Before going away to Madagascar, the longest I had been away from my family was two weeks. I lived the typical western lifestyle. My phone never left my side; everything I needed could be downloaded or ordered in just a few clicks; I binge-watched TV; and my biggest worry was that pesky spot on my chin.
Looking back on it, something in me must have been crying out for adventure and change, otherwise why had I done it? Why had I signed up to spend ten weeks camping without wifi or running showers? On the ten hour plane journey, I fretted and worried. I mentally packed and unpacked my backpack a hundred times trying to remember if I’d lost anything. I wondered if I had enough malarial tablets and plasters to last my trip. Despite my nerves, however, I was absolutely buzzing with excitement.
Once we landed in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city, it was all a bit of a blur. Me and a fellow volunteer were met by a taxi driver and taken to a hotel where we stayed overnight. The next day, we met more volunteers and were collectively driven to the airport.
Getting Acquainted with Fort Dauphin
The brief flight to Fort Dauphin was both beautiful and alarming. For every stretch of lush green forest there were whole acres going up in flames—a result of the illegal but common ‘slash and burn’ practice of clearing crops.
In Fort Dauphin, we were met by the brilliant Tsina, who introduced us to the staff and gave us a talk on everything from health and safety to respecting local culture. I struggled at first to set up my tent as I’d only practiced once back home. However, everyone was so helpful on that first day—they did most of the setting up for me. By the end of my trip, I had become a pro. I could clear away a tent in minutes and set one up even quicker!
I awoke the next day to the sounds of children playing. The walls of my tent turned the morning sunlight a reddish color. We all emerged from our tents at a similar time because there comes a point after sunrise in Madagascar where, should you stay in your tent a few minutes too long you will bake.
The breakfast was delicious. Over the weeks to come, I would look forward to going to sleep so that I could wake up and have breakfast. We were treated with strong coffee (sweetened with condensed milk), deep fried balls of sweetened bread called Mofos, and an ever changing selection of fresh fruit.
A Day Trip to See Lemurs!
On that first day in Fort Dauphin, I was just enjoying a mango when the news came that we were going on a day trip. A day trip to see lemurs! I genuinely can’t tell you how excited I was. I assumed we’d have to wait ages to even get a glimpse of these creatures—my sole reason for being in Madagascar.
A short journey later, we arrived at a national park. Though the lemurs were fed by rangers and prevented from venturing on to the road, they had free range of the park and most of the females carried young. There were quite a few different species: the allusive bamboo lemur, the dancing Sifaka and, of course, the King Julians of Madagascar, the ring-tails. We followed several groups of lemurs, watching the youngsters play and the mothers sit back and sunbathe. We also spotted some rare radiated tortoises, a crocodile, and a beautiful Malachite kingfisher. What a welcome to Madagascar!
Arriving at Saint Luce Reserve
A day later we headed out in to the depths of the country to begin our placement. After a three hour Camion ride, a stop for Lychees, and one stop to repair the truck, we arrived at Sainte Luce. A hundred children gathered round us. Calling out the names of staff and smiling nervously at the volunteers.
That evening, Hoby, a head guide and an all-round brilliant person, led us on a night walk. Donning head lamps, we followed a path looking into the dense foliage, hoping to catch eye shine in the glare of our torches.
I was astonished by how much we saw on a 30 minute walk.
Adorable dwarf lemurs clung to tiny branches, a huge chameleon went dark and stripy in an effort to ward us off, and another chameleon no bigger than a little finger fell over sideways in Hoby’s hand, assuming the position of a dead leaf. Hours from the nearest city, we could see millions of stars twinkling in the night sky and hear cicadas singing in the bushes.
Our Conservation Surveys
There are three main surveys to carry out on the conservation scheme. The first is lemur behavior. We walk through the forest until someone spots a group of red collared brown lemurs, and then we follow them for about two hours. If the group is lethargic, this can be a relaxing experience, because the lemurs sit ten meters above us and sleep while we record their every move.
However, the group may just be in an energetic mood. In this case, you will find yourself thrashing through the jungle searching for flashes of reddish-brown and trying to discern what they’re actually doing. On one such occasion, we kept up with them for an hour thanks to the guide’s excellent tracking skills. But after one wrong turn, they were out of sight for good. Disheartened, we began to walk back to camp when all of a sudden a volunteer gave a cry. We turned round to see her peering at a log with a huge grin on her face. Assuming the heat had got to her, I began to offer her my water bottle. But through a hole in the log, I caught a glimpse of something huge and green. It turned out to be a two meter long ground boa, the first any of us non-Malagasies had ever seen, and it was beautiful.
That was Madagascar for you, full of surprises.
We also did lemur transects and herptofauna transects. The former involves walking along a piece of forest and recording any lemur species. The latter involves wading through a swamp and trying to catch frogs. Weirdly, I grew to love the herptofauna transects. The challenge of catching and identifying amphibians or trying to find a gecko hiding in a fern was exhilarating. Both transects were often carried out at night which added to the challenge.
On my first night transect, I was searching for a particularly fast moving frog when my glasses fell off. I tried to relocate them, but it was no good and the more I searched, the further I seemed to be from finding them. It was decided that Babaly and Hoby would return in the morning to look for them. I was convinced they were lost forever so you can imagine my surprise when at lunch the next day, they emerged triumphant and waving my glasses aloft.
Now, whenever someone says my glasses look a little crooked, I tell them they spent a night in a Madagascan forest, so I really don’t mind if they’re not in perfect condition.
The Conservation Club
My favorite activity of all was the Conservation Club, which we held every Wednesday and Saturday at the Sainte Luce school. The room fills up with children from 5 months to 16 years old, and we proceed to teach them a lesson. Sometimes these lessons were hectic and no one seemed to learn, but other days we’d manage to engage the children for the whole lesson, and they’d leave with fresh knowledge in their heads.
One of my favorite classes was when we taught the life-cycle of a butterfly.
We selected a willing child and dressed him as a caterpillar. Then, we wrapped him in a lamba to signify the pupae stage. And finally, we unraveled him and lo and behold! He now sported a magnificent pair of wings. As the child flapped back to his seat, the room was filled with the sound of children giggling.
Throwing ‘bush parties’
Every four weeks we throw a ‘bush party.’ Each of the volunteers contributes a small sum, and a band is hired and food bought. Everyone eats their fill of luxuries we don’t normally get—such as chips, deep fried cassava balls, and banofee pie! Then, we join the villagers and dance all night to the sound of Group Dodomy, a band that make their own instruments and sing with passion.
Lessons in Malagasy
Every week we were given a Malagasy lesson. Quite a few of us found that the perfect people to practice on were the children. They didn’t care if you understood them or not, and would talk at a hundred miles an hour whether you were Malagasy or English. Besides this, they were just as eager to learn English. So, we would often stage impromptu classes, telling each other the words for anything that could be pointed to.
Looking Back on my Volunteer Experience
When I think back to Madagascar, I don’t think of the rain sodden weeks, the long drop toilets, bucket showers or hundredth meal of rice and beans. No, I think of all those friends I made who I’m still in contact with, of the lessons I learned about not being obsessed with material wealth, and of all the many passionate games of cards we played.
If you take yourself away from what’s comfortable, you may have the odd moment where you wished you stayed curled up in bed with tea and Netflix, but the occasions where you realize just how amazing this experience is will be countless beyond belief.
Inspired by Helena’s experience volunteering with Azafady in Madagascar?