It was 5:20 am local time. We set out to the airport of Antananarivo with Daniel and Karine, two officers from UNICEF. The destination was the first school we were visiting on this trip. We were surprised to be taking a legendary plane. It looks just like a bus, with only 19 seats available, but flying.
Three hours later, including two hours by car, we made it to a pre-school at Antsikafoka. Since I suffered from a miserable car sickness, I missed the wonderful sea views of the east African coastline along the road. So please join me in imagining.
The main classroom in the pre-school is a big hexagon-shaped building, famous for its eco-friendly features. The design concept came from good examples globally. Then UNICEF and the local authorities agreed on a model and launched a pilot programme to promote it throughout the country.
What are the special features of this eco-friendly classroom? It tries to use natural materials that are nearby. The main structure is made of concrete blocks, which don’t need to be burnt, and are much less energy consuming than normal bricks. Over the past few years, this model has been successfully accepted by many regions and UNICEF has financed more than 1,400 eco-friendly classrooms.
In the classroom more than 60 kids, aged around three, and two female teachers welcomed us. Our visit was a festival for them and they had prepared songs and dances. They were not a little nervous when they were dancing with teachers or with us, especially when wearing the costumes we brought for them.
Later that afternoon we visited another primary school at Ambatoharanana which has not been supported by UNICEF yet. All their classrooms are built of bamboo and they have to be repaired or strengthened every year. The whole village and the school have no electricity and tap water. We joined four of their classes where normally four students share one crude bench and an unstable desk in a dim hut, with only natural light coming through the rough roof. A world map in one classroom triggered a conversation between us. One of the students asked us if Hong Kong is cold and another shared their common concerns that what they really want is a new classroom with new chairs and desks.
It took us one and half hours to get to this primary school by car. Two-thirds of the roads are full of pits and holes. Rain comes often, together with mud, making the trip bumpy to the level that sometimes you don’t stay in your seats. But this is the road many students use to go to the school.
We spent merely two hours being with the children and six to eight hours in transportation. But when we saw the moments of laughter, curiosity they have for us, or even hope, all the efforts paid off.
We understand that what we gave them is far less than what they need and life still harsh and tough for them. But at least they’ve received the message that somewhere, in other continents, more and more people are beginning to know and care about them, and will be putting more efforts into providing better education opportunities for them.