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It's Been an Honor: 2019 Madagascar Diaries #7
Republishing my blog posts from my time as a volunteer research assistant in Kianjavato, Madagascar, in mid-2019
Background: from late July through mid-October 2019, I worked as a volunteer research assistant for the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP), based out of the Kianjavato Ahmanson Field Station (KAFS). KAFS is located near the village of Kianjavato, in the eastern rainforests of Madagascar. During this time, I worked to assist MBP’s studies of the critically endangered greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus), as well as teaching English classes and later assisting the community reforestation program.
I wrote a series of “from the field” blog posts describing my life and work there as it happened, from a first-person “you are there” perspective. I’m now republishing excerpts from these on Substack!
Greetings all! This blog chronicles my penultimate week in Madagascar, and the training of my cohort’s successors! Along the way, I’ve been honored to witness a few more specimens of the marvelous local wildlife and learn more about Malagasy culture. Thanks for reading!
On Sunday afternoon, I visited the shop in Kianjavato village run by the Fikambanam-Behivavy, or Women’s Club (another good translation would be Ladies’ Association). My host was Innocent Maminjanahary, who guided me through the shop’s wares and their origin (pictured). The Women’s Club, led by Innocent, had been founded three years ago as a project of Conservation Fusion, a sister organization of MBP (or perhaps spouse organization, as the leaders of CF and MBP are married to each other) that focuses on supporting the local community, through educational, entrepreneurial, and other initiatives. The Women’s Club is an association of local women working together to profit from their crafting skills: women across the Kianjavato region wove, spun, and assembled products, as well as buying other things made in different regions of Madagascar, and some of their number sell them to tourists and passersby. Now, there are approximately 500 members across the Kianjavato region, and the shop is full of handmade baskets, earrings, necklaces, hats, coasters, purses, floor mats, and more! It’s lovely to see this project fostering entrepreneurial spirit and empowering local women to make money on their own.
Monday through Wednesday: The Settling in of the Next Cohort
The week was dominated by getting to know, and then training, the next cohort, those who would succeed us as the Volunteer Research Assistants for MBP’s Kianjavato Ahmanson Field Station. The new cohort numbered six to our five, and consisted of Nate, Ana, and Mack from the USA, Shannon from Canada, and, last but not least, Kate and Sam (yes, another Sam!) from the UK. They arrived late on Saturday evening, and unpacked and had their KAFS orientation from Fredo on Sunday. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the opportunity to volunteer at a remote field site for the purpose of endangered species conservation and tropical forest restoration tends to attract only a very high class of people, adventurous, compassionate, and hardworking sorts, and this group was no exception. All six will make splendid volunteer research assistants, and are quickly becoming good friends.
On Monday, I joined the Seed Collection team, picking up more red-M&M-like bonary mena seeds for the nurseries. The new volunteers were introduced to the Mayor of Kianjavato and the FOFIFA plantation leaders, as we had been not so long ago. I felt a little on the sick side on Monday, but, as I had been in the past, was revived by the convivial experience of teaching my English class. In that class, we covered words of direction in space and time: avaratra, andrefana, atsinanana, and atsimo (North, West, East, and South), aloha and aoriana (before and after), ambony and ambany (above and below), ankavanana/havanana and havia/ankavia (right and left, but in Malagasy each of those words has two forms, one beginning with “ank” and one with “h”).
Tuesday, as always, was a Moving Seedlings day (pictured), and this Tuesday, October 1st, was also the first fieldwork day for the new volunteers. Sam II and Shannon would be the Reforestation volunteers for the first half of the new cohort’s stay, and they accordingly accompanied Dakota, Dana, and I, the outgoing Reforestation team. We helped load baskets from the nurseries, which were providing seedlings for Wednesday’s planting events in the Morarano and Andranomaintso (I think) areas. We rode in the big MBP truck, with its floor covered in dirt trodden in from years of work, as it carried the baskets full of seedlings from the nurseries to the closest point on the road to the planting sites. Then, we marveled at the strength of the day laborers who did the really hard work: carrying the baskets from the truck to the Morarano planting site, in this case about a half-mile distant over rice paddies and up a steep hill. As my readers will know, I tried to carry just one basket to a planting site near Vatovavy, and found it a grueling experience. These guys carried two at a time, and then came back for more. Not satisfied with that display of endurance, they used their free time that day to learn a new language. At one point, while we and the laborers sat waiting for the truck to bring more seedlings, Romuald (an excellent friend, a great MBP staff member, and spectacular citizen, Malagasy and planetary) had an idea of how to use the time to their and MBP’s advantage-viz. an English class. I gladly volunteered as the teacher, and as few of the laborers spoke any English at all, spent half an hour or so teaching them the absolute basics: yes, no, hello, thank you, see you later, I, you, we, hot, cold, hungry, thirsty, happy, sad, and the numbers one through ten. Amazingly, even though they were on a short break from intense manual labor, all my students for this impromptu class were focused and attentive, dedicated learners. With such a large class (twenty-odd people), I decided to use an elementally appealing method of human communication: call and response. For example, for each number, I held up the appropriate fingers, the name in Malagasy and then in English, then just said the name in Malagasy and let them say it in English. “Dimy.” And from twenty throats, “Five.” “Dimy!” “Five!” “DIMY!” “FIVE!” It felt great, like the revivalist preacher meeting for international language learning. I can only hope that this smattering of English will be of some lasting benefit to these mighty fellows.
On Wednesday morning, the two Sams of KAFS went to a planting event on a hill just adjacent to the village of Kianjavato itself. Sam II, a smart, eager, and hardworking fellow, mastered the technique of planting the trees carefully, so as not to break the roots, in no time, and I noted that was he picking up Malagasy quickly as well. Near the end of the planting, someone among the day laborers asked me to sing (word of my enthusiastic but untutored sporadic song-bursts apparently having spread), and I obliged by belting out the eponymous chorus of “Fambolena koko, siteny raha ela,” a locally-produced hit with an instantly catchy tune. Many joined in, and everyone clapped. Madagascar is a prodigiously productive music-loving culture, and I will definitely be looking into obtaining some of the local artists’ works on Spotify or YouTube once I get home.
Once we returned to KAFS, there was a pleasant change to the normal routine: the new volunteers did all necessary data entry, leaving me with a little extra free time. With five volunteers on Reforestation for this two-week transition period (as many as we had for all three teams a week ago), we’re rather overstaffed in a good way, and the old volunteers are able to have a more relaxing last week at KAFS.
That afternoon, we had a spectacular English class, with Innocent aiding greatly in assisting less advanced students, and everyone (including myself) rather “on the ball” in grasping new vocabulary. We learned “indraindray” (sometimes) and “toetr’andro” (weather) among other words, and studied such useful sentences as “Manao ahoana ianao” (How are you doing), “Manao inona ianao” (What are you doing) and “Aza misotro ny rano ety” (Don’t drink the water here).
Thursday: A Saunter around Sangasanga
Since with five volunteers, the Reforestation team had more than enough personnel to handle daily duties, I was fortunate enough to be able to (re)join the Prolemur simus team (now consisting of Claire, Kate, and Nate) on Thursday. That day, we did a different research technique than the single-individual follows that had been the norm when I was on the team: we checked on all five of the Sangasanga Forest groups, circumnavigating the mountain! It was a spectacular experience, a greatest-hits reel of the local population of these magnificent creatures, a varibolomavo extravaganza. We started at East Two, and I saw my old acquaintances Hopper and Max, with Jane, Dobby, and the gang doubtless chilling unseen in the immediate area. A bit later, we found that East Two had mixed with a beautiful pair of Eulemur rubriventer, one male (with the characteristic white “teardrop” marks on the face) and one female. (Pictured, slightly blurry due to light filter necessary to counteract shadowiness of canopy). Weeks earlier, when I was on the simus team, I had seen a rubriventer pair, male and female, mixed with East Two, and given that this was nearly the same location and that rubriventer territories are fairly large, these were almost certainly the same individuals! After a stop by East One to check in on Stevie, Nai, and their groupmates, we embarked on a longer segment of the saunter, to another side of the mountain, up and down and through vegetation and mud and vines and bamboo and tree trunks and fallen ravenala leaves. This, I thought, was the strenuous life, questing through a tropical rainforest to monitor critically endangered lemurs. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. We soon found Northwest Two, zeroing in on the radio collar signal from its dominant male Rufiface, and stopped within sight range of them, at the top of a particularly slippery and handhold-less stretch that I recognized as a point where I had fallen (not at all seriously) during an aye-aye nest check weeks ago.
I watched Rufiface through my binoculars for a while, and then a different, non-collared animal for a while longer (pictured, through the binoculars). What a joy, what a pleasure, what an unutterable privilege to witness these magnificent primates in their natural habitat, with representatives of humanity present not as usurpers, desecrators, and conquerors but as protectors, chroniclers, and friends!
After that, we checked in Cupid and Juno from Northwest One, and finally, once we had nearly come back to the entrance area again, we saw Lando of West One/West Two, high in the canopy, with an unnamed juvenile lollygagging around the area and their groupmates Fleur, Stella, Victoire and the rest remaining unseen somewhere else in their territory. Refreshed and inspired by the presence of Prolemur simus, now my favorite (nonhuman) mammals in the world, I followed the group out of Sangasanga Forest.
Once back, I wished Fredo a happy birthday (our fearless leader was nevertheless hard at work on a report) and considered my next move. With so many new volunteers needing practice entering data, there was no work for me to do, and I was still buzzing with adrenaline from the exhilarating experience of sauntering around Sangasanga. To work off some energy, I did my “jungle workout,” which I’d developed a few weeks earlier, using the materials available at KAFS. A thirty- or forty-pound rock that I’d found lying around served as my standard weight, and I began with 20 shoulder-presses and 25 bench-presses with that rock, then concluded with 50 jumping jacks, 20 sit-ups, and 10 push-ups. I do this particular workout quite irregularly, as the day’s work is often tiring enough, but it’s always enjoyable.
In the afternoon, I read on my Kindle, in one sitting, Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Rough Riders.” While rife with the jingoism and “macho” attitude toward violence of its author, it remained a well-written, engaging read, and a chronicle of a fascinating episode in the life of one of the most fascinating American Presidents. It reminded me of the debt of gratitude that all the foreign personnel here (including myself) owe to modern medical science. While Roosevelt’s regiment was devastated by malaria, to the extent that it drove them out of Cuba when no Spanish force could, I can simply take my atovaquone-proguanil pill every morning and fear naught from that particular lurking peril.
Friday: Quest for the Farthest Nursery
On Friday, the Reforestation team had a special, unusual mission. I woke at 4 AM, and the Reforestation team was assembled, breakfasted, and ready to go by 5:30 (our normal wakeup time). Dana, Dakota, Sam, Shannon, and I spent the next two hours hiking to a planting site near Ambohimanana “ABM” Nursery, the farthest-flung of MBP’s 20 nurseries in the Kianjavato Commune. Our mission was to deliver funds to pay the day laborers for that planting event, as well as to check in how the Ambohimanana folks were getting on so far away from KAFS. We started near the Morarano nursery, and followed a long trail up and down hills, across little rivers, through rice paddies and patchy forest and denuded hillsides and thicker, healthier forest. Along the way, we saw little villages, smallholders working in their fields, many zebu, an array of beautiful vistas, and a thousand and one other sights characteristic of rural Madagascar. Really, nothing in the world could have suited me better. A cracking good saunter through the beautiful rolling hills of the Kianjavato Commune, to deliver funds for a planting that would restore tropical forests and so provide future lemur habitat and begin establishing a new carbon-sequestering forest, was absolutely ideal in every respect. I greatly enjoyed the walk there, and the experience was further enhanced once we reached our goal.
The planting site (pictured) was on a denuded hillside, but a slightly overcast sky meant that we didn’t suffer too much from the sun, and the local laborers (as usual, mostly women) from the Ambohimanana area were a friendly lot. We settled down to join the planters, itching to get our fingers dirty and carefully guide these young trees into the sites where they would grow into the architects of a forest ecosystem. Our planting site was also exceptional for the beautiful view, a positive panorama of the surrounding landscape. In the middle distance, we could see older, deep-green forests clothing other hills. About halfway through the planting event, we heard the characteristic, haunting, whooping, echoing call of the black and white ruffed lemur, Varecia variegata, emanating from one of the nearer forest patches, and we all looked at each other with a wild surmise to see if we could possibly have heard aright. A population of this critically endangered species in this little forest fragment near ABM, where none of us had heard of it living. The wild thought flashed through my mind-was it new, perhaps, to science? (As it turned out later, not quite: their presence had been noted, but these Varecia were still un-surveyed and unstudied).
At the end of the planting event, as ABM nursery staff took the GPS points for the newly planted trees, the volunteers broke out the lunches we had packed: in my case, three small boxes of “Gouty au Lait” shortbread-like cookies from the little shop near KAFS. Noting that senior citizens among the day laborers, who had worked hard all morning, had brought nothing to eat, I of course distributed some of my cookies among a few of them. And then, as more hungry laborers came over, a few more. My colleagues’ generous natures were stirred, and they were of course moved to do the same, and soon a full “loaves and fishes” scene broke out, with us rapidly hanging out cookies, one or two per person, to the entire company of thirty-five or so. This of course meant that we became quite hungry later on, but I wouldn’t have done differently for worlds.
Before our journey back, we stopped at the ABM nursery itself. Everything was “shipshape”: the nursery was swept clean to an impressive degree, and a multitude of long rows of seedlings neatly organized by species complemented full compost pits working through their assigned stages of decomposition. We took pictures for Fredo and complimented the staff on their work. While we walked the miles back to the road and KAFS, a light mist cooled us down for much of the way, and we passed strongly growing fields of acacia, former planting sites of the ABM nursery. Later on, we were passed clamorous funeral procession carrying a coffin down the steep trail, with everyone shouting and singing and banging on things in accordance with Malagasy funerary tradition. Someone among our group, I can’t quite recall who, remarked that they would love to have that much energy expended in their honor when they died. We returned to KAFS in midafternoon, hungry and tired out, but conscious of a good job well done.
Saturday and Sunday: A Wisdom-Seeking Weekend
Saturday and Sunday were very relaxed, low-key days, with much of the Reforestation team still tired from the long walk on Friday. I slept in, read a good deal, and hung out on the balcony. I also downloaded and read the first part of Amartya Sen’s magisterial Development as Freedom. The Nobel Prize-winning economist’s main thesis was that poverty is often miscategorized as a lack of money, when it really is best thought of as a lack of freedoms, from sufficient food to clean air to clean water to education to healthcare to safe transport to security from ethnic or religious persecution to ability to participate in governmental processes. I felt that the idea had a lot of relevance to Madagascar, where many are both money-poor and freedoms-poor, dependent on parasite-ridden water, flammable and uninsured bamboo houses, uncertain subsistence-farm harvests, and a clinic and school system that did their best, but that not all could afford. From this perspective, MBP’s work with the local community (or that of any other development-encouraging, antipoverty organization, from the UN to USAID to the Gates Foundation) was increasing freedom, each new job or helpful product dispensed through the Conservation Credit Rewards program broadening the potential of the citizenry, perhaps enabling them to send a child to school or treat a chronic illness when they could not do so before.
On Saturday, we were joined by a small party of American tourists, and KAFS assumed a slightly different character as an ecotourism facility, monetizing the community’s conservation efforts by converting tourist fees much-needed income for local guides and employees. I also heard that KAFS is to be listed on the next Madagascar edition of Bradt’s famous Travel Guides, which would be a huge boost to the local economy and, as a result, the social status and importance of conservation work. Sangasanga, Vatovavy, and the other locally-managed forests of the Kianjavato Commune definitely have what it takes to become a premier, high-earning ecotourism site along the lines of Ranomafana National Park or Anja Community Reserve. Thanks to years of work by MBP, the local forests boast growing, habituated, and “watchable” populations of Prolemur simus and Varecia variegata, some of the world’s rarest primates. Kianjavato also has well-studied and followable aye-ayes, a plethora of other animals from red-bellied lemurs to cuckoo-rollers to nose-horned chameleons, lovely mountain scenery, ongoing reforestation efforts, passionate and knowledgeable guides with years of experience working with MBP, and a working research station (KAFS) as a waystation available for meals, to rendezvous with guides, and to learn about conservation work. Working here for months at a time, it’s sometimes easy to lose track of what a special place this is. I recommend all adventurous travelers among my readers, if they find themselves in Madagascar, to contact MBP and check out Kianjavato as a vacation destination! If I’m fortunate enough to return to this magical landscape, I certainly will.
Lunch on Saturday was enlivened by the arrival of a lowland streaked tenrec (Hemicententes semispinosus), rootling through the leaf litter and mud for earthworms (pictured). I was captivated by this perfect little creature, and watched it for a long time as it went about its hunt for its annelid prey, rustling through leaf litter and digging through mud with the splay-legged enthusiasm of a terrier. It was successful quite often, and scarfed down its earthworm prize with gusto each time. Tenrecs are one of Madagascar’s four endemic lineages of terrestrial mammals (along with lemurs, euplerids, and the local lineage of rodents). Many tenrecs, including the ones I have seen, closely resemble hedgehogs, with similar long snouts, insect-eating lifestyles, and even quills. (Some tenrecs, though, are very different: there’s even an aquatic species of tenrec!). However, they are not particularly closely related to hedgehogs, having instead independently evolved all of those hedgehog-like characteristics to fill a similar (yet vacant in Madagascar) insectivorous ecological niche, in a classic example of convergent evolution. I suppose they can be thought of as “alternate reality” hedgehogs, an isolated island-continent’s version of hedgehogs. In any case, I find them to be positively enchanting.
On Sunday, I met with Innocent again to learn about another awesome project that she led, under the umbrella of Conservation Fusion: the Star Club, an environmental youth organization in the Kianjavato village school system. We were joined by Maheritiandray Mahavano, Mahery for short, a Star Club leading light and a young man passionate about the Kianjavato rainforest ecosystem. I learned about the Star Club’s activities, both planting trees and fostering awareness of the local wildlife through student art, from painting to weaving to dancing to poetry. Approximately 200 kids are involved in the Star Club, and more are involved in the “Banana Girls” environmental club at the schools in Antaretra, a nearby village in the region within MBP’s sphere of influence. Along with a few of Innocent’s friends, we then spent a while reading a lovely picture book (pictured), in both English and Malagasy, published by Conservation Fusion, with the Malagasy-phones reading the English parts and the Anglophone (me) reading the Malagasy parts. The book was titled “Mifohaza!” or “Wake Up!” It told in simple, accessible prose, through the experience of one (fictional) family, of the wonders of the Kianjavato rainforest and the ways in which local families could either erode away the ecosystem (through incautious logging for firewood and burning for slash-and-burn agriculture), or protect and benefit from it (through more sustainable agricultural practices such as obtaining nutrients via compost, and, for adults, working with MBP). The broader Conservation Fusion-Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership presence in the region doesn’t just work to protect critically endangered species, restore their habitat and fight climate change through a reforestation program, and open up new opportunities for the local community through the development of ecotourism and the provisioning of dozens of new high-paying jobs for guides and nursery staff, it helps engage the local kids in their own heritage, educating them and inspiring them to make art about the wonders just a short walk from their doorsteps.
Monday: The Variety of Vatovavy
On Monday October 7th, myself and Sam II went out into the forests around Vatovavy with the Seed Collection team, Tadidy, Peta, Levazaha, and co. We collected voapaka seeds, which would grow into seedlings of Uapaca thouarsii trees in the nurseries. The voapaka seeds were flat, whitish things rather like sunflower seeds, and there were three of them to a voapaka fruit, meaning we had to pick up the fruits, squeeze them open, and extract the seeds from the pulp with our bare heads. It was pleasant, meditative work, made even better by the noble surroundings of the forest, and we soon got a fairish number. Later on, we also collected a few seeds of the varongy tree (they looked like black acorns), and of the great rainforest titan, the sandramy tree (the seeds looked like wrinkled nuts). In the last thirty minutes or so of the seed collection expedition, however, we were gifted with extraordinary luck in the way of wildlife encounters. First, someone called us over to see two brown leaf chameleons, Brookesia superciliaris (pictured), tiny little lizards that had evolved crypsis (camouflage) to resemble dead leaves. They were absolutely lovely, precious little scions of the proud chameleon lineage and disguised denizens of the forest floor. Mere minutes later, we were called over to witness a few Eulemur rufifrons in the canopy above. It was Sam II’s first time seeing a wild lemur, and I delighted in seeing the wonder cross his face. Not long at all after that, on the trail back to the road, we found a truly gigantic red millipede in our path, longer than any of our hands, and Sam and I marveled at the feel of its myriad tiny legs on our skin. Finally, the crowning wonder to that fates-favored trip, we saw a Prolemur simus in the bamboo just off the side of the trail-a rare and special occurrence indeed!
At English class that afternoon, I administered a low-key, collaborative, and (hopefully) fun version of a final exam. On pages torn from my notebook, one for each of the nine students in attendance that day, I had written simple Malagasy sentences corresponding to English words we had covered, like “Mahita vorona fito izy” (She sees seven birds), “Zoma rahampitso” (Tomorrow is Friday), “Inona ity?” (What is this?) and “Manana seza sivy isika” (We have nine chairs). They performed excellently, with the few errors primarily due to faults in my phrasing of the questions. I was proud to see how far they had come. In the last few days, many of my students have said that they are sorry I must go, and that they will miss me. I will miss them too, dear Fabrice and Haingo and Do and Niny and all the rest. As they have without exception taken diligent and copious notes during classes, I am sure that the considerable basic English they have learned so far will be of lasting value to them, and that their broader, ingrained habits of perseverance and dedication on display throughout our classes together will be of even greater value.
Tuesday: A Sojourn with Snow
On Tuesday morning, I joined my old favorite the simus team again, accompanying the guides Bertin and Delphin and the volunteers Kate and Nate on a follow of the dominant male Snow of the Vatovavy group. Our focus animal leapt from branch to branch, drank from and snacked on ravenala flowers, munched on bamboo leaves, and simply rested, going about his daily life as ruler of his little realm. It was a wonderful four hours, a pleasant return to the honorable pursuit of collecting data on the greater bamboo lemur (pictured). Along the way, when we were stopped for a while in the depths of the bamboo forest, Delphin pointed out to us his favorite bird, a Madagascar pygmy kingfisher (Corythornis madagascariensis), with a lovely mahogany head, white front, and orange beak. Although I didn’t quite catch the moment myself, my companions saw a second one arrive, and the two spend a few seconds mating-a great indication that these beautiful birds will grace the area for generations to come!
That afternoon, none of my Tuesday English students were available, so I spent nearly the entire afternoon writing this very blog. Thank you so much for reading!
I write these words from the Hotel Ambanidia in Antananarivo, my last stop before flying back home. This blog chronicles my last week in Madagascar, and my reflections on the amazing conservation work I have been honored to take part in. I have taken this opportunity to expand the scope of my writing, from chronicling my day-to-day activities to offering a summary and reflection on the full impact and importance of MBP’s work in the Kianjavato Commune. Thanks for reading!
Wednesday through Sunday: My Last Days at KAFS
On the morning of Wednesday, October 9th, I accompanied Sam II to my penultimate planting event, on a hill near the nursery of Ambodibonary (ABB). Although ABB was one of the closest nurseries to KAFS, I had never attended a planting event in that area before. Our planting site, like all of our pioneer species planting sites, was mostly scrubby roranga (scrubby, fern-dominated grassland, with very few nutrients left in the soil, what’s left after a piece of land has been under slash-and-burn farming for far too long). It was a great satisfaction to me to know that our hardworking acacia and bonary mena seedlings would be enriching this land for years to come, making it more and more fertile with every day they fixed nitrogen from the atmosphere. Furthermore, I was pleased to note some strong young acacias just at the edge of our planting site, planted by MBP just a few years ago and already doing their jobs. Beyond that, in the distance, the eye noted some lovely rolling hills clothed in savoka (secondary rainforest beginning to grow back after one or two spells of slash-and-burn farming, i.e. on land not so degraded as roranga). As is often the case in Kianjavato, the savoka was dominated by two species: ravenala and bamboo, those omnipresent pioneers indicating unused farmland working through the long process of growing back into forest. It looked like good Prolemur simus habitat, and I happened to know that it was: there were two named varibolomavo, Artemis and Hera, that had been observed around Ambodibonary.
The planting event itself was one of the quickest I had ever encountered, as perhaps twice the normal number of workers had arrived from the local association. They moved through the planting site with incredible speed and efficiency, to the point that the two Sams present had time to plant no more than one seedling each before all three thousand had been planted! After handling the normal administrative matters of writing down names and Conservation Credit Reward program numbers, we walked down to Ambodibonary village by the roadside and waited for one of our coworkers to finish taking the GPS coordinates of the newly planted trees. For the next thirty minutes or so, we watched a group of kids playing a game of football (global football, what Americans call soccer). They were fortunate among local children in that they had a real soccer ball to play with: though it was a bit threadbare, it was certainly superior to the bound-together spheres of rags and trash which are the most common soccer balls in the Kianjavato area. It appeared to be girls vs. boys, and we watched and cheered indiscriminately as both sides struggled for possession, made great saves, and occasionally brought off impressively bombastic goals, the ball whizzing through the two rocks that formed the goal line and bouncing off the sides of bamboo and wood houses. The kids knew their stuff, too, doing formal penalty kicks and other complex rules and maneuvers that I didn’t recognize, but that my companion, from a more football-conscious country, was intimately familiar with. Sam and I absolutely loved watching them, and we determined to offer them our water. The children were so shy and self-effacing that they shook their heads politely to inquiries of “Mangetaheta ianao ve?” (Are you thirsty). Knowing that they must be, after such play in the sun, I had to practically shove my two water bottles into their hands before they accepted. Once they did, they drank eagerly, sharing the bottles equally among all players with the egalitarian spirit that I have observed to be a national characteristic. I reflected that football was truly a global game, played everywhere from the fields American elementary schools to high-octane international European championships to villages by the side of the dusty road in rural Madagascar.
That afternoon, a milestone came which I had been both looking forward to and dreading-my last English class, the end of weeks and weeks of one of the most rewarding projects I have ever undertaken. We had had a sort of exam that Monday, and so I decided that this class would have more of a party atmosphere. To that end, I bought twelve of the delicious madeleine-like muffins made by the bakery at the (proprietor, the awesome Madame Hanitra) and distributed them among my students and myself. We focused on the word “afaka,” a rough counterpart to “can” or “may,” and made an abundance of sentences out of it, from “Afaka mandeha Kianjavato rahampitso isika?” (Can we go to Kianjavato tomorrow?) to “Afaka mahita ny gidro izy ireo ve androany?” (Can they see the lemurs today?). In the last few minutes of the class, I formally introduced Sam II, who had with great kindness volunteered to continue my Basic English classes on Mondays during his stay at KAFS. Previously, I was the only one able to teach Basic English as I was the only volunteer who spoke Malagasy, but Sam II is learning Malagasy rapidly, and my students now speak and understand a good deal of English. I’m certain that they’ll have a great learning experience together. Overall, I have immensely enjoyed teaching English, and I feel and hope that I have left a lasting positive impact on my students’ lives by equipping them with the conversational basics. I am very glad that these classes will be able to continue in my absence.
Thursday was a milestone day for me: the last day I would be joining the Prolemur simus team, the last day I would go to Sangasanga, and the last day (on this trip, at least!) that I would see a lemur in the wild. Claire, Kate, and I joined Mamy and Rasolo for a survey of the five studied groups in Sangasanga Forest. It was a beautiful journey, a final tour to view these incredible creatures in the wild. I feel at this point, there is little I can write about the greater bamboo lemur that does not reiterate what I have covered before. They were beautiful. They leaped through the bamboo and branches with sublime grace, seemingly embodying the forest around them like dryads breaking through to reality. The knowledge that there were only a few hundred left in the world made me give thanks for the incredible privilege I have had in working with them and contributing in some little way to the efforts to protect their best remaining population strongholds. I feel I would do almost anything in my power to keep Prolemur simus in the world, and if MBP or any other group is ever in truly desperate need of assistance to save the species, I will be there.
Once I returned to KAFS, there was literally no work for me to do: all the new volunteers had settled into their teams perfectly, leaving the old cohort to spend the last few days at the research station with an unaccustomedly high degree of leisure. In the early afternoon, I decided to assist the single moms in their tasks at the KAFS nurseries. I spent a pleasant hour or so with five of them sorting through compost and soil that were soon to be the growth matrix for seedlings, removing stray rocks and bits of plastic that would take up space but provide no nutrients. It was simple, meditative work, and a good opportunity to practice my Malagasy. I realized to my pleasant surprise that I could carry on a fairly simple conversation even with interlocutors who spoke no English at all, and moreover convey complicated concepts like “Malahelo aho noho handeha alahady izahay, faly noho hahita fianakaviana aho” (I’m sad because we’re leaving Sunday, but I’m happy because I will see my family).
Later that afternoon, I had my last one-on-one tutoring session: English irregular verbs with Herman, an aye-aye team employee and my old companion of the all-night follow. Herman knew most of them already, even the illogically difficult ones like “slept” for sleep and “drank” or “drunk” for “drink”. I complemented him on his memory and intelligence, and we said goodbye. There were far too many goodbyes in these last few days at KAFS, and I shall not dwell overmuch on them, except to say that I have taken my leave at KAFS of many extraordinary people, who I have been honored to work with and who I shall always remember.
On Friday morning, I attended my last planting event, with Sam II and Dakota on a hill near the nursery of ATB. It was a great one to end on: there was a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside, the event went slowly so we all got a chance to plant a lot of trees, and I happened to run into Lidada, one of the aye-aye team members, and say farewell to him. It was a very hot day, and I noted to myself that in the age of climate change, the spring and summer days would likely be hotter still in the future. The trees we were planting would help with that, both providing shade and cooling the surrounding area by releasing water vapor through the stomata in their leaves, a process known as evapotranspiration. Around the world, planting trees is one of the best possible ways to respond to climate change: not only does it help sequester some carbon, it helps local humans and wildlife adapt to warmer temperatures.
That afternoon, I had a most pleasant and completely unexpected visit. Three of my former English students, Fabrice, Matthieu, and Innocent (although Innocent speaks English so well she’s really more like a co-teacher), arrived at KAFS specifically to thank me for my work in teaching over the last few months. They brought as gifts for me some chips, cookies, soda, and juice, as well as a hat of the local Tanala design. Touched to the heart by their gratitude and kindness, I of course insisted that we share all the food among ourselves. For the next hour or so, we did just that, eating, laughing together, offering some of our snack food largesse to passersby, and taking advantage of the fortuitously strong local Internet connection to play and sing along to some Bob Marley and Shania Twain songs. It was an absolutely lovely little party. I said farewell to them all that day, but I shall always remember their kindness.
In the evening, I was called over to the edge of the dining hall to see a site somewhat rare even in the wildlife-blessed lands of the Kianjavato Commune. Not one but two lowland streaked tenrecs, both positively tiny compared to the adults I had seen earlier, were rootling around in the leaf litter by the dining hall. They were exactly the same size, and given their apparent friendliness, we determined they must be from the same litter, tenrec twins (jumeaux in French, kandana in Malagasy). As I stared at them digging for their invertebrate food, I reflected on the ancient ancestry of tenrecs, their deep ties to ancient lineages of insectivorous mammals. Humanity’s ancestors had been insectivorous little shrew-like mammals like that once, back in the Mesozoic when dinosaurs ruled the earth. And fifty or so million years ago, in the Eocene period, fifteen million years after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, our ancestor was a prosimian creature that today might be classified as a lemur, perhaps something similar to the lemur-like fossil Notharctus. In a way, Madagascar is even more than an alternate-world with its own unique life-forms: it’s a shadow of a lost world, a window into deep history, with tenrecs and lemurs reiterating, in a way, part of our own evolutionary past. (Pictured: one tenrec in the foreground in the right half of the image, the second dimly visible in the left half of the image).
Little occurred on Saturday: myself and my cohort-mates spent the day sleeping in, packing, and saying goodbye to the nexus of research, wildlife, human development, ecotourism, and adventure that is the Kianjavato Ahmanson Field Station. That evening, we had a final going-away dinner, with Madame Hanitra baking us a specially ordered cake with all of our names on it. It was delicious. At the dinner, Fredo played “Fambolena Coco,” that leit-motif song of my sojourn, and I spontaneously got up and danced my heart out to it, to the great amusement of all my fellow diners. That evening, I also said goodbye to Romuald, my dear friend, the clever wit who had had me roaring with laughter many a time, and the hardworking companion of many happy days on the Reforestation team.
On Sunday morning, we awoke early, finished our last-minute packing, and said goodbye to the KAFS staff and remaining volunteers in a flurry of hugs and good wishes. I said goodbye to all the next cohort, Mack, Sam II, Kate, Nate, Ana, and Shannon, to Nicolas, the friendly visiting grad student, to Christine the cook and Haingo of the groundskeeping staff, and to Faranky, leader of the aye-aye team, my dear friend and leader of the night follow. Finally, I said goodbye to Fredo, the leader of KAFS, one of the most hardworking men I have ever known and a model of leadership who I hope to emulate in years to come. Soon after that, I said goodbye to Theoluc, who I had served as the assistant of for five weeks on the Simus team, and who has a profound passion to protect these incredible animals. The Malagasy leaders of MBP’s operations in KAFS are the true heroes of this story, the people who work every day to forge a better future for the humans and the lemurs of Kianjavato. The highest goal of my work during my volunteer placement was to be of service to them to the greatest extent possible.
The mood was melancholy as the MBP car spirited us away on the twelve-hour drive back to Antananarivo: we all knew that these three months had been a special time in our lives, that we had been working in a truly extraordinarily landscape, with wondrous animals and incredibly good and kind and passionate people, and that that time had now come to a close.
However, my mind was not entirely on what we had left behind. As my time in Madagascar draws to a close, I am thinking more and more of my own homeland, the forests and townships of Maine. G.K. Chesterton said that the object of travel was not to set foot on foreign land, but, at last, to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land. I will of course be extremely happy to see my wonderful family again, and I look forward intensely to that joyful reunion. In addition, I feel that upon my return, I shall see the landscape of my home state in a new light and appreciate to a new extent the marvels that had hitherto been part of the daily background. I daydream of red-winged blackbirds flying over cattail marshes, maple syrup with blueberry pancakes, the scent of snow on eastern white pines, the view over Casco Bay from Portland’s Eastern Promenade, the chatter of gray squirrels in white oaks, the great psychedelic kaleidoscope in orange, red, yellow, and gold that is a forest floor covered in fallen autumn leaves, and the thousand and one other things that make up the multisensory tapestry of Maine. I’m ready for new adventures back home in the Pine Tree State.
Kianjavato: An Imperiled Landscape on a Rising Road
Kianjavato Commune is to a profound extent a landscape in transition, with both the local ecosystem and the human population undergoing many changes. The human population, at least, is on the long road of development, beginning to emerge from the grinding poverty and want of a subsistence agriculture economy. A study published in 2018, coauthored by Dr. Edward Louis of MBP, Dr. Cortni Borgerson of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and several others, surveyed 1267 Kianjavato residents, including members of 336 households, to form a picture of the income, health, nutrition, and use of natural resources prevalent among members of this community. Their results were sobering. All households reported farming as their primary occupation. 47% of the population was sixteen years old or younger, indicating rapid population growth. 91% of the population relied on firewood for cooking, and 99.7%, all but one household, reported collecting traditional medicinal plants from the forest. The median income was 50,000 ariary, or US $21.74. Malnutrition was epidemic: more than half of households had malnourished kids, and a fifth had wasted kids (extremely malnourished to the point of greatly stunted growth). Sadly, I saw evidence of this on a daily basis during my stay at KAFS: many of the citizenry, especially children were extremely short and thin to the point of emaciation. Disturbingly, the study also found that 16% of the households reported obtaining meat by hunting forest animals, often illegally, such as tenrecs, bats, mouse lemurs, and, worst of all, eight Prolemur simus individuals. If the IUCN 2016 estimate of 500 Prolemur simus left in the world is correct, that’s 1.6% of the global population. Notably, this practice was statistically associated with the presence of underweight and wasted children, possibly indicating being driven to bushmeat out of sheer desperation.
The local ecology is also at a tipping point. There are four basic land types in Kianjavato Commune: agricultural and otherwise human-occupied land, such as rice paddies and houses, rainforest fragments, such as my old study areas of Sangasanga, Vatovavy, and Tsitola, and the two intermediate categories of savoka (secondary rainforest on degraded land) and roranga (grassland on extremely degraded land). The remaining forest fragments in the area host nine species of lemur, including the critically endangered Prolemur simus and Varecia variegata and the endangered aye-aye. These are treasures, that in a just world would result in Kianjavato receiving massive international aid simply to allow these unique creatures to live in peace. However, the forest fragments are small and encircled by savoka and roranga, and tavy (slash-and-burn farming) is ongoing, still chewing away at the forest. Given the expanding, hungry population of Kianjavato, it would be very easy for it to fall into the vicious cycle of unsustainable expansion, with the last bits of forest cut down piece by piece for tavy to feed the people and burned again and again until all the nutrients were gone from the soil, all the lemurs vanished from the land, and the community was left with a waste of roranga and increasingly unproductive farms. This very thing has happened many times in many other parts of Madagascar and the world, and might have already happened here, were it not for the tireless work of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership.
MBP’s work affects the Kianjavato Commune at every level. Starting with the lemurs, MBP’s amazing guides have obtained gainful employment that uses their incredible forest skills to contribute to the scientific body of knowledge on these uniquely Madagascan primates. They have become ambassadors for the species, working with the community to spread the word that lemurs are a valuable resource, present only here, and are more valuable alive than dead. Increasingly, the lemurs of Kianjavato are attracting scientists and tourists from around the world, opening the door to a historically highly lucrative new income stream for this desperately poor community. I’ve already seen a plethora of tourists come through KAFS, doubtless paying fees to support MBP’s conservation work (and thus, many local employees). Next year, Kianjavato will be listed in Bradt’s travel guide for Madagascar, perhaps opening the floodgates to a new age of ecotourism for the region, and new economic shields for the happily unknowing lemur groups peacefully living their lives in the forest glade. Already, Sangasanga and Vatovavy are unmolested by tavy or hunters, a truly astonishing achievement given their lack of legal protection and a testamented to the foresightedness of the community.
This would already be an amazing enough accomplishment, but MBP has a second major thrust of their mission, with immense value to the very land of Kianjavato itself: its reforestation program. With over two and a half million trees planted since 2012, and at least six thousand planted every Wednesday and Friday, MBP is growing a better future. Pioneer species like bonary menas and acacias are preventing erosion, cooling the landscape, fixing nitrogen to replenish the nutrients of the tavy-impoverished soil, and offering cover for animals. Forest species planted in the shade of grown-up pioneer species are the next stage in establishing a rainforest, and will form the canopy of the habitat for the next generation of lemurs. MBP’s long-term goal is to create a great network of forest corridors stretching from Tsitola through Sangasanga through KAFS to Vatovavy, across the Kianjavato Commune, a living green network of lemur habitat and ecosystem services-providing forest. In pursuit of this glorious goal, their (our!) planting events and nurseries provide a multitude of jobs, and nurture many other subsidiary programs: compost initiatives that spread the word of an alternative way to get nutrients for crops, commercial crops from coffee to cashews to chocolate grown in the MBP nurseries and sold to local farmers to diversify from rice and offer a new income stream, a Conservation Credits Reward program distributing helpful items like bicycles and fuel-efficient wood stoves to those who contribute by planting a given number of trees. And, of course, all of this tree-planting effort is not just a breathtakingly effective plan to restore the local ecosystem, it is a highly effective way of combating the greatest threat of our time, climate change. Each tree planted builds itself out of complex sugars obtained through photosynthesis from the base material of carbon dioxide drawn from the air, and millions of trees planted (and the associated changes in the soil) begin to make a substantial impact. Restoring tropical forests is widely known as one of the best ways humanity can work to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and begin to achieve a stable climate, and MBP is doing just that in an exemplary fashion.
Another far-reaching benefit of MBP’s involvement is the fact that it has brought, directly and indirectly, some degree of employment to hundreds of women in the Kianjavato Commune. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist and development expert Amartya Sen pointed out, empowering women, particularly through increasing women’s literacy rate and paid labor force participation rate (the latter of which MBP is doing) has profound and positive ripple effects in a society. Sen noted that women getting jobs didn’t just increase their own income, but, by giving them greater freedom of independent action, had been shown to reduce childhood mortality rates as well as the average number of children per women. As both of these factors are extremely important for a society to reach a high standard of living, Sen wrote that “Nothing, arguably, is as important today in the political economy of development as an adequate recognition of political, economic, and social participation and leadership of women.” From the single moms working half-day shifts at the nurseries, to Innocent’s Fikambanam-Behivavy association weaving baskets and hats for sale to tourists brought in by the lemurs, to the hundreds of local women across the commune who earn extra money for themselves and their kids by taking part in planting events, MBP is opening up new freedoms for the women who will build their communities' future.
In sum, the work of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership in the Kianjavato Commune directly addresses many of the most important issues on Earth today. MBP and its leaders, staff, volunteers, and day laborers are working to protect critically endangered species, restore highly biodiverse tropical forest habitat, replenish the nutrients of degraded land, build an ecotourism revenue stream for the future offer jobs to the citizenry of an impoverished village, empower the women of a still-patriarchal society, and combat climate change through carbon sequestration-and all at the very same time, with each positive effect dovetailing beautifully with all the others. Even though I feel ready and indeed excited to return to Maine, I will forever treasure these three months at KAFS, where I was a volunteer research assistant participating, in a strong way, in an enterprise as noble and as important as any other in the world. I shall not always be in Madagascar, but Madagascar will always be with me.