As an Explorer for WWF I set foot on Madagascar, the miraculous red island on the east coast of Africa. It has the size of France and Belgium together and a population that has doubled to 17 million in the past 25 years.
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, 49% percent of the people live of less than 1 dollar a day. In another way Madagascar is one of the richest countries in the world, the animals and plants here are as unique as they are divers. Madagascar inhabits more than 200.000 varieties, of which the majority is found nowhere else in the world.
While driving from the capital to the south I look out the window; the land is barren and dry. Small bundles of trees give a disruption in the slanting horizon.
Some Malagasy seem to be in the understanding that agriculture can be practiced vertically. On the highest tops and steeping hills people attempt to let rice and cassava grow.
I am on my way to the village of Akarimbelo, my quarters for the coming months. To get there I am stuck in a van for 2 days, one day in the only train on the island crossing the vast and humid tropical rainforest, after which we bump and slosh for another day in the back of a fully loaded jeep.
For final stage of our trip we have to cross a river in a hollowed out tree. We drag our bags to the river side and quickly hide all our red items. It is “fady”, or taboo, to cross the river with something red.
The Malagasy have a complex set of regiments with many tabboo’s and superstitions, all based on the belief in the powers of the ancestors. Having survived the boot trip I finally arrive in Akarimbelo, the middle of nowhere.
The people here live in little huts on poles, made of bamboo and palm leaves.
I had seen these huts before in a museum in the capital. Due to my clumsy French I was in the understanding that these concerned history, not present.
Every morning I wake up at 4 o'clock. Adjacent to my house is the water pump, which early in the morning is the place to be for some local gossip.
This is way too early for me and I turn around in an attempt to get some more sleep.
A hard techno beat awakens me again.
I thought that they didn’t have any electricity here?! It is the sound of the women preparing the rice, time for breakfast! The Malagasy eat a mountain of rice 3 times per day and with difficulty I stuff my mouth full of these white salty little grains.
When walking on the street for the first time an old man approaches me. He gives me a warm smile and stretches his hand out to me. I reach out for his hand and *smack*…. He gives me a fat kiss.
The whole street is roaring with laughter and the story quickly spreads through the village. That has its consequences. We work together with the king, of this side of the river, and he immediately decides to make a new law. Whoever tries to kiss the * vazaha* (stranger, white person) will have to pay a cow. When the sun sets he walks onto the small square and notifies the whole village of the new law by loudly calling.
During the warm and sweating days I help the villagers to plant rice. The Tanala, the people of the forest, collect food from the forest and slash and burn the forest to obtain land to cultivate rice and cassava on. After 3 to 4 years the soil is depleted and the farmer is forced to cut down a new piece of forest. In the past already 90% of the original forests on Madagascar have been cut down to make place for agricultural land.
WWF shows the communities how rice can be planted in terraces, so there yield will triple in comparison to their original techniques. They do not need to shift their agricultural land, thereby saving forest. Here on Madagascar to protect nature means to help people, so they can stop trying to survive and begin living.
I never thought that I, as a nature conservationist, would work on human development, but in Madagascar that is indissolubly connected to nature conservation.
This is the furthest I have ever been away from civilization; there is only one radio in the village that is blaring the whole day long. Next to my house is a shabby little office with a sign that says: “agence postale”. When I come by to post the letters to my family the man behind the counter gives me a confused look. I should have known. You can not send any letters here, anywhere…
The only news that reaches this village comes on foot through the jungle.
And after a month in the jungle a message comes for us. There is a threat of a coup d’etat and we have to leave the village as soon as possible.
Before sunrise we set out, after the villagers that accompany us have been staring with mouth open at our bulging bags. Eventually two men accompany me to carry my bag and I explain to one of them how the pack can be adjusted to fit them. He nods yes fiercely after which he carefully places my 20 kilo weighing bag pack on his head.
To return quickly to the WWF office in town we have to cross the uninhabited jungle, a 8 hour trek. I walk a little nervously with the men of the village over an age old trade route. In front of me walk traders with jerry cans on there shoulders full of illegally produced alcohol, the “wisky Malgasch”. Behind me walks a young man with a big bag of lychees on his shoulders. I eagerly inhale the delicious sweet smell. When I stop to take a rest he fills up my hands with these heavenly fruits.
We pass trough a magnificent forest with innumerable shades of green and a thousand creatures announcing their presence. In the forest I see snakes, curious half monkeys and colorful chameleons. There are also a lot less cuddly creatures that highly appreciate my presence, blood sucking leeches!
Fortunately the rebelling general is quickly caught and we can go back to work. We leave for a new village in the highlands. Here live the Bestileo, a tribe that is known for their rice terraces and large amounts of zebu’s (cows with very pointy horns!).
We are welcomed with open arms and the whole village comes with blankets, pots and mats to make our stay as comfortable as possible. In the morning when I have finished doing my laundry in the river I hear children laughing behind my house. They have found our waste and my water bottle has magically transformed into a truck, a plastic bag into a kite and a can of tomato concentrate is now a little car.
The neighbor lady comes by with her fiends, and despite of my poor Malgasch they come by every day for a chat. With my few words of Malgasch; “akory abi”(hello) and “Ino vao vao?” ( What’s new) we chat, especially she, soon for over half an hour.
The Bestileo have a wonderful way of dressing. They drape cheerfully decorated cloths (lamba’s) over their shoulders, printed with flours or even teddy bears. The boys wear an accessory that I also occasionally see on rappers on tv, a comb in their hair. Here a sign that the boy is looking for a lovely lady to marry.
In the honor of our arrival the villagers organize a big party so we can meet everyone. The rum goes from hand to hand and in dark corners children are concealed underneath their blankets. They have crawled out of their beds lured by the sound of the kabosy guitar and the stomping of the dancing women.
In a corner a group is busy to fix the ancient tape recorder lighted by an oil lamp. Abruptly the music stops and the village eldest personally chases them outside, back to bed! A fruitless effort, when all the parents have consumed enough alcohol and most mums have gone to sleep I slowly see more and more little kids appearing.
They love dancing and the whole evening I am closely followed by to young girls that copy my every move and form somewhat of an obstacle when the 75 year old Francois asks me to dance. He is one of the oldest in the village and he can shake it! Fiercely turning , whirling and swinging I am guided along the dance floor. The young man are standing in the corners with there lamba’s pulled over their heads, like little ghosts. I feel like I have stranded on a Halloween party!
With the villagers we organize a reforestation day on which we together plant around 2000 trees. A year before another reforested area has gone up in flames, but the villagers are determined and full of courage to replant the area.
The people here know that the forest is of life importance to them. They use wood for construction, retrieve traditional medicine and the forest secures them of potable water.
When I have a fever due to Malaria a man brings me traditional medicine to relieve my headache.
The community has established a commission to check the forest on illegal logging and fires. They work hard on a sustainable future for themselves and the environment.
The last day the man of the village come to wish us fare well. For the occasion they have brought a bottle of rum. After 3 long hours of waiting on our jeep all the rum is finished and the village eldest invites us to his home for some more local delicatessen.
Our jeep does not make it and eventually we crawl, slightly intoxicated, in the back of a truck of a local trader. Together with blocs of granite, chickens, gas tanks, a grandfather with his grandchild, a spare wheel, a woman with baby and a big load of rice.
At least I leave this country Malagasy style!