Daniella Blake

Dancing the Sweet Potato in Southern Madagascar

Imagine a land that is so dry you get thirsty just looking at it. Where you can look over and see nothing but sand, cactuses and small trees that have developed every kind of spine and thorn to ensure their survival. Where for 9 months of the year life is lived under a vast rainless sky.
For three months last year I was a travelling performer in the deep South of Madagascar. Not in a desparate attempt to earn cash after running out of money in the middle of the Malagasy bush . But working as a volunteer for the WWF in a land apart.

Itampolo was the first home: a village made of tiny stick and thatch huts beside the Mozambique Channel, no electricity or running water and no contact with the outside world except the weekly "taxi-brousse", a 1970s Mercedes truck, its roof sagging under a load of rice, boats, chickens, goats and bursting from the inside with its load of people squashed in one on top of the other.

The people there live on a diet of sweet potato, maize and manioc for most of the year. There are no fruit or vegetables except the odd tomato or papaya. Wanting to help prevent malnutrition and famine, the WWF have decided to introduce a tree called Mirongo (Moringa Oleifera) whose leaves and seeds can be eaten and are rich in nutrients. Not only this but the seeds can also be used to purify water.And one of the best things about this tree is that it grows with minimal rainfall.

Our job: to go around to villages and talk to people about this tree. An easy task you might think until you consider that the majority of people in these villages cannot read or write and that we didn't speak the same language....
So we were given a crash course in the Mahafaly dialect and a couple of bikes and sent to work.

Along with my partner in crime - a Swiss girl called Julie - our translator, our guide and agent of security, a poster and my guitar we cycled over paths lined by cactus, stopping countless times to fix punctures as you might expect, to visit tiny lost villages where the local chief welcomed us with a sack of rice and a live chicken. We arrived like a travelling circus in places where some people had never really seen white people (vazahas) before and kids who believed that we might tear out their hearts to eat them.

First, a meeting with the local chief on a mat under a tamarind tree where all important meetings take place, surrounded by staring faces. Then with chickens and children running over our feet, we talked in a mixture of mangled Malagasy, French and gestures about why it would be good to plant this tree here, using theatre and demonstrations. Our pièce de résistance was a song in Malagasy about the tree, which we sang to bursts of laughter and the sound of goats and cattle walking past.

After our visits to the villages, volunteers from each village were invited to a demonstration day where we showed the women how to cook the plant and the men were shown how to plant the tree.

That was the job in brief.

How to really convey talking to crowds of people, pressed in around us - the women with faces yellow from masks of tree bark, the men holding spears or guns, wearing nothing but a cloth and sandals made from cow hide; the children with huge malnutrition stomachs and staring eyes.

How to convey living in a place where death is more important than life. Where people spend their whole lives buying cattle - leaving no money for their kids to go to school or to live in nothing but a tiny hut; eating nothing - so that when they die they can have the biggest tomb possible (huge buildings of bricks, bigger than 20 huts put together for one person) and a huge party where all the person's cattle are killed to feed the guests and the bands invited to come.

Or talking about living in a Wild West inland village where the only transport is by covered wooden wagon, where men walk down the street holding the hand of their friend with one hand and a spear in the other and women don't carry handbags but squawking chickens.

And one night to end all nights, where the nuns we were living with taught us how to dance the Sweet Potato, a mixture of frenetic movement of the shoulders and hips. Imagine a gaggle of nuns, sweating profusely in their shining white habits, dancing around their dining room table while outside the southern stars slowly turned on their way.

Imagine all this and you have some idea of the uniqueness of this experience, the knowledge we gained and the cultures we shared, but to really know the best thing would be for you to go there yourself...
 / ©: WWF / Daniella Blake
Off to work!
© WWF / Daniella Blake
 / ©: WWF / Daniella Blake
On a mission
© WWF / Daniella Blake

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