Sarah Jackson

The Chance of a Lifetime

My name is Sarah. I’m from Victoria, a city on the west coast of Canada. I recently finished a 3-month volunteer project with WWF International in the Midongy South region of Madagascar. When I found out I was accepted to the Explore program and that I was about to spend the fall of 2008 in Madagascar, I thought, “This is the chance of a lifetime!”. How many idealistic westerners like myself dream of going to Africa to work on something that matters? And Madagascar, of all places, has a certain mystique. I was thrilled.

While preparing for my departure for Madagascar, many jokes were made about wrestling and Disney movies, but apart from that, everyone I talked to admitted that they knew little to nothing about this island nation, and neither did I.  So very briefly, here are a few facts.

Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world, and can be found in the Indian Ocean off the south east coast of continental Africa.  It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with nearly all of its 20 million population surviving on far less than $1 a day.  Ethnically and culturally, Malagasy are a mix of African and Indonesian heritages. Many dialects of Malagasy are spoken throughout the country, with French also being spoken as a second language by the educated.  Madagascar became independent from France in 1960.  The capital is Antananarivo, affectionately known, and more easily pronounced, as Tana.  Internationally, Madagascar is known as the world’s supplier of vanilla, and as a biodiversity hotspot, with 5% of the world’s species living here, 80% of which are endemic to the island.

With this knowledge in hand, and after three very long flights to literally the other side of the world, I met the four other EXPLORE volunteers and after two weeks of training and orientation, we tackled the 5 projects planned for us by WWF Madagascar.  Our projects were:

  • Adult literacy and family planning
  •  Wildfire prevention through the installation of firebreaks
  • Sustainable farming practices
  • Inventories of lemur species and the plants they eat
  • Financial management of community agricultural storage project

We worked on these projects in 5 different communities in the Midongy South region over the three months.  We were met with many challenges and obstacles, but always with wide-open arms.

© WWF/Sarah Jackson
© WWF/Sarah Jackson

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A few stories...

Now I am home in Canada. Living in Madagascar for 3 months was certainly a life changing and humbling experience. I have learned so much more than is possible from the dry facts that I have listed above that can be looked up in books or on the internet. As real life accounts of day-to-day life in Madagascar are difficult to find due to its isolation from the rest of the world, and as I found out during my pre-trip research, even the dry facts are few and far between, I’d like to share a few of the unique experiences and observations that made an impression on me to give you a sense of Madagascar as I saw it. The following are a few of my stories:

Scanning the landscape and counting smoke rising from 5 fires.  Then noticing ash is falling on me like snow.  The degree of environmental degradation here is breathtaking.  Tavy, or the practice of burning the land and everything on it to clear it for farming, is a daily occurrence.  As a result of tavy, erosion has become the country’s greatest environmental challenge.  Concave hillsides and pockmarks of erosion are visible throughout the landscape.  Farming on the tavy cleared hillsides has resulted in the collapse of many hillsides.  The eroded topsoil washes away, making river-water red-brown and silty.  The WWF and other organizations are introducing new farming techniques, including the use of compost and the cultivation of vegetables that are less taxing on the land than rice, which is grown in irrigated terraces.

Two men helping a third lift a crate of papayas onto his head.  The third man says “Veloma!” and cheerfully walks down the street with the massive crate of papayas perfectly balanced on his head.  Everything is carried on your head here, from the lightest to the heaviest of items, never in hand.  They are skilled at it, mostly because they have been carrying things in this manner since the age of three.  I once stood in awe as a woman bent down to pick a plant, a bucket of water filled to the brim on her head and a baby tied on her back, and did not spill a drop.

Eating fruits that aren’t ripe yet because there is simply nothing else to eat.  When the staples, rice and sweet potatoes, aren’t available, green bananas and green papayas are cooked to make them edible.  Prepared in this way they are starchy like potatoes, sticking to the sides of your stomach to make a filling meal.  Alternately, I also had the pleasure of tasting fruits I’ve never even heard of and I still don’t know what they were.  Some were sweet, some were sour, and one was so ginger-spicy it burned its way down my throat and had me coughing.  I doubt a word in English exists for many of them, or in any language other than Malagasy for that matter.

Most people are barefoot because everyone is poor.  People don’t need shoes to survive, but shoes do protect from the parasitic fleas that burrow into the soles of feet, the bites of which often get infected, causing the person to limp.  The shoes of people lucky enough to have them are cheap flip-flops or jelly sandals. Even the policemen wear patchwork uniforms and jelly sandals to work.  Some of the youngest children are naked because they have no clothing.  Often boys wear dresses and mothers wear their children’s school uniforms if they have nothing else to wear.

Every woman has a baby tied to her back.  To be rich in Madagascar is to have lots of cows, have 10 children (5 boys and 5 girls), and eat rice three times a day.  The beautiful cows with humped shoulders and curved horns are currency in Madagascar, not food.  The belief is that if you have many children, the children will be able to work in the fields and generate income for the family.  There are lots of children.  There are children everywhere; playing, singing, and working.  Unfortunately, the child mortality rate is high.  Many children don’t make it to an age where they can help out the family.  Rice is more difficult to grow and more expensive than sweet potatoes, the other commonly grown staple.  The Malagasy we met ate rice in the best of times, sweet potatoes the majority of the time, and cooked green bananas in the worst of times.

Being greeted at a village’s edge by every woman and child with song and dance then walking together into the community.  There is a strong sense of community.  Women go to work in the rice paddies together, they braid each others’ hair, they care for each others’ children.  The air is jovial with lots of teasing banter and lots of laughing.  I love listening to the women’s distinctive laugh in this region in particular.  It has one long note at the end.  They laugh frequently and in unison.  Ha ha ha ha – hieeeeeeew!

Having a child scream and run away just at the sight of me.  Outside of the cities many Malagasy have never seen a person with white skin before.  Some children are terrified and immediately burst into tears, but most treat me with curious caution.  Others are more curious than scared.  They appear out of nowhere to hold my hand and walk with me.  Confidence bolsters and more join us on our walk and soon we are a crowd, exchanging names and teaching each other how to count to 10 in our respective languages, leaving the cultural and language barriers shattered on the red dirt road behind us.

I ask to see one woman’s i.d. card to see how her name is spelled.  We are having a class for the adults in the community, teaching them how to write, starting with the alphabet and their names.  She says she doesn’t have her card anymore.  It was eaten by a rat.  I nod with understanding having had many of my own belongings consumed by the beasts since my arrival as well.

I bump my head in doorways.  At 164 cm I am taller than nearly all of the men and I tower over the women.

Trying to remember every bit of wildlife I see in the forest, knowing that 80% of the species here are endemic to Madagascar and that I will never get the chance to see them again.  There are tall skinny trees with camouflage-patterned trunks with thorns, orchids of all sizes and colors, bugs that look like cotton balls, birds that you never see because they are hidden high up in the trees but you know they are there because of their beautiful songs and of course, most famously, chameleons and lemurs.

© WWF/Sarah Jackson
© WWF/Sarah Jackson

Act Now!

These are just a few of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of memorable experiences, as each day had many new adventures. I hope this gives you at least a sliver of appreciation for what life is like in Madagascar. If you are interested in having some exotic, life-changing experiences yourself and you meet the program requirements, I urge you to apply to the EXPLORE program. An eye-opening adventure awaits you!

© WWF/Andrea Du Rietz
Doing my best to adapt to the way of life here.
© WWF/Andrea Du Rietz