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.”