I recently returned from a 16 day visit to Madagascar where I was invited to work with the first school working out of Waldorf impulses on this island nation. It was a beautiful and transformative experience for the teachers there who have built this thriving school from the ground up and for me as well. Over the following weeks I will be posting reflections on these experiences in the hopes of making their good work more visible and as a means for helping me to develope a closer understanding of the essence of Waldorf education and how can it serve unique communities anywhere in the world. I welcome your thoughtful feedback as a means of filling out this important research.
- Warren Lee Cohen
Working with the First Waldorf School in Madagascar #1
Madagascar is a world apart, almost a continent unto itself with rich flora and fauna much of which is found no where else on earth. Madagascar has a growing population that is joy-filled and yet amongst the poorest in the world. The Malagasy people have endured the hardships of colonialization, slavery, economic exploitation and intensive environmental degradation as well as more recent political instability. The majority of the population are subsistence farmers who remain illiterate in both their native Malagasy as well as in French, the country’s official language. Schools are run mostly in French and are geared towards three major exams written only in French. Malagasy schools are however poorly resourced and remain inaccessible to children in much of the country. And, where schools do exist, the $1 to $5 monthly fees are more than most families can afford. Access to any education let alone quality education is a big issue facing this nation whose median population is now younger than 20 years of age.
Kathy Lucking, a 25 year veteran Ontario elementary school teacher is deeply inspired by Waldorf pedagogy. Kathy is currently deepening her understanding of Waldorf education as a student in RSCT’s Professional Development for Waldorf Teachers part-time program. She is already using the knowledge, insights and inspiration she is gaining from this program to transform education in Madagascar, to plant vital seeds of hope for the future.
Seven years ago Kathy visited Madagascar where she worked in an orphanage. She soon realised that if she really wanted to make a long term difference in these children’s lives, she would need to create educational opportunities for them. Thus was born the Madagascar School Project. For the past seven years she has been steadfastly working to create hope and educational opportunity for these children who otherwise would not have any access to formal education. The Madagascar School Project has built two schools in underserved rural communities. The latest school, Sekoly Tenaquip educates and feeds over 650 children from kindergarten through grade 12. These children walk to school along dirt tracks from neighbouring villages as far as one and a half hours away. Kathy and her colleagues at the Madagascar School Project are trying to make Sekoly Tenaquip a model of what Malagasy education can be. They can already see that the creative and culturally sensitive approach of Waldorf pedagogy is helping them to create a truly Malagasy school that will prepare students to gain all the skills and vision they need step into their lives and take leadership in their communities.
Just 20 km outside of Antananarivo, the loud and sprawling capital city of Madagascar, lies the village of Ambohiborosy (Ambu-ee-bruce). This mud brick village lies at the very end of a gullied dirt road more suited to ox carts and pedestrians than four-wheel drive trucks. Surrounded by rice paddies at the feet of rapidly eroding hills, the people of this village, similar to other villages spread across the vast central plateau, farm for their living on the depleted red soil. They grow rice, an assortment of fruits and vegetables and raise chickens, pigs and their prized “zebu” humped cattle. They live much the way their ancestors lived 800 years ago in mud brick homes thatched with rice straw. Most of these villages know neither plumbing nor electricity. Their homes are dark and filled with thick wood-smoke from the indoor cooking fire. Due to a scarcity of fuel, they often burn wet wood. Their homes have no chimneys. It is not surprising then that many people suffer from respiratory ailments. Whole extended families often live in one house, along with their chickens and oxen. I was invited into one small home 3 x 3 metres that housed a family of nine with just two small beds and only three blankets. At dusk everyone goes to sleep and the villages are completely silent except for the daily thunder shower during the rainy season. No one ventures outside after dark as it is feared that this is the time that bad spirits roam the land.
The Madagascar School project was invited by the mayor of Ambohiborosy to build a school on the side of the mountain for the local children. The closest public school is more than an hour’s walk away. Half of it was destroyed and never rebuilt after a recent cyclone. The mayor helped the new school to find an appropriate site. The Madagascar School Project then procured the land and started building classrooms with funds raised from Canada. Each year they have added new buildings to house the growing school. In just seven years the school has grown into five large multi classroom buildings able to serve 2 classrooms at each grade level kindergarten to grade 12. They have also built a kitchen, canteen and housing for some of the teachers, farmers and volunteers. One more classroom building is still needed to complete the campus and is already in the planning stages. It is an impressive school that now employs over 50 teachers, cooks and farmers, effectively making it the largest employer for many miles around as well as the largest school I saw outside of the capital, Antananarivo.
Rice! Rice! Rice!
Sekoly Tenaquip has committed to offering the children who attend a nurturing and filling lunch, perhaps the largest meal of the day for many of them. They also offer rice pabulum for babies and younger children every afternoon. The traditional Malagasy diet - breakfast, lunch and dinner - is boiled rice served heaping on a plate with a little dollop of a well boiled vegetable: green beans, cassava leaves or pumpkin - whatever might be available. Occasionally meat may be served, but this is considered a very special treat. February to May is considered the “Hungry Season” when many families run out of rice from their last harvest and before the next harvest is ready. Many families literally run out of food at this time of the year. The lunches that Sekoly Tenequip offers make it possible for the children to have enough energy to learn. Without this lunch program learning would be severely limited by hunger and malnutrition. With this sustenance the children are able to focus on their lessons and get the most from school every day.
In the next article I will focus on what Waldorf education has to offer Sekoly Tenaquip and how this creative pedagogy can be uniquely tuned to work with these rural Malagasy people in their unique context to help them to enliven their education and their culture. Waldorf may just be the key to help this next generation step beyond the challenges they now face.