Each February, schools in Madagascar participate in a nationwide celebration of education. This celebration, called Journée des Écoles (French meaning “School Days”), is intended to recognize the hard work and dedication of students and teachers. Last month, I was lucky enough to be a part of this celebration in Andapa and participate in many events during the 3-day holiday.
On the first day, students at the CEG where I teach worked together to clean the campus and replant some of the gardens. With everyone gathered around the flagpole in the morning, the older students were sent off into the forest to collect wood that would be used for cooking later in the week. The younger students, and I, stayed at the school to clean. Most of the boys brought machetes and sickles from home and they were told to cut the grass on the field across from the campus. At first, I was slightly uncomfortable to be around so many rowdy 6th graders wielding large sharp knives. As they chopped away at the thick grass and got increasingly tired, I felt more at ease.
While the boys were cutting grass, some of the girls were cleaning out the classrooms, sweeping the floors, and washing the blackboards. I was impressed with how coordinated their efforts were and how quickly they worked to carry heavy wooden desks out of the classrooms before deep cleaning the inside. The other girls were working in the yard to clean up the existing gardens and also dig holes in places where new gardens were to be built. “Garden” is a very generous way to describe the small patches of dirt in front of the classrooms containing a few large rocks or feeble plants within a thin border of grass. At any rate, the students treated these areas like they were part of the Gardens of Versailles.
The festivities continued the following day with athletic competitions between some of the schools. The boys played soccer, pitting the public school students against the private school students. The girls hosted a basketball tournament, also organized between public and private school teams. I attended one of the soccer matches and got to support my public school students as they beat the private school kids. It was really exciting, almost like a campy 90’s movie where the scrappy local team goes up against the fancy and well equipped jocks with nice uniforms. They fought hard and won an honest match, and the bragging rights that go along with it.
The final day of the celebration included a large meal for all the teachers and school staff in Andapa. It was hosted by the World Wildlife Fund, which has a conservation office in Andapa. Because of their generosity, an entire zebu (a type of domesticated ox that is more tolerant of tropical heat and drought) was purchased and slaughtered to feed all the teachers. That’s how you know a Malagasy party is legitimate: if a whole zebu is sacrificed and butchered for the crowd. The party was a wonderful gesture of appreciation for all the hard work that the educators in my community do. Preparing the meal was also a community effort, which happened to take place in the compound where I live and just steps away from my front door. When I woke up that morning to the faint smell of burning wood, I opened my kitchen window to find about a dozen women already working to start fires and cook the meat in huge iron cauldrons. Some of them were teachers, others were the wives of teachers, but all of them worked together for many hours cooking everything for the meal. I really enjoyed watching them work and talking to a few of the women about what they were doing. All their hard work was not in vain because the food was delicious!
I thoroughly enjoyed my first time participating in Journée des Écoles and celebrating with my school. It was inspiring to know that the entire country supports the idea that schools and teachers should be appreciated and cared for, so much so that they dedicate a specific time every year to do just those things. Sometimes as a foreigner, it’s difficult to feel comfortable and well-adjusted in a new community. But this experience made me proud to be a teacher in Andapa and I really felt like my colleagues consider me to be on equal footing with them.