Four weeks on the eighth continent – SKIP in Madagascar

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Madagascar. The fourth biggest island on the Earth, home of 90% plant species found nowhere else in the world. The ‘eighth continent.’ The world’s main producer of vanilla and coffee. The place highly affected by inadequate water supplies and sanitation. One of the world’s poorest areas with 85% of the population living on less than $2/day [1]. What has it to do with Southampton? SKIP through.

Students for Kids International Projects, SKIP, is a charity led by students in the UK, supporting children’s welfare in developing countries; the Southampton’s unit helps in Madagascar. SKIP’s main goals are to provide better future for kids by teaching them about hygiene and nutrition and to support local communities: volunteers help with construction works. All the work done on the island is sustainable, and so are aims of SKIP. Every summer a group of students is sent to Madagascar to teach children and build new facilities. They live with local families, in a city or a village; hence the experience is all-embracing. How exactly it is like to be a foreigner in Madagascar I asked Penny Hurst, a Biomedical Science student and one of the last summer project’s volunteers. She spent four weeks in Fianar, the second biggest city on the island.

Since Madagascar is generally not a country we study deeply at school, Penny didn’t know much about it before going, however, she liked the idea of exploring it and doing sustainable work within the charity. Also, it’d be her first travel outside Europe. Altogether: a very exciting prospect. Yet, before taking off, all volunteers had to face the classic students issue: money matters. The fee, including flights and accommodation in Madagascar, can be discouraging, but nothing is impossible to a willing mind. Some used savings or got a part-time job, but Penny chose slightly more creative way to get the money. She was sponsored to be a part of a 24hour skip-a-thon on the university’s concourse where she spent 12 hours. Then, she asked several companies for support and was given some money by her old high school. She topped it up by organising a car boot sale with her parents, using items donated by neighbours and other family members. So there: money – checked, Penny – ready to go.

In Madagascar, it was a series of cultural differences and hard but rewarding work. Penny’s first impression was very positive: ‘Everyone is so friendly! It was so touching when we were welcomed to our town by a massive crowd of smiling people! The life is carefree and the food is beautiful…forget beef, zebu [meat of zebu, common domestic cattle in Madagascar]is much better!’
The actual work out there was split into two sorts of activities. First, there was manual labour consisting of building a new latrine block for the town. Secondly, volunteers taught children about hygiene, sanitation, nutrition and basic English. They were supported by local students translating instructions – the main languages of Madagascar are Malagasy and French, English has only started gaining popularity. Tiring as it was, volunteers felt very satisfied they contributed to the community.
Asked about cultural differences, Penny said: ‘There were some culture shocks…going to the loo by squatting over a hole is something that takes getting used to…but I only feel I had culture shock a few days after I got back to England and was sat drinking a very expensive (relatively) hot chocolate in Costa.’ As a poor country, Madagascar seemed very cheap to the British volunteers. As Penny pointed, the most expensive meal in a very nice restaurant cost her around 15,000Ar [Malagasy ariary] which works at around a fiver.
Asked whether she would go on such a trip again, Penny keenly affirmed. A month spent in Madagascar helping those who need it turns out to be one of the best experiences ever.

At the moment SKIP is fund-raising money for the group of volunteers to go to Madagascar next summer. The following event is taking place on 5th May and it’s a massive Jesters night, don’t miss it!

[1] http://earthtrends.wri.org/povlinks/country/madagascar.php

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