“Ma,” in certain Malagasy dialects, is used as the interrogative and here I mean it to express the skepticism I have held for some time about all things education in Madagascar. It can be difficult, seeing the monotony of a colonial-era school system, to believe that anything can change, that any of the kids, for that matter, will get out alive. Education here is a process of rote memorization and regurgitation: a teacher before an impossibly crowded classroom, painstakingly transcribing the answers to the questions the exams will later ask; the students scribbling furiously in the front rows, carving their names in the desks at the back. From knee-high, to drop-out, to the very few who graduate, there is an absolute, merciless squashing of all creativity, critical thinking, and innovation. For a country facing a host of problems, these skills are at a dramatic deficit.
Starting an environmental education program in my old village, I ran into some of the expected problems: the language barrier, general confusion as to my oddity, misunderstandings as to the exact parameters of a game of tag. But what I did not expect was to hand out crayons, ask for “a picture of anything in the environment,” and receive a hundred dumbfounded looks. One brave child drew a house and slowly it spread across the room. A half hour later I had a hundred identical houses in my hand. The issue, of course, was partly a conceptual one of the environment, but perhaps more importantly one of independent thought. I learned an important lesson that day and on many more to follow: addressing the future of Madagascar and its environment is a challenge much more monumental than a knowledge gap.
So when I came to Maroantsetra to work with Wildlife Conservation Society and environmental education, I remained a bit of a skeptic, recognizing the value of the effort but far short of convinced of the pay-off. I found here something that changed my mind: a bunch of bright, enthusiastic, and motivated kids who, aware of the tremendous environmental burden they will shoulder decades from now, are eager for the knowledge and skills they will need to confront the challenges. In Connecting Classrooms, Malagasy Youth Network for the Environment, and Junior Reporters Club, students- many from scattered and isolated villages, already accomplished for reaching high school- explore their unique local environment, discuss issues, and develop a voice in the community. In a conservative country such as Madagascar, where ideas and beliefs are quickly entrenched, this youth empowerment is critical to fostering any change.
And on occasion it yields some surprising results. In a recent UNICEF training, students took the floor to identify current societal problems, from lack of educational opportunity (too few professors, too much corruption) to governmental greed in the exploitation of the environment, from unequal development practices to a lack of societal boldness and courage. It may be easy for an outsider to identify some of these concerns, but for a Malagasy teenager to not only think so, but say it, is a powerful step. When the youth speak out, take on leadership roles, and assume a sense of ownership over their own future- calling for greater education, battles against corruption, government reform and accountability, a change of mindset, and greater societal involvement and cooperation- the future of Madagascar looks a little bit brighter.
There is an amazing thing that happens when I hang out with these kids and watch them grow into their roles, an amazing thing that makes me drop my skeptical use of the interrogative “ma.” It is the way that they set aside all their teenage theatricality and melodrama when they are in the forest and are utterly silent for hours. It fills them with awe, and that fills me with hope.