One of the main projects I’ve been working on recently is developing a school lunch program for the primary school out in the village of Ambatomboro. It’s the same village where the women basket weavers work, and it was through them that I met the Directress of the local primary school, Madame Mialy. We started a year ago with planting some moringa with the intent to distribute it to different households in the community. Over the past few months, we have planted potatoes, rice and moringa and also purchased several energy-efficient stoves for the school lunch program.
Mialy and her husband, Honorée, have been the driving forces behind the project and are some of the most mazoto (or motivated) individuals I have met in Madagascar. They have single-handedly turned the primary school in Ambatomboro from a single building made of wood about 10 years ago to a model school with over 240 students. Every year, they have a 100% pass rate for students taking the C.E.P.E. test to move on to middle school. After seeing this and recognizing the potential that a regular school lunch program would have on the health, learning and overall development of the students, we decided to develop and implement the project.
We began back in August with preparing the farmland and planting the potatoes, which are now ready to harvest. More recently, we planted the moringa, which are now small seedlings ready to be distributed once again, and rice that will be ready for harvest in March. We also purchased several solar cookers and solar ovens, as well as two large stoves that use half the amount of wood or charcoal that a regular stove requires. We hope to start out with the lunch once a week, with the potential to expand to twice a week. The crops have been growing very well and to recognize and celebrate the opening of the school lunch next week, we held an event this past Saturday filled with dancing, speeches and lunch for all the students and invited guests.
Though it took quite a bit of preparation, the event was a huge success. To start off the festivities, we had a dance troupe from Soavinandriana entertain the crowd with a variety of traditional Malagasy dances as well as modern dances with more of an international flair (including one set to Dire Straits’ Walk of Life). The students then raised the Malagasy flag and sang the Malagasy national anthem in perfect unison. Once all the lehibes (town leaders) arrived, speeches were given one by one, explaining the project and discussing the importance of child nutrition as well as protecting the environment through the use of energy efficient stoves. I gave my first real speech in Malagasy, which was well received by all and from what I was told the Directress was beaming the whole time.
Not only did the Adjoint Maire of Ampefy attend, we also had the Director of Regional Education for Itasy as well as the wife of the Minister of Education in attendance. They were impressed by the project, and the wife of the Minister went as far as to donate 170 additional plates to the school so that we now have enough for all of the students. We also had a demonstration using all of the solar cookers, baking banana bread in the solar oven and boiling water for drinking in the parabolic cooker. Many of the guests were even convinced to buy solar cookers of their own. This is the first step to encourage Malagasy people to transition towards being more environmentally friendly, as much of the forest has already been destroyed for the purpose of firewood. Exposing the school children to this new technology also helps to teach them to protect and value their environment; a significant step as change often begins with the youth.
The event ended with lunch for everyone. We had cooked a special meal for our invited guests, and my other volunteer friends and I ended up serving everyone as they devoured the rice, pork and peas. Only once the 200+ schoolchildren were full of potatoes, pumpkin and moringa could we sit down and eat our own meal. Everyone left feeling satisfied in both body and mind, especially after an impromptu meeting held by the lehibes in attendance discussing the state of education in Madagascar. The bike ride back to Ampefy, accompanied by Eric and Sarah, was as beautiful as ever and although I was exhausted from all the preparation, I felt fulfilled knowing that the schoolchildren will now be healthier and better able to learn in school.