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Madagascar's children find safe havens

From Ben Wedeman, CNN
  • Madagascar's primary-school enrolment rate is nearly 90 percent
  • Government has to build around 2,000 classrooms a year to keep up with demand
  • Building with air-dried bricks saves time and money
  • UNICEF has built 19 children's centers around the capital
  • Madagascar
  • Africa

Antananarivo, Madagascar (CNN) -- In Madagascar, primary school enrolment rates are nearly 90 percent, an example of the efforts being made to improve children's lives in the politically unstable country.

It's a success story the country is keen to build on, but keeping up with a rapidly growing population of schoolchildren means cash-strapped Madagascar has to build around 2,000 classrooms a year.

Outside the capital of Antananarivo, UNICEF and Madagascar's ministry of education are helping the local community build a new school. But rather than using traditional brick, they are using materials that will speed up the process, and save money.

Traditional Madagascan brick is baked in a kiln fired by wood from the country's disappearing forests. But an alternative is to use bricks pressed on site and dried in the air.

They require almost no concrete when it comes to building and will save $1,000 in the construction of this school, compared with using traditional bricks.

Tiana Vatosoa is the UNICEF engineer overseeing the building work. He told CNN, "If we compare with the old bricks, it took around three months or more to do this work. But now we can make a classroom in just two months."

Video: Building better futures
Video: Madagascar safe havens

The bricks are all a standard size and shape, like heavy-duty Lego blocks. The machines that press these bricks were designed and manufactured in Madagascar.

They run on elbow grease alone, a definite plus in a country where electricity has yet to reach many villages. With a bit of muscle two people can turn out around 400 bricks a day.

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UNICEF's Margarita Focas-Licht told CNN this new technology is starting to catch on.

"The more we provide a market for creating these bricks, the more producers there are and the more interest there is for using these bricks," she said.

"There are other buildings being built with these bricks, so I think there is a market being created."

In Antananarivo proper, UNICEF is also helping children by providing safe havens where they can sing, dance, draw and play.

According to the UN, two thirds of the population in Madagascar scrapes by on less than a dollar. The government can't afford free kindergartens for all.

UNICEF has helped fill the void by building 19 children's centers around the capital -- places where kids can get a solid meal and have some fun while their parents struggle to make a living.

Social worker Jenny Raveloson told CNN many parents can't afford school fees. These centers give them an alternative. And they are proving a hit with children like five-year-old Razakosan.

Razakosan's mother, Rasolonandrasana, sells fruit and vegetables in the market. Her husband is a construction worker.

"Before, I had to stay home all day," she told CNN. "Now I can leave him here because I know it's a safe place."

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Material support and some funding come from UNICEF, while the local community collects money to give small stipends to the volunteers who work there.

The community pitches in, providing food for a simple but nutritious lunch. Many of these children rarely eat breakfast.

"This is a poor area," said neighborhood leader Velomanantsoa Rakotoarivelo. "If it weren't for this project many of the children would have to work or go begging."

And poverty takes its toll on these children and their parents in many ways, UNICEF's Sarah Johansson told CNN.

"Having the social workers here makes it possible to identify children who are beaten up at home, that have parents who drink," she said. "So it's a way of identifying those children in need of special assistance."