Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Halloween and the Home Stretch

In 24 days, I’ll be touching down in the District of Columbia. And about 40 hours after that, I’ll be back on the island to help my brother, Sean, and his fiancé, Michele, celebrate tying the knot. It’s absurdly awesome to be granted two weeks of family, friends, pizza, and dark beer in the good ol’ US of A. Stoked doesn’t begin to describe my state of mind.

In the meantime, work and life go on in Madagascar. After my most recent field expedition south, I traveled with other Sud-Est volunteers to Manakara for our regional Volunteer Action Committee (VAC) meeting. We then headed back to Farafangana, met up with the WWF volunteers, and celebrated Halloween with a bonfire on the beach and night swimming in the Indian Ocean. No costumes or candy, but I’d call it a fair trade.

I’d been planning to head north with the Explore! group and spend the next several weeks on a 200km hike through the Corridor (starting south of Ambalavao and continuing all the way back to Vondrozo), but WWF asked me to come back and help Augustin, a field agent, with peanut farming and forest restoration work with a few southern VOIs, instead. It was a disappointing turn of events. I’d been looking forward to the trek for many reasons, including my desire to eventually develop the route as an adventure tourism circuit. But I’ll meet the group in a few weeks as they arrive in villages closer to Vondrozo, and I’ll hopefully undertake the whole route sometime next year.

The past few days I’ve been on a home improvement and writing binge. I finally bought a kitchen table in Farafangana, so I’m no longer cooking on the ground. Big life step, no? I also built a towel rack and shelf to go with the table, repaired my garden fence, and hauled a few bags of compost home so that I can dig the second half of my garden this afternoon. Abe celebrated his 25th birthday with us in Vondrozo last weekend. We took a bike ride, found a hill with a view, and hung out until sunset. Or rather, until a large group of villagers showed up, weapons in hand, to tell us that we needed to ask permission before loitering on their hilltop. I should’ve known better, but they were friendly enough about it—especially once they realized that we could (sort of) speak Malagasy. In any case, that was our cue to pack up and head home.

As soon as Augustin gets back to town (probably tomorrow or the next day), we’ll head south to begin the peanut and restoration projects in Ankazomaneno and nearby villages. Peace Corps is putting us on “standfast” lock-down from November 16-19, meaning that I’ll have to stay in Vondrozo and be in phone contact. Andry Rajoelina, acting president of the High Transitional Authority, is pushing through a referendum—to be held on November 17—that will modify the Malagasy constitution and (à la française) establish a Fourth Republic (to supersede the current Third Republic). Flyers, banners, t-shirts, and broadcasts crying “ENY!” or “YES!” are everywhere. I haven’t seen a single dissenting advertisement. The outcome seems assured, though I’ve got very little sense as to what the referendum will actually change (other than lowering the legal age required for the presidency, which currently bars Rajoelina from holding the post). Most Malagasy don’t seem to know much about it, either, except for the dawning of the Fourth Republic (Hallelujah?). The vote doesn’t have the support of several rival political factions and is unlikely to be recognized by the international community, so all told, it won’t do much to advance the process of ending the country’s leadership crisis. It will pave the way for elections—perhaps as soon as next month—but those, too, are unlikely to win international approval. So it goes. Peace Corps doesn’t expect large-scale disruptions or violence, but the circumstances are fluid enough for them to be concerned, so they want us to be reachable and accounted for at all times.

Once I’m done standing fast, I’ll go north and join Florent and the WWF volunteers for a week of work and forest camping in Antaninary and the surrounding areas. Then, I’ll have to say goodbye to the WWF crew, pick up my bags in Vondrozo, and start the trek up to Tana to catch my flight to DC on December 2. I’ll be in DC December 3-5, in Hawai’i December 5-14, and back in Madagascar on December 17.

A weekend in DC and a wedding in Hawai'i…a charmed life, to say the least.

Sticks and Stones

Perpetual motion has been the rule the past month. After returning to Vondrozo from Vohilava, I spent two days preparing and planting my garden and a night playing party host. Erica’s college, Spelman, along with its brother institution, Morehouse, were in the midst of “Spelhouse” Homecoming Week (she ignored my suggestion that they should call it “Moreman,” instead). She was bummed to be missing the reunion with her friends, so I suggested that we make up for it by throwing a homecoming/tailgate/Oktoberfest of our own along with the WWF volunteers. The dance party never quite materialized, but it was fun to kick back and relax with the group in the relative comfort of my Vondrozo pad.

Prior to leaving on the trip north, I’d sent letters south announcing my plan to return for cookstove trainings, so even though I thought it might be better to postpone them a bit, I’d already committed myself. Early Monday morning, I set out for Mazavalala. Upon reaching Ampasimposy, the village where I leave my bike and start on foot, I decided to forgo my usual habit of rustling up a guide and attempt instead to navigate the footpaths on my own. I hesitated for a moment at a fork or two, but the route turned out to be easily recognizable, and I quickly found my way to the house of Tsavo, Mazavalala’s VOI president, who was expecting me.

I was worried that the crowd might be thin (since a good number of villagers had gone to Vondrozo for market), but Tsavo managed to convene a group of 20—a decent, manageable size. All began fine; we collected the materials, I explained the activity, and the participants jumped right in to sift, knead, and pat the mixture into building bricks. Once they were done, we moved inside to construct the cookstove.

But right as I was about to start, the room emptied. Crap, I thought. What’d I do wrong this time? Suddenly, Tsavo popped his head in the door and made the quick grabbing-the-air motion that Malagasy use to signal that they want you to approach or follow. “Trano may,” he said. The translation that popped into my head—“hot house”—left me puzzled. Sure, it was warm inside—and I was pretty drenched in my customary perma-sweat—but the temperature and/or my body odor didn’t seem that extreme. Tsavo was visibly concerned, though, so I jumped up and hurried after him. A moment of rapid language deduction later, I discovered my mistake. In this case, may didn’t mean “hot.” It meant “on fire.”

A hut down the hill was engulfed in raging flames. Several villagers looked on, sobbing, while others frantically worked to save items from the house and isolate the blaze from other nearby structures. We helped as we could and succeeded in preventing the fire from spreading, but the home and nearly everything in it were completely destroyed. Once it had burned down to a smoldering mound of char and ash, we trekked back up the hill. I wasn’t expecting to continue the training, but the group gathered back together, and Tsavo indicated that I should proceed. It struck me as strange, but folks here are uncommonly resilient when it comes to a certain genre of calamities. In any case, we went on to build a damn good stove, if I do say so myself. Tsavo’s wife (whose cooking area the stove now occupies) seemed excited about and proud of the final product—encouraging, since she’ll be the one who decides whether or not it’s put to use. I’ll check back with her on my next pass through.

I spent the evening with Tsavo, his family, and Matoky, the village mpanjaka, or “king.” While breaking out the toaka, Matoky presided over a ceremony that involved a lengthy discussion with the ancestors. Malagasy refer to their island home as Tanindrazana—“land of the ancestors”—and regularly consult with deceased members of preceding generations on occasions big and small. Rural village populations remain especially observant—and superstitious in other ways, too. For example, when we were discussing the uses of various trees planted in the nursery at Vohilava, community members repeatedly highlighted the “medicinal” properties of species whose bark is particularly effective at warding off sorcery or evil spirits. And I got myself in trouble by nudging the stump of a tree that had been struck by lightning—very fady, or “taboo,” since such stumps apparently afford villagers protection, as well. Thankfully, Malagasy are also forgiving when it comes to the cultural faux pas of stupid foreigners, so nudging the stump didn’t cost me my foot. As I’ve become accustomed to the rites and rituals, I’ve found ways to relate them to my own culture and experiences. The practices and beliefs might be drastically different, but it’s possible to recognize a shared body of values and relationships. That’s how I’m able to feel at peace—at home, really—10,000 miles from my friends and family. Matoky sipped moonshine rum and talked with the ancestors, and I thought of the Jim Beam bottle making its rounds at my grandmother’s wake.

The next morning, Tsavo’s sons led me on to Ambalatraka. On my last visit, Arisony, the VOI president, had misunderstood my note and gone to Vondrozo to meet me. This time, the note had been expressly clear on location, but Arisony was once again absent. I thought about trying to hold the training without him, but the villagers present said he’d be back shortly and insisted that we wait. As afternoon rolled around, though, I found out that he might not be returning for several days. It was getting late, so I decided to leave and continue on my own to Ankazomaneno, two hours’ hike away, where I’d arranged to have my final meeting and training the following morning. Upon arrival, I discovered that Kotilio, Ankazomaneno’s president, was also gone. Regardless, I talked with the villagers and made plans to hold the training with them the next day. After breakfast the following morning, a VOI member arrived with a note from Kotilio asking to move our activities back a day. I had to catch a taxi-brousse to Farafangana the next morning, so I couldn’t accommodate the change. Shortly thereafter, another member of the VOI leadership showed up to talk with me. He said that there were already eight community members who’d previously been trained in building cookstoves, and that we could forgo the activities this time and arrange to do it at the next general VOI meeting. I told him that was fine, but added that I could still hold a small training with whoever was available before trekking back to Vondrozo. He smirked a little, looked at the cookstove drawings I’d placed in front of him, and said, “We need money. We need food. Then we can talk about cookstoves.”

Talk about feeling defeated. I muttered some kind of retort about the benefits of cookstoves, but recognizing that I wasn’t about to change his mind, I packed my things, ate lunch with the villagers, and then started my five-hour journey back to Vondrozo. There’s always next time, I suppose.

The situation laid bare one of the challenges I’ll perpetually face. The locals expect a white development worker to bring in money, agricultural inputs, infrastructure improvements, or machinery. I hope to manage some of that while a volunteer, but Peace Corps encourages us to do the most we can with simple technology and local materials, emphasizing improved management or cultivation techniques and behavior change. We’re in the midst of the hungry season; even rice—which might as well be oxygen for the Malagasy—is in short supply. Villagers forage for tubers in the forest for subsistence, sometimes skipping meals. I’ve recently bumped up the amount of food I carry with me on field trips to make sure I can feed myself and share some, as well.

But honestly, it’s unclear to me why lush southeast Madagascar has a hungry season at all. It’s not too hot or too cold or too wet or too dry to grow crops. Is it simply a lack of imagination when it comes to food diversity? Habit? Poor planning? Is there some cultural barrier that I’m missing? I’ve had VOI members complain that they need to revert to tavy (slash-and-burn ag) because their rice fields don’t produce enough, but I know that they’ve had trainers come and teach SRI (intensive rice cultivation, or système riziculture intensive), which can augment yields several times over. They haven’t adopted the technique, though, claiming it’s too difficult, that they don’t have enough compost, or that they need microdams to manage the water better. Some of that is undoubtedly true, but still—isn’t hunger enough of a reason to give it a shot next year? Of course the circumstances are complicated and difficult. There’s probably a lot more going on than I realize, and it’s no use trying to pin blame on any single party or practice. But when the VOI member chastised me for trying to teach cookstoves while food was scarce—well, it was sobering, and frustrating.

Another development I’m keeping an eye on is the proliferating popularity of artisanal mining. Case in point—Arisony and Kotilio, the two absent VOI presidents, were both out in the forest looking for vato soa, or precious stones. Corridor streams are often thronged by villagers panning for vola mena, or gold, and Vondrozo is home to a small but growing cohort of Chinese mineral prospectors. Experts believe that Madagascar has a huge wealth of largely untapped mineral/gemstone deposits ripe for exploitation. In an excellent 2006 New Yorker article called “The Path of Stones,” Burkhard Bilger discusses the nascent Malagasy gem industry—its prospects and pitfalls—at length. “Madagascar is old dirt,” he writes. “Its gem deposits are even richer and more ancient than its animal life, and both have been preserved by its isolation.” Bilger goes on to tell the story of Tom Cushman—mine owner, gem dealer, and founder of Madagascar’s first gemological institute. “Practically the whole island is gemmiferous,” Cushman says. “If you fall out of an airplane, land on the ground, and start digging, you’re going to find something.” Regarding the nature of the colored-gem market, Bilger explains that “most gem deposits are too small to justify mechanized mining. The digging is done by locals with picks and shovels, and the stones are bought by independent dealers like Cushman, who travel from dig to dig.” Enter the absent villagers and Chinese prospectors.

In the late 1990s, huge sapphire deposits were found in the dusty village of Ilakaka, approximately 175 km due west of Vondrozo. Within a year, a bevy of Thais, Sri Lankans, and other internationals had descended on the burgeoning town, as well as a hundred thousand Malagasy eager to get a piece of the action. The subsequent mining boom—coupled with the Wild West mentality already latent in that region of Madagascar—led to a dangerously chaotic period of lawlessness. “In those early years of the rush,” Bilger says, “the horde of diggers and dealers had yet to impose order on themselves, and many carried guns. In 2001, three dealers were killed in the space of seven months, and the staff of the local Catholic Relief Services saw several people shot not far from their offices.” Things are better today, but Ilakaka’s reputation as a risky place to do business—especially for foreigners—remains intact.

My neighbors here in Vondrozo—the family to which both WWF’s Florent and Eliane, one of my closest friends, belong—are actually from Ilakaka. They moved to Vondrozo about ten years ago, when the boom had first started roaring. I can tell that Florent, when he hears villagers and VOI members discuss vato soa, is wary of what’s going on. Granted, the likelihood of Vondrozo becoming the next Ilakaka is slim. Nevertheless, local gem deposits could have the potential to bring in much-needed revenue for development—and/or to bring the resource curse barreling down on the community.

Either way, it’s an auspicious time to have landed here. Ever since my senior year at Notre Dame—when I read King Leopold’s Ghost and consequently focused my peace studies capstone project on natural resource exploitation and conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—I’ve remained attentive to the resource management-environment-conflict nexus. In fact, it’s likely the question I’ll pursue in graduate school. So as all of this unfolds in my backyard, I’m clearly interested to know more about what’s going on.

It’s difficult to know how much of that interest I should let on to others, though. As a rule thus far, I’ve taken great pains to make clear that I’m not here to buy gems from anyone. When a man stopped me on the road south of town a few months back and pulled out a pouch with vato soa for sale, I acted completely disinterested and told him that I was here to help the VOIs manage the forest. I wouldn’t even look at his merchandise. I’ve glanced at various finds that VOI members have pulled out during meetings, but when they ask me to speculate on value, I tell them I’m completely ignorant when it comes to such things (which happens to be true). I haven’t talked with the prospectors in town, and I don’t ask about them when I go out into the villages.

Why avoid the subject? Two reasons, really—messaging and security. First, I don’t want there to be any confusion about my mission as a PCV. I’m here to work with locals for environmental conservation and sustainable development—not to start up a commercial venture for my personal gain. Second, I don’t want to be implicated in any of the financial transactions that gem dealing entails, and I don’t want villagers to worry that I’m tramping around and scoping out their territory, especially if the sector takes off. Several months ago, two Chinese men were murdered while commuting via motorbike between Vondrozo and villages to the north. Apparently, they would ride from community to community with cash in hand to pick up merchandise from local collectors along the route. That made them prime targets for someone looking to make a quick buck—and that someone took a hatchet to their heads.

About an hour ago, I took a break from writing to meet Erica for lunch. As I walked down the hill to the hotely, an unfamiliar man fell into step with me.

Akory vazaha,” he said. “Mividy vato?” Did I want to buy gems?

Put on the spot, I issued my standard response and kept on walking. But I’ve decided to prepare another reply for future use—one that might give me a bit more insight into how this business is going down. After all, it’s foolish to ignore the issue, as gem mining and trading will have important consequences for regional (and national) environmental health and development. Furthermore, given the country’s ongoing political turmoil, there’s unlikely to be any sort of coordinated strategy for or effective regulation of the sector in the short term, so operations will probably remain loosely governed and intensely localized—meaning I could probably learn a lot from casual conversations around town.

I’m white, ride a motor-less bike, never carry cash, and am known to villagers as a WWF colleague, so being mistaken for a wealthy Asian prospector is not of chief concern. Still, I know that I need to be cautious moving forward, treading lightly on what Bilger termed “the path of stones.”

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Training Daze

Always the trainee, never the trainer.

That about summed up my Peace Corps experience through the beginning of October. I’d gone through Pre-Service and In-Service Trainings, traveled to Ranomafana for instruction on erosion control, spent time learning about my VOIs and their communities, and been a constant (if often distracted) study of Malagasy language and culture. Doubtless I’d tried to give back in ways—helping with projects when possible, teaching conversational English to friends, sharing techniques with colleagues, guiding the Explore! group around Vondrozo—but PCVs are expected to organize more formal community trainings, and on that point, I was slacking.

So, as the Explore! group departed on their first field trip to the north, I readied myself for a trip south to lay the groundwork for my inaugural trainings. The first step was letting the VOIs know that I’d be coming—a bit involved since cell service still doesn’t reach most of the countryside. The easiest way to communicate information is to send a note with someone traveling in the right direction, or to talk directly with the VOI president if he happens to be in town. The best occasion for either is Monday—Vondrozo’s market day, which brings a huge influx of people from the surrounding areas. That Monday, WWF agent Robson helped me compose the letters and track down appropriate people to send them with. And on Thursday, I set out at 6am to make a 9am meeting in Mazavalala.

I didn’t have too high of expectations for the trip—I wanted to show face in the villages, discuss possible projects, and set a date for the training two weeks later. The first VOI president (Tsavo in Mazavalala) had received my note the night before my arrival, so he threw together a meeting of a few people (including no women) and we talked for about thirty minutes (mostly about their top priority: building a new classroom to replace the crumbling one their kids currently use). The second (Arisony in Ambalatraka) was absent when I arrived. A day and many confused conversations later, I realized that the note hadn’t been clear on the location of the meeting. I was there in Ambalatraka, and he’d gone to Vondrozo to find me. Robson had typed the letter, but of course the assemblage chocked the miscommunication up to my poor Malagasy writing skills. I discussed ongoing work with the people present and checked out the land they’d set aside for peanut farming (a WWF-promoted alternative livelihood option), and then hiked on to the next village. The third VOI president (Kotilio in Ankazomaneno) was sick, so I talked with one of the other VOI officers the next day about peanuts and microdams before heading home to Vondrozo.

All told, it wasn’t quite a fiasco, but things went far from smoothly—largely because of the shoddy quality and tardiness of the letters I’d sent. I had a few days in Vondrozo between trips, so I enlisted the help of one of my Malagasy friends, Maxime, and wrote new letters explaining the plan for the upcoming trainings. Cookstoves would be the subject, I decided—simple and straightforward, requiring few materials and little time, and resulting in a product that could be seen and used almost immediately. I arranged the dates, and when Monday rolled around, Robson helped me send them on to my partner VOIs both to the north and south.

On Wednesday, I biked up to Vohimary Nord and met WWF agents Florent and Augustin along with the Explore! group. We hiked to a nearby waterfall (with a sweet jumping spot) and relaxed for the night. The following morning I was off on my own again, hiking to Antaninary to hold my first training the following day. The president, Tano, gave me a warm welcome, and readily agreed to the training. Turnout wouldn’t be great, he said, because many villagers were gone panning for gold. [Looking for gold and vato soa, or precious stones, has become very popular in the area recently. I’ll be writing more about this soon.] Regardless, I began my first solo training the next morning with about 25 villagers in attendance.

There’s an endless variety of improved cookstoves, with different purposes, shapes, and compositions. The type we studied during training is made by sifting, mixing, and adding water to a 3:1 clay:ash blend. Using bricks made from the resulting mixture, you then build and smooth a casing that insulates your fire and pot (with air vents in the back and a section of wall cut out for a door). Depending on location and weather, the cookstove is usually ready for cooking within two weeks. The general idea is that it decreases fuelwood consumption, reduces cooking time, and mitigates smoke inhalation (and associated health problems). Sound like an easy sell?

Far from it.

The training went well, I thought; people were very helpful and seemed interested, and once we’d finished and I whipped my camera out, they were all eager to take pictures with the final product. A few minutes later, though, Tano called me into a hut and said that we needed to have a quick meeting with a number of people who’d been present. Once sitting inside, he explained that they were glad to have done the activity. And that now I needed to pay them.

Huh? I understood that I’d asked them to haul clay, sift ash, and give me two hours of their time, but there was no way they actually did so expecting monetary compensation, was there?

I explained that I hadn’t brought money, that I would never bring money, that if I came to do a training and they participated their only recompense would be, well, being “trained.” They took it well—it was an uncomfortable situation, but there wasn’t anything threatening in their tone. It was a misunderstanding, not an attempt at extortion. In ensuing discussions, I discovered that they’d already had cookstove training several times before, and that they humored me because they thought they’d get some cash out of it. They also related that despite previous trainings, no one in the community actually used an improved cookstove. They’d built them in corners and let them fall into disrepair—not because of any particular design fault, but merely because they weren’t used to them, and they didn’t recognize wood scarcity (or respiratory illness) as a chief concern.

In truth, I’d already learned that cookstoves weren’t a priority for them during my initial community surveys. I picked it as a first topic mainly for my own reasons (I think it’s important; I felt confident doing the building; I wanted a stand-alone, straightforward training to get my feet wet). Well, my feet were wet, but their pockets were empty. If I’m going to win trust and respect—and possibly encourage behavior change—I know I need to do a better job of matching projects and priorities.

In any case, I hiked back to Vohimary Nord with a first training under my belt. And a medical emergency was waiting.

Cara, the American WWF volunteer, was down and out. She felt weak, achy, hot, and chilled, with a headache, diarrhea, and a fever approaching 40 C (around 104 F. Sorry for the gory details, Cara). The WWF agents and community leaders had brought her outside, where she was lying on a mat with an audience of thirty villagers looking on. There was no health worker in close proximity (or really in proximity of any sort), but thankfully Vohimary Nord sits on top of a hill and has one spot with decent cell reception. I dialed the Peace Corps doctor, described her symptoms, and came back with a diagnosis of invasive bacterial diarrhea. He prescribed Cipro as the antibiotic of choice, which luckily Cara had brought with her. With meds and rest, she was back in commission the next day. She's a trooper, that one.

While this was happening, WWF staff members in Tana (and three other WWF volunteers—Christa, Kuni, and Henintsoa—who’d been medically evacuated to Farafangana because of various ailments) were only receiving scattered bits of information about the status of the situation. Eventually, the story emerged that Cara had nearly died of malaria but that I’d shown up just in the nick of time, administered treatment, and saved her life. Add in a few cattle bandits, some waterfall diving, and a tribal sorcerer or two and we could have the plot for Indiana Jones Part V (couldn’t be that much worse than Crystal Skull, right?).

After allowing another day for Cara to recover, we continued on to Vohilava, home to one of my partner VOIs, where we began a four-day forest restoration project. We set up camp near the VOI president’s home—high in the mountains, just below the eastern ridge of the Corridor—and, together with the villagers, built a tree nursery with local forest species. The first day, the villagers dug out beds and filled 13,000 small plastic potting bags, or pôs, with the appropriate soil mixture (made with compost, forest soil, and sandy dirt). The second day, we climbed the ridge and entered the forest to collect 13,000 saplings, which we then planted in the nursery. The third day, we went through and checked the saplings to make sure that they were viable (and to make sure they were actually trees). And the fourth day, we held a cooking and cookstove training with interested villagers.

On day one, once the soil mixture was ready, the WWF agents, volunteers and I began filling pôs to provide examples for the villagers, who looked on with what seemed to be general disinterest. Once the WWF agents began distributing the pôs to community members, though, all hell broke loose.

People were running with baskets, pushing each other, hauling loads on their backs and heads, shoveling soil like it was their job. Whoa, I thought. Where the hell did this enthusiasm come from? It was crazy and chaotic—typically Malagasy, in many ways—but something didn’t quite add up. “Are they getting paid for this?” Cara asked me. “I don’t think so,” I answered.

Wrong again. WWF was indeed making direct cash payments to the villagers for helping with the nursery. For every 100 pôs filled, they were given 5000 ariary; and for every 400 saplings collected and planted, another 5000 ariary. I have mixed feelings about the practice. On the one hand, part of WWF’s mission is providing work for affected community members. They pay porters , cooks, and guides, in addition (apparently) to villagers that help with tree-planting projects. It also gets the project done, shows VOI members what they’re capable of, and, I’m sure, pleases donors and organization higher-ups who want measurable results. But on the other hand, "Let me pay you to plant trees so that your children have access to forest resources" seems kind of counterintuitive, no? The incentive scheme certainly isn’t sustainable, and I’m not sure that most participants took anything away from the activity other than the understanding that you should play along with WWF agents and vazahas because they’ll pay you for it.

Now, of course, I understand much better why the folks in Antaninary were expecting a cash reward for the cookstove training.

Regardless, it was a fascinating and productive few days. Our hike up and over the ridge to look for saplings was my first foray into primary forest near Vondrozo—and yielded a healthy batch of leeches on our feet, legs, and torsos. Sergio, who insisted on wearing his boots while the rest of us had sandals, had the most with 31. He also had a particularly difficult time ascending (and descending) the sheer, dirt path that led into the forest (he’s generally gangly and uncoordinated, kind of like a Spanish version of Huff). Our Malagasy colleagues are learning plenty of Spanish obscenities.

Camping on the promontory afforded us an awesome spot to watch late-afternoon thunderstorms roll in from the coast, put us uncomfortably close to a few lightning strikes, and allowed for the depressing evening pastime of counting the burning pools of doro-tanety on the hillsides below.

Taking it all in, I couldn’t help but wonder:

How many steps forward? How many steps back?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The New Cast

Coming back after IST, I found myself playing the new and enjoyable role of guide in Vondrozo. Because all of WWF’s local staff had left on trips shortly prior to or soon after the arrival of the group of six volunteers, it was up to me to orientate them and facilitate their temporary settling-in. We toured the town, went on bike rides (passing through smoke plumes rising from doro-tanety), met local leaders, and visited a VOI in nearby Madiorano. Through it all—and on the day-long car trips to and from Bevata, which had ten of us plus equipment crammed into a Land Rover (going) and a hatchback station wagon (coming back)—we had plenty of time to become well acquainted.

Christa Szumski is an anglophone Canadian (most recently from Calgary). She studied biology and sports science at Queens University at spent many a winter working at a lodge in the Canadian Rockies. Henintsoa Ravoala, who studied political science in Lyon, is ethnically Malagasy but has spent the last 23 years of her life in France. Kunigunde (Kuni) Baldauf, whose faculty with languages is humbling (her Malagasy skills will probably trump mine when I see them next week), is a geography student in Freiburg, Germany, though she hails from Austria. Sergio Rejado is a science grad from the Spanish Basque Country whose accent provides pretty much endless entertainment. “Love” and “laugh,” for example, come out sounding exactly the same. Ranto Tantely is a Malagasy sociology student from Mahajunga via Tana. His Malagasy/French/English abilities make him the de facto spokesman of the team—a role he owns. And Cara Elisabeth Brook is a Californian and recent Stanford earth systems grad. She’s taken trips retracing the steps of Johns Muir and Steinbeck, in addition to working and traveling extensively through the great parks of the American West—Yellowstone, Yosemite, Tetons, etc. Their three-month stay in Madagascar is a sort of conservation/communications internship; they’ll be making videos and brochures for WWF, and Cara has been documenting their experience at wwfexploremadagascar.blogspot.com. I’ve made a few cameo appearances and will likely make many more, so check it out if you’re curious to hear diverse perspectives on what we’ve got going on in Vondrozo.

After the WWF volunteers’ arrival but before Bevata, I dashed off to Farafangana to meet the new crop of PCVs rolling into town. Abe, Melissa, and Alison—the kids I’ve been banking with for the past five months—were also there, so we had the whole Sud Est crew present. There are four fresh volunteers in the education and health sectors. James Holcombe, from Orange County via Duke University, will be teaching in Farafangana—meaning he’ll get stuck dealing with the mob of folks who see us when we’re around and decide that they “want to learn English.” Example: a 16-year-old Malagasy girl named Florida talked with Melissa at the club and followed us to the beach the next day. When I told her that I wasn’t married, her immediate reply was, “I’d love to see the United States.” She’s in James’ class. Oh boy. Rebecca Miller is a South Suburb Chicagoan who went to the University of Illinois-Chicago and will be teaching down in Vangaindrano. Ralph, a health volunteer living in a small village between Manakara and Farafangana, grew up in Connecticut and studied at the University of South Florida.

And then there’s my sitemate, Erica Wherry, who’ll be teaching English at Vondrozo’s middle and high schools. She’s 22, hails from Atlanta, and majored in international studies at Spelman, an all-women’s Historically Black College (also in Atlanta). Since the WWF volunteers left a few days ago for villages to the north, Erica and I have been hanging out a lot—getting her settled in, going over the lay of the land, cooking together, etc. It’s unbelievably great to have her here, no question. It is strange, though, to think that my days of American solitude in Vondrozo are over. Sure, she’ll be busy teaching and I’ll be out on field trips frequently, but knowing that I have someone to commiserate with in English living a fifteen-minute walk away? It’s almost too easy.

In short, there’s a new cast of characters in town, and unforeseen plot twists are a veritable certainty.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Fire on the Mountain

Last week, I traveled with the WWF agents and volunteers south to the village of Bevata, about five hours inland from Vangaindrano, to mark the official transfer of forest management rights and responsibilities to the three local VOIs. Our two days in town were replete with meetings, speeches, drinking, and dancing until dawn. Nevermind that the management transfer didn’t actually take place. See, there was some sort of mix-up in Farafangana, so the necessary signatures weren’t where they needed to be in time. WWF will be going back to mark the actual transfer at the end of October. Still, it was one hell of a party.

As I walked down to join the festivities on the second night, though, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the irony of the situation. There we were—conservationists, development professionals, VOI officers, and community members—celebrating a purportedly improved system of natural resource management while the hillsides around us burned.

It’s the dry season here in southeast Madagascar, which means the air is laden with smoke and the land glows red after dark. This is partly due to the continued practice of tavy, or slash-and-burn agriculture, but more commonly because of doro-tanety, or intentionally-lit brush fires used to clear dry grasses from the savanna. Cattle herders burn the hills and wait for the rains to come, then graze their zebu on the fresh, soft grass shoots that come up. That night in Bevata, I counted six separate brush fires on the surrounding hillsides. Between Farafangana and Vondrozo, the landscape has changed to a patchwork of charred and barren fields. I’ve biked through clouds of smoke as fires lap up to the roads around town. And the hillside below my house was crackling and popping two days ago.

Mention slash-and-burn agriculture in the conference room of any North American- or European-based NGO, think tank, or international development organization (let alone in any environmental or political science classroom), and you’re likely to get a visceral response. Slash-and-burn is bad, we’re taught. Not just bad. Really bad.

And for all intents and purposes, that generally holds true. But the situation is a bit more nuanced than those of us sitting in classrooms or conference rooms usually realize or acknowledge. In a previous post, I mentioned reading The Eighth Continent, in which Peter Tyson has this to say about the practice in Madagascar:

“Tavy farmers clear-cut and burn a hillside in order to plant hill rice. They can farm that hillside for about three years before the soil’s nutrients are exhausted; they must then leave that hill fallow for at least fifteen years before it becomes profitable again to repeat the process of cutting, burning, and planting…When the population was low and the forest stretched as far as the eye could see, tavy was actually an efficient use of resources…Since [Malagasy] farmers cannot afford modern agricultural equipment or products, tavy is the only way they can tease life out of their nutrient-poor soils.”

He goes on to cite French development economist Jean-Louis Guillaumet, who says, “this type of agriculture is well adapted to the environment for farmers with limited technical means. Fertilization by ash, fallow with forest regrowth, and the forest in turn rebuilding the soil is a simple and judicious natural process. This system of traditional agriculture gives maximal yield for minimal human effort. Only when the human effort is subsidized by dead forests of the coal age, in modern oil-based fertilizers and herbicides, and oil-run machinery, can we achieve more yield per man-hour than the peasant who uses live forest as his subsidy.”

Both Tyson and Guillaumet overreach in making these arguments. Tavy is not the only alternative to heavy machinery and chemical fertilizers. For example, as a PCV, I’ll be teaching permaculture gardening and improved crop cultivation techniques, along with the use of compost and attentive water management. But tavy is certainly one of the easiest alternatives, and as Tyson and Guillaumet point out, it can be an efficient— and even sustainable—use of resources.

Except that it isn’t. While Madagascar doesn’t suffer from the gross overpopulation that many developing countries are experiencing, the population has still grown (and is projected to continue growing) significantly—past the point where people were few and the forest stretched past the horizon. Farmers don’t let the land sit fallow for fifteen years once they’ve gotten their harvests; they slash and burn until the soil is utterly depleted, then switch to using the land for grazing. After the repeated practice of doro-tanety, it becomes essentially impossible for the forest to naturally reestablish itself. And the Corridor recedes a little bit more.

In addition to awareness-raising and agricultural training facilitation, WWF runs a set of forest restoration and reforestation activities with the VOIs. One of the requirements for VOI establishment is delimitation and zoning of the territory falling under the community’s jurisdiction, so from the outset, there are designated areas for these activities. The work suite includes passive restoration (people are prevented from degrading the forest further); active restoration (VOI members clear invasives and plant particular species to improve forest health and biodiversity); reforestation for use (Eucalyptus and Acacia species are planted to establish a sustainable fuel and building source close to the villages); and permanent reforestation (endemic species are planted to expand the Corridor and/or reconnect forest fragments). I plan to assist WWF or independently implement projects falling under each of these categories with my partner VOIs, though I’ve heard and read some things that make me a little wary of promoting Eucalyptus and Acacia. If anyone has comments or advice on the topic, I’m all ears.

I’ve always associated the smell of wood-burning fire with pleasant and comfortable experiences—camping and the cabins at Koke‘e, wandering the great outdoors and sipping whiskey with friends. And that will always be so. But also there will be Bevata, and fire on the mountain.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


I arrived back in Vondrozo a few days ago after about three weeks of travel and training. Some of that time was spent in Tana, where I had every intention of using the Peace Corps Meva’s free internet to catch up on blog entries. Unfortunately, I was laid out by a viral cold and an infected, swollen-to-double-its-normal-size uvula. When I showed the latter to Dr. A, the Peace Corps Medical Officer, he was so baffled that he took a picture of it for science’s sake. Needless to say, it didn’t quite set the mood for productive writing. So here I am in Farafangana, paying 100 Ariary per minute for an ever-crappier connection to get these updates posted. Stupid uvula.

But uvula aside, life is great! The trip back to Mantasoa for our “Reconnect Conference,” or In-Service Training (IST), was long and eventful. I saw friends, shared stories, took a train ride, did some outside volunteer work, fell through a bridge, and sang karaoke to prostitutes.

I left Vondrozo at the end of the August and spent a few days in Farafangana in order to complete my Annual Volunteer Survey (AVS) and work on my Community Diagnostic Survey (CDS). Fellow PCV Abe was there to do the same, so the two of us started the journey to IST together by hopping north to the beachside town of Manakara. There we joined a few other PCVs—Dan, Soraiya, and Natalie—and enjoyed the sun and ocean while waiting for the train to Fianarantsoa. The place we stayed at, Club Parthanay, has bungalows set up right on the beach where the river meets the sea. The price put some strain on my Peace Corps budget, but it was worth every ariary.

The Parthanay is in Manakarabe, the part of town adjacent to the beach. Most restaurants, bars, and shops are across the river in Manakara proper, so we decided to head in that direction once evening rolled around. It was perfect out—a clear, cool, cloudless night—and I was looking up at the stars as we began to cross the bridge to town. A posiposy (“pousse-pousse,” or rickshaw) was coming in the opposite direction, so I stepped to the side to make room for it to pass. And then I was falling.

It was only a fraction of a second, but it scared the hell out of me. We were crossing on a cordoned-off concrete sidewalk, and next to the sidewalk slab was a utility pipe running the length of the bridge. Turned out that some brilliant engineer decided that it was a great idea to leave a six-inch gap between the pipe and slab, and I’d stepped right in it. To be fair, the gap wasn’t continuous; it varied in width on our side of the bridge, and was much larger on the other side, where I probably would’ve gone straight into the water. Poor maintenance probably had as much or more to do with it than the original design. The section I stepped in was just big enough for me to drop through to about my knee, and the crumbling concrete did a pretty efficient job of tearing a few gashes in my leg. Thankfully I didn’t twist, pull, or break anything on the way down—just a few more flesh wounds to boot.

The silver lining of the whole episode was that after a quick stop back at the bungalow to clean and bandage myself up, we found an awesome, nearby, hole-in-the wall hotely that cooked us three straight fresh fish meals for dirt cheap. Later, we braved the bridge again to hit up the Sidi Hotel’s discotheque, but when we arrived, it was shuttered up. Guess we should’ve expected as much on a weeknight. Across from the Sidi, though, was a bar with “KARAOKE” blazing in neon lights. Intent on not letting the 30-minute walk be for naught, we sauntered on over and readied ourselves for some quality sing-alongs with the locals (Malagasy love karaoke).

But instead of “KARAOKE,” the sign should’ve read “BROTHEL.” The crowd amounted to us and a large group of clientless prostitutes. The current political crisis has led to a downturn in tourism, hurting those industries that cater to foreigners—including prostitution. It was a bizarre situation, but we made a go of it, singing “Wonderwall” and “Red Red Wine” to the crowd and dancing (while trying to make clear that we weren’t interested in further, uh, services). All in all, it turned out to be a damn fun night.

The next morning we scrambled to get up, packed, and out the door to catch the train. The route from Manakara to Fianarantsoa is one of two operational passenger lines in Madagascar (I’ve heard there’s another that goes north from Moramanga). It winds from the coast up through the hills and mountains of the Corridor to the High Plateau, where it terminates in the Betsileo capital. It can take anywhere from nine to thirteen hours, depending on stops and mechanical problems. We only had one brief delay and were in Fianar before sundown. The ride itself was beautiful—with views of the hills, valleys, villages, mountains, cliffs, waterfalls, and forest—and we entertained ourselves at each stop by checking out the towns en route and blasting Shakira’s “Waka Waka” for the local kids to dance to. Dad, it’s no TGV or KTX, but I think you’d love it.

It was another PCV, Eli’s, birthday, so we went out that night to Fianar’s own “Moulin Rouge.” The next day was largely spent making smoothies and baking pizzas at the Fianar Meva. Then, it was up to Tana. Because there were so many of us heading up from the Fianar/Southeast regions, we booked a private taxi-brousse. It was a little more expensive than usual, but the comfort and convenience (they picked us up at the Fianar Meva and dropped us off at the Tana Meva) were well worth it. After two nights out and a few IST-prep meetings in Tana, we piled into PC vehicles for the trip east to Mantasoa.

Our whole training group—minus two volunteers who Early Terminated (ET’d) and another who decided not to come—was back together for IST. During Pre-Service Training (PST), PC staff kept assuring us that we’d have plenty of time for further tech and language instruction at IST, which would run at least ten days. Due to budget issues and/or other undetermined factors, though, PC shortened it to three. Under the best of circumstances, it takes me four days to get to Mantasoa. Eight days of travel for three days of training? Yep.

Nevertheless, it was awesome to see everyone, catch up, hear about their sites, and plan future visits. Most of our IST program was dominated by CDS presentations, during which we shared PowerPoints (which I thought I’d escaped by moving to Madagascar), pictures, and stories from the past four months. We also had a facial hair competition (I was runner-up…damn you TJ) and toga party to feel, you know, American.

The saddest part of having only three days in Mantasoa was, without a doubt, the hour that PC allotted for us to visit our host families from PST. On the day before we left, PC drove us to Anjozoro in the late afternoon. Factoring in the time it took for us to walk from the drop-off spot to our houses, we only had about thirty minutes to sit, talk, and catch up. I’d texted Neny the day before to let her know that we’d be coming, so they were assembled and ready when Annah and I marched up the hill. I’d printed out pictures and brought a few other voandalana (omiyage, or gifts) for them; they wanted to celebrate with crackers and beer. They—especially Neny—were clearly disappointed when I told them I only had a few minutes to stay, but we made the most of it, and I promised that eventually I’d be back.

The viral cold I mentioned at the beginning of the post had started to make itself felt in the early afternoon, compounding the situation. By evening, my head was pounding and my body on fire. I drugged myself up and took it easy that night, as we had to get up for a 6am departure back to Tana for a visit to SAF, a fruit tree nursery. Standing out in the sun at SAF was not the best game plan, so I ended up sitting in the shade for most of the session and missed learning how to graft. The sickness kept on through the next day, when my throat also began acting up. That night, Leif, the former Environment Program Director and current Programming and Training Officer (PTO), had us over to his house for another barbeque. The spread was incredible, but I couldn’t taste a thing. The textures sure were great, though.

The following morning, I was supposed to head to TJ’s site for an SRI (improved/intensive rice cultivation) workshop with Nick, Annah, Tadashi, and TJ. My burning uvula kept me up most of the night, though, and when I called Dr. A in the morning and described what was going on, he told me to stay at the Meva. Later in the day he checked me out, photographed my throat (centerfold material), and put me on antibiotics. I rested easy all day, taking a marathon nap (during which my fever broke…and I sweat through my clothes and onto the couch), keeping myself hydrated, and hitting the sack early. I felt much better the next morning, so I packed up my things and hitched a brousse ride to Moramanga, then south to TJ’s site, PK33 (point kilometre 33). It turned out that the trainers from the Centre des Services Agricoles (CSA) hadn’t shown up, so instead of and SRI workshop, we built a mudstove for one of TJ’s neighbors with the village as our audience. After two nights in PK33, it was time to return to Tana. PK33 is a small village between Moramanga and Anosibean’ala, a town to the south, so when brousses pass by, they’re usually already full. To hedge out bets, we got up early and started walking towards Moramanga, hoping that a vehicle with an empty seat or five would stop and save us from hiking the full 33km. Around PK26, we lucked out; a bus stopped, and the folks onboard were willing to shift around to accommodate the whole lot of us.

Back in Tana, TJ and I made plans with a few friends who were already out and about to eat dinner at a Korean restaurant. Said friends got there first and were waiting at a bar across the street when TJ and I arrived. Before heading in, they grabbed me and told me that I had to meet some other foreigners at the bar. They turned out to be a group of just-arrived WWF volunteers embarking on a three-month WWF Explore! program in…wait for it…Vondrozo.

Marlin, WWF’s southeast Madagascar program coordinator, had mentioned something about volunteers coming to town a few months prior, but it had totally slipped my mind. Cara, the one American in the Explore! group, told me that they’d be leaving for Vondrozo in two days and gave me the WWF internship coordinator’s number. After a day of making frantic phone calls between the WWF and Peace Corps offices to get the required authorization, things fell into place. I ended up getting a free ride all the way back to Vondrozo. And the Korean food was awesome.

Leaving with the WWF convoy meant I had a day to kill in Tana, so I made a few more phone calls and got permission to join an Operation Smile support project at the hospital led by Nicki, a health PCV. Operation Smile is an international humanitarian organization that provides free operations for individuals with cleft lips and/or palettes. TJ and I were in the recovery room, assisting with Malagasy translation, walking patients and their families to post-op, and doing various odd jobs (like putting balloons on the walls per the request of Pam, the nurse in charge). I was incredibly impressed with Op Smile’s work, enjoyed meeting the folks involved, and was happy to play a supporting role in the effort.

Bright and early the next morning was departure time; I took a cab to meet the WWF cars, and we were off. We spent the first night in Ranomafana, where I got to hang out with Eileen again, and then pushed through to Farafangana. Finally, it was back to Vondrozo, where I arrived with a cohort of five wide-eyed foreigners (from Spain, Austria, France, Canada, and the good ol’ US of A) and one Malagasy volunteer. Like I mentioned above, they’ll be spending three months here in Madagascar, mostly in Vondrozo and the Corridor villages. I’ll be helping to facilitate their work program, especially when they undertake projects with my partner VOIs.

On top of all this, Erica—the new education PCV who’s being placed in Vondrozo—just rolled into town, along with three other fresh PCVs who’ll be banking in Farafangana: James (Farafangana), Rebecca (Vangaindrano), and Ralph (south of Manakara).

The thought had crossed my mind that getting back to site might come with a lonely, post-IST lull. That doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Bridging North

Before diving into the meat of the post—lemur tracking and trapping, rusty river ferries and rickety log bridges, and encounters with book characters, crocodiles, and giardia—here’s a quick recap to set the scene: Back in July, I spent a week and a half helping with an erosion project up in Ranomafana. We were in town for the Fourth, and Eileen Larney, the Chief Technical Advisor at Centre Valbio (CVB), had us over for drinks. In talking with folks at the party, I discovered that CVB is active in the Vondrozo Corridor, so in late July and early August, I followed up with Eileen regarding their planned trips to the region. It turned out that they’d be passing through Vondrozo in mid-August on their way to Ivato, a village about 50km north of here, and Eileen invited me to tag along to check out their project. I squeezed in another field trip beforehand to finish collecting data for the preliminary draft of my Community Diagnostic Survey, and was ready to join the CVB crew when their heavily-loaded 4x4s rolled into town.

The road to Ivato makes the road to Farafangana look like I-80. We lucked out with good weather and dry road conditions, and it still took our convoy of three vehicles about eight hours to cover the rocky and potholed 50km. Granted, a not-inconsiderable amount of that time was spent waiting for ferries and building bridges. The ferry crossing was at the Manampatrana River, which runs east from the Corridor and eventually empties into the Indian Ocean near Farafangana. The ferry itself comprised a wooden platform on three rusty metal ballasts (probably pre-dating Madagascar’s independence). It had a (non-functional) motor and operator’s room, but the only “technician” on board was a guy pulling us along using a rope strung from one bank to the other. We also had to cross a series of small bridges with metal base frames and oft-incomplete log tops. The CVB veterans recounted one incident when a vehicle fell through and another when local villagers took away the logs/planks and sat with them on top of a hill until the vazaha (whiteys) paid them off. We’d brought planks with us, so we used them and moved logs around to make the bridges passable. There were more than a few oh-shit moments when logs snapped and planks shifted in unsettling directions, but we arrived in Ivato more or less unscathed.

On a quick side note, the poor condition of the road and bridges isn’t necessarily something that the local population has a problem with, either. The government was planning to improve the route a few years back, but the chief engineer was murdered. Turned out that someone didn’t want outside competition to screw up his monopoly on local commerce. I’ve decided to drop bridge building from my to-do list.

Anyway, CVB—or rather Eileen, whose baby it is—runs an integrated conservation and development project (ICDP) in Ivato. The impetus for the ICDP was the discovery of a significant population of greater bamboo lemurs (which the CVB folks refer to using its scientific name, simus) in the area’s bamboo-dominated forest fragments. Simus is critically endangered and one of the rarest primates in the world, with only about 200 known individuals remaining. The groups near Ivato have between 35-50 individuals, and CVB is working with the local community to protect the animals and their habitat.

ICDPs were an especially sexy topic among development professionals and conservation biologists back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The basic underlying idea is that conservation projects aiming to preserve ecosystems and biological diversity won’t be successful unless they’re designed to simultaneously meet the development needs of the local community. Experts and observers have praised and derided ICDPs for many and varied reasons. Sometimes it makes perfect sense, as when the targeted environmental degradation is also squarely opposed to the long-term interests of the community (e.g. unsustainable clear-cutting and repeated burning of the forest is bad because it puts your watershed at risk, depletes your soil, and rapidly diminishes your supply of wood for fuel and construction). But there can also be an inherent tension between conservation and development that isn’t always easy to overcome. Telling villagers not to cut down secondary bamboo forest because a rare lemur species lives there, for example, is a much harder case to argue. So CVB has had to educate the local community on the importance of biodiversity and provide different incentives to encourage them to protect simus. Said incentives have included furnishing villagers with agricultural training, equipment, and seeds; starting tree nurseries and vegetable gardens and paying locals to maintain them; hiring locals to monitor the simus population and guide researchers when they come in; and planning construction of several microdams to improve water access and quality, as well as field irrigation. Basically, the CVB folks give them money, materials, and training in hopes that the hillside home of the lemurs won’t be burned down the next time they show up.

Our crew had three Americans (myself, Eileen, and Glenn, a volunteer archaeologist working on the Ivato project for a few months) and seven Malagasy (three drivers, a student, a botanist, a CVB technician, and an ag expert). We set up camp in one of the village’s school buildings and had Boanloak, a local villager whose name sounds a lot like bon loaka, or “good side dish,” cook for the group. During the week we spent in Ivato, we met with village leaders; refurbished the tree nursery; facilitated the formation of tree-planting and agricultural organizations; tracked and hung out with a group of simus; looked for traces of simus near Karianga, another village; went on nocturnal forest hikes to document other species; and trapped mouse lemurs to take measurements and record observations. The CVB ag expert, Rakoto Pierre, also led gardening and composting workshops.

I mention Rakoto Pierre by name because he comes with a hell of a story. In Ranomafana, I’d picked up a book by Peter Tyson called The Eighth Continent: Life, Death, and Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar, which was published in the late ‘90s. I’d started reading it a few days before the Ivato trip and brought it along to finish. So there I was, sitting outside my tent reading, when I came to the book’s final section, in which Tyson discusses Pat Wright’s work in Ranomafana. He mentions meeting a local farmer who’d adopted a lot of improved agricultural techniques and become something of a model for organizations working in the Ranomafana area. He also took a picture of the man with a tree sapling in front of his home, so I flipped to the insert of photos and scanned through them until I found the one in question. The guy in the picture, I realized a few seconds later, was none other than Rakoto Pierre.

I should’ve recognized the name, but we’d only met a few days prior and I hadn’t gotten all of the Malagasy team members’ monikers down. Also, in the picture, Rakoto Pierre was wearing tattered clothes typical of rural areas and standing in front of a small, ravenala hut—a far cry from the well-dressed, Chacos-wearing, cell phone-carrying Rakoto Pierre in front of me. I think his life took a pretty significant turn when conservation and development organizations started employing him to spread the word and train folks in the techniques he was using. He now has a huge tract of land with an orchard and fish farming ponds. Still, the trip to Ivato was apparently the first time he’d left the Ranomafana region.

We only spent one morning hanging out with simus, but it was awesome. The local trackers employed by CVB led us to them, and we spent a few hours sitting on the forest floor just watching. At one point, a large adult hopped down to a low spot on a bamboo trunk about five feet away from me and stared me straight in the eyes for a few seconds. But of course, I didn’t get the picture.

The mouse lemur trapping was much more involved. We set up about 40 traps (metal boxes with weight triggers in the middle to snap the door shut once the lemur—or rat—had entered) and lured the little guys (and the rats) in with banana. Sneaky sneaky. It was a lengthy commitment, though. Once we’d set the traps (around dusk, since mouse lemurs are nocturnal), we had to wait out in the forest for three or four hours, then hike back and check the boxes along the way. Over the course of three nights, we trapped 14 mouse lemurs. I was on poop-scoop duty; the researchers can get a lot of genetic information from analyzing the poop, so my job was to scoop up whatever the mouse lemurs had left behind in the traps using small vials.

The last night of mouse lemur trapping was especially memorable because I’d made a new friend that day: giardia. My stomach and bowels hadn’t been right in the afternoon, but I thought a visit to the latrine had set me up all right for an evening out in the forest. Good God was I wrong. Shortly after starting to set traps, the sulfur-tasting-and-smelling burps and farts came on in force—a dead giveaway for giardia. We finished setting and retired to our normal waiting spot, a rocky outcrop overlooking a river and rice paddies. With a full moon out, it should have been a beautiful, relaxing few hours of taking in the view and enjoying conversation. And it was—only I had to interrupt the conversation every so often to stagger off into the woods for, you know, relief. We’d caught four mouse lemurs each of the first two nights, and I was praying that we’d end up with fewer that night so we could make it quickly back to camp, where anti-giardia meds were waiting. But guess how many we got.


“Processing” them—collecting info and poop, and taking measurements and pictures—took until close to midnight. It was painful for me, and for anyone downwind. At one point Glenn turned to me and asked with a disturbed look, “Really?” Eventually we finished and trekked back to camp, and the meds worked like a charm. I’ve got an unfortunate feeling that that’s not the end of giardia and me, though.

To get to simus’ territory and the mouse lemur-trapping trail, we had to wade across a thigh-deep river (the one we could see from our rocky outcrop). On our third or fourth day in Ivato, we spotted a Nile crocodile sunning itself on the bank about a hundred meters down from our crossing point. There were no closer encounters, but part of me wanted to pull a Steve Irwin and do a little wrestling. Just not with a stingray.

The day before leaving, we drove over to Karianga, another village to the east, where a few researchers had previously seen simus. Eileen is considering extending the project’s scope to Karianga, so she wanted to verify that simus was still around. It’s a particularly critical area, because the villagers there are still in the habit of hunting and eating lemurs. We rummaged around the forest fragments for a few hours, and while we didn’t see any simus, we did find simus poop, which was reassuring. Eileen’s grand hope is to connect the fragments in Karianga and Ivato, eventually reaching all the way back to the Corridor proper. Good thing she’s in it for the long haul.

It was an incredible week, and the drive back went smoothly. I’m planning to continue working with the project, helping where needed on the development side of things. I won’t be building any bridges, but gardens, compost, cookstoves, and microdams—those I can do. And maybe a little croc wrestling, just for kicks.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Packages and Parasites

Happy belated birthday to Doder and Chrissyd. Since I can't give you a gift in person, I'll rip on Billy a little for your amusement.

I’m in Farafangana for the next few days to catch the tail end of WWF’s regional meeting. Marlin, the coordinator from Fianarantsoa, is here, and we’ll be reviewing the status of WWF’s southeast Madagascar project and elaborating my work plan for the next five months. Hopefully I’ll score a little beach time and get rowdy at 310 (the local club) while in town, too.

Thanks to Jordy, Drew, Claire, Kreeks (that damn snowflake…), Kyle, Huff (he claims to have played an advisory role), and, especially, Katie Mancino for the letters and care package. Just about made my life with the spam singles, butter buds, beef jerky, trail mix, etc. Thanks also to Mom, Mimi, and Katie Mchugh for the letters and magazines; English reading material is always cash money. And Shirmila, your postcard finally reached me, as well. Congrats again on the new job.

A bunch of people have asked what might be useful in future care packages (besides letters and trail mix), so I’ve quickly thrown together a list of suggestions:

1. Trail mix
2. Dry bags (the Velcro camping kind are working really well), or anything else that keeps things from getting soaked. Jimmy, I’m still finding use for that emergency poncho Suzanne gave us in Boston.
3. Beef/turkey jerky
4. Spices
  • Chili powder. I just discovered that I can buy ground beef in Vondrozo, so I’m stoked at the prospect of making a big pot of Mom’s chili.
  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Garlic salt
  • Miscellaneous (anything that sounds delicious)
5. Trail mix
6. Tupperware/other containers
7. Cliff Bars/Powerbars/other -bars
8. Barbeque sauce
9. Worchester sauce
10. Peanut butter
11. Cheese. No idea if there’s any feasible way to send this, but I miss it. Claire, you can sympathize, right?
12. Seeds for the garden (vegetables/fruits/herbs/spices)
13. Nori and more spam (for musubis)
14. Trail mix
15. Drink mixes (tea, iced tea, Gatorade, Cristal Lite, etc.)
16. Pringles/Goldfish/Oreos/Cheesits/other snacks I never bought when I was actually in the US
17. Books/magazines/movies/TV shows/sports shows. I’ll marry whoever sends me ND games and analysis. Except Billy Lewis.

Those are just suggestions, though; you really can’t go wrong. I’ll be ecstatic to receive and find use for anything and everything.

Also, some good news—Peace Corps sent me an Orange USB modem that works in Vondrozo, so I’ll be able to check email more frequently than I have been. It’s expensive and slow (like dial-up back in the 90s), but it still beats the 6-hour taxi-brousse ride to Farafangana. The trip here yesterday was especially bad. I bought my spot at the last minute and had to sit in the middle of the truck bed on bags of rice. It wouldn’t have been a problem, except that I kept slipping off of the bags and onto an irate mom behind me. Pretty sure she bruised me.

One other anecdote—I’m staying in a beach bungalow at Hotel Aba, the cheapest room in town. It has a single light and an area to take a bucket shower, but you have to request hot water from the kitchen. This morning I woke up and asked for hot water, and a hotel staff member came over shortly with a bucket. As he was leaving, he noticed that I was digging at my toe with a needle. “Misy parasy,” I said. “There’s a parasite.” For the third time, I’d picked up what I think is medically known as a “Tonga penetrant,” a bug that burrows under your skin and lays a large number of small white eggs. If you don’t dig out the bug and clear away the eggs, they’ll hatch and spread; it’s supposed to be a painful and itchy experience. Anyway, once the guy saw what I was doing (and saw how amateurly I was doing it), he snatched the needle from me, grabbed my foot, and did it himself—a kind gesture, to say the least. That’s room service in Madagascar.

Five months down, and no major crises or afflictions to date—just a few flesh wounds, bruises, parasites, and gastrointestinal bugs. And a pretty gross- looking beard.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Flying Solo

As fair warning, this post might not be suitable for young readers. One of the alternate titles I mulled was, “Death, Blood, and Alcohol.” That enough of a hook?

Arriving back in Vondrozo from my Ranomafana/Fianarantsoa trip, I found an empty office; all the WWF agents were working in the field, and weren’t expected to return for a week or more. After a few days of getting my house in order, starting to build my garden fence, and making day trips to nearby villages on RN27, I decided it was time for an extended work journey of my own. So last Saturday, July 24, I saddled up my bike and set out. And what a journey it turned out to be.

I was up against a familiar foe: the road south. Its name, I recently found out, is the Route d’Intérêts Provincial Vondrozo-Vangaindrano, commonly abbreviated as, no joke, the RIP. Think back a few months to me crashing into ditches like Billy Lewis breaks tables—that is, loudly and with embarrassing frequency. In all the biking I’d done since then, I’d stuck to the better roads to the north and west, mainly to spare my bike, body, and confidence the beating the RIP was sure to give them. But the only feasible way to get to the three southern VOIs is that road, so I finally had to face the task. I hoped it wouldn’t be the death of me.

Now that I’ve taken on the RIP again, I’ve drawn a couple of conclusions: The road is bad, but not nearly as daunting as I first made it out to be. And I’ve gotten a lot better at biking, but still have far to go.

Despite having to get off and walk some of the worst stretches, I made it from Vondrozo to Ampasimposy in a quick two hours. The shop where Robson and I had stashed our bikes the last time was shuttered, but a few friendly villagers told me I could leave my bike with them, and a VOI member agreed to lead me to the first village, Mazavalala.

Of course, the thought had occurred to me that trekking into the corridor alone might not be such a hot idea. Out of cell phone range, still barely speaking the language, not knowing the footpaths leading from one village to the next, I’d be leaving my conspicuously white self pretty damn vulnerable. But I’d conferred with WWF and other friends in Vondrozo, and they (almost) universally said I shouldn’t be worried. I also can’t do my job, I told myself, unless I trust the VOIs and villagers to treat me right, show them that I trust them, and know myself capable of handling solo trips.

So I handed my bike over to a group of strangers and followed a random dude into the forest.

After hiking for forty-five minutes, the VOI member told me to wait on the main path and ducked off to the side, where I heard what sounded like a party in progress. He came back a few minutes later with Tsavo, Mazavalala’s VOI president, who was clearly very surprised to see me, and drunk (the smell of toakagasy is strong and unmistakable). Normal protocol for field visits includes sending a letter of advance notice, but because of how the trip had fallen together, I hadn’t done so. Regardless, Tsavo indicated that it wasn’t a problem and led me into the village.

At first, I thought I was crashing a circumcision celebration. ‘Tis the season here; villagers wait until their sons are 2-4 years old, then have a public ceremony and throw a rager. Once I’d conferred with a VOI member sitting near me, though, I found out that it was actually the tail end of a wake. Malagasy custom—at least here in the southeast—calls for three days of observance following a person’s death. I’d walked in on the final day, when mourners sing, dance, drink heavily, and slaughter a cow. Tsavo disappeared for a bit before reappearing to tell me that we could hold the meeting I’d asked for the next day, no problem.

I hung out, talked with people past sundown, ate my fill of rice, and was getting ready to sleep when Tsavo showed up again, this time with a huge hunk of raw beef hanging from his hand. He sat down with me and gave a lengthy speech on Malagasy custom surrounding death and the importance of togetherness (I think), and then offered the beef to me. Honored—and confused—by the gesture, I accepted it and mumbled what words of condolence and gratitude I could muster, wondering to myself what exactly was happening and why I’d just been gifted a chunk of meat. A moment later, though, the VOI secretary, Berto, led me to another hut, where it became clear I was supposed to cook the beef, right then, for us to eat. So I brought out the tomato paste, onions, and salt that I’d packed from Vondrozo, prepared the meat, and shared a last meal before bed.

The next morning I woke up ready to get a first community meeting under my belt. The actual purpose for the trip, in short, was to get the ball rolling on my Community Diagnostic Survey (CDS). The CDS is a report on a PCV’s site—its history, geography, political structure, productive activities, educational system, health issues, environmental status, etc.—and the principal Peace Corps requirement during our first three months of service. It’s not used universally by PC programs everywhere; in fact, we’re the first PC Madagascar Environment group to do it. Living in Vondrozo but working with five corridor VOIs makes my situation a little different. Instead of writing about one place, I’ll be writing about five—probably on a more cursory level, but hopefully still capturing the important points pertinent to the work I’ll be doing.

I was helping Berto prepare breakfast and reviewing my list of questions when another man came into the hut. It was chilly out, and he was wrapped in a blanket, under which he was clearly holding a baby. He and Berto discussed something back and forth, but I didn’t catch what it was. I looked over and gave him a big “Good morning, how’s it going?” in Malagasy. “Good,” he answered, “and you?” “Very good!” I said.

Then five women entered the hut, sat down, and said a few brief things back and forth. I heard the word vahiny, which means stranger/guest, but didn’t understand the rest of the context. Then they got up with the man holding the baby and left. Berto hurriedly put aside the cooking he was doing and turned to me. “Maty ny zaza,” he said, before ducking out and following the others.

“The baby is dead.”

And then I got to witness, tragically, what happens at the beginning of the mourning process—wailing, moaning, screaming, crying. There was no discernable pattern to it. They each seemed to be voicing their own, personal pain. But, taken together—and repeated over, and over, and over—a collective sound emerged: the eerie, desperate agony of a community grieving the loss of its child.

It was haunting.

Berto returned after fifteen minutes or so to tell me that I’d have to move my tent from the hut where’d I’d slept because they needed the space. I went over, unpopped the poles, lugged it by the hut full of screaming villagers, and set it up outside, wishing the whole time that it wasn’t such a bright shade of save-me-when-I’m-lost-in-the-woods orange. Thankfully, Tsavo showed up soon after. We (obviously) couldn’t have meetings for the next three days, so he thought I should go on to the next village and come back at the end of the trip. I thought so, too.

One of the kids in town led me on the two-hour hike to Ambalatraka, where I checked in with the next VOI president, Harisony. He’d seen me the previous day in Mazavalala, so he knew that I’d be coming, though he was expecting me a day or so later. The following afternoon, I held my first meeting with a sizeable group of VOI members—maybe around 35 men. I’d asked Harisony to include women, and he’d said that he would, but (surprise, surprise) none were present. The guy is a domineering figure; when he was present during the meeting, it was him that answered nearly every question I posed. Only when he periodically left the room was I able to get other folks to chime in. One of the topics I asked about was decision-making and leadership. Harisony assured me that the fokon’olo, or assemblage of people, made decisions together, and that they’d chosen him as their president. Sure.

At any rate, I finished up with my questions, compiled information to create a seasonal calendar, and had them draw out an area map. Then most of the VOI members departed, and I was left with Harisony, his son, a few other folks, and Harding, a 28-year-old guy who grew up in Tana, lives in Farafangana, and was visiting relatives in a nearby village. Harding spoke French, and helped me through some of the harrier parts of the meeting, translating back and forth. He also was wearing a 49ers shirt, and—even though he had no idea who the 49ers actually were—therefore seemed like a good guy to me. After the meeting, I was in for another bit of cultural education. See, Harding and Harisony’s son were about to become brothers.

Initially, to be honest, I thought they were about to start up some sort of drinking game. They sat in the middle of the hut, a dish on the ground between them. Then a kid came in and poured a clear liquid in the dish; I thought it was toaka. But I didn’t smell the toaka, so I figured it was probably water, which it was. So not a drinking game, I decided, but what?

Next, the kid brought in a burning piece of wood, a spear, a knife, and a spoon. He dropped the wood in the water, where it fizzled out, stuck the spear head in the wood so that it was standing up straight, and placed the knife and spoon on the ground. Harding and Harisony’s son leaned forward and grabbed the spear, their hands touching and alternating, one on top of the other. The kid started spooning water over their hands. Another man walked over, picked up the knife, and began tapping the head of the spear. Then, he started chanting.

What’s the chant? I thought. Why the spear? Are they going to stab someone or something with it? Are they going to stab me with it?

It went on like that for about five minutes—the water, the tapping, the chanting. Once the chant was finished, Harisony handed a razor blade to his son, who then used the blade to slice a small cut on his chest. He scooped up some water with the spoon and dabbed the bloody blade in it, and then passed the spoon to Harding, who drank the blood and water. Harding then did the same, cutting his chest and filling the spoon for Harisony’s son, who also drank what he’d been given. They flicked some water on each other, dumped another spoonful on the ground, and then were done.

That, Harding later explained to me, is how you become blood brothers in Madagascar.

The rest of the trip was less strange but still eventful. I hiked to the village of Manomboerivo and on to Ankazomaneno that evening, where I held my second meeting the next day. It was a smaller group of men and women, which worked out much better than the all-VOI arrangement. Since the proper number of days hadn’t passed for me to go back to Mazavalala, I loitered in Ankazomaneno for the day, hiked around the area, learned Malagasy names for local plant-life (lantana is riadriaka, Dad), and sat in on a toaka brewing session. They boil the fermented sugar cane water under an old oil drum and run a pipe through a dug-out tree trunk where they pour cold water to make the alcohol condensate. Not quite the Jameson distillery, but to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, boozers find a way.

Since three days had passed and all I had left to do was the survey work in Mazavalala, I returned there led by Ankazomaneno’s president, Kotilio. Unfortunately, it turned out that Tsavo and other VOI officers had gone south to the town of Vohimary Atsimo for meetings, so I asked Kotilio to guide the way back to Ambalatraka. Harisony had said there was a fetin'i ala, or forest party, the next day, and that a WWF agent was supposed to be coming. I hadn’t heard about it, but it sounded like a good deal, so I planned to attend. Being a good sport but also tired (we ended up hiking for over five hours), Kotilio agreed to take me back to Manomboerivo, but said I should sleep there and go to Ambalatraka the next day. That night, I cooked up some of the beans I’d brought from Vondrozo for dinner. They tasted like gasoline—stored too close to the shop’s petrol stock, I guess. They were all I had for breakfast the next morning, too. Thankfully, I didn’t throw up or go blind.

Harisony showed up in Manomboerivo to walk with me to Ambalatraka, though I’m not sure how he got word that I was there. After a brief stop, we continued on to Ambalamanga, where the fetin'i ala was being held to mark the VOI’s third anniversary. Florent, WWF’s office chief in Vondrozo, was indeed there. He gave a speech about the importance of preserving the forest for future generations, after which the villagers butchered a cow and danced kilalaky, a traditional, fast-paced Malagasy circle dance. We hiked back to Ambalatraka after dark under a completely clear, star-and-Milky-Way filled sky, and continued the fety well into the night. The following morning, Harding pseudo-led me back to Mazavalala; he’s new to the area, too, and we got lost a few times along the way. Regardless, we made it, found Tsavo, and held the final meeting. Berto walked with me back to Ampasimposy (where my bike was still sitting!), and I pedaled my way home.

A stack of mail was waiting for me when I arrived in Vondrozo, including an envelope from Katie McHugh with a copy of ND Magazine. Exhausted, ecstatic, relieved, and nostalgic, I put on Rudy and passed out.

To paraphrase Fortune, I’m five feet nothing, a hundred and nothing, and have hardly a speck of athletic ability. But if I can hang in doing this for two years, I’ll be a happy, happy man.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Cold Rain, Hot Water

The sun just came out for the first time in three days. It's been nothing but cold, driving rain otherwise. Such is Malagasy winter in the mountains of the Corridor.

I’m staying with my friend Mike and a few other PCVs at his house in Masomanga, a village near Ranomafana National Park. We’re here for about a week to learn about and help with an erosion project underway on one of the hills overlooking the town. In March, Tropical Depression Hubert dumped a huge amount of water on the southeastern part of the island. One side of the hilltop here collapsed as a result. The landslide didn’t threaten any houses or the town itself, but it was seriously problematic for another reason: The collapse begins at the base of a massive cell tower.

So now Orange, the provider that built the tower, is paying for an erosion control project that involves terracing the hilltop where the collapse happened, planting vetiver grass—a species from India being used more and more widely because it grows quickly, is a survivor, and puts roots down seven meters—and hopefully saving the cell tower structure from toppling down the mountainside. The project director told us that it’s the most difficult operation he’s undertaken, and one of the terraces gave way two days ago, complicating our schedule a bit. We’ve surveyed the site and learned about the control process; hopefully we’ll be able to help more on the hill and plant the grass over the next few days.

In addition to the work we’re doing, we’ve found time to explore the area, which is one of the most popular national park destinations in Madagascar. Ranomafana means “hot water,” the region taking its name from the hot springs nearby. During colonial times, the French constructed spring-fed thermal baths, a pool, and a hotel complex. The hotel has since fallen into disuse and disrepair, but the baths and pool are still maintained, and we made visits to both (and spotted white-faced brown lemurs in the trees overhead). We also went on a guided hike in the national park itself, during which we saw a troupe of golden bamboo lemurs and a single, critically-endangered greater bamboo lemur (there are only four in the park; our guide kept repeating how lucky we were to have found one), and trekked to a waterfall in the forest. Another waterfall nearby has a hydroelectric installation, so we hiked there and toured the facility, which produces about 5.6 MW for the surrounding towns and the cities of Fianarantsoa and Ambalavao.

I was also here for the Fourth. It wasn’t quite the same as a cookout back home, but we celebrated properly with a hearty lunch of beer, barbeque beef, and fries. That night, Eileen, the director of Valbio Center, a world-class research facility close to the park entrance, had us and her American and Malagasy coworkers over for drinks. Afterward, we walked to the nearby Hotel Manja for dinner. The food was great, the company better. It was a particular and unexpected honor to meet and talk with Dr. Pat Wright, a famous primatologist who discovered the golden bamboo lemur here in 1986 and was the driving force behind the creation of Ranomafana National Park. This area has become a model for conservation and sustainable development, largely because of her dedication and force of will. The few stories she shared were entertaining and encouraging, and I hope our paths cross again in the future.

I also talked at length with Eileen and Pascal, a Malagasy researcher, about work they’re doing in the Vondrozo Corridor (my neighborhood) to train local VOIs and other forest villagers in conservation monitoring techniques. They should be making a trip down later this month and are scheduled to come back in August with a team from National Geographic.

Needless to say, I’m hoping to tag along.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Fifty Years Later

Slainte, Santé, Salut, Kampai, Chinchin, Banzai, Mazotoa, Cheers!

Happy Fourth!

The past few weeks have provided plenty of reason for celebration. My brother, Pat, and now-sister-in-law, Robynne, were married in Hawai‘i; good friends Mariah and Sean tied the knot in Milwaukee; America turned 234; and Madagascar marked fifty years of independence. Congratulations again to all.

Those fifty years have been tumultuous ones for the nascent Malagasy Republic. French rule over the island officially ended on June 26, 1960, but Paris continued to dominate trade, financial institutions, and military affairs during the immediate post-colonial period. After a series of coups in the early 1970s, strongman Didier Ratsiraka took control and implemented social and economic reforms based on his own Mao-inspired communist vision. The Malagasy finally voted him out of office in 1993 general elections, though they subsequently voted him back into the presidency in 1997 (?).* Next came the rise and fall of businessman Marc Ravalomanana, who ousted Ratsiraka after contested elections in 2001 and then was ousted himself in last year’s coup by former-DJ-turned-mayor-of-Tana Andry Rajoelina (pronounced ra-zoo-EL). Rajoelina is now president of the High Transitional Authority, but the crisis precipitated by his seizure of power remains unresolved. The latest I heard, the planned constitutional referendum had been indefinitely postponed, which means national elections are, as well. As a PCV, I’m officially barred from commenting on politics, so for updates, opinions, and analysis, check out BBC or French news sources.

Regardless of past and ongoing difficulties, though, the Malagasy were in rare form to mark the fifty-year milestone on June 26 (which everyone somewhat ironically refers to using the French, “vingt-six”). Parties started days before and went on for a week afterwards, and the beer and toaka were freely flowing throughout.

I spent the fety with friends in Vondrozo. My observation of the holiday started with the formal Gendarme Ball on the night of the 24th, where I watched the dignitaries of town kick things off with traditional Malagasy circle dancing before joining in and dancing till well after 1am. The next day I went with to market and—with the help of Eliane, my friend and neighbor—picked out a fat rooster for the following day’s feast. Eliane tied him to the fence outside my door before heading home. A minute later, I looked at the string around his leg and decided that I should use some more substantial rope to secure him in place. I went back into my house, came out with said rope, and walked over to the fence. The rooster started flapping wildly as I approached, and—you guessed it—the string holding him snapped.

Down along the fence he ran, with me in hot pursuit. He found a hole and dove into my neighbor’s yard, and I sprinted around to meet him on the other side. He ducked back through when he saw me and took off into the brush covering the hill below my house. I followed down the hill, accidentally slipping and putting my whole leg into the other neighbors’ duck pond en route. I had to hop down off a ledge to catch back up with him, but he immediately scurried back up the ledge once I’d gotten close. By the time I managed to climb back up the ledge and into the brush, it was too late. He was gone.

I wandered dejectedly along the hillside for a while looking for him, then went home to talk with my neighbors and ask for help. Unfortunately, one of the VOI presidents I’d met a few weeks earlier showed up at my doorstep just as I got back. He wanted to talk with someone from WWF and was drunk beyond being able to construct a coherent sentence (not that I necessarily could’ve understood his Malagasy even if he was speaking in complete sentences). No one from WWF was around, so I was stuck trying to figure out what he needed, which cut into my valuable chicken-chasing time. Eventually I realized he was just stopping in to say hello, so I told him I had to find my dinner, grabbed two of my neighbors, and went back out looking. We didn’t find him, though.

I hadn’t eaten lunch yet and it was getting close to 2pm, so I gave up the hunt and went in to make some ramen with egg. Once the noodles were ready, I cracked an egg and dumped it into the pot, and out fell a chicken embryo. Not a good day with chickens for me. Instead of putting myself at risk by buying another chicken, I got a kilo of pork and made a big pot of ginger pork stew to be my food contribution. So it goes.

On the 26th itself, I headed into town with some friends to watch the defilés, or parade, and then went over to another friend’s place to eat, drink, and be merry. After lunch we walked over to the tanymena (“red dirt,” or soccer field) to watch the final of a soccer tournament that’d been going on for the past few weeks. We’d gone for a game, but instead we saw a riot. One of the teams that lost in the semifinals the day before was angry about the officiating, so they showed up and occupied the field with their supporters. Confrontation and fist fighting ensued between the teams, fans, and drunk folks happy to have something to swing at. I didn’t feel in danger at all, but realizing that the belligerence of a drunk dude or two might turn against the vazaha (white guy) on the sidelines, we inconspicuously slipped away.

The rest of my first Malagasy Independence Day involved hanging out, eating leftovers, and watching the US fall to Ghana in overtime at my neighbor’s house. It was a tough exit, but the 91st-minute win over Algeria a few days earlier made me a happy and proud American soccer fan. Thanks for that, Donovan.

*Some of this info came from The Eighth Continent: Life, Death, and Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar by Peter Tyson, a book that talks about the natural history of the island. I haven’t read it all yet, but I had it handy while writing this, so I used it to make sure I had my history straight.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Field Tripping

Madagascar. March 1. Forestry Volunteer.

Seven months ago, Peace Corps sent me an invitation to serve with those three essential points of information. The first two were simple enough to understand and explain; I’d be leaving for Madagascar on March 1. But the all-important last bit—what I’d actually be doing—was admittedly ambiguous. Volunteers in the same country with the same title often end up doing completely different things, based on the specificities of the communities where they live and the organizations or individuals they partner with. Now, after nearly a month at site, I can finally provide a job description. Sort of.

In 1996, Madagascar implemented a law allowing for the transfer of forest management rights and responsibilities from the national forestry ministry to local community organizations called vondron’olona ifotony (VOIs), or Communautés de Base (COBAs). For over a decade, WWF has been working in the Vondrozo Corridor (and elsewhere on the island) to help forest communities establish and manage VOIs. There are now 28 in the area, and WWF has selected five that are particularly weak to be the focus of my efforts—three to the south of Vondrozo (Mazavalala, Antandoharano/Ambalatraka, and Ankazomaneno/Manomboerivo), and two to the north (Vohilava and Antaninary). My job is to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the communities, work with them to improve their VOIs, and facilitate the introduction/adoption of techniques (in farming, gardening, cooking, etc.) that might lead to better, more sustainable management of their forest areas.

Obviously, all of that is contingent on me knowing the communities and their members well, and being able to intelligibly talk with them. We decided it was best to dive right in, so a week after arriving in Vondrozo, I found myself sitting on my bike, coasting south out of town with Robson, a WWF field agent, on the first leg of my introductory trip into the Corridor.

Well, coasting might not be the right word. Rolling, or pedaling, maybe. All right, I guess swerving or stumbling probably conveys a more accurate picture.

Let’s get one thing straight: I know how to ride a bike. Really, I do. But as some of you have witnessed, I don’t necessarily know how to ride a bike well. And if you’ve seen me struggling on the paved, perfectly fine roads of Burgundy, Ireland, or Washington, DC, try to transpose that image and skill level onto a washed-out, dirt road in the hills of Madagascar. With an overstuffed backpack. In the rain.

Five minutes after leaving Vondrozo, I’d already toppled off the road into bushes or ditches multiple times. In my defense, the road to the south is universally acknowledged to be ratsy, or bad. It rarely if ever sees maintenance work, and a cyclone in March left it in particularly poor condition. We’re talking, you know, canyons in the middle of the road.

And then there was the rain. The whole first week I spent in Vondrozo, there wasn’t a drop of precipitation. On the day we were scheduled to leave on our trip, though, I woke up to a torrential downpour that didn’t let up all day. By the time we set out in the afternoon, the roads were streams, and the canyons I mentioned above had turned into lakes. Plus, I’d decided to bring my big backpacking pack along, strapped to the bike. I didn’t think that riding with it would be that tough, but I grossly overestimated my ability to balance.

But once we’d set out, we’d set out, so I kept trudging, falling, walking, and pushing. Robson was absurdly patient, following behind and letting me lead at whatever speed I could. About an hour and a half into the trip, though, his bike got a flat. We tried to repair it using my brand-new, PC-provided pump, but the nozzle gauge somehow wasn’t right. With our sunlight hours dwindling, we decided to turn around.

I was frustrated, defeated, and relieved. As painfully obnoxious as it was to surrender the ground we’d already covered, I also couldn’t wait to collapse in my own, dry bed. We made it back to Vondrozo shortly after nightfall and grabbed a quick dinner at Behavana, then went home to sleep.

To minimize time lost, we set out early the next morning on attempt number two. I’d taken the opportunity to repack my things, opting instead for my small backpack and wearing it as I rode, which made balancing a whole lot easier. To get to the first village, Mazavalala, we followed the road 14km south, stashed our bikes in Ampasimpotsy, picked up a trail, and hiked about 3km west. Over the next five days, we met with VOI members in Mazavalala, Ambalatraka, and Ankazomaneno. We returned to Vondrozo for a few days, and then embarked on the second leg of the tour, riding north about 20km and hiking to the villages of Antaninary and Vohilava.

These “villages” actually consist of several hamlets, each with between ten and twenty huts made of bamboo, ravenala, grass, and/or other materials from the forest. Some are quite spread out, so assembling the VOI members can take a bit of time—over a day, in certain cases.

So when we arrived, the VOI president would put out the call, and once a critical mass was obtained, we’d have our meeting. The program generally involved Robson providing an introduction, me stumbling through a kabary, or speech, in Malagasy, and the VOI presidents and other community leaders making some welcoming comments. Tradition dictates that whenever a vahiny (stranger/guest) comes to the village, the men gather, slaughter a chicken, cook a huge amount of rice, smoke tobacco, and pass around the toakagasy (moonshine rum). Guess everyone likes an excuse to celebrate, eh? I did a lot of sitting around while all this transpired. It was incredibly interesting at times, exasperatingly boring at others. My language skills are slowly improving, but understanding these guys was damn near impossible, so I was generally precluded from conversing beyond the basics. I just smiled and nodded a lot, laughed when it seemed appropriate, and prayed that they hadn’t just asked me a question.

I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow recanting of the whole trip, but here are a few choice highlights. Feel free to inquire further if anything peaks your interest:

-Getting my first leech (on the ankle) while wandering through rice paddies. I let him drink his fill and fall off.
-Biking (stumbling) back to Vondrozo—in the dark.
-Trying to score some points with the mayor by holding his baby grandson. And getting peed on.
-Trading songs with village kids. They offered up “Alouette” and a few Malagasy national numbers. I answered with Third Eye Blind and Johnny Cash.
-Watching my first Malagasy sunrise from the hilltop town of Vohimary Avaratra.
-Crossing a crocodile-infested river.
-Being kept awake by rats having a party in the dishware.

It was awesome, and tough. There were moments when I was severely discouraged (often because of my continuing ineptitude at communicating), but a glance at the surrounding landscape was enough motivation to keep on keeping on. See, when I and the WWF field agents describe our jobs, we usually say that we work “an’ala,” or “in the forest.” The truth, however, is that there’s little semblance of a “forest” left in much of the Vondrozo Corridor, at least near the communities I’ve visited so far. Around here, the foothills—once completely covered by contiguous rainforest that stretched the length of the island—look more like rolling savanna, interrupted here and there by a patchwork of forested enclaves. The higher mountains to the immediate west are generally still thickly forested, but even there, tentacles of barren land have begun to reach up, sometimes all the way to the crest of the ridge. Tavy, or slash-and-burn agriculture, remains unfortunately common, and, especially where VOIs are weak, forest degradation continues at a steady pace.

Toward the end of training, we had a session with Steve Goodman, an American ecologist at the University of Antananarivo, who explained a bit about the nature of deforestation in Madagascar compared to other high-profile cases. In Brazil, the burgeoning beef industry provides incentive for cattle ranchers to push back the Amazon further and further. In Indonesia, profitable export has led to the sprawl of palm oil plantations where forest used to dominate. But here in Madagascar, it’s poverty, pure and simple, that drives deforestation. People need firewood to cook. People need building materials for their homes. People need land to grow rice and the other crops on which they subsist. There’s no corporate interest behind the decimation of the forest. There’s only hunger, and the desire for shelter and other basic necessities.

One particular incident impressed upon me the desperateness of the situation. Our last meeting on the first leg of the trip was the biggest, with about 60 people present. To accommodate the crowd, we got together at the local school. After we’d finished talking business, the guys set about cooking the customary chicken and rice. At one point, there was a dearth of firewood, so they decided to cut off one of the school’s support beams to feed the flames. Sure, there were another 19 or so posts holding it up, but I couldn’t help wondering how they could ever see that as the best option (the toaka might have had something to do with it).

Things aren’t hopeless; education, improved techniques, and outside resources can do much to help, and I’m here to hopefully play a positive if small role in that process. Affecting behavior change is always difficult, and development literature generally acknowledges that middle-aged men (who make up the vast majority of VOI members) are often the hardest to reach. Before I can even attempt to reach them, though, I need to be able to talk with them—and to learn how to ride a bike.

Biking dirt roads through the countryside, hiking the rainforest, learning a foreign language, getting to know people, strengthening community organizations, and hooking them up with training and resources. No, it won’t be easy. But I’d say the job description suits me just fine.