International Women's Day: Meet Madame Fleur
Madame Fleur is impressive. As a child, she was the first girl to practice judo in the rural village of Mantantely, south east Madagascar where she grew up. Now retired, she devoted her career to education, working as a teacher, a teacher-trainer, and at one point even developing a Primary Health Care Programme at the request of the Lutheran Church.
When asked about her own education, Madame Fleur reflects first on the lessons that she learnt at home. Her parents were tough on her and her siblings. ‘Too tough’ she remembers thinking as a child. Now though, older and wiser, she considers it ‘necessary’. Her father had been an orphan and strongly impressed on all of his children that he ‘won’t be forever’ and that ‘you have to be ready every day: Daddy and Mummy will be gone someday’. And so Fleur was given a long series of daily chores. She would fetch water in the morning, sweep the yard, water the garden, pound the rice, and clean the house, her father overseeing and inspecting everything.
Her mother was also tough. Once, when she was nine, Fleur went fishing with her friends without telling her parents. They returned late, clutching four full baskets of shrimp each. ‘When we got there I was excited that we were going to have a feast,’ Fleur remembers. Her mother was polite when speaking to her friends: ‘Oh yes, thank you very much’. ‘But my mum had already set apart a stick’. Once her friends had left, her mum beat her. Fleur was very understanding of this. ‘If I’ve done something [wrong], I will get the response, the consequences of that. So I didn’t cry. My mum was mad that I didn’t cry, so she took a basket full of shrimp. I thought she was going to prepare it in the kitchen. She went to the toilet and threw it away … I cried so much, and I punished myself … I didn’t eat at night, the next day, the third day’. Eventually, her father intervened and called her into his office. ‘Do you know why mum did that? he asked. They had a long conversation, talking through what Fleur had done wrong. ‘But what should you do then?’
‘I should ask permission.’ The lesson, Fleur claims, was learnt.
Her parents also put a strong emphasis on formal education. ‘My dad always said: “Education is like a spade … if you sharpen it every day, you go far. If you’re lazy, you stay there.”’ This philosophy was extended to each of his children, irrespective of their gender. ‘That’s one thing that I really appreciate,’ Fleur says now, ‘they put us in the same judgement … all of us have had an education’. And this was rare. In Madagascar, ‘priority is always given to the men. In the classroom it is the same, you know. When they are at school, the boys always have a priority on everything. The girls are for the sweeping part, for working a different way. For men, the men are always the high places, different places … in the rural area, [and in the] big cities, priorities are given always to the boys.’
‘I would [also] thank my father for never stopping me [doing] what I want to do. I like sports, and I have practiced all the sports except swimming. I was the first girl practicing judo here, but my parents never asked me to stop, or to leave it.’ Had her parents asked her to ‘stop’ or ‘leave it’ however, one suspects that Fleur would have continued anyway. Indeed, when Fleur decided to join the Scouts she did so without consulting her parents ( in spite of claiming to have learnt to always ask permission). Every Saturday morning she would work hard, finish her chores early and sneak away into the Bush, where the Scouts met at 2pm. ‘I disappeared’.
Her parents only discovered her secret when Fleur performed at the Scouts’ Fire Camp event. Her father was in the crowd, watching the children. ‘Who is that?’ he asked, spotting a girl amongst the boys.
‘That’s your daughter,’ a man reportedly replied.
Caught, Fleur was again called to her father’s office. His main concern was that she was stealing: ‘Where did you get your uniforms?’ Fleur admitted that she had saved up to buy them. Her and her siblings had been given a plot of land to grow and sell vegetables, enabling them to purchase their school supplies. Every time Fleur needed a new pen, or school book she would pay for it out of this money, running the cost past her parents. Every time Fleur sold a vegetable however, she had held some of the money back, secretly stashing it. It was this that she then used to buy her Scouts uniform.
‘Are you stealing, doing that?’
‘No, it’s not stealing because I have given it to my chief [a local leader in each commune], and he’s taking care of it, and now I’m telling you the truth – I’m not stealing it, I’m telling you the truth.’ Fleur managed to convince her father that she had not been stealing, and he agreed to let her stay in the Scouts. Later, one of her sisters joined her. Becoming a teacher had not been a childhood ambition of Madame Fleur’s. Her father had also been a teacher, and ‘in one way I didn’t want to be a teacher, seeing all of the problems my father had’. She left for Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, after graduating from secondary school. She studied there for two more years, with no clear idea of what to do next. During this time, three of her siblings also made the move – one to study and become an English teacher, the second to become a doctor, and the third a midwife. This put real financial pressure on her parents. ‘I realised that I should find a job to support my dad’. And so she did. ‘I found in a newspaper [that] there is an exam in Fort Dauphin for the recruitment of teachers, so I decided to go to the Ministry of Education, where I filled out my name and I got it’. She completed her teacher training in Fort Dauphin, and started her career. ‘So that’s it, that’s why I’m a teacher: I wanted to help my dad. My dad and I put my brothers and sisters through their education.’
Fleur worked tirelessly throughout her career to support others, devising schemes to ensure that every student had the materials to fully participate in her class. When she worked in Manambaro, near her childhood village of Mantantely, she would take groups of students to people’s houses every Saturday. At each house they would ask if there was anything they could help with. The group would then set to work completing the assigned household chores, and in return would sometimes receive a gift of 10 or 20 francs. Within each group of students, Fleur assigned a treasurer and a secretary. Collectively, they organised the money that they earnt, keeping it in a box in the classroom. ‘When some of the poor kids couldn’t afford to buy their pen, [we would] take some of the money for that’. And, if no student was in need, ‘sometimes we use it to go for a picnic, just to show them that relaxing is also a part of the life of the people. So we play games, and everything like that’. Fleur was also aware that, when the poorer children were able to purchase medicine they ‘couldn’t afford ... candy or something after to have with it’ and mask the taste. To remedy this, Fleur asked her Mother to ‘boil some water, and get some orange leaves’. She soaked the leaves in the water to make a tea, and then mixed in sugar. After creating this sweet orange tea a couple of times, a parent approached her and asked where she was getting the sugar from.
‘From my salary.’
The parent responded, ‘Say when you are going to have your tea, send one of your students to get some sugar, and one of the parents will buy it’. And so the sweet orange tea became a regular fixture of her classes. ‘But some of the consequences were quite funny,’ Fleur remembers. Several of her students didn’t want to move up into the next grade, out of her class: ‘they wanted to stay because of the tea!’
Of course, Madame Fleur’s time in Manambaro was far from straight forward. In fact, it effectively ended with her being ordered to leave by the Director of Education. The Director began asking the teachers to buy drinks and chicken ‘and so on and so on’ in order to receive the Head of Education from Fort Dauphin each Saturday. The first time this was asked of her, Fleur agreed. But the next week, when it was asked again, she dissented. ‘I told the Director: “Director, you have … teachers who [can’t] afford to buy those things. Why don’t you collect the money that you spent for him? He’s the Head of Education, he’s got the money, he can buy his beer or drinks with it. Why don’t you collect it and give it to our friends here who can’t afford it?”’
Her suggestion was not well received. “He’s the Head of Education: he can send you anywhere.”
Fleur was unmoved by the Director’s threat, responding “I can go anywhere.” She refused to pay that week, and then the next. Eventually, the Headmaster visited her home, demanding that she come with him to the school in order to discuss the matter further. Having already fought with the Director, Fleur was on her guard. ‘I had a small record player, so I changed the batteries, and put the cassette in’. She hid it and brought it with her. Once at the school she was met by the Director, who addressed her as the ‘leader of the strike’. Again, Fleur stood her ground. ‘If my work at school is [not] suitable … you are allowed to correct me. But in my private life, I’m free to give you what I want, and I’m not forced to serve you’.
This was the last straw, and the Director ordered that she leave Manambaro. First, he sent her to Mahatalaky, but she refused to go. Next, she was sent to Faux Cap. Again she refused to leave. Finally, she was sent across the country to Toliara and relented. At the new school, when asked about what she had done to be sent away, she played them her recording. The new Headmaster acknowledged that she had done nothing wrong. “But I can’t do much”, he told her, “because he’s the Head of Education in Fort Dauphin”. Back in Manambaro, the local community passed a motion and wrote a letter asking her to come back. ‘They gave me a special car even to move my things’. But upon her return, Fleur decided that she wanted to move again. ‘I said “It’s not good for me to be here”’. And so she moved, this time to a teaching school in Fort Dauphin.
Reflecting now on her long career, Madame Fleur comments that ‘I thought the [quality of] education would go up, but now it’s degrading … Before, I had to find a way to get books for my students, because there isn’t enough for everybody. Nowadays it’s worse than that: you put it on a blackboard, then erase it. Next day you do the same thing. So I think that the [national] level of education is very low now’.
This reflects what we know about the general state of education in Madagascar. Government funding in educational infrastructure has declined significantly over the past two decades and plummeted after the 2009 political and economic crisis. In the Anosy region, where Madame Fleur worked and still lives, 51.5% of 6-10-year-olds have never attended school. Part of the reason for this, Fleur thinks, is that government officials ‘send their children overseas, because they can afford it. And the rest are degrading all the time … education is not a priority anymore’.