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I’m a news junkie, hate walking and can’t dance at all, so why immerse myself thousands of miles away from life as I know it in a land where there is no electricity, where walking all day is nothing unusual, and where music and rhythm are deeply woven into the social fabric? Well, to see and do things in places with people that few get to do, and because I had just finished studying business and environmental studies hashing over doctrines, manifestoes, theories, policies and case studies. This was my chance to start helping with WWF International’s universe-saving projects, so sacrifices had to be made for this immense privilege. And like that…I was on a plane heading to WWF’s office in Mada-freaking-gascar (as thrilled as you can imagine).
The Madagascar of Your Dreams
"Madagascar!? No seriously, where are you going?"
Seriously. So, let me first tell you about the Madagascar of your dreams.
My day begins waking up from under an orange tree and taking in a panoramic view of the pristine forest that stretches on for as far as the eye can see. It’s just past 5 in the morning. A bit too early for what I’m used to, but I’m up and awake because I’m actually here, and because of nature’s alarm clock, the penguins – penguins that made it across the sea by hitching a ride on a raft to Madagascar when it broke away from mainland Africa about a million years ago.
Or not. Despite what a certain movie might have you believe, there are no lions, zebras, giraffes nor penguins living on the island. In their place is a unique collection of wildlife, of which more than 80 percent are found nowhere else on the planet but “the eighth continent”. Of these, it’s the charming birds and the maniacal roosters that have the devilishly fun job of waking me up before dawn.
The view of the forest is fantastic. However to be honest, you can’t really see anything most mornings because either the sun shines with blinding intensity or a dense layer of fog blankets everything up to your nose, making it seem like you’re half-asleep slumbering around up in the clouds. Whatever the conditions though, it’s awesome just knowing a treasure trove is just a short walk away. But before walking, I indulge in breakfasts of sweet bananas, juicy pineapples and milk and whatever fresh local ingredients the friendly neighbours want to offer. It’s all served with rice…the most amazing rice imaginable and tons of it smothered in oozing honey.
It’s enough to get going for a day in the forest – one that’s brimming with exotic organisms, like the mass of white fluff I spot on a branch. Cotton I wonder, until it starts to move and crawl. Strange and scary, but of course they’re insects, a kind that apparently nobody has ever seen before – not my expert colleagues and certainly not me – which means that I’ve just made a world’s first discovery. So I name them Phromnia arthuri.
It’s a momentous occasion that calls for a celebration with the beloved lemurs. If you believe what they say, there are approximately 85 different species in Madagascar. But really there may be more, with some yet to be discovered, or even probably less, as practically all of them are endangered. My guide though, grunts his throat in lemur language and summons up a pack of rare Golden Bamboo lemurs. They come swinging from down the treetops jumping all around right over my head with bamboo in their mouths and babies on their backs. And after more than half an hour of mutual admiration they split. But before they do, one chucks his gnawed bamboo down by my feet – a gift from the Kings of the Madagascar Forests, I assume, honouring my contribution to the world of conservation biology.
Evening eventually approaches, quickly encroaching and enveloping our surroundings. No matter where you look - beside you, behind you, in front of you - it’s pitch-black dizzying and disorienting darkness. But then there they are. Bright shiny stars in the night sky as it has been since the beginning of time. It’s inspiring enough that you just want to sleep right there on the forest floor. But although there are no man-eaters here and nothing really poisonous to fear, maybe just a harmless bite, it’s still advised not to linger in the forest at night. So, we make the trek back to our camp, which isn’t bad, because the cook has prepared a pot full of rice, and because tomorrow marks the start of another day in paradise.
- Tu vas rester ici, à Tana?
- Non, je vais partir pour Mentraka et Midongy.
- Menatraka…c’est où?
- À Midangy…Midengy…Midungy?
- Ah, Midooongy. Mais pourquoi?!
Our perception and imagination of biological hotspots and ecoregions around the world, like Madagascar, is filled with wonderfully idyllic expectations. Really, it's all as amazing as what we read and see on TV, but I'll confess that life as an explorer living like Darwin, Cousteau or Attenborough isn't as easy as it seems. Talking with locals in the city and telling them that I was heading to places where few foreigners ever reach (even never, until we reached Tsararano) some would react with astonishment and bewilderment - why go through the rigours of going "there"?
Turns out that the multiple-day journey on the notoriously brutal roads from Antananarivo to Midongy was the least of worries. “There” is where, despite the searing scorching sun, showers (i.e. dousing yourself with cold water) never cease to induce shivering spasms and fears of cardiac arrest. If the bedbugs aren’t enough, the wild can leave you with more surprises if you’re not careful – bilharzias in the swamps, leaches in the forests and chigoe fleas pretty much everywhere else.
To make matters worse, the forest can leave you beyond exhaustion and empty-handed. Never mind seeing wildlife, you may not even hear it, so you may have to get imaginative with your friend and substitute what you actually see with what you hope to see – a twisting twine for a snake, a crumpled leaf for a chameleon, a stone for a turtle, a charred tree stump for a penguin. Amusing sure, but a bit disappointing if you’re trying to film your own wildlife documentary.
So the forests of Madagascar are not quite exploding with exotic creatures all around. To account for this, there are many reasons: poor timing, bad weather, not knowing where to look, plain lazy animals, sheer shitty luck and environmental degradation as well I guess.
Indeed, to see the real Madagascar of today, it’ll help to be a Madagascar Pygmy-Kingfisher. Then not only will you have the uncanny ability to fly away precisely at the split second just as I’m about to snap a picture, but you’d also be able to see from the sky that the panoramic view isn’t nearly as endless as it seems because at some point not too far in the distance the trees no longer stand.
Still though, you’ll find a branch to settle on and when you do it’ll become obvious that the lemurs aren’t so keen and eager to join their primate cousins. Instead, the mere rustle of leaves on the ground is enough to trigger their survival instincts and set them fleeing for their lives, as fast as they can and as far as they can get, away from their human relatives – even the funny unfamiliar looking ones who came all the way from Canada and all over Europe.
And as the sun goes down and evening sets in, nighttime clearly isn’t as dark as it should be. A fire set earlier in the afternoon continues to rage on in the horizon with blazing orange flames lighting up the black sky.
Fire is great for torching clear a forest. Whether it happens naturally or is caused by us, the real Madagascar has a real big problem of deforestation. Some of the reasons for it are macro on a global scale, but a major factor is local needs that necessitate tavy. Yet although slash and burn agriculture is the easiest technique for someone with nothing to raise a family (a large one at that), it can be an incredibly crippling practice. If the conditions aren’t correct, as is often apparently the case in Madagascar, where population growth and grinding poverty is forcing more people to cut and burn dwindling forests, slash and burn severely compromises ecological processes like carbon conversion, pollination, “nutrient management” and the water cycle that everything depends on. It then has the potential to virtually eliminate the soil’s ability to grow food or anything plain and simple.
Welcome to COBA MMM
In the land of mora mora, where life unfolds slowly slowly at a nice relaxed pace, tree chopping is anything but. This urgency of forest destruction and wildlife conservation (to put it simply) is what brought the others and me to the middle of nowhere, the village of Midongy Atsimo in Southeast Madagascar and the surrounding communities of Menatraka, Ampatramary, Ambodisay, Tsararano and Bevaho.
To be in Menatraka, referred to as “COBA MMM” (Communauté de Base de Menatraka Miara-Mandroso), is to be transported in time. Despite the futuristic intergalactic ring to the name, being here is like going way back into the past. Wandering vast barren open fields makes you feel like you’re in the Jurassic era (especially when you hear this strange slow meandering mechanical wail came out in the distance every now and then).
With the heat exhaustion and monotony, I entertained the thought of walking among dinosaurs to jolt things up although it was the last thing needed when I walked in half a day quite possibly more than I’ve ever walked in my entire life carrying what felt like 60 lbs on my shoulders with no water barefoot over mud and rocks uphill all the way in 38 degree heat.This part of the world, where there’s nothing but your mind and body to rely on, exacts a tremendous physical toll.
Turns out the wailing was from an old rickety cargo truck slowly trudging along towards its destination. It was the engine revving every few seconds as it struggled over the big muddy hills and around the mini lagoons that make up the roads here because paved ones are a rarity. Inside the truck, as these trucks often carry, were packs of what seemed like the dietary staples of instant noodles, cream cookies and soda pop.
These luxuries are useful for keeping the vazaha’sromantic imagination in check. And for better or worse, I don’t know, the majority of people here can’t really afford them. So because these artifacts of modern life are visible only in specific places, it really is actually easy to forget which century you’re in. If not quite to the dinosaur age, then most definitely to a time in history back when there was no electricity and running water, back when seeing a picture of yourself cracked you up (maybe even scared you), and back when adults dreamed of their very own bicycles.
Such is life here in much of the developing world. Poor transportation and communication infrastructure among other things means that basic health services and education are left wanting. The world could be spiraling its way to the next Great Depression or the United States could’ve elected its first African American president, but you wouldn’t have even the slightest clue. If you’re born in one of these simple tiny isolated rural villages, it’s pretty much the only world you will ever know of.
Life is certainly harsh in these remote outposts as it was years and years ago in the developed world.
But withEarth Hour practically all day and night, the 1-km diet a realistic concept, and no need for garbage cans, it is similarly promising. Seriously though, whether or not a balance can be struck between conservation and development remains to be seen. People are trying. The villages may give the impression of an ignored cyclone-ravaged disaster zone, but this is in fact where the world converges with doctors from Slovenia, biologists from Japan, American aid workers, Finnish grad students, funding from Canada, Norway and Sweden, World Food Programme shipments from Pakistan, UNICEF and the list goes on.While certain institutions in Madagascar have been letdowns, what is promising are the locals – like the doctor who travels by foot every so often for miles carrying medical goods from village to village (no pay bonus tacked to his meager salary for this task) – and the equally dedicated people they work with trying to make the most out of what is.
Time traveling aside, what also makes Menatraka and Madagascar memorable is the people. Of all the talk of the island’s wildlife, what seems to get lost are the Malagasy themselves. Maybe they don't get much attention because they don’t speak English or their names have too many vowels, but whatever it is it's a shame because, whether in the polluted capital or a destitute village, they are why the country is so much fun.
This is weird because Madagascar ranks among those as the world’s poorest and least developed nations. Bracing for the usual images – AK-47s, machetes, road ambushes, bribery payments and smouldering trash heaps – I found that those who greeted me in the communities – the lonakys, the presidents, the mothers, whoever – were all very welcoming and generous offering to share their stuff, with their children offering to share and give even more stuff. By "stuff" I mean their food and ingenuity because that’s all they have. They just can’t help it.
The initial shock quickly wore off and the worst-case scenario fears became absurdities. I had fun amidst all the happiness and vitality around me. So much, in fact, that I actually started to question what the heck poverty is and if it even exists (at least in the context of the developing world).
That was until our master chef Arlette gave me a sort of reminder when she kicked the rambunctious kids out of her kitchen, turning to tell me “Oh la la, les enfants sont sauvages!” My French is less than stellar, so “sauvage” triggers in my mind images of ragged ferocious barbaric disease-infested little savages foaming at the mouths. Of course, she just meant that they’re wild and boisterous like any other normal 6-year old in the world, but still this made me refocus on all the dirtiness, raggedness and complete lack of everything. The day my neighbours giddily held up one of their biggest catches, a half-decomposed rotting fish in anticipation of this rare dinner meal, and the ensuing stench that permeated our camp drove home the fact that this was a paradise of extreme poverty.
I thought my time here would be about tagging lemurs, studying lemur poop, and plotting plants and trees, but much more was done. As to how “successful” we were, there’s no telling, at least not yet. Clearly the people we stayed with won’t be studying in France, cooking in Switzerland or farming in Canada any time soon. Hopefully, they’re at least a bit closer to fulfilling aspirations in their own country, like staying healthy, having enough food to eat, becoming doctors, judges and pilots, and visiting their capital city, but even this might be too much to expect. Despite globalization and technological progress, the level of disparity is crazy and startling.
I guess one reason for the Explore Programme is to serve as a link for the people in the communities and the volunteers to the world outside and the different perspectives, ideas and experiences out there. The world is big – we’d often tell our new friends that in our part of the world there are no lemurs and that not everybody wants fourteen children, and I take pleasure in being the first to introduce them to the Frisbee. But really, it’s a small one too – they’d listen to an iPod all day if given the chance, and it was strangely fun telling them that there is still corruption and political shenanigans, poverty, environmental problems, farmers, cows and rice in our part of the world. Just as we have images of them, they have their own of us, but determining which part of the world is better off is a bit trickier than it seems.
Whichever part of the world it is, it’s all there is for basic common needs. Nature, as wonderful as it is, can still be quite nasty and brutish – the great equalizer that erases differences. As it is said, we’re just specks in the grand scheme of things – helpless in a big dark forest at night and helpless when a cyclone washes out your home seemingly year after year. One way to look at it: think about our impact on the world not necessarily because of the disasters that will ensue – we will always be awed and overwhelmed – but because of the looming prospect of losing everything it offers. What it offers is not just out in exotic far-flung Madagascar (little is left); it’s also in our own backyards.
My advice is to keep in mind that...
Not everything will go as planned and that this can be a good thing.
You’ll be eating a lot of rice. Crops are failing more than ever so be glad you can.
You’ll attract plenty of stares. A simple akory abe will unveil a whole new dimension to your experience as a foreigner.
You might bring back some habits home with you, like saying azafady on the subway…and some other ones that you’re better off discovering for yourself.