Volunteering with the Vezo

Posted on 11 April 2007
Engaging the help of the hazumanga (spiritual leader). Madagascar.
© Elizabeth Kiendl de Haes
At age 53, I had no illusions. I knew I would not be able to fulfill all the criteria mentioned in the WWF Global Youth Volunteer Programme and yet I thought that I had all the qualities required as described on it’s Home page: I felt I still ‘had a brain’ after raising three boys (or at least part of a brain), I still had that same passion for conservation that had led me to work for the French Ministry of the Environment, for IUCNand for WWF in the 70’s/ 80’s, and I felt that I was fit and adaptable. I also found that it was easy to sit around bemoaning the sad state of the planet, and yet not doing anything about it.

I therefore wrote to WWF explaining all of this and proposing to stop off in Madagascar (where the Global Youth Volunteer programme is up and running) on my way back from Christmas in South Africa, so as to offer a month of my time, free of charge, to my ‘old love’: environmental conservation.

After an exchange of emails with individuals at WWF-International and WWF-Madagascar, I was told that I could help organise a first festival of environmental awareness that was planned for the children of Anakao, a remote village of traditional fishermen in the south-west of Madagascar, inhabited mainly by the Vezo tribe.

A conservation ethic already exists in the religious beliefs and practices of the Vezo people but the objective was for us (together with a few staff members of the Malagasy national park service and of the regional WWF office), to highlight these beliefs, to instill pride in them and to reinforce that ethic by engaging the help of the local spiritual leader and school teachers.

The Vezo live along the world’s 3rd largest coral reef but that reef is threatened and is already dying in places because of over–fishing and general human pressure. The Vezo themselves are aware that fish and other edible stocks are diminishing and occasionaly catch endangered species such as turtles and dolphins. Ultimately, WWF and the Madagascar National Park Service hope to give some form of protection status to parts of the coast but are well aware that this can only be done with the support and trust of the Vezo.

The village of Anakao, with approximately 3000 inhabitants, is one of the largest concentrations of Vezo people along the coast. One reaches the village by boat, after a 1 and ½ hour journey from the provincial capital of Toliary, depending on the weather, the type of boat, etc., which is preferable to the 8-10 hour car journey on dirt tracks. There is no running water, no electricity, no internet and no mobile reception (unless one climbs the highest sand dune or tree in the village, aims the phone high to the sky and leans north - which I got quite good at).

Just about all the villagers live in small stick and reed huts built on the sand, each property marked off from the others by stick fences. There are about 7 hotels in the area but most were empty, tourism having come to a halt at that time of year due to the excruciating heat and the threat of cyclones.

I arrived to discover that I could hardly communicate with anyone (all speak Malagasy and very little French), that I had picked up a pretty rough tummy bug on landing in the country and that the heat combined with the high humidity was very debilitating. I was therefore feeling the effects of cultural and physical shock those first few days, but when I realized that the villagers used their beautiful beach as their loo and left the cleaning up job to the high tide, I nearly freaked out!

It is interesting to observe how one adapts to a new and different environment and how quickly the process takes place when there’s no choice but to do just that – adapt! I stayed in some of the few hotels that were open, learned to make do with, and not to waste my daily bucket of water (brackish water drawn from holes in the sand) although luckily I could buy bottled drinking water. It was not long before I found it normal to walk past a woman or a child crouching on the beach doing ‘their business’ (the men came out at night!) – it was the most hygienic option in their circumstances.

Little by little, as I watched the Vezo going about their daily lives, I felt the cultural shock shifting: from being taken aback by the way they lived, I started to think that perhaps it was our way of living in the developing world that was truly shocking.

The Vezo lead very natural lives, consuming primarily what they can obtain from the sea, plus some pulses, rice and mangoes and a few other scarce items that they can buy in the village, all of which they cook over charcoal fires. Because of this, they hardly produce any waste or pollution. Pots, pans, clothing and anything else is washed at the edge of the shore without soap – rubbing sand into stains and spots, I found out, is a great way to remove them.

The villagers own very little – some items of clothing, some cooking utensils, a few pieces of furniture, sometimes a transistor radio, and generally a large ‘pirogue’ (traditional and very ancient sailing boat originally from the Pacific). They all look lean and muscular and nobody appears to suffer from malnutrition.

The children roam the village free all day with huge smiles and happy faces. I never saw a toy (other than a football made by bunching old plastic bags into a tight ball fastened by a fishnet) and observed instead the children playing some very intriguing sand games.

I didn’t come across any sullen looking or loutish youngsters, nor saw nor heard of any talk about drink or drug problems, rape, paedophilia or violence, with which our society is plagued. All of this made my mind buzz with questions: so who, after all, has got it right…..they or us? And what, exactly is poverty? If it is solitude, dissatisfaction, frustration, lack of family and social networks, lack of ‘joie de vivre’ then who is more poor…they or us? That said, there was a chronic lack of formal education, proper medical care and sanitation, all of which are, indisputably, necessities.

Because of the total absence of materials in Anakao, we had to prepare for the festival in Toliary, to which I travelled twice during the month.

The festival took place over a weekend at the end of January and was a great success. We expected some 200 children, but about double that number turned up. We had a drawing competion of what the children believed were endangered species, a quiz contest concerning environmental matters, a beach cleaning contest, prize giving, and some singing and dancing. The fact that the village leaders were present at the opening and closing ceremonies was, we hoped, an indication of the importance of the message we were trying to convey.

Back in Tana, the capital, at the end of my stay, I felt I had seen too little of the country and so rewarded myself with a short 2-day trip. I hired a driver and headed for the Andasibe National Park, which was about 3 hours away and is renowned for its various species of lemurs, the most important being the “Indri”. These are the largest of all the lemurs, they are extremely rare and cannot be kept in captivity anywhere in the world because they feed on about 60 different species of plants in their tropical rainforest. They have one of the loudest ‘songs’ in the animal kingdon – it carries up to 3kms away. It’s actually more like a languorous howl and is quite something to hear, especially when emitted only a few meters away from you. It was a terrific moment.

I don’t feel that I have yet taken in all of the benefits that this month of voluntary work gave me but those that I am aware of so far are:

  • That it was a great experience in terms of identity, of being face to face with myself in a country where I knew nobody and where I was no one’s daughter, wife or mother – I was just me!
  • It was a real eye opener in terms of the different life style and values of our developed world compared to those of the developing world,
  • It gave me a great sense of accomplishment. This first festival is set to become a model on which other environmental awareness festivals are to be created for local populations living in environmentally sensitive zones along the western coast of Madagascar, and I am delighted and proud to have taken part in the initiation process with my colleagues.
  • Had I written a cheque to WWF for the same amount as I spent covering all my own expenses, I would never have had as much satisfaction nor learned as much about myself and Madagascar.
  • I discovered that one of the poorest countries in the world is inhabited by some of the most gentle, good-natured and happy people I have ever come across.

Whilst in Andasibe, I met a rather eccentric and amusing German expert on tropical frogs. At one stage in our conversation, I mentioned that I had hoped my stay in Madagascar had been of some help to the cause of conservation. His answer is worth repeating for all volunteers to take note: “It doesn’t matter how successful the job was”, he said “the important thing is that people saw that you came as a volunteer to work for something that you believed in so much that you were willing to pay for it and to put up with pretty rudimentary conditions for it – that, in itself, will have made people around you think!”

I hope that is not the only effect I’ve had through my month of volunteering. I’d like to believe that maybe some day, thanks in part to this experience, we may all see a Global Senior Volunteer Programme at WWF!


Elizabeth Kiendl de Haes

March 2007
Engaging the help of the hazumanga (spiritual leader). Madagascar.
© Elizabeth Kiendl de Haes Enlarge
Sand Games. Madagascar.
© Elizabeth Kiendl de Haes Enlarge