Sunday, September 26, 2010

International Language

“We English club association at AVENIR COURSE are very delighted to write this letter to you. So, we’d like to invite you to discuss with us here at our school about English language...Please! Give us a chance for discussing with you in English because we want to be able to speak English very well like you.”

So says the letter that the students bring to our door at the WWF office in Vondrozo. And, of course, we cannot refuse.

Saturday morning finds us sitting awkwardly in a row of desks at the front of a classroom. A sea of thirty students, aging anywhere from 15 to 45, stare at the vazaha with wide eyes and rapt attention. We aren’t exactly sure what they want us to do, but their teacher saves us from lesson planning and prompts them to introduce themselves. “Thank you for listen to me and watch me, as my teacher demanded,”stammers one girl. “You can call me Manja. I am student at the lycée. My family is very big because I have 3 sisters and 4 brothers. I am single. My favorite past-times is reading a book and listening to rock and roll.”

We swap words in Malagasy and English, using French—and the extraordinarily multilingual Kuni—as an intermediary. For some reason, it turns into a wildlife course. Lemur is variky, gecko is atsatsaky, chamelon is sakorikata, crocodile is voay, caiman is mamba, and on we go. We explain that a new Peace Corps volunteer, Ericka, is arriving this week to teach English in Vondrozo; hopefully, her lessons will be a little more structured than ours. Right now, our teaching style vaguely resembles Madame Victorine’s.

“Why do you want to learn English?”I ask the class. “Because English is international language,”says one young man. I think about how far away I am from home and how still, there are two other American volunteers and a Canadian in Vondrozo, Madagascar, of all places. Yes, I conclude—fortunately for me and unfortunately for him—he must be right.
Our reputation precedes us, and more invitations are issued. Sunday morning finds us squashed shoulder-to-shoulder on a couch in a dark Malagasy hut. We have been invited to our first Malagasy circumcision fête. “I knew you’d be invited to one of those at some point,”says Christa’s mother on the telephone. “I just didn’t know it would happen so soon!”

“I want to practice English with you. Can you teach me?”sputters the man sitting on the couch next to me. He is the math teacher at the local high school, and, according to PCV Brian, he is drunk most of the time. “But the students seem to love him!”says Brian. I guess his drink doesn’t interfere with his algebra.

A nauseous five-year-old boy sits on the table in the center of the room, looking anything but celebratory, but all around him, his friends and relatives are animated and excitable. They sing, they clap, and we turn our eyes first left, first right, trying desperately to follow the words in mingled French and Malagasy that fly around the room. For a brief moment, I wonder how I ever managed to find myself in such a place.

It is 10am, and we sip Coca-Cola and Fanta soda, yet, there is an abundance of Malagasy beer—so authentically named Three Horses Beer—at this fête. Most of the beer is forgotten, however, for it is the reek of “gasy gasy,” the famous Malagasy moonshine, that permeates our nostrils and satisfies the thirst of most of these revellers. My friend the math teacher starts out our conversation in English—the international language—but as sip after sip of gasy gasy goes down his throat, his jumbled words dissolve into French and, finally, Malagasy. More frequently now, he accidentally spits on my face.

A woman demands something of me in animated Malagasy, and I haven’t a clue what she is trying to say. She thinks she is speaking French, but it is not a French that I, or even Henintsoa, can recognize. At last I agree—“Eka, eka!” Yes, yes!—just to calm her down. I trust to the international language—not of English, but of alcohol—that she won’t remember her demand, whatever it might have been, come tomorrow.


Mistangastangana (pronounced “meet-song-gah-song-gah-nah”) is one of my favorite new words in Malagasy. It has no direct translation in English, but it essentially means to “hang out”or “to wander around and talk to people.” At first, I was confused by this dual definition—to me, ‘hanging out’ is a much more passive activity than ‘wandering around’—but as Christa reminds me, the Malagasy don’t mistangastangana very fast.

Marlin Andriamananjaranirina (yup, you read that right), our WWF field coordinator in Vondrozo, says that many Malagasy farmers work for only 2-4 hours in a given day. The crops are so simple and the work so routine that there really just isn’t that much to do. The women cook a pot of rice—une montagne de riz, as we have come to call it—in the morning and maybe some beans. That pot is reheated for lunch and dinner, and in between, yet again, there really just isn’t that much to do. And so, everyone likes to mistangastangana.

Our Malagasy teacher, Madame Victorine, tires of ‘teaching’and suggests we mistangastangana the morning away instead. Somehow, she doesn’t understand why we aren’t fluent in her native tongue after four days of study. Her favorite teaching tactic is to repeat the same Malagasy phrase over and over again, getting louder each time. Eventually, the meaning has to become clear, right? --“Ino nividy omaly anareo? Ino nividy OMALY ANAREO?! INO NIVIDY OMALY ANAERO?!?” she shouts at Sergio. WHAT DID YOU BUY YESTERDAY?!? Later, when Sergio shares his life story with us (SPOTlight for you Stanford Outdoors enthusiasts), he will tell us that Madame Victorine’s class is what he fears most in the world.

We follow Madame Victorine through the ruts and waterholes of the red Vondrozo road. -- “Akoraby,” we call out as the Malagasy flock to the door to stare.” ‘Arokaby’ (pronounced “ah-koo-day-aah-bee”) is southeastern vernacular Malagasy for ‘Hello, how are you?’ --“Tsara be,”everyone replies—‘I am doing well.’ Their eyes are as large as a lemurs as they follow us down the road.

“I don’t think I’ll ever really get used to the stares,”says Brian. “After four months in Vondrozo, they still stare at me everywhere I go...” The Malagasy call us “vazaha” meaning ‘white person,’and I marvel for a moment about the political incorrectness of such a phrase. “Hello, white person!”Can you imagine if someone said such a thing in the U.S.? To many, vazahas are all the same, and the Malagasy struggle to remember our strange and foreign names. In my opinion, Christa and I really don’t look alike, but we are both of North American complexion with brown hair and brown eyes, and thus, we are forever mistaken for one another.

Brian tells us that half of his time in Madagascar is spent waiting for something to happen. For me, coming from the Stanford world of iPhones, macbooks, and incessant multitasking, this slower pace of life is going to take some getting used to. Ranto, a native Malagasy himself, thinks I am a most bizarre person, since I am constantly searching for something productive to do. “Hyperactive,”he says. “Are all Americans like this?”And then, noticing my French braid as he struggles to explain himself, “Like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider? Always on the move?”

Lara Croft—I can’t help but laugh. Pop culture idiot that I am, I haven’t even seen Tomb Raider, but I guess Lara Croft doesn’t mitsangatsangana very often.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Earth Systems 10 goes Madagascar

The town of Vondrozo borders the Vondrozo Forest Corridor, a 70 km long by 10 km wide belt of primary rainforest that connects the Forest Reserve of Vondrozo to the North with the Special Reserve of Ivohibe Peak to the South. In just this one small pocket of rainforest, there exist 65 distinct families of plants, seven different species of lemur, 60 species of bird, and 32 distinct species of amphibians. As with all living things in Madagascar, most of these are endemic to the island.

The eastern side of the mountains which run north-south along the entire island are dominated by humid rainforests such as those found here at Vondrozo. Since the arrival of humans to the Madagascar some 2,000 years ago, much of the island has been deforested, and this north-south belt of vegetation is no longer contiguous. WWF prioritizes protecting those regions, such as Vondrozo, which maintain intact primary—or never before logged—tropical ecosystems and create corridors between existing reserves. Such corridors allow species to move between protected regions, a luxury becoming increasingly important as rising global temperatures force plants and animals to move in response to changes in climate at their current latitudes.

The southeastern Malagasy derive most of their livelihood from agriculture and animal husbandry, and thus, WWF recognizes the need to strike a balance between environmental conservation and sustainable development. The official title of the WWF project with which we are working is “Ecoregion Conservation and Community Forestry Development in the Malagasy Humid Forest.” In addition to protecting forests, we are here to communicate the value of this region’s biodiversity to the local population, as well as help with projects which simultaneously support rainforest conservation and provide economic benefits to the surrounding community. For all those reading this blog who were not Earth Systems majors at Stanford, these human benefits of an intact ecosystem—such as crop pollination, water purification, and flood protection—are dubbed “ecosystem services.”

Within the Vondrozo forest corridor, WWF is working with a number of local communities termed COBAs (for Communauté de Base), which are essentially villages that the government has granted independent control of certain forest fragments and assigned the tasks of reforestation and sustainable development. With the aid of Malagasy WWF forest agents, Peace Corps Volunteers like Brian, and shorter term volunteers like us, these COBAs are instituting a number of conservation and restoration projects in the hopes of creating a self-sustaining ecosystem that will support the long-term well-being of their village and the heritage of their children.

Some of these COBAs do not take their responsibility seriously, and their protected regions are little more than “paper parks”—marked as preserves on a map, but with no funding or personnel to manage their resources in actuality. However, of the 28 COBAs within the Vondrozo Forest Corridor, those supported by WWF have been, by far, the most successful. Sitting in on a COBA meeting today was like reading an advertisement pamphlet for Community-Based Forest Management. I was shocked to hear the Malagasy president explain that his village plants trees to protect the next generation’s patrimony and keep the watershed intact so as to maintain clean air and water. He even told us that the projects WWF has helped to put in place are providing the region a buffer against the effects of climate change. In the past nine years, this one COBA has planted over 14,000 new trees.


“This looks like how I have always imagined Mars,”says my friend and coworker, Christa Szumski, on our drive to Vondrozo from Tana. And , indeed, the red hills of Madagascar are at once a strikingly beautiful and desperately sad sight to behold. The contrast of blue sky and red hills is dramatic and desolate and smacks of something straight out of The Lorax. The hills are bare of the rainforest truffula trees that once reigned supreme and have been replaced instead by the resilient and fast-growing ravinola (known to most westerners as the traveler’s palm), as well as the occasional thicket of bamboo, interspersed with open grassland and red, red earth.

Most Malagasy farmers practice a style of agriculture called tavy, which we in the West recognize as slash and burn. Though few acknowledge it, slash and burn agriculture can be a sustainable method of forest management in areas with abundant land and few people. If the forest is given time to regenerate, rotating patches of burned land are not inherently destructive. In Madagascar, however, the forested land is too sparse and the people (just under 20 million and growing more each year) are too numerous for tavy to function without significant negative impacts on the land. Every year, as much as one-third of the island of Madagascar is burned to facilitate the growth of fresh grasses, which feed the zebu (Madagascar’s strange, camel-humped cattle), and to make way for the planting of crops—chiefly rice, the staple food of any and all who inhabit the island, ourselves no exception.

We ride our creaking WWF bicycles beyond the the limits of Vondrozo, bumping over rutted road and and fallen tree. I vaguely wish our organization had seen fit to supply us with helmets as I race down the slope after the flapping T-shirt in front of me. To the left and up the slope, I hear a crackle of flame as the tavy burns close along the road, consuming brush and grass and all in its wake. There is smoke in the air—always—in this country, and inevitably the faintest trace of acrid ash suffuses in the nostrils. Now, I dodge falling embers as I cycle along the road. September and October are the seasons when the rainforest burns.

We play soccer on Vondrozo’s field, barefoot like the locals, and it is good to run and laugh and feel young and free. But the field—like so much of this country—is really a barren, flat expanse of red dirt. My feet are sore from kicking without shoes, not something I ever practiced much at home, and they turn red from the exertion, the contact of ball on skin, and the rusty dust that billows all around them. “You look like you’ve been walking on Mars,”says Christa. “Tavy feet,”is all that I can think to reply.

A New Home

“So what are your ‘first impressions’ of Vondrozo?”asked our new friend, Peace Corps Volunteer Brian Klein, upon our arrival on Sunday. Vondrozo has been home for him for the past four months and will continue to be so for the next year and a half. For us, it is a but a home base for our scanty three months in Madagascar. I felt unqualified to answer such a question to one who must know so much more than I can even guess, but after a few days of consideration, I feel ready to share my thoughts with the world.

Vondrozo is the district capital of this corner of humid rainforest in southeastern Madagascar, and as such, it is bigger than I had anticipated. There is a primary school, a middle school, and a high school here, and some few thousand residents call this town home. With my western arrogance, I assumed that this hamlet would be untouched by technology and industrialization, and I could not have been more wrong. All the world carries a cell phone, the women in the village asked me to share my photo files with them via USB drive, and there is even a women’s soccer league in the area (the existence of the men’s team goes without saying...). I was shocked by such development and then ashamed of my false assumptions.

At the same time, Vondrozo is also the third world at its finest. We are installed right now in Behavana Hotely, the town’s only lodging establishment for out-of-towners. Don’t assume that this is a five-star pension just because I am able to write to you—we bought a USB modem that allows us to access minimal amounts of internet and upload to the blog via satellite, but it is a rarity in parts such as these. I am guessing that Brian and the WWF Bureau own the only other two in the village.

The hotely is run by a Chinese-Malagasy immigrant family who seem to own most of the commercial enterprises in the town. In addition to the hotel, they manage Vondrozo’s lone restaurant and also its general store, where one can by flour, rice, beans, and lambas, the traditional sarong-style women’s robe of Madagascar. The four girls in our group (myself included) eagerly await the purchase of our own lambas, scheduled to take place tomorrow with the aid of Marlin, our on-site WWF coordinator.

Behavana Hotely is simple and dirty and a far cry from the comforts of Antananarivo or even Farafangana, the coastal “metropolis”which we passed through on our route here. The floors are made of concrete, the walls are full of holes, and our lone window looks out into the restaurant’s washbasin. Just outside, there is a toilet which is basically a glorified hole in the ground in which one can often see yesterday’s feces floating about. The toilet’s delicious aromas often waft into my bedroom at night or around our table at mealtimes—daily, I get better at holding my breath. Next to the toilet, there is a “shower,”or rather, a bucket of water and a tile basin for washing, and the remnants of one’s self-cleaning float along a chute that snakes its way through the hallway between the rooms. If someone is in the shower when you want to brush your teeth, you can just skip the wash basin and spit directly into the chute outside the door.

It took us three days to get to Vondrozo from Antananarivo, a distance—as the Nazgul flies—of just under 300 miles, but distances are deceiving in this land of no I-5. When I asked PCV Brian what of the western world he misses most, he answered readily, “the interstate highway system.”In the private vehicles of WWF, this journey over rutted and pitted dirt roads was quite posh. By taxi-brousse, the crowded vans used for public transportation, it can take up to twice as long, and come the wet season (starting in mid-December, just in time for our return to Tana), public transportation may not exist at all. Brian says that he will likely have to bike the 40 miles to Farafangana to catch a ride to any other part of the island.

I mentioned in my first entry that we were five and expecting another. Our expected sixth team member, a young man from Cameroon, was unable to successfully obtain his passport and visa, and so, in his stead, we now have Ranto Tantely, a Malagasy student of sociology who hails from the capital. Ranto is a godsend with his language skills—he speaks to us in fluent French and simple English and translates all the Malagasy. Henintsoa was born in Madagascar and speaks a bit of Malagasy already, Kuni appears to be a bit of a language virtuoso and after a week of study, threatens to surpass Brian in her sentence fluidity, and the rest of us are bumbling as long as best we can. I feel more confident by the moment and successfully purchased 6 eggs and a bunch of bananas in the market today, but I am still little more than an infant in in the art of verbal expression. My French is by no means perfect either, and it is frustrating to feel so constantly ineloquent when I am speaking in unfamiliar tongues.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

First Impressions

The unit of currency in Madagascar today is the Ariary. One U.S. dollar is equal to approximately 2,000 Ariary, and the largest banknote in circulation is the 10,000 Ariary note, a sum deemed too large and flashy to be safe for everyday use. In fact, most Malagasy vendors don’t have the funds to provide change on such a note, anyway. Let me save you a bit of math and remind you that this impractical note is the equivalent of five U.S. dollars.
Poverty, then, is my first impression of Madagascar, but this, I suppose, is hardly surprising. As a Caucasian kid from the suburbs of California, when have I ever encountered lifestyles like these? There are dirty children who wander the streets begging, and when Sergio—our token soft-at-heart—hands one a cookie, there are ten more with scabby fingers and weepy eyes who materialize beside us.
We sit at a vendor’s stall in the deep dark of the evening and watch in wonder as Malagasy life unfolds around us. In the street, people group around small fires to cook food and find warmth, for at 4,186 feet, this highlands city is colder than one would expect for a tropical destination. In the daytime, the sun is fierce and close at this equatorial latitude, but at night, the air is cool, and the sky is dark beyond belief. There are no streetlights here.  It is strange, indeed, for one like me, who has just departed from the endless daytime of late summer in southern Europe. Just a short trip over the center line, and the seasons are reversed. It is early spring here, and the chill of winter still hangs in the air.
My vegetarianism died on a stick strung with zebu meat grilled over the vendor’s barbecue. Now, I gobble vitamin C pills and hope I don’t get scurvy with this new diet of rice and multifarious meats—quite the antithesis of what I knew back home. I might get salmonella tomorrow, but tonight, we are eating like locals.
We’ve learned to walk like locals, too—across the street, through the street, down the street, no matter if a car is coming or going. Just stare the driver in the eyes, and he is sure to swerve to avoid you. We’re supposed to be talking like locals, also, but that seems a bit ambitious after only three days. Amongst ourselves, we speak a mélange of French and English—and sometimes a little Spanish, too—but in spite of it all, we seem to understand one another. “Let’s stop here for dinner parce que jái vraiment faim maintenant.”
Qu’ést-ce que vous parlez, français or English?”asks a Malagasy man. “Tous les deux,” we reply. We don’t really know anymore—even our thoughts are confused.
And as for Malagasy, we are learning it in French.
“Manao ahoana” means “Bonjour”, and “Iza no anaranao?” means “Comment t’appelles-tu?”
--“Nathalie,”says the little girl with dirt in her hair and food on her face.
 And “Misaotra” means “Merci”and that is about all I know right now. Tomorrow, I’ll look up more words in the Malagache-Français dictionary and then look up them up a second time in the Français-Anglais dictionary, and then maybe I will understand.
We leave for the field tomorrow, so today is a day of preparations. Cash to withdraw and the essential things to buy—phone cards, internet cards, chocolate, a soccer ball. I think we are set, and I am so excited to go to the jungle.

"Begin at the beginning...

...and go on until you reach the end; then stop.”
So says the King in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and so shall I attempt to do in the months to come. There will be many times when it may appear that I cannot go on, many times when I cannot post updates due to the remoteness of our location and the challenges of communication, but such is the nature of the developing world. I will write all the time and post whenever the opportunity arises, and I will stop only come December 15 when I reach the end of my time on Malagasy soil.
And so, like the King, I choose to begin at the beginning, though in the case of Madagascar, this means I must take you back—a long, long time back—far before humans, or even most present-day life forms, existed...
Around 175 million years ago, the supercontinent of Pangaea—in which all of the Earth’s landmasses were grouped together—began to break apart, forming two magnificent supercontinents, Laurasia to the north and Gondwana to the south, which was comprised of the continents of South America, Antarctica, Africa, and Australia, in addition to present-day India and New Zealand. The land that would one day give rise to Madagascar was bound in the center of this haphazard Gondwanan conglomeration, at the time nameless and indistinct.
During the mid-Jurassic period, around 167 million years ago, rifting in the Gondwanan landmass led to the separation of East Gondwana—Antarctica, Australia, India, and, yes, Madagascar—from Africa, and around 120 million years ago, India and Madagascar broke off together to form their own mini-subcontinent. Between 90 and 80 million years ago, the two land masses rifted, and India launched forth on a northern migration that would lead to its collision with the Laurasian landmass and the subsequent development of the Himalayas. But that is another story for another day.
For the past 80 million years, the island of Madagascar has been floating alone in the Indian Ocean, a self-contained evolutionary laboratory. 80 million years of isolation...Scientists really aren’t joking when they call Madagascar the eighth continent.
 At just under 230,000 square miles, Madagascar is slightly larger than the present-day nation of France, and yet as a result of its longstanding separation from all other landmasses, the island has developed a striking array of endemic species, those rare plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. As the world’s number one hotspot in plant biodiversity and endemicity, Madagascar is home to 13,000 species of flowering plants, of which nearly 90% are endemic. In terms of fauna, Madagascar hosts over 150,000 species of invertebrates, including some 300 species of butterfly (211 of which are endemic to the island). Madagascar is also home to some 365 endemic species of reptile and is famed for its 86 species of lemur, an ancient primate lineage that has long since died out in all other parts of the world.
As if in testament to its diversity, the human population of Madagascar is nearly as varied as its native flora and fauna. First colonized by seafaring southeasten Asian peoples around 2,000 years ago, Madagascar was subsequently populated by Arab and East African traders who crossed the Mozambique Channel and settled on the island’s western shore. In more recent history, both English and French colonialists have maintained footholds on the island since the early 1500s, and in 1896, the French annexed the island to their empire. In 1960, Madagascar was granted the independence—albeit politically unstable independence—that it still entertains today, though the French influence on Malagasy culture is still pronounced. In Antananarivo, the capital city, both French and official Malagasy are spoken widely, though countless Malagasy dialects exist as the inhabitants’only tongues in many of the islands’more remote areas. The people, themselves, are a rainbow mix of ethnicities—some Asian-looking, some Indonesian, some truly African.
But Madagascar is neither Asia nor Africa—it is, truly, a land unto itself.
It is this utter uniqueness that makes Madagascar a priority in environmental conservation efforts for WWF and for other organizations across the world.

So. You want to save the world?

You’re young and you’ve got a brain.
Added to this, you’ve got a passion for the planet.
All you need is the opportunity.”

So commences the introductory page for the World Wildlife Fund’s Youth Volunteer Programme website. Back home in the San Francisco Bay Area and approaching the completion of my university studies, I read these words just a short six months ago and felt my pulse quicken. I want to save the planet. I am young, and I like to think I have a brain. Above all, I know I have a passion for the planet. And, now, WWF has given me an opportunity.
I write to you from Antananarivo, capital city of the world’s fourth largest island, the independent nation of Madagascar. Less than a week ago, on Sunday, September 12, 2010, I said my goodbyes to the last of a few familiar faces and left the western world behind. For the next three months, Madagascar will be my home, and my fellow youth volunteers in World Wildlife Fund’s EXPLORE program will be all that I know of family and of friends. As writes Hillary Bradt in her guidebook to this country, “Madagascar is about as far from California as it is possible to be. Indeed, San Francisco and the southern Malagasy town of Toliara are as far apart as it is possible to be.” It would appear that I have come a long way from home.
I am not a superstitious person, and yet I felt as though destiny was at play when, just five days ago, I stumbled through the Paris Charles-de-Gaulle airport and found a WWF donation jar just outside the gate to my flight to Tana. It was as if it had been put there just for me. I frugally dropped in a few euro coins from my meager student funds and thought to myself that, soon, I would have the opportunity to make an impact more substantial. I found myself following the iconic panda bear across continental Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, and eastern Africa. And then it was waiting for me again, in the hands of a taxi driver in the arrival terminal of Tana’s Ivato airport. Yes, I thought to myself, as I first set foot on Malagasy soil, here is a chance to do my utmost to help save the world.
The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) is one of the largest non-governmental environmental conservation organizations in the world. With a myriad of international, national, and regional offices, WWF reaches out to threatened pockets of nature in all corners of the globe. Though each of its many sub-organizations functions seemingly independently, all are united by a common goal: “To stop the degradation of the planet's natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature.”
My fellow EXPLORE volunteers and myself are here in Tana under the auspices  of WWF Madagascar, aiming to do just that. We are currently a team of five, though a sixth may join us in time, and we hail from backgrounds as diverse as the ecosystems that WWF seeks to protect: Christa Szumski from Canada, Sergio Rejado Albaina from Spain, Kuni Baldauf from Austria, Henintsoa Ravoala from France, and myself—Cara Brook from the good ol’USA. After three days of orientation in Antananarivo, we are neophytes still in the strange land of Madagascar, a country that only one of us has ever set foot in before, a land known to most only from the animated images of a Disney movie that I confess to having never seen myself. And yet tomorrow we depart for our field site in the southeastern rainforest of Vondrozo where we hope to uphold WWF’s noble mission to halt our planet’s environmental degradation and build a harmonious future for humans and nature.