A Spider in Beheloke - What Kind of Web Should We Spin?



Posted on 21 August 2014
A spider found on the path into the village of Beheloke.
© WWF Madagascar/ Israel Biyoni NyohEnlarge
by Gregg Smith

I’ve never been a fan of spiders. I once read that humans fear them because they are so different from us: faceless, emotionless. This was my belief until a recent day when I started a walk into the village of Beheloke that forever changed how I view spiders.  

Along the path, I found an eight-legged, palm-sized, colorful arachnid. It was so impressive that I cautiously removed it from its web to view it more closely. Yet as I removed it, I was overcome by remorse for having disturbed it to satisfy my curiosity. That guilt washed away my fear, and I was no longer afraid.

I see now that the isolated lives of the people of Beheloke here in Southwestern Madagascar are like that of my spider: both can be rapidly altered by an outside force.

Affixed onto weathered shacks, brightly-colored and seemingly out-of-place signs advertise mobile telephone companies like Orange and TELMA and hint at these changes.  The familiar orange square promising phone credit is a welcome symbol to foreigners like me as it facilitates communication and travel in the country. It shouts, ‘Yes, you can reach out! You are not as isolated as you think!’


These vibrant signs even bring benefits to their small villages as they help to connect distant families, communicate emergencies and assist tourism. But what do these mobile phone signs signify beyond these benefits?


The arrival of tourism and Western values can provide many good things, including incomes, yet I cannot help but feel that there is too often an irreversible transformation that tags along as well, usually in the form of replacing ancient traditions and cultural values with modern technology and ideas. One potential example is Beheloke’s legend of the Reino Rano, an enormous fish that leaves the sea and comes once a year to drink from a nearby river (read Navarana’s story about the Reino Rano here). Some scientists would explain this phenomenon as what happens when the river’s fresh water meets the sea, creating a vast, still expanse that resembles the back of a giant fish. But is it our place to explain away the age-old legend of the Reino Rano? Is it necessary that every person understands the world in the same way? Losing this story could cost the village part of its identity.


What is the force that so easily revises the lives and practices of developing countries’ people? Are they so different and spider-like that cultural revision is made permissible? It is true that life here in Beheloke is certainly not like life back at home in England. Here, children spend hours searching for shells rather than for Wi-Fi. But why must developing countries follow in our footsteps?


After realizing the mistake I’d made in removing the spider from its web, I returned it in an attempt to recreate its previous normality. My action may have worked for the spider, but returns are impossible with globalization.  


WWF’s Explorer program has given me the opportunity to live and work in a village facing foreign pressures, but where it appears that traditions remain deeply rooted. WWF’s projects illustrate the difficult position of working to improve livelihoods while respecting local values. The volunteers here in Beheloke work to promote new, income-generating activities that will hopefully improve the villagers’ lives without any need for cultural sacrifice.  It seems, then, that there are many ways to spin the web of development.

A spider found on the path into the village of Beheloke.
© WWF Madagascar/ Israel Biyoni Nyoh Enlarge
Are these mobile phone advertisements the prophets of future change for Beheloke?
© WWF Madagascar/ Navarana Smith Enlarge

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