the volunteer teachers on the ship. For one of the Japanese participants, Kuroki Yushi, it was a pity not to have more time to continue building desks. "One bench makes a big difference. Two or three more children will be able to go to class and have a seat. That helps them to get a better education", he reflected.
Following the work under a scorching sun, it was time for some cultural exchange. The school director, Yvonne Mahitasoa, said a few words to the guests and offered them various gifts, such as traditional clothes and local drinks. The Mayor of Manambaro, Arture Chauchene, also expressed his joy at the visit of the group of Japanese volunteers. The ceremony was also attended by the Head of the region of Anosy, Julio Pierrot Razafindramaro, who showed his appreciation for Azafady's work and the visit of the Japanese group. At the same time, Peace Boat donated to the school more than one thousand pens, four hundred notebooks and the tools they used for constructing the benches.
After the speeches, the students danced for their visitors once more. Some of the younger participants also sang songs to the locals. At the end, there was still some time for pictures, hugs and farewells. "I hope that this visit has given Peace Boat participants a good idea of what life in south-eastern Madagascar is like and why it is necessary to continue helping and leading educational projects like this one. Together, we can create a better future for the entire population of Manambaro and the Anosy region", concluded Endor, before saying goodbye to the group and thanking Peace Boat for giving her the chance to spread the word about her projects onboard.