The Other Side of Paradise


Six young girls sit on a single row of stones. A few meters to their right, a black plastic sheet hang from a ramshackle condemned building. The black sheet is supposed to be a blackboard. Way down below, the Indian ocean hit the wavebreakers. On the other side of it, the aquamarine lagoon looks like a huge flawless mirror. A soft breeze swings the coconut leaves.

This conjures up the picture of a perfect paradise.

And the girls struggle to decipher some words on the blackboard.

In villages on the Rodrigues Island, eight hours by boat from the main island of Mauritius, __learning centres have sprung up in the past two years. Learning facilities are poor, by any standard, but the youth are learning. For most, this is a second and last chance to acquire the basic skills many have taken for granted-- to read and write.

The Government of Mauritius boasts a high literacy rate among its citizens, __ per cent and the highest in Africa. The majority of the people ( 60 per cent of Indian origin ) live on the main island. The Rodrigues reality seems remote from their priority.

To say that life in Rodrigues is bucolic is an understatement. The people, mostly of African stock since the time the Dutch brought the Madagascan to work on sugarcane plantations, live off the land. They grow yams, potatoes, corn and other vegetables and fruit and catch fish for their staple. A few others are government workers. The island, described by the French writer Jean-Marie Le Clezio as "sauvage", French for wild, lives up to that reputation. So why do they have to learn to read and write at all?

Less than 50 per cent of Rodrigues children who enrolled in primary school drop out. Before reaching grade four. Poverty is often cited as the reason. Girls are needed to work the garden. Boys too, for catching fish at sea. Their concern is immediate-- the next meal.

Looking at school textbooks, one wonders why they ever bother at all. Illustrations of girls and boys celebrating a birthday over a candlelit cake is something as alien to them as ET. Indian names and customs might as well be replaced by Eskimo ones. Neither would reflect the Rodrigues existence which is conspicuously missing. This gap is detrimental for young Rodriguais searching for their identity and role models and finding none in their textbooks.

Experts have linked the irrelevance of curriculum and learning materials to Rodrigues life in addition to poverty and lack of positive role models.

Every year, official estimates indicate that more children will join the rank of out-of-school youth. In a few years , they swell the rank of adult illiterates.

UNICEF Port Louis’ Project, Basic Education for Adolescents (BEFA) is an answer to this concern. It's now second year, that the project is in operation helping these dropped outs, to join learning centres . Two hours each day, they poured over the modules, a thick file of loose leaves consisting of reading passages, with exercises on farm subject, the environment, health and sanitation, accounting and finance.

This is a story of learning against all odds. It is rather courageous for these kids to want to take up what they have, like the word or not, failed at. It’s not that they are now seeing employment prospect. Jobs on the island are hard to come by. But they now see, that there are things to learn, at least to keep busy and fun, for the time being. Later, when the skills training components are organized, they hope to become carpenters, electrician and such likes.

If the return of these children represents a major comeback, the story of the programme animators is even more heartwarming. They are themselves pupils from secondary schools motivated by youthful altruistic desire to contribute to their less fortunate neighbors. They give their time, twice a week.

With all the good will in the world, the animators meet with many difficulties. They are not trained. They had to make do with their intuition as to how to deal with learners who are often their own age. Some girls admit there were advances from their precocious boys. But they are hanging on. They learned a lot, too from these learners. Their characters get stronger. And they see themselves as future leaders of Rodrigues.

At the side of a stone parapet on the edge of a precipice above a waterfall, seven boys hovered over a table busied with a writing exercise. One can't help noticing the absence of reading materials. It means that whatever is learned cannot be reinforced outside the class. This fact alarmed the UNICEF-UNESCO evaluation team. They appealed for an immediate action to remedy the problem.

Soon after the evaluation result came out, 20 Rodriguais gathered daily at Port Mathurin , the main town of Rodrigues, for two weeks. They discussed the issues of most concern and prepare illustrated booklets for use in Project BEFA.

As expected, the problems in Rodrigues are unique. After investigation and interviews with learners in the villages, the main problems emerged as fights in and among the families, drug abuse, sex education, discrimination against women and management of meager resources etc.

The strength of this gathering lies in bringing the youth themselves together with experts. After the ice was broken, the views of the young emerged innocent, committed and concerned. They wanted to share what they knew with other young girls and boys. Their frankness and courage to stick to their vision was remarkable. Particularly when scrutinized by experts who were or had been their own teachers.

Because there had been no reported AIDS cases in Rodrigues, and AIDS was a stigma to some, the old generation opposed discussing it. The unsaid reason was that it would bring shame to Rodrigues.

The youth argued that, first of all , what they were writing is only fictions, and therefore did not risk offending anyone. Secondly, if there was no AIDS case today, there might be one tomorrow. Information must be available to the young. After days of arguing and negotiating, __ wrote, Death of the Century. The illustrated booklet features a young Rodriguan who caught AIDS from a prostitute. The message is, safe sex- always. Careless sex, even once, can be fatal. The story, illustrated by Natalie18, shows a Rodriguan brothel and how Rodriguans behaved there.

Of the ten booklets, only one was written in Creole, the first language of most Rodriguans. When the youth first read Creole, they struggled because they had expected to see the French text. But after realizing that that was in Creole, their struggle turned into excitement. Many said they preferred to read in Creole. UNICEF Port Louis is now printing the 10 booklets finalized by UNESCO.

This trial version, described by the UNICEF Port Louis Assistant Representative, is "amateurish". But then, they have an air of homemade quality to them. This is what makes them more accessible and welcomed to the young Rodriguans, whose life, for once, is given value in the books they read.

The new series of booklets, being printed by UNICEF Port Louis, represents an exciting way of approaching the learning needs in Rodrigues. There is a good chance that learners might embrace learning in the same way that their neighborsss on the other island are doing. Who knows, Education for All, might be possible in this tourist brochure beauty of a country, after all.


By Namtip Aksornkool


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