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The New Reef Doctor School: Creating Future Leaders of Positive Change

Informed decision-making is an essential component of sustainable development and conservation in rural communities. For example, if you aim to sustainably exploit the marine environment you need to be able to interpret a graph on fisheries catch data. Therefore, the importance of a good education is undeniable. Although primary schooling is mandatory from the age of six in Madagascar, less than 50% of children have received five years of schooling by the age of 15 (OPHI). The education system is failing, with resources and facilities increasingly unable to function and accommodate the growing number of children requiring access to education. Reef Doctor is increasingly asking the ethical question ‘how can the communities we work with make informed decisions about their future if they are unable to access information through reading, disseminate information, and keep records of past events/changes if they cannot write?’.

In Ifaty, and indeed all across Madagascar, many parents cannot afford to send all of their children to school and many have to decide which of their children will get any kind of primary school education. Many schools in the area, like the primary school in Ifaty, are too small. In Ifaty, half the children of school going age attend school in the morning and the other half in the afternoon. Teachers do their absolute best with the limited teacher training available. Furthermore, the vast majority of public primary schools employ an archaic teaching method because the tools and resources are not available to introduce different teaching styles into the classroom.

After witnessing the deterioration of the schooling system in our home village of Ifaty, Reef Doctor directors, Roderick Stein-Rostaing and Emma Gibbons, decided enough was enough and recently started a programme for change, the new Reef Doctor school! This new initiative aims to deliver a high standard of education and skill development training to a few local children in order for them to become ambassadors and future leaders of their community. The new Reef Doctor school will provide the skills and tools for these children to become the access point for communities to learn about wider social issues such as climate change and declining fish stocks, which affect everyday lives. The vision is to provide a platform that empowers communities to make informed decisions about their future.

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Based out of the home of Director Emma in Ifaty village, the Reef Doctor school is now attended by 25 children from the village. Four teachers have been employed to teach the children and they work closely with the Reef Doctor Education Department to improve teaching methods and deliver the children a broader programme of education in Science, Mathematics, French, Malagasy, English, Geography, History, Sport and of course, Environmental Studies. The school has been up and running since September 2016 and is going from strength to strength. In addition to classes in the Reef Doctor School, pupils also attend workshops at Reef Doctor and community events along with the Junior Reef Doctors.

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This endeavour received a huge boost recently when a representative of CISCO, the Regional Department of Education in Toliara, visited the school. The school is now being registered with the government to include permission to teach classes to the level of high school diploma. A huge advantage of the visit and the registration of the school is that the school, once registered, will be eligible to receive assistance from a food programme, which will mean that the children will receive a nutritious lunch during their school day to fulfil their learning potential. The school is a testament to Roderick and Emma’s dedication to the community where they have resided for over a decade. They hope to provide the opportunity for children to receive an education that will help them to learn to investigate and question the world around them and ultimately  understand enough about that world to make informed and educated decisions that improve their quality of life and the lives of those in their community.

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Jnr Open day

Reef Doctor Juniors Open Day Huge Success

Education is the most important conservation tool. Teaching children about the world around them and fostering an interest in the environment makes conservation part of a child’s everyday life and helps to form habits they will carry with them throughout their lives.

The Junior Reef Doctors Scholarship Programme has helped to educate the brightest and most dedicated students in Ifaty primary school about the environment since 2014.  In turn the Juniors share their knowledge with family and friends and spread the message of sustainable living and conservation. And on Saturday 28 January the Juniors really got a chance to shine when they held an open day in Ifaty primary school to show the community what they have learned.

open day

The education department and the Juniors got to work very early last Saturday morning bringing tables, prizes and various project materials to the school to host their very first open day. Stalls were set up around the school grounds and the children were all in charge of different stations. When visitors arrived the Juniors jumped into action and explained each project perfectly. They clarified deforestation and provided a practical example of the affect of deforestation on coastal erosion with a model forested and deforested area. They described the process for making artificial charcoal while showing the crowd the raw ingredients used to make the briquettes and then they held a practical demonstration by lighting a fire so that everyone could see how well the briquettes burned and feel the heat they gave out.

open day 2

alternative charcoal

The Juniors also showed off the crafts they made out of recycled materials including toilet roll insert puppets and skipping ropes made from plastic bags. They giggled uncontrollably while adults tried the tin can and string phone and beamed with pride while they explained to the grown ups how it worked. They demonstrated how to make plastic string by cutting a plastic bottle into a long thin strip with a simply made plastic cutting tool and they enjoyed watching as children played with the various toys and adults ooed and aahed at the various practical projects.

making skipping ropes

making telephones

Once the Juniors had demonstrated all the projects they entertained the crowd with a dance routine and made history with the first ever public lottery held in the village. There was great excitement as tickets were pulled from the hat and smiling winners came to collect their prizes that ranged from clothes to toiletries to food with the main prize being an inflatable dingy. There was a great turn out and the Juniors and the education department did a fantastic job as ever. Their parents, schoolteachers and Reef Doctor couldn’t be more proud of them.

Report by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino

lottery win

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Green School is Cool!

Remember how much fun bunk beds were when you were a child? Ok, now imagine how much fun a triple-decker bunk bed is when you’re a child living in a place where concrete houses are a rarity, not to mention bunk beds to put in them. Can you imagine? Yes! Well, that’s almost as much fun as the Junior Reef Doctors and about twenty other school children from Ifaty had at Green School, or Class Vert as it’s known here, last week. Green School is a three-day summer camp held in the grounds of Solidaire Hotel that teaches children about the environment and socially and environmentally responsible living to work towards sustainable development and a sustainable future. The workshop is run by Bel Avenir, an NGO based in Toliara and Mangily where the children stayed from Wednesday to Saturday. But the children didn’t just enjoy the bunk beds, they also loved the trip to the Spiny Forest, the trip to the beach to watch a video and learn about whales, the swings, the slide, the football pitch, the games, the songs, the trip away from home and the energetic fun people from Bel Avenir who run the summer camp.

I spent the second afternoon with the children at Green School and wished I could stay for the rest of the trip. I arrived at about noon when everyone was having lunch on traditional Vezo floor mats in the main meeting area in the grounds.  There were lots of smiling happy faces and it was obvious that even lunch was fun for everyone. Once the children had finished eating and helped to clean up it was time for a nap. This really meant that it was time to play in their bunk beds for a while before going outside and playing on the swings and slide or having a kick about with a football. After ‘nap time’ everyone lined up in the main meeting area again. The children had already been taught some really great raps and marches by Christian, one of the staff, and when he gave the signal to move out the children marched in pairs listening out for instructions or a funny rap.

Our big group walked through Mangily and down the beach where a local dive center, Atimo Plongee, had a TV set up waiting to show the children a film about whales. The teacher arrived shortly after us and none of the children seemed fazed by the fact that he was a very large imposing figure with a deep voice and a stick in his hand, but I was! But I soon found out I didn’t need to be. The stick was for pointing at the whales on the screen and his deep booming voice carried very nicely over the waves and wind. The children loved him and loved the film and class. They had a great time answering quiz questions at the end of the film about what they had learned. Afterwards everyone formed a huge circle on the beach and played games. A little while later it was time for me to head back to Ifaty and I left the group playing on the beach. I could still hear the squeals and giggles all the way down the beach.

Learning should be fun. Learning about socially responsible living and a sustainable future is great fun at Green School.  Sustainable development is essential for a sustainable future and Green School and its amazing team is doing a great job preparing these children for their future as socially aware and responsible adults.

Reported by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino



The Future is Bright Green

Near the middle of Toliara sits the Notre Dame de Nazareth School. From the outside it looks like many of the private schools in Toliara. High walls surround the yards and two storey cement school buildings. Vendors wait at stalls full of sweets and snacks outside the imposing iron gates as children in blue uniforms walk in and out in groups. But inside there is a lush little green oasis of nature with lots of ecologically sound ideas bubbling up, thanks to Eco-schools. Eco-schools is a global initiative that encourages socially responsible learning in primary and secondary schools.  The initiative began in 1992 and projects are now established in 49,000 schools in 62 countries. 15 million students worldwide are involved in Eco-schools and learning about a sustainable future (www.ecoschools.global). Notre Dame de Nazareth School joined Eco-schools in 2015 and set up Club Vintsy to run its Eco-schools projects and curriculum. The club, named after a local species of bird, is made up of girls and boys aged between 10 and 16 years old.  We got to visit Notre Dame de Nazareth on Saturday 4th June along with NGO Honko and some of their Juniors when we were invited by Club Vinsty to hear about these ideas and see some of their projects.

The first thing that strikes you when you walk through the gates of Notre Dame de Nazareth School is the plants. They’re planted in pots in rows outside the canteen, planted in beds outside almost every building and planted in plastic bottles cut, linked and attached to the bars of classroom windows. Much of the planting has been done by Club Vintsy.  The second thing you notice is the enthusiasm all the club members have for the Eco-schools projects.  Throughout the morning everyone spoke confidently about their projects. You could hear the enthusiasm in their voices and see how proud they were to show us their work. Every club member was engaged and also spoke knowledgeably about Malagasy culture and environmental and sanitation issues.  They really knew their stuff and were very eager to show us what they’ve done.

Firstly, the club showed us how they make briquettes for fuel.  Two of the older girls explained the process to the group in Malagasy and excellent English, and dealt expertly with questions from the group while they mixed the ingredients.   The briquettes, made from a small amount of charcoal, water, clay, sawdust and zebu manure, provide an alternative to burning traditional charcoal, which is the only fuel source available to the majority of people in Madagascar for cooking. The production of charcoal for cooking fires has contributed significantly to deforestation throughout the country. The briquettes made by the young people at Club Vintsy contain approximately a quarter of the usual amount of charcoal needed and can be shaped in a press or by hand.  They are a simple and practical step in addressing charcoal use throughout the country, as the other ingredients required are freely available or are inexpensive to buy.  

The charcoal briquettes are easy to make and everyone had a chance to have a go.  After the demonstration, the briquettes were left in the sun to dry while the members of Club Vintsy took us to their ‘tip taps’ to wash our hands.  Tip taps are made from reused water bottles with a hole in the lid and tied to a frame with a piece of rope wound around a nail. To ‘turn on the tap’ you just tip the bottle. A small amount of water comes from the hole in the lid. Tip taps provide an inexpensive, water saving solution to hand sanitation that can be used in schools or homes. There was also a soap dish, made from a water bottle cut in half, attached to the frame. ‘Do you think eco-school is good?’ Science and Education Officer Apolline Mercier asked club member, Estella, as they washed their hands. ‘Yes,’ Estella smiled. ‘Why?” Apo asked. “It makes life better’ she replied.

Once everyone’s hands were clean it was time to get them dirty again in the school’s tree nursery. Some of the younger club members demonstrated and explained how to fill small plastic bags with soil and plant saplings that they had grown on site. We asked what they do with the saplings and some of the older girls took us outside to have a look at the planting on the pavements surrounding the school. The club has planted saplings in protective frames along the entire block surrounding the school. They are really going to brighten up the street, and provide a filter for air pollutants when they have grown. On the way back we dropped into a classroom where a class of 10–11 year olds beamed as they showed us their Eco-schools award. Back at the tree nursery, the club had lovely gifts of Moringa saplings for us to take home.

The group then made its way to the school’s vegetable garden where we saw the tip taps being used to water the plants and were shown what vegetables were growing. On the way we also got to see waste collection points made from cooking oil containers that have been cut, with a separate bottle for compostable waste beside it. The compost is used as fertilizer for the vegetables that the club sells to the market in Toliara. We asked where the money goes, fully expecting to hear that it is put back into the club, but were surprised and touched to hear that the club gives any money made from selling vegetables to the many street children in Toliara.  At this point the club explained the ethos of the school. Notre Dame de Nazareth was originally a catholic girls school but in recent years the school has started admitting boys. Our guides also told us that, although the school is still a catholic school, children from any religion can attend. Prayers are said every day at the school and every child’s religion is accommodated. And that is very much the impression you get from the school, that everyone is welcome and we were made to feel very welcome during our visit.

Eco- schools projects are amazing.  There are so many good ideas at this school. If the young people of Club Vintsy are anything to go by, the projects do encourage socially responsible learning, and teach socially responsible habits. They help people to engage with nature and make it a part of everyday life, make it a consideration in everyday life.  15 million young people throughout the world are interacting with their environment through Eco-schools projects and learning that everything in our ecosystem is connected including the people.  They are taking this knowledge and these habits with them into adulthood where, hopefully, they can make the future bright and very very green.

 By RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino


Juniors’ Classroom Exchange

The Junior Reef Doctors programme has been going extremely well since it began in 2014. The Juniors learn about marine ecosystems and conservation, and we hope that as they grow into adults they will use their knowledge of how to care for the environment and sustainable living to teach following generations.

Our nearest NGO neighbour, Honko, has also recently begun their own Juniors programme with the aim of educating children in the area about the importance of mangrove forests. Their programme is also going very well and the Junior Reef Doctors and our staff got to see how well on Saturday when the Honko Juniors and staff visited us.

The Honko Juniors made some great posters about the mangrove ecosystem, the utility of mangroves in every day life and how to protect this resource, which they used to make a really fun and informative presentation to our Juniors class on Saturday. They then attended a lesson with the  Juniors Reef Doctor on threats to the environment. Of course, there were games and snacks for everyone afterwards!

We look forward to more classroom exchanges and presentations with Honko and other NGOs in the future with the aim of teaching children about different elements and aspects of conservation. We hope that a holistic approach to conservation will become a part of every day life for these children and will help to prepare them for a time when they are making the decisions in their community and how those decisions will affect their environment.

Report by RD Comms officer Ivana Rubino