Akany Avoko - A safe haven

Earlier this year, Dunedin residents Gil and Wyn Barbezat travelled to Madagascar, one of the world's poorest countries, to spend two months volunteering.
"Bonjour vazaha!" roughly translates as "g'day Pakeha" and was the cheery greeting we received from the children when we arrived at Akany Avoko.

Responding to their greeting in Malagasy, "manao ahoana" (hello) immediately brought a smile to their faces.

The open friendliness of everyone we met dispelled any preconceived ideas of what a "children's home" might be like. This was a great start to our two-month stay at Akany.

About Akany Avoko

Akany Avoko - the place of the avoko flower - is situated in a village 15km north of Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo.

Akany started 45 years ago in response to a need for a safe haven for girls on remand for petty crimes in a country with a harsh judicial system.

Prior to its establishment, girls were held in adult prisons with hardened criminals waiting (sometimes for years) for their case to come before the courts.

At Akany Avoko, they had the opportunity for education, a safe environment and a chance to develop life skills.

From these early beginnings, the centre has grown into a vibrant community with a broader mandate to accept children in need.

Today, Akany Avoko is home to more than 100 destitute children and young people.

Most children arrive at the centre either because they have no family or what family they have are unable to support them.

Whether orphaned, abandoned, destitute, mistreated or accused of a crime, every young person there relies on Akany Avoko as they would their own family.

One of the most important aspects of the work at the centre is to prepare young people for independence and life in the community.

Akany is supported by the FJKM (the Protestant Churches of Madagascar) and receives a little government funding.

Much funding, however, comes from abroad.

This varies from one-off grants from the European Community, European and American church groups, schools and universities, and individuals who may sponsor a project or sponsor an individual child.

Alongside other volunteers from Canada, Switzerland, Holland and England, we slotted into activities at Akany Avoko that included teaching English, helping with extra conversational French and general studies.

Story of survival

Each child's story reflects in some way the extreme poverty that is an everyday reality for many of Madagascar's 18 million people.

Madagascar ranks among the 10 poorest countries in the world, and while the present government is working hard to improve the standard of living, the road ahead is long and tortuous.

Our eyes were opened to a whole new world: a world where sustainable living has real meaning and which could more accurately be described as sustainable survival.

Here, we observed recycling and waste minimisation in action.

We saw water conservation projects, solar water heating and solar cooking, composting and methane-producing toilets, organic vegetable gardening, poultry raising and recycled papermaking.

As well as conserving the environment and resources, a major motivation for Akany Avoko is to reduce costs.

Why? Because any savings made here can be channelled into extra activities for the children.