When most people think of Madagascar, they either think of the Disney movie or of paradise beaches and cute little lemurs. When I hear Madagascar, I think of big smiles and sun-kissed fields, of children with protruding bellies and blond hair, of walking in knee deep mud, of the taste of manioc with ‘lait concentré’, of the sound of rain on our tin roofed hut, of “akoraby vazaha!”; I think of traditional taboos and proverbs, get images of blood sated leeches, plates with mountains of rice, and feel the rhythm of kilalaky dancing and feet marching in the woods. My impressions of Madagascar are extremely diverse and I feel lucky that I got an insider’s view of the many different sides of this country.
Madagascar is known as a ‘biodiversity hotspot’, because it evolved in isolation to the mainland, therefore becoming home to an abundance of endemic species, like for instance the infamous many types of lemurs. However, growing development, agricultural practices, like ‘tavy’ (slash and burn) and global changes are threatening the forests of Madagascar.
With the aim to support WWF in environmental conservation we - a team of six young ‘explorers’- set out to two different destinations in Madagascar. After a two day jeep ride from Tana my team reached Vondrozo-the small village in the south we called home for the next months. Once we settled in and learned basic Malagasy, we would travel with the local WWF agents overland by bike to different communities (Vohimard Nord and Madiorano). There we helped the local COBA’s (Communités de Base) in zoning and mapping a new protected forest corridor and raise awareness on conservation.
The time spent in the field, we slept in tents, hiked through the forests in rain and in sunshine, washed in rivers and waterfalls, talked to the local villagers, undertook a tree inventory and gave presentations on our work and eco-tourism opportunities. While in Vondrozo, we were part of village life popularly known as the ‘vazaha’ (foreigners) that worked for WWF and lived in the Catholic Church compound. The many children that came to visit us every day quickly became our friends and helped us assimilate in every day life. Copying the village’s lifestyle we rose with the sun, went to bed early, got our food at the local market and spent our free time going to soccer matches, church mass and playing games with the kids.
Before coming to Madagascar I had no idea what to expect and thought it would be any ordinary paper work style internship. I remember seeing the tiny red dirt roads that looked like veins reaching through patches of luscious green forest from my plane window. Little did I know then that I was to plunge into this jungle that turned out more vicious than what I had originally imagined.
I arrived with little knowledge of conservation work, let alone the country; three months on I left bruised and scratched but felt like a little warrior that had been let in on the secret world of the Malagasy that so few visitors get to see. I was in tears to leave this ‘Red island’ that had become my home, which I relate back to the people we lived and worked with who made this experience so unforgettable.
Before the start of the programme I was expecting to be busy making coffee and mastering my skills in photocopying. But what I experienced I appreciate a lot more, because I got face to face with the local communities who depend on the forest and saw how they started a project to protect their surroundings. If I had the choice I would go through leech attacks and pussy feet again in a heartbeat.
Certainly one of the most rewarding experiences I have taken out of this programme, were the people I met and the friends I made. I have rarely experienced such generosity and hospitality before. Every time we arrived in a village we were rewarded with a live chicken and other treats to welcome us. Families that lived in a one-room hut with their five big bellied and blond haired (signs of malnutrition) children still insisted on sharing dinner with us. Coincidently, ‘namana iaho’, meaning my friend was also one of the first words we learned.
All the villagers we met are self-sufficient farmers that take from the woods what they either eat or re-use for building material, etc. As a foreigner of the industrialised world I felt there was not much I could tell them about how to be ‘sustainable’-a western concept. Instead I tried to deliver them the uniqueness of the biodiversity they can find right outside their hut! I believe they appreciated that we came from far away places to observe and help out where we could, but in fact they shaped us so much more than they can imagine.