A hoard of kids gathers ahead of time as they usually do, anxiously waiting; decorative flowers and handcrafted streamers are all in their right place. A southerly wind passes through the crowd, and beneath the shade of propped up boat sails, sitting outside in the middle of a summer day, something that would normally be close to intolerable, is quite pleasant. The rehearsal room on the other hand, is filled from wall to wall with ninety secondary school girls. The heat is overwhelming and I find it difficult to breathe, let alone shout instructions. Yet the girls are not fazed. Each of them is hyper excited, some jumping up and down continuously to remove the stress, some yelling for makeup, some singing, some practicing their traditional dance moves, some repeating their lines for the skits to follow…
What’s happening? What is all this excitement for?
On the 16th of January 2016, the girls club of Andavadoaka (also known as Fikamabanana Tanora Mamiratra Andavadoaka – The Shining Youth Club of Andavadoaka – or FTMA for short) held an event they called, “Tsy Manan-Tsahala”, meaning Unrivaled or Unique. Madagascar is as diverse in ethnicity and dialects as it is in biodiversity, with 21 different ethnic groups speaking 18 different dialects. Each one of them can be distinguished by its traditional customs, dances and the character of its people. For example, while the “Vezo” are “those who live with the sea”, the “Betsimisaraka” are “those who cannot be separated for they are so numerous and have strong relationships tying them all together”. With elaborate costumes, hairstyles and makeup, girls managed to show the uniqueness of the Vezo, Betsimisaraka, Antandroy, Betsileo and Sakalava, yet how they can also come together in unity.
According to the village president of Andavadoaka, there are exactly six ethnic groups living in the village. In effect, it has become somewhat of a cosmopolitan village since welcoming friends from foreign lands on the other side of the sea as well. In order to demonstrate the unity in diversity, we decided to highlight the qualities of each one of these ethnic groups through dancing and explanations. Knowing we’d draw a large crowd, we decided to take advantage of the time to raise awareness on some pressing issues throughout the Velondriake Locally Managed Marine Area in terms of marine resource and health management.
During my first three months in Andavadoaka, I have been constantly impressed by the ability of young people to come up with thought-provoking skits regarding community health and the environment. It is quite simple, we just give them a theme and they come up with the ideas and use colloquial vocabularies to express concerns surrounding these issues to the public. For this event, we encouraged the girls to act out skits using a theatre technique that we learned during a recent training with the Alliance Française in Toliara. The girls played around with five different themes: poison fishing, marine reserves and sustainable fishing practices, mangrove management, student life and community life. For each theme, the actors were to continuously do the wrong thing. Each time you thought their decisions couldn’t get any worse, they did. Amidst climactic chaos, the skit comes to an abrupt stop and the public is then asked to come up with solutions to address these issues – all very much a part of daily life. The audience is forced to remain attentive to what these secondary school girls were acting out. There was no shortage of participation, as people raised their hands to give wise advice not only for girls’ benefit, but also for the benefit of the hundreds of other spectators that were present; youths and adults alike.
The girls took advantage of this event to raise money for activities, trainings and future events they may hold. At the beginning of the school year, the FTMA girls’ club members expressed their willingness and desire to learn practical skills to use in daily life to help them continue their studies as far as possible. FTMA is centered on several themes ranging from basic leadership trainings and communication to sexual education, climate change resilience and recycling. Some of the girls strive to be proficient in English and French, some are looking to master the computer, though the majority of them want to be trained in more traditional skills such as sewing, handcraft, decoration and cooking. These practical skills can be useful on a personal level, as well as to help them make some money to get through their studies. In southwest Madagascar, there are many obstacles that inhibit girls from completing school. However, by working together and encouraging each other to succeed in their studies, the girls of FTMA are creating their own ways to get around the barriers. Immersing themselves in learning new skills acts also as insurance if they are no longer able to continue their studies. However, materials, trainings and activities cost money. Recognising this, each of the girls has begun making a 500 Ariary contribution per month to the club. And more recently they have found other ways to raise money to support their efforts. With the modest amount of money generated from this event, we would like to buy some materials for trainings in alternative livelihoods for women in this area like sewing and handcraft.
Empowering women has always been a part of Blue Ventures’ holistic approach to marine conservation. In 2014, a women’s unity movement was launched to encourage women to take more active roles in marine resource and health management. The movement has been accompanied by relevant trainings in literacy, cooking, local laws and leadership – providing skills and confidence for more women to engage in fisheries management. Women are increasingly involved in alternative livelihoods such as seaweed and sea cucumber farming; now accounting for over half of the farmers supported by Blue Ventures. Women in this area have become increasingly dynamic and motivated to make change, and girls are, at the same time, the result and the future of this expanding movement. At the end of their event, smiles and bliss could not be hidden from our faces. Girls know that they can achieve their goals through consistent efforts and creativity. I am hoping they will keep this mentality for all of their lives.
Now thanks to these impacts, stronger generations of women are emerging, courageous enough to express their opinions and active enough to make a change. If provided with the necessary trainings, with already their innate dynamism and talent, they will become the future health workers, decision-makers in the local management of marine resources, and leaders of their communities.