This was the first word we were struggling with to pronounce in our Malagasy lessons. But after a while Malagasy is not as difficult as it seems, and learning the local language gives you the opportunity to have real contact with the people. It is the polite word to say ‘hello’ in the Mahafaly dialect, the language we learned.
Because of the many special species you always hear about to live in Madagascar, the country always attracted me. Working as a WWF-volunteer was therefore a great opportunity to see this uniqueness, to live close with the local people and to learn how a conservation project works in practice at the same time.
The isolation and years of evolution made Madagascar an ecologically unique island, with a high biodiversity. But on the other hand it is one of the poorest countries in the world. This combination makes conservation difficult, because for many people natural resources are the only means to survive.
We were working in the Southwest of Madagascar, on the marine programme. On the coast, from the Mangoky river towards the village of Androka, the world third largest coral reef system can be found: the Toliara Coral Reef system. We did our work in and around the village of Itampolo, a fishing village 150 km south of Toliara. Originally, the Vezo people are the traditional fishermen of the region, but because of the growing population and the disappointing harvests of the dry south, more and more people use the coral reefs and its surrounding waters for fishing. Besides, the increasing commercial demand leads to more intensive use.
Although the final aim of the WWF project is to create a marine protected area, our work was to prepare people for this, and tell them about sustainable fishing. Awareness raising is an important step in the process, because people are more likely to fish sustainable if they understand the reasons for it, and the future advantages for themselves. The most important ways of fishing are with nets of different sizes, a line, on feet (with a spear, mainly for octopus) or diving with a mask. We explained them why it is better not to use nets of the size of a mosquito net, why they have to leave the small fish to reproduce and catch the big fish instead, and to not destroy the reef while fishing. Also, we told them about protected species, especially triton shells and later sea turtles, and the reasons for their protection.
With our poster we went to different villages to do our presentation. Most of the time, the people were impressed that two vazaha’s (stranger, white person) came to their remote village to talk about the coral. They are often aware that there is less fish than before, but on the other hand they are dependent on fish for food and income, so do not have a choice for another source of existence.
A small part of our project considered beach cleaning, and we spent an afternoon with the local people (mainly the women), to tidy up the beach, and to bury and burn all the waste. It was quite difficult to get the different parts of the village together for this, but hopefully they continue with it once in a while, without us.
But of course the project goes on. Alternatives for food and income for the local people have to be found, the condition of the reef has to be investigated, research to biodiversity has to be done, local people have to accept different ways of fishing, and so much more work is needed.
What I learned while I was there
The most important thing I learned while I lived in Itampolo, was to see how the people live with such a few things. All things we worry about in Europe seemed so unimportant there. They have one set of clothes to wear, one kind of food to eat this evening, and the kids only have their self made toys to play with.
With the volunteers, we lived in a house in Itampolo, where the vazahas were the attraction of the day, every day, two months long. The children come to look at us, talk with us, bursting out in laughter while we were walking around in the village, and ask us for presents, which at home, we would have thrown away.
To be part of a WWF project taught me how awareness raising in a developing country works. You always read about this part of nature conservation as a small part of the whole project, but being in Madagascar and even do part of the awareness raising showed me that it is a long, difficult process, which has to be done with patience. You cannot change people’s lives in one day, especially not in an African country where people live their life in a very relaxed way.
Transport in Madagscar is another thing you need patience for. To arrive in the villages for our presentations, we sometimes took a taxi-brousse, a local vehicle that goes once a week, at some time of the day. So all you can do is wait, which all people do without complaining. And a taxi-brousse is never full, there is always place for more people, more rice sacks or a chicken…
Madagascar really is a country of different worlds. After the project in the south, I had the chance to see a small part of the northeast as well. It is so different with the green rainforest, the supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables, other ‘tourists’ vazaha’s, public transport several times of the day…. But, I will never forget the south with its spiny forest, amazing marine life, delicious fresh fish, beautiful singing in church every Sunday, enormous tombs for the death, the long beach walks, the transport with a charette, be packed in a taxi-brousse, the sailing or rowing on a piroque, and so much more.