While all of our friends and family were busy celebrating Lá le Pádraig, my wife Marie and I were up to our eyes packing our bags for what was to be the adventure of a lifetime.
I had retired from my position as registrar of the Court of Criminal Appeal in January of this year, more than 40 years after first entering through the daunting doors of the Four Courts on August 8, 1969, as a clerical assistant working on the compilation of the Jury Book. I now looked forward to the new turn my life was about to take.
The previous day we spent in town purchasing travel items, not your average holiday list but essentials such as light work-pants, mosquito nets, sprays, head torches and, to be on the safe side, anti-malaria tablets. On March 18 we left Dublin Airport for Antananarivo (called Tana by the locals), the capital of Madagascar, where we were to spend the following three months as volunteers at Akany Avoko Children’s Centre.
We were met at Ivato Airport by two Akany staff members and taken to our hostel-type accommodation at Scripture Union in the village of Mandriambero, a 20-minute walk from Akany Avoko. The following morning we were met by Manana, a very capable staff member who took us for an orientation morning and a tour of the centre, which was buzzing with happy children who made us feel very welcome.
From that day on we were hooked.
We loved going to the centre as no two days were ever the same. I spent our first week working in the child care area with Marie, playing with the young children, feeding the babies and taking the older ones for a walk. For the rest of my stay, along with enjoying the craic and the company of the amazing children and staff of Akany, I put my maintenance skills to good use, constructing a circular brick sandpit and painting outdoor garden furniture and the entrance hall area of the administration block.
I conducted English conversation classes with some members of staff, something totally new for me. I found that my love of ’60s music, especially the Beatles, came in handy as over 40 years later songs such as Yesterday and Michelle are still as popular as ever even with the young members of staff. Singing was always a great way of warming up a class, especially for a rookie like me.
Marie continued her activities in the child care area in the mornings and, in the afternoons, engaged with the older children, ranging in ages from 9 to 16, in games, arts and crafts and taking the children on long sunny walks outside the centre. Walking was one activity that always raised the loudest cheer as they headed off to the local sacred hill which offered the children the freedom to run around and play games away from the confines of their home in Akany.
Akany Avoko was established in 1961 as a girl-only centre but has evolved over the years and now caters for both boys and girls, who are all referred there by the courts. It provides a safe and an obviously happy environment for the children of Madagascar. Volunteers come from all walks of life and all backgrounds and can live on-site, depending on the availability of volunteer accommodation.
We were energised by the children there, by their resilience, charm, happy nature and engagement. We spent our last three weeks in the volunteer accommodation on site, where we could enjoy a different perspective of life in the centre, including being awakened at weekends by the sounds and singing of the older children washing their own clothes, from 5.30am!
Madagascar is famous for its flora and fauna such as the Baobab tree and Ring-tailed Lemurs. However, from our experience we would add the friendliness and warmth of the Malagasy people, despite the visible and dire poverty that pervades the country.
We took a one-week holiday from our voluntary stint and visited the beautiful town of Ampehy, a tourist resort about three hours drive west of Tana. We visited the beautiful Lake Itasy, the second-largest lake in Madagascar, and also the nearby Geysers and the spectacular waterfall of Chute de la Lily.
We also visited two orphanages and a street-children day school, all run by local Malagasy people, as well as a school for children with special needs and a private school, where some pupils’ fees are paid with rice.
When it was time to return home, it was not easy to say goodbye. Some of the Akany children, with the girls dressed in bright red dresses and the boys in red coats and soft straw hats, put on a colourful traditional valooma (goodbye) concert as their way of thanking us, displaying their skills at traditional dancing.
The night we left Akany we marked the occasion with a few beers as the remaining volunteers threw what is a regular going-away get-together for departing volunteers. We went straight from the party to the Akany bus and were delivered safely to the departure lounge of Ivato Airport. It was a pleasant early morning flight back to Dublin, via Paris.
Not everyone is free to volunteer oversees, and for those who have some spare time there are many organisations closer to home that welcome short-term volunteers. Camphill Community is one such organisation and as part of our new philosophy of “more to retirement than the 19th hole” we spent the month of February in Camphill Callan, a community buzzing with the same positive energy as Akany.
We took up residence in the old workhouse and began a painting project that included painting the high-ceilinged sitting room, including its windows (inside and outside) and doors. The preparation took nearly two weeks.
In line with the ethos of Camphill, special paints were applied to walls and ceiling – non-chemical organic paint. We had our meals each day with the workhouse community; the food was incredibly fresh and wholesome, organically grown in the garden attached to the workhouse.
We had a half-day off each week and took this leisure time to visit local tourist attractions such as Timony Hills Standing Stones and Ardcony Burial Mound and picturesque towns such as Thomastown, where we enjoyed a wonderful visit to the Camphill cafe The Watergarden, and the not-to-be-missed hand-made chocolate factory and shop, The Truffle Fairy.
After four weeks of hard work, project completed, we were given a warm traditional Camphill sending-off party, with gift-giving and harp music, which raised our spirits and set us up for our Madagascar adventure.
In late August we again volunteered in Camphill, this time for one week, during which we painted the landing, stairs and hall in KCAT, Callan, enjoyed the few sunny spots and spent a half-day touring the various exhibition venues around Kilkenny city during the Arts Festival. Again it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
The harvest is great with regard to the need for volunteers. If anyone wishes to know more about Camphill Community or Akany Avoko, they can find it online. Marie and I have built a relationship with a number of organisations in Madagascar and anyone, retired or otherwise, interested in volunteering or seeking information on this article can contact us on 085 7132116 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.