Manx actress visits Madagascar with WaterAid and writes for iomtoday readers about her eye-opening experience.
The Les Miserables star was visiting the island off the south east coast of Africa as part of the charity’s ‘To be a girl’ campaign to see for herself how a lack of clean water and toilets affects girls’ education.
I’d been aware of the amazing work WaterAid does for a few years, so when I was asked to go to Madagascar to see it for myself I jumped at the chance.
To think that people have no choice but to drink dirty water or go to the toilet in the open is heartbreaking. I thought if I can play a small part in ending this crisis and raise awareness of their ‘To be a girl’ campaign then I’m really honoured.
Life without safe water or toilets is tough for everybody but it affects girls and women most. It is normally down to them to make the long walk for water, carrying around 20kg on their head for hours on end. As well as the health risks, their education and livelihoods are affected too. I was amazed to learn that each year girls lose 136 million school days because they are busy collecting water, sick with water-related illnesses or because they don’t have anywhere safe and private to go to the toilet.
I arrived in Madagascar eager to learn more about these girls’ stories. The first place I visited was a village called Antohobe. As I walked up the hill to the school there, the children were singing and dancing for me. It was such a lovely welcome!
I met the teacher, Jeanne, who showed me around the school. She explained that the community had no access to safe water. Their only water source was a dirty pond down a steep hill. Drinking dirty water made the children sick and they often missed school, she said. When they did come to school, they found it difficult to concentrate in the heat.
I was surprised by how basic the classroom was but the kids’ behaviour was amazing. They are desperate to learn. They sat quietly and all put their hands straight up when the teacher asked a question.
Back in the Isle of Man both my mum and my sister are teachers, so I know a little bit about how challenging teaching can be. Thinking of them in their bright, colourful classrooms at home made me realise just how difficult it must be for the teachers to work in these conditions, and how tough it must be for the kids to learn.
They are at school for hours in a room with no window. It must get hot. They must get thirsty. You know yourself how it affects you when you don’t drink enough water. Not having these basics is distracting for the teachers and the kids.
I was introduced to one of the girls at the school, 12-year-old Germaine. She told me: ‘I go to the pond and get water from there twice a day. It takes a lot of time and I am always late for school. The toilets at school are dirty and I don’t want to go there. I only use the toilet when I can’t find anywhere else. It’s dirty and we go outside instead. Girls don’t come to school because of the toilets.’
Watch a video package documenting Sam’s trip here: http://youtu.be/STKYI3Yblnc
Jeanne, the teacher, then took me to see the school latrines. I was really shocked. The toilets were just deep holes covered by wooden planks – they weren’t clean and they were dangerous (she told me that children had fallen down the holes).
The teachers were sharing them too. I thought how difficult it must be for them. If my mum and sister were teaching her rather than back in the Isle of Man then they’d have to do the same – that’s when it really hit home.
I can only imagine what the girls have to deal with. I remember being 12 and going through puberty. It’s embarrassing. You don’t know what’s going on. I can’t imagine what it’s like for them. It’s no wonder that lots of girls drop out of school completely because they don’t have anywhere private to go, especially when they have their periods.
The next day, I was taken to quite a different school, this time in a village where WaterAid had helped the community build a new toilet block. At Andriantsilahy primary school, as well as latrines, there was a handwashing point and even a shower for the children to use.
You could see the difference immediately. There was a proper block of toilets – concrete and a lot cleaner. There were separate toilets for boys, girls and teachers. There was privacy and the doors had locks. It was all beautifully painted and maintained.
The headteacher, Lugene, told me: ‘The toilets and shower are helping many girls stay in school and follow their courses. The shower helps girls on their periods. Before, we didn’t know if they were washing at home. Now they can shower once a day and wash their hands.’
An 11-year-old pupil at the school, Lisa, showed me how she washes her hands with soap after going to the toilet.
She told me how things had changed since they had clean water and toilets at school: ‘Before, I had to get up early to fetch water. It took 30 minutes and I was always late for school. Since we’ve had the waterpoint, we’ve not been late for school anymore.
We don’t get stomach ache. It’s easier to learn and we have time to play. We used to have to go to the toilet in the bushes. I was ashamed. Now we have latrines and it makes me happy.’
The kids then treated me to a performance of an amazing hygiene song and dance. It was very entertaining – they even had squatting actions! Good hygiene was clearly ingrained into their heads. It was fantastic to see.
Having seen the incredible difference taps and toilets can make to girls’ lives, I’m determined to spread the word about WaterAid’s work and encourage everyone to support their To be a girl campaign.
Places like Madagascar might seem like a long way away from Manx but I was struck by the warmth of the people and the sense of community there. It actually reminded me of home!
Poverty is such a massive issue and giving people access to water is the first step in overcoming it.
Without water you can’t do anything. Please support WaterAid in any way you can.
This summer every penny you donate will be doubled by the UK Government, so we can reach twice as many girls. It really will change lives. I’ll never take turning on a tap for granted again!
Improving access to clean, safe water and sanitation is transforming the lives of girls around the world. This summer the UK Government is matching donations to WaterAid pound for pound, so they can reach twice as many girls. To find out more visit tobeagirl.org