Thursday, December 2, 2010

Just Another Madagascar

“Everyday, she takes her morning bath, she wets her hair, wraps her towel around her as she’s heading for the bedroom chair—it’s just another day.” –Paul McCartney

Just another day in Madagascar. We wake up before 5am to the sound of crowing roosters and sloshing water and crawl out of our tents. Already, the sun is fierce and burning.

We walk through the rice fields for a solid twenty minutes to find the trickle of water in a bamboo pipe that supplies a village of over 500 people. We fill our Nalgenes, drop in purification tablets or chlorine droplets or swish fancy UV lights through the contents, and then we hike on back.

We troop into tranobe, the village’s central “guest house”and settle ourselves cross-legged on the thatch-mat floor, all sense of personal space forgotten in the cramped confines. Maman’Dilo spoons out wet and sticky rice into our bowls, then pushes two plates of crushed peanuts—voanjo in Malagasy—in front of us. Kuni takes from the bowl on the left, voanjo crushed with salt, and adds a few drops of chili sauce—“paracetamol” in Florent’s joking vocabulary—as she mixes it with her rice. Sergio takes from the bowl on the right, voanjo crushed with sugar, and douses it in sweet and condensed milk as he mixes it with his own rice. He tries a spoonful, wrinkles his nose, then adds more sugar from his personal, 2kg ration. Christa divides her plate of rice down the middle and reverently annoints the left side with salty voanjo and the right with sugared voanjo. We eat.

When are plates are scraped clean, Papan’Dilo pushes a giant mug—a zinga—full of steaming black coffee before us. We pour it into our bowls or wait our turn for the tiny little teacup and mix it—Malagasy style—with disproportional amounts of sugar. Sergio, of course, adds more than anyone else.

After breakfast, Ranto leads us to a neighboring hut where four village elders await us. We pose questions in French, which Ranto translates, and the elders answer back. We learn about the history of the village, the ethnic groups of the people, the religion and traditions by which they abide. We ask questions about the environment, and the elders say that WWF has done much to help them conserve their resources in the past five years, but still, every year, there is less and less forest. They are concerned too that there is less and less water to drink; they think the two scarcities might be related. The villagers note that some regions of the forest are “fady” or forbidden to visit, let alone exploit, because they inter their dead in caves amongst the trees. Much of the only remaining forest in the region is cemetary. “In more ways than one...”says Christa.

After the interview, Sergio and Ranto leave us to lead a formation on cookstove construction with the village men, and I join Christa, Kuni, and Henintsoa en route to the village schoolhouse where we meet up with the town’s female population. We provide soap for the women to wash their hands, then commence our formation on sustainable cusine.

We roast and crush peanuts, beat eggs, shred manioc, and mash, mash bananas. I leave the other three girls to mix the ingredients together with sugar and head outside to get the cooking started.

“Mila afo,” I say to one woman. “Mahandro?” We need fire. To cook? I am beyond delighted when she clearly understands and rushes off to find wood and set up a cookstove. I gesture and explain that we need two pots (“vilainy”)—one small (“kely”) and one big (“lehibe”)—and when she returns with the required items, I am pleased beyond measure. She helps me melt sugar in the little pot and spread it over the bottom of a dish. Christa materializes with sliced bananas which we spread over the sugared surface, and then she takes the dish inside the schoolhouse to fill with the manioc batter that Kuni and Henintsoa are still beating vigorously.

The Malagasy woman looks at me expectantly. I point to the big pot. “Mila rano,” I say. We need water. I gesture to the bottom of the pot. “Mila hazo,” I add. We need wood. I gesture to the middle of the pot. She frowns and pours water in the bottom of the pot, then picks up a piece of firewood and looks at me questioningly.

No, I shake my head. “Hazo akondro?” I try. Banana wood? “Like bonoky,” I say, remembering a widely-known local dish. And she understands.

We break off banana branches and smash them up against the interior sides of the pot, above the water, such that when Christa returns, we have made a little plateform on which to rest the cake. We balance the dish filled with the cake contents on the banana branches, cover the pot, and set it over the fire to steam.

So great is my elation and sense of accomplishment when the genagena is ready thirty minutes later, I could swear it tastes better than lemon cake with chocolate frosting on my sixteenth birthday.

Back in tranobe, lunch is a well-deserved bowl of rice topped with steamed bokala (sweet potato) leaves. Our eatings are interrupted by a boy who arrives at the door to ask Florent if we are the vazaha here to save the forest. “They are the vazaha of WWF,” he answers in Malagasy, which—as Christa points out—means pretty much the same thing. The boy explains that he knows a forest that he wants to save; he thinks that showing it to us will help in its protection. We are stunned, touched, inspired, and of course we want to see it.

It is raining when we leave the hut—the dry season is officially over in Madagascar—and we follow the boy out of town. Sergio and Ranto have another formation to do, and Henintsoa stays behind with Maman’Dilo, so it is just Christa, Kuni, and me—white skin and ponytails—who troop along behind Florent and the boy as thunder and lightning shake the November sky.
A double rainbow arches overhead, and we laugh in wonder at the impossible beauty of sun and rain and electricity striking across the sky. The boy leads us first to his house in a neighboring village where his father, the COBA president, is waiting. His father explains to us that, throughout his lifetime, he has protected one patch of forest from exploitation to maintain the integrity of his village watershed. We ask about environmental change over time, and he tells us that the forested land in the surrounding region has diminished greatly in recent years but that the lemur population in his forest fragment appears to have increased. “The lemurs crowd into the only forest that is left,” he says. “Come, I will show them to you.”

It is late afternoon already, but we follow the man and boy over the hills into the delicate majesty of a bamboo forest. Everywhere, we see gnawed-off branches and clumps of scat, evidence of the thriving lemur population that the man described, but no living lemur appears. We scramble up a hillside lit by a pink Malagasy sunset, and I nearly step on a tiny brown chameleon. We place him on the sleeve of Christa’s vibrant orange rain jacket, and his cheeks blush to match the color. We are more than contented with the chameleon, but I fear that father and son are determined to keep walking until we see a lemur. At last, when the sky is so dark that I start to flick on my headlamp with every other step, we head again for home.

And then, when we are no longer searching, we see it. A lemur, backlit and in profile against the dusky twilight, his long tail curling behind him as he clambers over the jagged fronds of a ravinala tree—lemur and ravinala, the two symbols of Madagascar, united in the last light of the day.

“Just another day in Madagascar,” I say. Just another day indeed.

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