In Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries, going to school is not a given. Only a quarter of high-school aged children go to school, more than 35 percent of the adult population is illiterate, and the few highly educated people flee the island.
'I don’t understand why this happens, there’s such a huge demand for technically trained young people in Madagascar,' says Bruno Ratsimanohatra, a cheerful forty-year-old who has been the principal of the local Don Bosco school in the excruciatingly hot city of Mahajanga, situated in the less prosperous north of Madagascar, for four years now. He deplores the way his country’s government only supports state schools and does not care about private education. The lack of support for him and his twenty-eight teachers angers him and makes his roguish smile disappear.
At his school, young men aged between 16 and 22 can follow a two or three-year technical programme with a range of specialisation options such as cooling technology, for which there is high demand given Madagascar’s tropical climate. The school’s cooling technology department has bought an ice machine in order to sell ice cream to local fisherman, as extra income is needed for the programme to survive.
Religion, reason and affection
Bruno explains the pedagogical principle of the Don Bosco Schools, 'the preventive system' (le système préventif), which is built around three crucial pillars: religion, reason and affection. 'Here, teachers and students live together.' The core values do not get in the way of discipline, students show a unique respect for their teachers. The fact that there is also much time devoted to sports and games undoubtedly helps them channel their energy.
The principal talks contemptuously about the repressive system (le système répressif) that the state schools apply, as he puts it, but he sees a hopeful evolution. The fact that many of his more than 2,500 alumni now teach in state education changes the entire system.
Students are required to pay a monthly fee of 18,000 ariary (less than 5 euros) to go to school nowadays. 'About 80,000 francs,' says Bruno. The Malagasy ariary, which was in circulation only a year after Madagascar’s independence in 1960, officially replaced the franc in 2005. Just as in Belgium, however, the old currency is still on many lips here, especially if you ask for an amount in French instead of one of the eleven Malagasy dialects.
It is typical of Madagascar that all prices, even the school fees, are per month. In a country wracked with poverty – more than 70 percent of the population were living below the poverty line in 2012 – long-term thinking is a luxury. Madagascar is one of the ten poorest countries in the world and had a Gross Domestic Product per inhabitant of around 450 dollars in 2017 (for comparison: in Belgium, GDP per inhabitant exceeds 43,000 dollars).
The relatively low registration fee is only possible thanks to foreign support. The Don Bosco schools in Madagascar receive support from Belgium through VIA Don Bosco, an NGO that invested more than 445,000 euros in projects in the country in 2017.
The relatively low registration fee is only possible thanks to foreign support. The Don Bosco schools in Madagascar receive support from Belgium through VIA Don Bosco, an NGO that invested more than 445,000 euros in projects in the country in 2017. This money came from the Belgian government, as well as from its own resources such as gifts and bequests. The school shows some flexibility; students who are unable to pay can make up for this by doing small jobs. Nevertheless, sometimes the school has to turn students down. Principal Ratsimanohatra is considering setting up a shorter training programme that will only take a few months 'because most students want money and therefore want to get a job quickly.’
'I study to be with my children'
Bahadouraly Christiana Haingonirina is taking part in one of these shorter training programmes that already exists at the mixed Don Bosco school. It is run by the Don Bosco Sisters in Mahajanga and also receives support from VIA Don Bosco. She is studying to become a pastry chef so that she can sell bakery products at home.
As a thirty-five-year-old single mother of three children, Bahadouraly is not a typical student. The training programme lasts for three months, with classes taking place two days a week. ‘Each day consists of two hours of theory classes and four hours of practice. I study so that I can work from home and be with my children.’ The training costs her 25,000 ariary or just over 6.50 euros a month.
As a thirty-five-year-old single mother of three children, Bahadouraly is not a typical student. The training programme lasts for three months, with classes taking place two days a week.
What happened between Bahadouraly and her husband? She shrugs her shoulders and laughs as though it were a strange question. Didn’t she say she raises her children on her own? ‘He decided to leave, there was nothing I could do.’ Where poverty reigns, men flee from their family responsibilities – it seems almost like a law of nature. Fortunately, Bahadouraly went to court and succeeded in getting the father of her children to contribute to their education and nutrition. That sixty-five euros a month helps the family survive. 'I’m also going to school so I can educate my children myself later on.'
Football and piano
Behind one of the large sheds in which the students of Bruno Ratsimanohatra have classes, I take Amsine (20) and Elersene (21) to one side. Coming from the same village, located a day by boat from Mahajanga, they are best friends who are both taking the specialisation programme in cooling technology. They are very satisfied with the programme. After our conversation, they become more relaxed. 'Can't you help us find work in Europe? I'm a decent football player and he can play the piano.'
The power imbalance between the two friends and myself, only a few years older, makes me uneasy. Not only do I speak to them as a foreign journalist in French, and not in Malagasy, my physical appearance also plays a role. A few days later, some orphans will run away giggling after trying in vain to surround my calf with both hands. The inhabitants of Madagascar are very small and skinny and I clearly scare some people off. 'Can you help us?' I tell Amsine and Elersene that it is a good idea to go to university. I do not remember who was the football player and who was the pianist.
This article was published earlier in Knack.