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An eye opening adventure...

Posted on 21 April 2008

I was given the chance of a lifetime... A chance to learn about the world and to delve deep into myself. A chance to see the world as people from our western culture seldom do, and it changed my life in more ways than one.
I landed in Madagascar on September 28th, 2007.  It's hard to think back to what I was expecting when I first set foot so far away from home. I was excited, thrilled, curious and more than a little nervous. I liked to think I was an open minded person. I'd read quite a bit, watched movies, looked through National Geographic magazines since I was a kid but I still wasn't ready for all the things I was about to witness. The WWF International Youth Volunteers' Programme had set up 3 months of adventure to the depths of and I was trying to figure out how I was going to give back.

I  was never alone though, from Antananarivo on there were 6 of us volunteers, Miriam Sewon from Finland, Charlotte Whitham from England, Alicia Fernandez Rubio from Mexico, Martina Lippuner from Switzerland and Nicole Sarkis from Australia. We were always followed, helped and trained by local Malagasy WWF agents who wore smiles of welcome everywhere we went. There was also Sahondra, our programme coordinator, who greeted us at the airport, showed us around town, made sure we were properly settled and basically made sure we were always alright. Simply the fact of having 6 people from all over come together and have to sleep, eat and work together everyday was a challenge. We quickly realized that although we might come from similar countries, we were very different people with different mind sets and traditions. We had to work through a lot but in the end, we ended up being a good team.

After a few days in Tana ( the locals name for Antananarivo, meaning “town”), we set out for Andapa.  We hadn't yet seen the splendor of 's forest or diversity since Tana is such a big city. Driving from Sambava to Andapa was simply breathtaking! There were rolling hills as far as the eye could see covered in thick brilliantly green forest. Closer to the road, we went through many small villages with people herding their Zebu or tending the rice fields. There were many little wooden huts on stilts lining the streets where children laughed and smiled to see a car full of vazaha fotsy ( white strangers). We couldn't get our eyes wide enough to take everything in! Once in Andapa, we spent many days at the WWF Andapa office, learning about the projects we were to take part in and taking Malagasy courses. We were each given a zoky or older brother agent who was named to watch over us should we need anything. Again, everyone was cheerful and seemed so happy to have us finally arrive. During our free time, we would often roam the streets followed by a crowd of young children wanting to practice their french or english or just wanting to play. It was wonderful to hear them laugh  and sing. We came to see that poverty did not mean misery. I have yet to see children so full of life as they.

Ambodihasina and Ambodivohitra
Finally it was time to head out to the villages. This was our first project. We split up between two villages, Ambodihasina and Ambodivohitra, to continue the work the previous volunteers started in creating the “Amis des Lemuriens” and also to be able to experience intimately how the Malagasy live. We were each assigned a family to live with. This was a challenge since most did not speak any french or english and the rest spoke only very little. We had to learn pretty quickly how to utilize the little bit of Malagasy we learned in Andapa. Some things could always cross the language barrier without any doubt. I was humbled by the never ending generosity and kindness they showed us. We were living in their small homes, eating their food and still they offered to wash our clothing (seeing that we were not used to scrubbing them against rocks in the river), walk us to the nearest town, bring us on hikes to see the wildlife etc. One day, Marcel, whose home was where both Miriam and I stayed for a while, climbed to the top of a huge lychee tree to fetch the few early fruit for Miriam who had been feeling ill. We begged him not to go up, saying it wasn't necessary, but he had been feeling awful that his guest was sick and desperately wanted to help. Later, when I fell ill once back in Andapa, he walked the half day it takes from Ambodivohitra to come and check on us. He was truly a gentleman and I remember him fondly. But he wasn't the only one by far. Many things of the sort happened. There was no end to their kindness.

The work we did with the "Amis Des Lemuriens" was eye opening and I have to say disappointing. Having not been followed, not having any funds of any kind or training whatsoever, not to mention the fact that all the members have families that rely on them for food, meant that they had pretty much not done anything since the last group of volunteers came the year before. They did however have a list of equipment they wanted us to supply them. They had made a list of responsibilities of their own with new mandates that needed much more then we could supply them with. They had not understood that all they needed to do to make a difference was spread the word throughout the village that their forest and its inhabitants are important to the world and more directly to their own lives. We also wanted them to promote new ways of cooking, building, farming, etc that would be more efficient and environmentally friendly. Throughout our discussions with them and long drawn out meetings, we still had a hard time getting through to them. In the end, the families housing us made an attempt to use the more environmentally friendly wood stoves provided by WWF, only to discover that they were difficult to use, made a mess and produced quite a bit more smoke... We then did not feel comfortable asking them to use them any further but they still tried. It would have been really good to introduce a new way of cooking since the malagasy eat more rice per capita than any other country, saying that a meal isn't a meal without rice, and so have to boil water 3 times a day using open wood stoves. Our efforts to make them reduce their use of firewood had failed. We learned just how much time and effort it would take working with these people to be able to really make a difference.

We then had meetings organized with the schools and the village to answer questions and explain to everyone just how important it is for them and for the world to protect its resources. Its hard to tell what they understood and what they will now try to accomplish. Many had not seen the rest of and living in the most fertile region, could not believe the desert waste that lay not so far from their home, threatening their way of life.

I came away from this first part of my trip with a deep respect for the Malagasy culture but at the same time, seeing how that culture and their fervent beliefs in it could destroy them.

Bealanana / Ambatoriha
Next up, we set off to drive along the northern edge of the Island to end up in Bealanana. We had met the people and now we were to see their land. It was beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking... The landscape was alive with rolling tumultuous hills and valleys and yet they told the sad story of what once was. They merely formed the skeleton of a land raped and murdered. A few lonely trees still stood and scorched underbrush clung like dried out flesh. The earth itself was red and split open where erosion slashed at the horizon. It was horrific. We were often moved to the brink of tears to see what had been and what now was. Still, in the night, we could see fires burning, multiplying in a rage of destruction. How could anyone do this, we wondered. How can we stop it! We were on our way to find out.

In Ambatoriha, where the lemur day celebrations took place, we all learned that it is simply ignorance that is the environment's biggest enemy in . Everyday was devoted to raising awareness and listening to how the locals felt and saw things. We couldn't stay angry for long about the destruction we had seen. Most people didn't know how to live any differently, and simply did not understand their plight. Once they were made to see, their generosity and kindness shone through once more. Their voices rose in song for the earth and her bounty, they came to us and told their stories of coming to realize the importance and beauty of the animals and plants that surround them. Many of the more worldly and educated people would sit down and tell us how all their people really need is to be shown a different way and for people to care enough about them to stay and help them through it. They are a poor country with many traditions that impede on their ability to prosper. They fall back on these old ideas when things seem to go wrong. Who are we to be angry at that when our own cultures have made similar mistakes that have had even greater impacts on the environment. I finally understood that it is of no use to tackle any environmental disaster in third world countries by any other means than by loving and caring for their people. Respecting them and teaching them new ways of living. Showing them the mistakes that we made and the impact so that they may rise above. These people are really quite open to being shown this but we need to have patience, perseverance and a lot of understanding.

I left Ambatoriha with a heavy heart. I would have liked to stay longer and speak with the people more.  I had the faces of certain people asking for us to stay and work with them, help them, imprinted in my mind as I still do today.

We were now on our way to Analila to start our last project of helping out with the forest inventory. We were to help WWF in their plan to transfer the management of the forest to its adjacent villages. Before we started our work in the forest, we called a meeting with the people of the village and explained to them the importance of managing the forest properly. We were surprised and delighted to hear that they would like for it to become a reserve but we then had to explain that they still needed the forest to survive and it was better to compromise by using its resources wisely to ensure the livelihood of all. After setting everything up and finding villagers who where willing to guide us through the forest and help us carry our equipment, we headed out to set up camp. It was a grueling hike uphill with the sun beating down on us. We made it in a few hours and there was already rice being made by our faster companions. The next day, work began. Some of us would set up a rectangular perimeter to take up the inventory of the trees. We had botanists from the village to help identify the different kinds of trees and we would measure their width. We also noted the health of the specimens and the amount of regrowth or young trees. We did 2 or 3 of these sections per group per day. It was a lot of work but it was amazing to be able to be in the wilds of . The terrain was unforgiving. Twining vines criss-crossed through the trees making it difficult to get through. It was often steep or muddy and so we quickly found our boots to be full of dirt and sticks. We had to ask our Malagasy companions to stop slashing at the trees to cut us a path. We were happy crawling through instead of having to cut anything down. They just smiled, they didn't understand our strong concern for the forest. We knew they meant well and only wanted to make our stay in the woods a little easier. I would have liked to stay longer! Whenever we could we stopped to take pictures of the many weird and wonderful insects all around. If we where lucky we would see an eagle or a parrot in the trees. Chameleons and geckos were a pretty common sight. We didn't get the chance to catch a glimpse of a lemur though, no matter how hard we tried. We were hoping to see the silky sifaka which we were there to help save.

Everyday we would come back to camp or to the village quite exhausted but full of life. We found pleasure in the simplest of activities like taking our bath in the river or washing our clothes. We would have days off where we would go hiking through the hills. We sometimes stumbled onto little hidden pools and waterfalls where we could bathe in the peace of the jungle, hidden by lush greenery. It was beautiful...

When everything was said and done, we had a few days to ourselves before we had to go back to Antananarivo. We spent a lot of time on our computers editing our films. Most days, the heat was so intense we didn't want to do anything! We would go and buy a bag of fresh lychees and mangoes and sit in the shade. We were lucky enough to plan a trip to Ananalava. We took a small boat and made it there in about 4 or 5 hours. Our bungalows were on a beautiful beach, we couldn't have asked for better. We were also lucky enough to meet someone who had lemurs living in his backyard! We had had the chance to hold a captive lemur in Ambatoriha (owning lemurs as pets is illegal in but it isn't always enforced) but he had not looked very healthy. These lemurs were free to roam and looked very well and happy. They are very curious and friendly animals. I couldn't help but fall in love with them. I never wanted to leave their presence.

After our fun at the beach, we reunited with the whole WWF Andapa group and Sahondra whom we hadn't seen since Tana. We were so happy to see her. Even though she hadn't come with us on our travels through the country, we could always count on her whenever we needed anything, she was always just a phone call away. I miss her dearly. We had a group meeting to discuss everything we had seen and learned and also to say what we thought about the whole project.

The next day we set off for Tana with Sahondra, this time we got to see the North-West coast. I was always looking out to see a Baobab but I was finally told they are only found in the south...I will have to return one day if only to stand in their shadow.

With only a few days left in Tana, and a lot of work to finish up for our films, we decided we still had to see some wild lemurs and so we headed out to the nearest national park. I am so glad we did. We got to see the thick forest again and we got our wish...That day we saw bamboo lemurs, brown lemurs, sifakas, and Indri! We were amazed to find ourselves beneath a family of these the largest of lemurs, when they started shouting out their distinctive haunting call. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was a sound that pierced my heart and I realized why these creatures have never been successfully placed in captivity. They truly belong to this island and their song was its soul. I stood and watched and listened, spellbound. It is something I will never forget...

Bamboo Lemur in the Andasibe National Park
© WWF / Mélinda-Ashley Gilhen
Workers stocking boats with palm leaves for use in construction, Antsohihy
© WWF / Mélinda-Ashley Gilhen
Chameleon in the forest near Andapa
© WWF / Mélinda-Ashley Gilhen
Children playing climb the pole, organized for the Lemur Day festivities
© WWF / Mélinda-Ashley Gilhen
Indri-Indri in the Andasibe National Park
© WWF / Mélinda-Ashley Gilhen
Young girl playing in a mound of rice husks in Ambatoriha
© WWF / Mélinda-Ashley Gilhen
Markets of Antsohihy at dusk
© WWF / Mélinda-Ashley Gilhen