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Iza noanaranao?

These are the first words of Malagasy you will learn. Hello, what is your name? 

My name is Stella, I am 22 and I come from Belgium. I studied Biology at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and having always been passionate about nature and biodiversity I applied to WWF's YVP after I graduated. I wanted to experience living in a community which depends upon natural ressources, where I could be useful while gaining experience in conservation at the same time. 

What you should answer is: Salama! Stella ty anarako!
From that moment onwards, when you begin to shyly uttter your first words in the Malagasy class in Antananarivo, you slowly realize that there is a whole new world out there, waiting to be discovered. The words are short, witty and there is no grammar to learn. Prepare for the ride of a lifetime, and be ready to leave behind everything you have learned in your previous life (or put it in a box and leave it at home!).

Welcome to the land of the lemurs, endless beaches, smiling people and homemade rhum!

To summarize three months in words is a difficult, if not an impossible task.
It changed my life, and confirmed my initial ambitions.
From the daily doses of rice ingested to the ability to communicate with people whom we only share our chromosomes with, I am so thankful for my time in Salary. 

© WWF/Stella Diamant
Memories last forever
© WWF/Stella Diamant
© WWF/Stella Diamant
© WWF/Stella Diamant
A new world

We landed in Antananarivo on a warm night, and were immediatly overwhelmed by the lack of technology of the capital city. Normalities such as tap water, mobile phone network, night lighting and supermarkets were soon perceived as a privilege we would never encounter again during our stay.

Yet to be confronted with nature in its purest form, to be woken up by the animals welcoming the sun at 5am, to depend upon the sea to bring us food, and to have to think twice before drawing water from the well, kept reminding me how close to nature we were, how delicate yet vital this link is.

We had to shift our bodyclocks to match the sun’s rythm, wait for the sea to be calm to go fishing and wrap all organic belongings so ants would not devour them. This gave me a new insight onto the simplicity, yet complexity of such a basic life. I now realize how lucky we are to not have to worry about needs such as water safety and food availability here in our modern megacities.

Nevertheless, it was that very coexistence with the unknown and total strangers that enabled us to let our fears go, to stop behaving as some ‘has-seen-it all’ white ‘vazaha’ (foreigner in malagasy). At the end of the day, we barely knew a thing.

This is one of the most important lessons Madagascar taught me. By living in a sterile world, separated from each other because we need to have ‘time for ourselves’ and ‘space’, we unconsciously loose all the potential ability to learn from each other. We brace ourselves with MP3s, mobile phones and other artifacts, hoping not to disturbed on our (short) journey on the tube.

In Salary, one could not avoid being surrounded by kids admiring our cameras, stroking our pearly skin or soft hair. This exchange, solely based on primal understanding, as we could barely understand each other's languages came to me as a revelation. We share so little with these people, yet the simplest form of communication still surfaces between us and managed to trigger some strong emotional awakening. Are we living our lives the wrong way? Are we loosing track of each other? Where has our empathy and will to communicate gone?

© WWF/Stella Diamant
Sunrise in Salary
© WWF/Stella Diamant

© WWF/Stella Diamant


© WWF/Stella Diamant

The people of Salary

The Vezo people of Salary are extremely skilled fishermen and women, their life, traditions and customs are shaped by the winds and lunar cycles. They can identify all the species of local fish, simply by looking at how it jumps out of the water (which turned our ‘coral reef book’ into a big joke !). They know the reef like the back of their hands, and can naviguate through its edges just by following the stars. Yet, with our ambitious minds we thought they would listen to our patronising discourses, and drastically change their way of life in order to allow us to conserve endangered species, the same species upon which their survival solely depends upon.

Instead we learned to work with them, thanks to the well-designed program of WWF Madagascar. We were given a plan involving many activities, from embroidery and french classes to the design of road signs, all focussing on the same objective: to develop the ecotourism potential of the region as an alternative to intensive fishing. Because of the increasing pressure on the reef, the Vezo people are forced to look elsewhere for fish, which means leaving their family behind and migrating to far away biodiverse hotspots where there is a higher concentration of marine resources such as sea cucumber. Still, on an everyday basis the reef is overharvested, leading to the progressive bleaching of coral reefs, the reduced adundance of targeted fish and hence the loss of keystone species that play a vital role in maintaining the ecosystem at an equilibrium. Additionally, changes in the sea-surface temperature from climate change threatens the reef's delicate interactions with micro-organisms.

The children of Salary

© WWF/Stella Diamant

What I learned

We had to drop our ‘developed country’ knowledge and skills to make room for new adaptations. We learned how to make baskets, to disect fish, to cook in the dark, to naviguate a wooden pirogue, to exploit our creativity, to use solar energy... and to make every moment a fun one.

Of course at first it seemed like I would never get there, I still needed some ‘space’ away from the hyperactive children, some ‘break’ from learning embroidery, some ‘time’ to reflect. Yet I had no choice but to live in the moment. There was nowhere to hide.
Nevertheless, I found that we learn through failure, but also through openness, and by constantly facing the same challenge day after day I changed, bit by bit. I started to speak some dialect, then began to understand what people were telling me, then laughed back, taking everything on board as life went on, where happiness is only real when shared.

From that moment onwards, I could never learn enough from these simple, yet fantastic, people.I still miss them each and every day, yet I feel so thankful that they took the time to change me, they swapped my thick skin for a radiant glow and gave me the keys to understanding, acceptance and tolerance.

While we were in Salary, we taught French to a group of men, and a group of women. By the time we left they were able to maintain a short conversation, offer snorkeling/fishing trips and serve food/show the village to potential tourists. We taught basic environmental education in schools in six villages, as well as embroidery and basket making classes to women. We felt we achieved our aim, and wished we could have taught more!

Since I came back, I have started my studies as a Master student in Ecology Evolution and Conservation at Imperial College London.
I hope I can go back to Madagascar in the near future as an acclaimed scientist; in the meantime, I try to remember my lessons and welcome each day as a new one, with a smile on my face in honour of the people of Salary. 

© WWF/Stella Diamant

Malagasy class

© WWF/Stella Diamant

© WWF/Stella Diamant
© WWF/Stella Diamant

Two worlds One planet: a film about life in Salary

Two worlds one planet from Stella Diamant on Vimeo.