My favorite memories of my 3 month internship with the WWF was spending time with a wonderful local woman by the name of Nanori. A term she would use often and which remains engraved in my thoughts forever was “Toujours courage, Melissa” This saying says so much about the women I met in Madagascar. They are a courageous group of women who want what’s best for their community and the next generation to come. They are full of joy in the midst of extreme poverty and very simple living conditions and are open to learning ways to improve their lot in life. I thought leaving North America to fly half way around the world, alone, to the remote island of Madagascar was a brave thing to do, but in hindsight is not as brave as what these woman do on a daily basis.
Nanori and I were first introduced when our group traveled to meet the Lonaky, the title for the eldest and most respected member of the village where we were stationed. I noticed Nanori and her baby, Tiena, sitting on the women’s side of the room. Everything about her inspired me, her loving ways with her baby Tiena, her colorful handmade clothing and her magnetic laugh. Her welcoming smile immediately helped me feel at home in a strange land. Shortly afterwards, she invited a few of us into her house, a small 10 by 10 room, which contained a bed, dining room table, all of her family’s belongings and a small corner where she warehoused handmade crafts and home grown and picked food to sell to other families in the community. She is a true entrepreneur. I purchased a bunch of bananas and my first Malagasy souvenir, a hand woven purple and yellow hat made from sugar cane. Nanori impacted me greatly as I developed a curiosity for her role in her village and learned about her resilience in the face of many hardships that me as a North American have not experienced. She spoke a bit of French, so I was able to extend an invitation for her to join us for dinner in our village across the rice field the following week. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that truly shaped my experience in Madagascar.
Nanori, is a member of the COBA- Communautes de Base, a WWF instilled Community Based Natural Resource Management group in the region of Ambararata. Her involvement with the COBA is centered on improving her community’s way of life. She, along with 198 other local members, are the local voice for their environmental issues and the driving force to abolish their destructive land burning habits and promote sustainable practices to maintain their natural resources. There were many individuals in the community that did not support the COBA mission and WWF’s presence in the community, including the activities that we would lead as volunteers. Nanori’s husband was one of the men who opposed the COBA and WWF’s initiatives. I found it fascinating that Nanori was one of their most active and outspoken members. She helped lead a women’s community garden where she taught women how to efficiently grow their own gardens as a secondary food source. She helped facilitate several COBA meetings among the women and interpreted many of our presentations and activities from French to Malagasy alongside our WWF team leaders. She also helped facilitate several individual projects that I led one being to encourage a small business enterprise for the women, and conducting a medicinal plant research and education project. When I did not have an interpreter available, she assisted me in leading a medicinal plant hike as the interpreter for the woman who participated. She was also instrumental in translating the plant names and their usage for my video footage.
I found myself spending much of my free time in Nanori’s village, joining in with her activities of daily living such as gardening, cooking and encouraging the women to create crafts to sell in the market. She worked from 5 am till long after dark and kept a constant smile on her face and tons of energy.
Spending time with Nanori showed me how much of an impact strong, committed, environmentally conscious woman can make in their community. At times when I felt that my impact in Madagascar was too small to be noticed, overwhelmed with the tremendous amount of restoration and future progress needed, she quickly reminded me to stay strong and keep going. If Nanori with so little resources can find the motivation and courage to keep trying to make her life and that of her community better then so could I. I learned so much more from this woman and the community I lived in than I ever imagined.