Friday, October 1, 2010

A Party to Remember

The Malagasy like to have their fun—whatever the occasion may be.

We left Vondrozo last Monday for the southernly mountain town of Bevata, the base community for several of the Vondrozo Forest Corridor’s COBAs. It took us a full day to travel to Bevata and a full day to return (yesterday) to Vondrozo, meaning that we spent only two days at our destination. But, that is not to say that the travel portion of our séjour in Bevata wasn’t fun in itself—10 people and associated luggage piled into a hatchback station wagon traversing the muddy red roads of Madagascar...It was certainly a voyage to remember.

The ostensible reason for our trip to Bevata was that we attend and present at a fête commenorating the handing off of the management rights of one portion of the Vondrozo Corridor from the federal government to the Bevata COBA. In my previous discussion of COBAs, I think I neglected to mention that these protected forest patches were historically managed—albeit poorly—by the Madagascar government. Only within the past fifteen years have local communities, taking the form of COBAs, been granted the legal rights to management of their own environmental patrimony. Some of the Vondrozo Corridor’s COBAs were established as early as 1995, but most real strides in environmental protection and local, sustainable development have been made in the past decade—thanks largely to the aid and intervention of World Wildlife Fund forest agents. This fête honored one such stride, the offical transfer of the legal rights to forest management to the Bevata COBA.

But, as with many things Madagascar, the party did not go quite as planned. The government officials needed to sign the official transfer papers were unable to attend the fête but only notified the Bevata community at the last minute. The Coca-cola, THB, and ‘gasy gasy’ had already arrived in abundant quantities, as had all the WWF staff with speakers, powerpoints, and state-of-the-art technological equipment. There was nothing for it, really, but to throw the party anyway. And come October 30, when the federal officials will at last be able to make it to down to Bevata, well, we might as well just throw a second party then, too.

Ah, the irony—two full days of travel for a party thrown in spite of the fact that the reason for the party no longer existed. In all honesty, though, we did do what seemed like real work. There were speakers and videos, and we presented a powerpoint—so blasé in North America these days, but oh-so-exciting and professional in rural Madagascar—describing our divergent backgrounds, common interests, and plans for the next three months of conservation projects in Madagascar. We even got to work on some documentary filming and our first real awareness-raising activity, which Sergio has dubbed our “Message in a Bottle” project.

“What aspect of the natrual environment of Madagascar is the most important to you?” We ask the question in English, in French, in Malagasy.

We rush through the market, gathering names, hometowns, and answers to our question on little slips of paper, which we deposit in our empty plastic Eau Vive bottle. Dami, age 14, answers the water. Monsieur le professeur du français au lycée, needs two slips of paper to explain how all aspects of the environment are intertwined and important and how the country’s uniqueness draws help from foreigners like us. Old man Alexandre says “tany”—the Earth—is “source de tout.” PCV Brian describes the astonishing combination of risk and possibility for the Malagasy people.

For me, it takes only one word—“endemicity.” I mean this in the ecological sense, but also in the figurative sense. Certainly, Madagascar is a world hotspot for biodiversity and endemic flora and fauna. But its cultural traditions, its ethnic diversity, the Malagasy way of life—these, too, are endemic to Madagascar and integrally related to its environmental future. There is no other place like this on the planet, and if we mean to save it, then we must recognize, in the words of John Steinbeck, that “none of it is important or ALL of it is.”

The women are harder to talk to and nigh impossible to extract answers from. Ranto has some success when he rewords our question with multiple choice possibilities, but then we get a lot of similiar responses, which feel rather influenced to me. The water, the air, the forest, the animals...all of these things are important. But what is more important to me right now is that these women learn to think and speak for themselves.

Nowhere are such inhibitions more present than at the party itself. A day of speeches and presentations (including those strange vazaha who tried to speak in Malagasy) and now it is time to celebrate. The THB and tokagasy flow freely, and the music blares loud—a mixture of Malagasy folk and Shakira’s “Wakawaka.” And yet, it is the young men of the village, almost exclusively, who jump and shake and dance the night away in the town square. This is the antithesis of Petaluma Junior High School; in all of my adolescent memories, the boys sat slouched in the corner while the girls were the life of the party. Here, however, the Malagasy women do not dance.

Kuni, Christa, and I shock the village when we join in the fun. In actuality, we are well-received and generally respected by the young men of Bevata (better, indeed, than we might be in, say...Barcelona). Ranto tells us that Malagasy women dance in Tana, the capital, but here in Bevata, our western freedom affords these young men a seemingly rare opportunity to dance with a girl. Naturally, we don’t sit down all night. It is fun but frustrating at the same time; even Henintsoa, with her Malagasy background and darker skin tone, feels uncomfortable on the dance floor. I talk to her about it later, and she expresses a desire to return someday and liberate the women of rural Madagascar.

It is 5am before we know it, and we must leave the fête with the rising sun, for it is time pile back in that car and snake our way along the muddy dirt roads of Madagascar. It was, indeed, a party to remember.

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