Ahh, Madagascar… how to describe this strange and mysterious place? There are the specifics of the place: 18 million people, the capital city is Antananarivo (a name that took me months to spell and even longer to pronounce), 4th largest island in the world, 5% of the world’s plants and animals are from here. But these figures do little to convey the impression of Madagascar. It is an island rife with inherent contradictions, stunning in its sheer complexity. It is an island difficult to characterize, impossible to typify.
My experience first-hand with Malagasy life and the always inspiring backdrop of dramatic landscapes can, however be characterized. Characterized by a fascination with “contact zones.” Those times and places where people, places, or things at first appear so dissimilar and so in conflict; over time however, they come to reveal their commonalities, their intricacies. These contact zones were as varied and full of surprises as the island itself—they are, after all, the stories writ by the Malagasy people and of the Malagasy terra firma.
Contact between man and nature—like upon hearing the grunts of lemurs in the forest; not quite guttural, but still of a deep, ancient timbre. Chasing after lemurs floods my ears with new sights and sounds… The lemurs flaunting their grace as we WWF volunteers swat, bat, and stumble through the dense understory chasing after our laughing primate relatives.
Then there is the contact between us vazaha (Malagasy for “foreign person”) volunteers and our Vondrozo neighbors: cautiously curious at first, giving way to adamantly playful and interactive, until finally affectionate and familiar. Of course, some of my fondest memories were the ones of a personal nature, making bonds and forming friendships with the local people. Like when Madam Katherine, le Grande Dame vendreuse de Vohimary-Nord, procured buckets of warm water (a luxury!) and scrubbed my mud and rain soaked back after Jasmine and my 42 kilometer mountain bike “commute” to work.
Then there was the contact between cultures amongst myself and the other volunteers. Jasmine with German-Indonesian roots, Sonam from Bhutan, Andrew the Swiss-American, and myself a half-German American. All of us with international upbringings, all of as optimistic and passionate about being here. I remember nights spent tweaking just the right dose of hotsauce (betsaka mafanabe) to almost bring tears yet yield flavor to our nightly mountains of rice. Or there was the jovial mealtime competition we had with each other and the WWF agents to goad each other into finishing all our mountains of rice. With a wink and a smile, “I ate all my rice at breakfast, Sonam. Now it’s your turn.”
The most significant contact zone though—or, at least the one I remember and still wrestle with most—is the contact zone between conservation and community. WWF’s work in Vondrozo, is to create a 70 kilometer by 11 kilometer natural forest corridor to protect and rehabilitate the rainforests there while also providing contiguous natural habitat between two national parks. These areas are of particular importance as they harbor some of the last remaining populations of Madagascar’s endemic and endangered species.
Human inhabitants are important to this process as well; and, though you may not first think of it, the people here need protection, too. This is the key piece of WWF’s work and mission that I don’t think they have dialed-in to yet. How do you balance the needs of a growing human population with the increasing fragility of the natural world? Both are hovering on the brink of collapse, but must one come at the expense of the other? I believe—adamantly—NO.