Maldives: Tsunami offers schools opportunities for change

By Dan Thomas

RAA ATOLL, Maldives, 7 June 2005 - A classroom full of boys at Un'goofaaru Island School listen to an explanation about how an undersea earthquake hundreds of miles away happened to flood their homes the other side of the Indian Ocean.

Dr. Reina Michaelson, a UNICEF Child Protection consultant, carefully explains to the children how the tsunami of December 26, 2004 resulted in the freak waves that travelled from the coast of Indonesia across the Indian Ocean to the low-lying Maldives flooding entire islands and sending these boys and their families clambering into boats.

In the bewildering days and months since the tsunami struck the Maldives, many of the children at this school have had to abandon their homes, move to a new island, stay in temporary accommodation and fit into new schools.

"They are experiencing a wide range of emotions and thinking they are the only ones to go through it," says Dr. Michaelson, whose class is part of a psychosocial programme organised by UNICEF and its partners to help children deal with the long-term trauma of the tsunami.

"It's very important for them to see that a lot of people are facing the same thing as a result of the disaster. That they are not alone. They are actually having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation," she adds.

Classes like this are a small step along the road to recovery. Dr. Michaelson runs separate classes like this for the girls partly because they feel slightly less self-conscious in groups of the same gender. Few aspects of life in the Maldives escaped the disaster, education included.

On islands like Un'goofaaru and the nearby Hulhudhuffaru, now accommodating displaced families, the number of schoolchildren has doubled. To cope with the change in circumstances, UNICEF and its partners are working to support the government. Near the schools, construction is underway to build accommodation for the teachers needed to run the growing schools.

Ammey Akhmeema of the Maldives Ministry of Education says that in crisis the government and UNICEF have also found an opportunity to accelerate child-centred teaching techniques which were being slowly introduced even before the tsunami struck.

Bigger classroom blocks have been built to accommodate the new teaching method which involves children being grouped together to learn instead of the traditional rows of desks facing the teacher. "This new environment is very child-friendly. We are supporting the teachers and school management to come up with ideas to learn from the child-friendly model and start implementing," Ammey Akhmeema explained.

Helping the process are veteran teachers like Dr. Sam Ginsberg from Australian Volunteers International who has come to the Maldives to help train teachers here in the child-friendly teaching techniques. He says he believes that with these endeavours "a huge leap forward is possible."

Additional reporting by Rob McBride