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Monday, 8th April 2024

Off the Beaten Track… the route to one of our most challenging (and inspiring) projects to date.

By Alice Giardi

Esinda is an extremely isolated community in the southeastern region of Anosy, and is the most remote location where SEED is currently operating. Nine kilometres from the closest road, reaching the village requires a three-hour hike across multiple rivers, breathtaking landscapes, and vast rice fields stretching as far as the eye can see. SEED’s construction team stumbled upon the community of Esinda unexpectedly: Mr. Jobelson, Esinda’s headteacher, was acting as a guide for the Sekoly (Malagasy for ‘school’) team who were on their way to conduct a needs assessment at a different school site, and offered to lead the way to the nearby location of his own school. During this initial visit, SEED’s team observed a critical need for education as well as water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure, and was immediately struck by the unparalleled passion for education displayed by the community.

The location of Esinda on a map
The location of Esinda on a map, far from any roads.

​​Upon arrival, Mr. Jobelson showed the team the empty field which was once the site of the school building, unfortunately destroyed by devastating cyclones Batsirai and Emnati in early 2022. Prior to the cyclones, the school building had already blown down and been rebuilt twice by the community, exemplifying their dedication to providing their children with an education.

The community had temporarily borrowed two small wooden structures to accommodate the school’s 117 students and four teachers, but both buildings were in disrepair, lacking proper roofs or solid walls. The 39 preschool students have their lessons outside, there is no WASH infrastructure and the nearest water source, a rice field runoff stream 500 metres away, is open to contaminants, making it unsafe for consumption and likely the cause for frequent illnesses amongst the students.

Due to Esinda's remote location, students and teachers face daily challenges just to get to school. Some walk up to an hour to reach the school site, crossing rivers on foot or via narrow log bridges. Heavy rains frequently flood the surrounding rice fields, preventing younger students from attending school and forcing older students to take longer alternative routes, contributing to students being absent from vital lesson time.

SEED staff trekking to a school site
SEED staff trekking to get to the school site (right).

In response to these challenges, SEED has initiated an eight-month project at Esinda Primary School, with construction beginning in January 2024. The project aims to provide the school with high-quality education and WASH infrastructure. A new school building with three fully furnished classrooms is being constructed, creating enough space for all students to attend full-day lessons while accommodating for future student population growth. The project also includes the construction of teacher accommodation in order to improve school management, increase security, minimise staff absenteeism, and support teacher livelihoods. Four gender-segregated, ventilated improved pit (VIP1) latrines, and one menstrual hygiene management (MHM) facility will promote gender-equitable sanitation, while the installation of a 10,000-litre rainwater harvesting system in collaboration with Tatirano Social Enterprise will ensure on-site access to clean running water.

Preparations for the project started in December 2023, with the Sekoly team constructing two material storerooms along the pathway between the nearest road accessible by delivery trucks and the school site. Given the isolated nature of the area, the community of Esinda enthusiastically offered to take a leading role in material transport. As the project progresses, the process is predominantly driven by their efforts to deliver building supplies. Community members make the four- to six-hour roundtrip daily, half of which is spent carrying heavy items such as cement bags, lumber, roof sheeting, and reinforcing bars. Their evident commitment and enthusiasm reflect their communal desire to contribute to the project's success, emphasizing their strong wish for a school and the importance they give to the education of the current and future generations.

Three women pouring sand onto construction site
Three women transporting sand to the construction site

Three women from the community of Esinda transporting sand to the construction site.

As construction began as the Anosy region was entering into the rainy season, challenges immediately arose, which had been expected by the team. The entire area experienced heavy rainfall, posing an extra challenge to accessing the school site. While en route, the Sekoly team had to seek shelter from the rain for four days in Tsagnoriha, a nearby village where SEED previously built a primary school in 2021. When the team was finally able to resume their travels, the area was extremely flooded and pathways that are normally accessible by foot required crossing by pirogue (traditional Anosy canoe) which the team have now purchased to use throughout the project. Additionally, some of the bridges had become submerged under the water where they previously crossed high above. Nevertheless, the team persisted and were able to make it safely to the site.

Lomba, SEED'S Head of Construction, crossing a river
“I have never seen such high motivation in any school we have built. I was glad I made it all the way there even though the river was high.”

- Lomba, SEED’s Head of Construction, pictured here crossing a river during the journey to Esinda

As per tradition for every construction project, a groundbreaking ceremony was hosted in January before work on the school could start. The specifics of the ritual are unique to each community, and Esinda’s was unlike any SEED’s Head of Construction had seen in his 20 years of working at SEED. After a village elder gave a speech and asked for the ancestors to bless the construction, speeches were then made by the Head of the local Ministry of Education, the President of the school association, the Head Teacher, and Lomba himself as SEED’s representative. Typically, the groundbreaking ceremony is a day for ritual and celebration, and the work begins the following day. In Esinda on the other hand, it is the day where the most work is meant to be done. Amazingly, the community came together and dug the entirety of the school's foundation – something SEED's own construction team schedules an entire week for – in one day! The Sekoly team were completely blown away by the amount of passion and dedication the community displayed.

SEED's Senior Community Liaison Officer speaking to community, team digging foundations of a school building
SEED’s Senior Community Liaison Officer speaking to the community (left). Digging the foundations of the school building (right).

Once the foundations were dug and the four corners of the building were blessed by pouring a mixture of honey, herbs, and toaka gasy (homebrewed Malagasy rum), the community gathered for lunch. What started as three pots full of chicken and rice quickly turned into six, as everyone came together to eat. Following lunch, the work was still not over! The community then spent the afternoon transporting rocks from the rock-breaking site to the school, which will be used in the structure's flooring. SEED’s team was honoured to be able to witness such a special ceremony. It is one that will be remembered as the greatest display of community motivation ever seen by members of the Sekoly Department. With such a strong start, construction is now progressing at full speed, spurred on by the example set by the people of Esinda.

Village leaders blessing school's foundation, community lunch break
Village leaders blessing the school’s foundations (left). The community gathered for lunch (right).

1 VIP latrines are designed to increase air circulation, minimising smell and mitigating the presence of disease-transmitting flies.