In November 2013 I finally made my dream trip to Antsirabe, Madagascar. Since the death of my brother Tom in 2007, shortly after a research trip to Madagascar for Lonely Planet, my family have supported SOS Children’s Villages in Antsirabe, where there is a garden and plaque in Tom’s memory.
It was extremely special for me to have the chance to visit and become involved in the life of the school, where I was welcomed like a family member and where Tom’s legacy can make a genuine difference to the lives of the children there.
I am a professional musician and teacher, and also have a CELTA qualification so the school had a rigorous plan of how to make the most of my time there. I was teaching music to the primary classes and kindergarten, and English to the secondary classes and school staff, always alongside other teachers.
I also had the chance to work with the ASAMA* class who complete a primary curriculum in one year, and the post-16 centre for those between the care of the village and independence. This meant I had the pleasure of working with Malagasy people from age 1 to 70!
After my experiences working with European teenagers, working with the Malagasy students was a delight! I found them warm and fun-loving, and my main challenge was helping them to overcome their shyness in speaking English. As they learn from age 11, many of them had a good knowledge of the language but were terrified of using it in conversation.
With the older students we confronted this by delving into their curriculum topic of youth issues – which it turns out are the same in Antsirabe as in inner city London! Soon the students began to be playful with their language – giving each other priceless pieces of invented advice on the perils of drink, drugs and night clubs: “My friend drinks alcohol and goes to night clubs – what should I do?” “You should tell her to go to sleep at night!”
The younger students surprised me in their own way by their incredibly enthusiastic response to singing (something I would be hesitant to enforce on a class full of English 12 year olds). The sheer power of their voices and the smiles on their faces as they chorused in perfect unison, “This is a pen! These are scissors!” is something I’ll never forget!
"How are you?"
Even the ASAMA class, who had yet to start learning French, were curious to discover some English. They learnt to heartily greet each other (and me when they passed me in school after the relevant lesson) with a smile and a “how are you?” as well as to sing “Everybody loves Saturday night” (whilst drumming on tables).
Some of my favourite sessions though were after the students went home and I worked with the staff – teachers, administrators, and the chefs and gardeners. I gradually realised that all the staff had some knowledge of English from their schooling, and as they got to know me this started to come out as they tried out small greetings and phrases that they began to recall and become more confident with.
Teaching them gave me a real insight into their lives – a lesson on daily routine revealed their tendency to rise at 5am to plan lessons, cook for their family and make the long journey to work. I learnt of their love of music and sport, commitment to church, distaste for alcohol, and ability to make jokes and show their natural good humour even with the limitations of using their third language.
Although I am principally a percussionist, I arrived in Madagascar with a ukulele, which I had to promptly teach myself. It turned out to be my most worthwhile item of luggage in terms of the hours of joy it brought to the children, staff and myself as it accompanied the songs that became hits throughout the school.
The primary and kindergarten children adored singing and dancing and absorbed every song I threw at them at an astonishing rate. I had a great time learning the basics of Malagasy so that we could sing tri-lingual songs adding this to French and English.
I wrote songs for them embracing greetings, animals and conveniently rhyming names of fruit across the languages, always with actions to harness their never-ending energy. The primary classes drew pictures of their favourite things, which grew into a song about friends, animals, trees, cars and planes!
Kindergarten staff helped me to learn the Malagasy names of a whole range of animals to make our hugely popular action song, transforming an excited horde of toddlers into dogs, birds, butterflies, rabbits, and the locally loved zebu. Whenever I walked around the school, I would inevitably be passed by small children who would start singing the songs at me with smiles and giggles.
À la prochaine!
My visit was filled with special moments and I loved being part of the school life. From relaxing in the sunshine in Tom’s memorial garden, to nail-biting journeys in on the motorbike taxi, to my rigorous attempts to learn the Malagasy national anthem, everyday was unique and full of surprises. This may well be just the beginning of my Madagascar story – in the end I could not say good-bye but only à la prochaine!
Watch Jenni and children from Antsirabe sing songs together
*ASAMA is an intense fast-track education programme nationally recognised in Madagascar that condenses the core subjects of the five-year primary curriculum into one year. The class is attended by teenagers who have not had any primary education.
We're extremely grateful to Jenni and the rest of the Parkinson family for their ongoing support to our work in Madagascar. You can help children on the African island by sponsoring a child today. Learn how you can help vulnerable children in Madagascar...