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Meditations on Meaningful Work: 2019 Madagascar Diaries #5
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!
Here is an account of my work as a volunteer research assistant for the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership from the 13th to the 20th of September ! The more I learn about MBP's work, the more grateful I am to be part of such a fascinating and inspiring endeavor.
The Aye-Aye Follow
On the afternoon of Friday the 13th of September, starting at four o’clock, I joined the aye-aye team for the famously strenuous “full follow” of their nocturnal study animal. We were a party of seven: from KAFS there were myself and Faranky, the KAFS aye-aye team leader, a Ph.D. student from Antananarivo studying social interactions of aye-ayes, particularly between mothers and their children. Along the way to Sangasanga (good old Sangasanga Mountain!) we were joined by five local guides who made up the rest of the aye-aye team: Lidada, Dagah, Deric, Sylvestre, and Herman. We walked up into the high forest, the wildest part of the mountain, the part that hosted the aye-ayes’ nest, as twilight fell. I was pleased to notice that it didn’t seem nearly as difficult as the previous time I’d made the climb to the aye-ayes’ nesting tree, for the nest check I’d joined on the second week at KAFS. True, we were taking a longer, more gradual route this time, not the ultra-steep “Spend Sweat” trail, but I liked to think that my weeks of regular hiking were paying off.
Once at the tree, we waited for our two follow aye-ayes (Emerald and Bozy, a mother and son) to leave the nest. While we did so, perched on a slippery, muddy, leaf litter-strewn hillside, I fell on my rear several teams, and dragged myself back up by hanging onto saplings. However, as the last of the sun’s light trickled out of the sky, we were treated to an astonishing sight. I spotted a black-and-white ruffed lemur in the aye-aye’s nesting tree, perhaps twenty feet lower down in the branches of that great rainforest titan. “Varecia!” I cried. It was one of the first times I’d seen a wild lemur independently before the others in my group. I was amazed that we were seeing a Varecia variegata individual, a beautiful, critically endangered primate, in the wild, and that too by chance, not by tracking its radio collar. Sangasanga at sundown must be one of the few places on Earth where it’s possible to have that kind of serendipitous encounter. Then, it got even more amazing-someone else pointed out a few Eulemur rufifrons (red-fronted lemurs) on the other side of the tree, at about the same height as the Varecia. Perhaps fifteen minutes later, Emerald and Bozy came out of their nest, kicking off the follow, and started playing with each other, two black shapes high in the canopy. They were a mother (Emerald) and son (Bozy) pair, and their continuing to bond and live together even after Bozy was grown to adulthood was doubtless providing fascinating data for Faranky’s study. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Three lemur species-one of them critically endangered, and one (the aye-aye) endangered-not only in the same field of view at the same time, but in the same individual tree!!! It was a riveting, sense-saturating experience. (Pictured below: the Varecia individual I saw).
At perhaps 6:30 or 7 PM, Emerald and Bozy left the tree, and went out in different directions on their nightly feeding voyages. I joined Deric and Sylvestre on the team tracking Emerald. For about four hours, until 10:30 or so, as she drank from ravenala flowers, poked through bark to drill for larvae with her long middle finger, and scampered between trees like a spirit of the night. Along the way, I got to see the vibrant, living, nightlife of Sangasanga. Insects were everywhere, the occasional bat flew by, the trees echoed with chirps, hisses, and stranger calls, and lemur eyeshine was a regular but always thrilling sight. For half the follow, I was grinning madly, positively mesmerized by the magical landscape around me. In addition to Emerald, I saw several mouse lemurs and my first Cheirogaleus major, or greater dwarf lemur (matavirambo in Malagasy). It looked like a smoky-gray squirrel-shaped larger version of a mouse lemur. The Cheirogaleus I saw was also drinking from a ravenala flower, as Emerald had, and as Prolemur simus often did when I was on their team. Ravenala flowers aren’t dainty little daisies, they’re big chunks of trees, huge, spiky things the size of a human torso. Each one can hold up to a liter of nectar. This makes them highly ecologically important, as a source of water and energy for an array of arboreal creatures. Colloquially speaking, they're the soda fountains of Sangasanga, the Rick’s Bar from Casablanca of the Malagasy rainforest: everybody goes to the ravenala flowers. (Pictured below: a wild aye-aye drinking from a ravenala flower).
Around 11, our ATS ran out of batteries-not its original batteries, but the third set of headlamp batteries that we had replaced them with. (The batteries still had enough to power our headlamps, but not the big ATS, so we still had light). We couldn’t collect any more data on Emerald. Having split, the groups fused back together: we rejoined Faranky and the others to form a seven-person team following her son Bozy. On the way to do that, however, I had a rather disconcerting experience. The trails we were traveling were incredibly narrow, shading to nonexistent: six-inch ledges of tree roots and stones and leaves. At one point, I tried to leap over a difficult bit and grab the tree beyond it to stabilize myself, as I had done many times before. This time, I missed the tree. I fell. Not an ordinary falling down on my rear, like I had done dozens of times so far that night, but a full-body, no points of contact with the ground, heels-over-head plummet down the mountainside. My headlamp flew from my head, leaving me lightless, and my data-collection notebook flew from my hand. I landed in a thick brushy segment of ferns and shrubs, tried to grab a handhold, slipped, and fell further. Thankfully, my sure-footed colleagues found me, clinging to the tiny stems on the hillside, and helped me recover my headlamp and the notebook. One battery was lost (sorry, Sangasanga!) but I got a spare. Soon, I was with the main group, following them up a hands-and-knees climb after Bozy’s radio collar signal.
At midnight, the seven of us were gathered on a grassy, ferny hillside, an open patch very high up on Sangasanga. The harvest moon stared down at us from the sky, the familiar Mare Imbrium and Mare Serenitatis upside-down and the southern brightness around Tycho Crater dominating the view. Under this volana feno (full moon) we watched Bozy as he settled in for a while in a distant ravenala tracked, and just relaxed, eating some of the snacks we had brought with us. With the aye-aye team, at about midnight between Sep 13 and 14, sharing Gouty au Lait cookies, and joking around and looking at the harvest moon and the ravenalas and pushing each other into the ferns, I felt something I’ve felt very rarely outside of time with my family. A sensation of completely belonging. There was almost a party-like atmosphere: staying up late in a group, sharing food, joking about nothing, laughing together, simple joy in each other’s company. But the seven of us-Faranky, Lidada, Dagah, Deric, Sylvestre, Herman, and myself-weren’t students out for fun, we were a group of scientists and research assistants collecting data on an endangered, evolutionary unique nocturnal primate. This was a party I could get behind, where-ironically-there was enough important work to do that I could really let myself relax and enjoy the moment. I was deeply happy to be there.
The last few hours of the follow, from 1 AM onwards, were little more than a blur. Only Faranky and one other guide, generally Herman, stayed focused on the aye-aye: the rest of us collapsed bodily into the undergrowth until it was time to move again, then staggered back into the realm of the upright and hiked the right direction. Flickering headlamp beams outlined tree roots, slippery leaves, rapid elevation changes, and the other nocturnally challenging parts of Sangasanga’s topography. At one point, Bozy went downhill (more across, through the trees, from his perspective). Ahead of us was a steep slope entirely covered with slippery leaves. The seven of us positively surfed down that hill, sliding down on our rears from leaf to leaf, our sleep-deprived frames jolted to the point of letting out whoops of excitement. At the base, I followed Herman in climbing about ten feet up a small tree to get a better view of Bozy and relay that information to our data-taker on the ground.
Shortly after that, at around 3 AM, Bozy returned to the nest, and so the follow concluded. We staggered down the trails, through FOFIFA, through Kianjavato, and to the car. We got back into KAFS almost exactly twelve hours after we left: at four o’clock in the morning of Saturday the 14th. I was exhausted but grinning, utterly happy to have been part of such an incredible adventure.
Saturday and Sunday: Recuperation
I woke up around noon on Saturday the 14th. That weekend, I didn’t stir from KAFS, letting myself sleep in and relax. I reread Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment and Night Watch, had a great Skype call with my family on Sunday evening, and wore my camp shoes, letting my hiking boots dry out. Thanks to Dakota calling me over, I saw a lowland streaked tenrec on Saturday: the beautiful black-and-golden striped insectivore looked exactly like its picture on my tent site’s sign. Tenrecs are insectivores, and some species (though not the one I saw) have evolved spines that make them look just like hedgehogs-a classic example of convergent evolution. They’re one of Madagascar’s four endemic terrestrial mammal groups, along with lemurs, euplerids (predators like fossas and ring-tailed vontsiras) and a lineage of rodents. (Madagascar also has a multiplicity of bats, as well as marine mammals on the coasts and in the seas, but the above four groups are the only native terrestrial mammals. Bats could fly over and marine mammals could swim, but lemurs, tenrecs, euplerids, and Madagascan rodents are all descendants of “lottery events,” some ancestor or group of ancestors who made it to the island by chance, perhaps on a raft of floating vegetation and debris brought over by a storm).
Around 1 PM on Sunday, when the other four volunteers were at the Kianjavato market, KAFS had a visitor: a Peace Corps volunteer working with a clinic at a village about 10 miles away. He was also named Sam, and we had an excellent time discussing our work, our homes, the people and culture of Madagascar, practicing the Malagasy language (he was much better than I, though he was kind enough to say I spoke well). I was in awe of the fact that he was staying for two years: what an incredible commitment to make! As a Peace Corps medical volunteer, Sam warned me that the parasite situation in the local waterways was worse than I’d known. I’d heard that the Kianjavato Commune’s rivers and streams had some of the highest parasite levels (bilharzia, liver flukes, etc) in all of Madagascar, but he told me that they were in fact among the worst in the world. Yikes. It made me glad that MBP forbade its volunteers from touching the water.
Monday: A Day with Varecia
On Monday, I accompanied the Varecia variegata study team, as a guest and observer. I had chosen that day because I knew that it was most strenuous part of the weekly schedule: the day when the Varecia team would be tracking the black-and-white ruffed lemurs (varijatsy, in the local Malagasy dialect) that lived atop the mountain of Tsitola. I had long wanted to climb Tsitola, and to join the Varecia team in the field, and this offered me a chance to do both. We were a party of six: -Rasolo, Etienne, and Hoby (I think), the Varecia guides, Soumaya, the Varecia volunteer, myself, and Nicholas, a Malagasy Ph.D. student researching nocturnal lemurs who was also a guest observer. We walked up to Tsitola from the road, passing Tsitola Nursery on the way. Soon, our path changed from dirt road to forest trail to mountain path: we were ascending the sloping site of Tsitola, catty-corner to its impressively sheer main face. The trail, with its consistent but considerable elevation change and its profusion of tree roots forming natural stairs, reminded me of a hike up Mount Monadnock in my childhood. We walked through land that was clearly ex-farmland, with an abundance of banana trees and early-successional vegetation, like the low-growing shrub soapbush (Clidemia hirta), which I’ve seen at all field sites in the Kianjavato Commune. Strangely, another extremely common ground shrub in Tsitola was an instantly recognizable one-the common raspberry bush, exactly the same as the raspberries my family had once grown in our garden in Massachusetts. I hadn’t seen raspberry bushes (or, for that matter, raspberries as a food item) anywhere else in Madagascar. Why were they omnipresent on the side of Tsitola, and only Tsitola? Did a French colonist introduce them here and only here, decades ago? Were they cultivated more recently in an attempt to diversify local diets, and then abandoned to grow and spread in the wild? In any case, I found them a welcome addition to the trailside species community. The berries were just at the optimal point of juicy, rose-red ripeness, and I ate several.
At the top of Tsitola, we paused for a while and took a little side trip to a point where we could view the surrounding countryside. A splendid panorama greeted us: rolling hills as far as the eye could see, dotted with villages, rice paddies, and roads, with fragments of savoka (second-growth forest) clinging to the more isolated hills and farmland or roranga (grasses and shrubs growing on recently abandoned farmland) on the rest. Vatovavy’s instantly recognizable shape rose through the midmorning haze in the distance. From that marker, I could mentally superimpose a map of MBP’s entire operation in the Kianjavato Commune, as I knew that Kianjavato, Sangasanga, and KAFS were in between Tsitola and Vatovavy and that nurseries were strung all along that route. Though this was certainly a fragmented ecosystem, difficult for lemurs to traverse, I was heartened by the fact that I saw so much green, a testament, in part, to MBP’s years of reforestation efforts. I hope someday to see MBP’s long-term plan take shape: a long forest corridor stretching from Tsitola to Vatovavy, a contiguous, community-protected homeland for Prolemur simus, Varecia variegata, and all the other marvelous creatures that share their domain.
Soon, thanks to the work of Rasolo, Etienne, and Hoby, we had zeroed on the first of our follow lemurs for the day. Unlike on the simus team, where we followed one lemur for six hours at a time, the Varecia team did multiple smaller two-hour follows. The lemur we followed for the first two hours didn’t move at all, curled up into a beautiful ball of black-and-white fur on a branch. I looked at him or her (Varecia aren’t sexually dimorphic, so I couldn’t tell this one’s gender) through my binoculars and took a turn entering data (resting…resting…resting). We shared some water and snacks.
The next lemurs we saw were a lot more active. The guides spread out when they homed in on this one’s radio collar signal: he or she was in a group with two other varijatsy, in the crown of a tree perhaps fifty feet away from us. As we watched, one of the others in the group, a non-collared individual, undertook an incredible display, running along tree branches and making immense jumps of perhaps fifteen to twenty feet between trees, crossing hundreds of feet of terrain in less than a minute with an air of the greatest ease. I took photos and videos frantically, overwhelmed entirely by awe at seeing this majestic primate exercise its evolutionary gifts while roaming free in its habitat. I felt like an explorer watching godlike aliens on a distant planet, demonstrating skills beyond human comprehension. At that moment, I felt anew a profound and intense gratitude towards Madagascar itself, the endlessly generous island-continent that never seemed to run out of jaw-droppingly awesome sights.
Shortly afterwards, the second one in the group followed. On this one’s way, he or she did an even more death-defying move: intentionally letting go of a tree branch and falling (not jumping!) a good fifty feet onto the top of another tree lower on the mountain’s slope, and then simply clinging to that tree’s branches as though nothing had happened. The varijatsy were like Olympic gymnasts with antigravity belts. Words like “elegant,” “graceful,” and even “balletic” sprung to mind. Their jumps literally took our breath away, leaving us gasping in awe. (Pictured: a varijatsy moving along a branch).
All alone now in the tree, our follow animal decided to chill out and feed on the leaves (even though Varecia mostly eat fruit, they also indulge in leaves, flowers, and that great universal staple, the nectar of the ravenala flower). Even this was done with no little style and aplomb. The lemur assumed the pose of the Varecia on the MBP logo: hanging by its feet from a branch and eating from leaves below (pictured, above). It was old hat for the Varecia guides, but Nicolas and I gasped in awe at the astonishing grip, endurance, and flexibility so displayed.
After seeing Varecia in the wild, I was in a position to reflect on the differences between them and my cherished Prolemur simus. That they were distinct in nearly every visible respect, none could deny. Varecia had striking black and white patches, and great white manes around their heads, while Prolemur (except for Ghost) were a mellow uniform golden brown. Varecia leapt balletically through the canopy, Prolemur crashed through the bamboo and low branches with more vigor and verve than gracefulness. Varecia even fed while striking a pose, while Prolemur sat or clung to bamboo and communally chowed down. All in all, the analogy that suggested except to me was that Varecia were rather like Tolkien’s Elves, graceful, haughty, and near-solitary, while Prolemur were like Hobbits: jolly, communal, full of joie de vivre, and perhaps homely by comparison, but lovable and not to be underestimated. Even though nearly everyone else I’d asked (except the Prolemur guides) said that Varecia were their favorite, my heart belonged to the varibolomavo still. Although, of course, both species were wonderful, precious, and unique, and I was grateful beyond measure that I had the immense privilege, the fruit of decades of conservation work, of making a comparison between the two based on viewing them in the wild.
We returned late that afternoon, delaying English class to 4:00. Once I’d realized that the Varecia team wouldn’t be back by 3, I’d WhatsApped Dakota to spread the word among my students, but still I felt terrible about leaving them hanging. At 5:15 or so, once class finished, I spent some time showing Herman, of the aye-aye team, how to use standard computer programs like Word, Excel, and Google Chrome.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: Typical Reforestation Team Days
On Tuesday morning, my Reforestation Team duty was Moving Seedlings: accompanying the squads of local workers that moved seedlings (zanakazo, or literally “treechildren” in Malagasy) from nurseries to planting sites. I rode to the first nursery, Antaretra, in the back of the planting truck with perhaps ten or fifteen other workers, all hanging on to bars along the wall and standing on a well-tracked floor covered in trodden-in red earth. Once we disembarked, everyone rushed to load seedlings from the nursery into woven baskets (garaba in Malagasy) to carry to the site. It was amazing how quickly they worked: I helped out by passing seedlings to one or another of the workers with the baskets, thus optimizing their loading process a little, but I couldn’t possibly have matched their speed on my own: the few times I tried, I loaded about ten seedlings in the time it took them to load twenty-five. After the first lot of seedlings was loaded, and the workers were on their way, there was a lull period as we waited for empty baskets to come back. (This was familiar: it was at this time last Tuesday that I had thought of carrying a basket myself, with interesting results). I used the time to photograph the day-to-day tasks of the Antaretra Nursery staff. One man was using a giant, ceiling-hanging sieve to sift rocks out of the sand and red earth used, with compost, to create the seedlings’ growth matrix. Another watered tiny seedlings, mere sprouts, that were set aside in little glass-covered greenhouse/garden beds of their own, not yet big enough to be transferred to their own container. I helped Fara, the Antaretra nursery manager, who was sweeping leaves and debris out of the main work area, her charming six-year-old (or so) daughter by her side. I watched Romuald counting the remaining seedlings, as part of his assignment of taking inventory of all seedlings of all species at the nearby nurseries. I saw Jean noting down the names of all workers present in a little notebook, no doubt to keep a careful account of who was paid and how much. As I watched, I reflected on the responsibility he and the other MBP reforestation staff leaders had undertaken. Jean was only six years older than me, and he was in charge of managing, supplying, and paying the staff of a network of sixteen nurseries in the area. MBP’s entire reforestation project was bigger still: perhaps fifty people were employed as full-time staff at the various nurseries, perhaps a hundred more were members of the Single Mothers’ Club working part-time at the nurseries, a few hundred more still were regularly contracted laborers, paid for specific tasks such as digging holes moving seedlings, and thousands-I think about three thousand-had worked at planting events at one time or another. In a community the size of Kianjavato Commune, MBP’s work was a serious economic engine. I felt that was as it should be. This work was so important. The work of reforesting the hills of the Kianjavato Commune is vital for the survival of an entire ecosystem, as well as for the future of two species of critically endangered primates. And, of course, it’s part of a broader global effort, composed of a thousand other projects and tasks and technologies and local initiatives, to begin the process of stabilizing the global climate. It’s strange to think of such simple tasks as sieving soil or loading baskets as part of such an immense issue, but it is the case-the wind turbine technician in Iowa, the smallholder experimenting with agroforestry in Senegal, the bicycle infrastructure planner in Germany, and the MBP nursery staff in Madagascar, are all working on different aspects of solving climate change. (Pictured below: tying baskets to bamboo for carrying, loading baskets, sieving soil).
I was roused from my globalist reverie by Romuald. He pointed out an extra-large acacia seedling, perhaps three feet tall (in comparison to the other seedlings’ six inches to a foot or so). It must have been left out of several previous seedling carries, and grown to greatness while still in the nursery. “Why don’t you carry that one?” he asked. Always happy to oblige, I hefted it and walked out of Antaretra Nursery onto the main road, orienting myself by the steady stream of workers coming back the other way with empty baskets. Soon, the path turned sideways into the woods. I stepped across a wide stream via a central stepping, climbed through an old banana grove, and ended up at the planting site, a hillside starting to be retaken by bamboo. I deposited my giant seedling safely in a pre-dug hole on the hillside, and returned the way I came, happy that I had made a small but significant contribution to the moving of seedlings for the planting event. However, on my way back, I received a bit of a comeuppance. I stepped onto the stream’s central steppingstone all right, but the far bank was eroded by footprints, and the mud was slippery. My foot slipped off, after I’d put all my weight on it, and I fell bodily into the stream with an immense splash.
I emerged from that stream utterly soaked. My pants were completely waterlogged, my shoes were full of water, my face, hair, and shirt were wet through except for a patch on my upper back that had been protected by my backpack. (I carry my blue Jansport Klamath 65 backpack with me everywhere in the field). I strode quickly to the far shore-it was just a few steps-and took stock of the situation. Fortunately, my Malagasy dictionary and field notebook in my pack were perfectly dry, and the phone and few thousand ariary in my pockets had been fairly well protected as well. I put them in my pack to dry out so that they wouldn’t be moistened overmuch by my sodden trousers. Once I returned to the road, my sodden socks and shoes squelching with every step, Jean, Romuald, and the workers had finished up and were walking back towards the car. I announced “Lavo aho. Tena lena aho,” (I have fallen. I am very wet.) in a mock-woebegone tone, and everyone roared with laughter. I was rather worried, given what I knew about the local parasite concentrations, but it turned out to be fine: Fredo reassured me at dinner that the Antaretra area wasn’t very dangerous.
I slowly dried as we moved seedlings from the next two nurseries, Morarano and Ambohitsara. We returned to KAFS around noon, and I had lunch and then relaxed on the balcony. Only one student, Prosper, showed up for my aye-aye team English lesson that afternoon (I didn’t blame them-they needed their sleep!), so we had a one-and-a-half hour one-on-one tutoring session, and I feel we made a lot of progress.
On Wednesday morning, I attended the tree planting taking place on a hill near Morarano Nursery, working with Tatasoa, Romuald, and Nana to take the GPS locations of the trees and ensure proper payment of the thirty-five or so local workers registered in the Conservation Rewards program. I planted four to six little acacias and bonary means myself, and pondered the curiously inherent optimism and happiness that permeated the occasion. In addition to being vital for biodiversity protection, nutrient and erosion management, and climate stabilization, planting a tree is a philosophical statement. By planting an organism that will take years to grow to its full potential, you are making a tacit assumption that there will be a future, that the ecosystem and the community and the animals and the people will live to relax in its shade. I recalled an apocryphal story, mentioned it some novel or other I had read recently, of a community which was terrified of their fire-and-brimstone preacher’s warnings of imminent apocalypse, but relaxed considerably when they learned he was planting trees in his garden. It’s an expression of hope, planting a tree, and in my experience, it always seems to radiate a feeling of good work well done to those who take part.
The middle of the day was occupied with some other Reforestation tasks: entering the GPS locations and species of the trees planted that day and preparing the budget for the next few days. It was a spectacular baking day at Joseph’s: around 2:30, I got a warm pain au chocolat (for the moment) and a delicious chocolate-marbled poundcake-like loaf of bread (for the future). Joseph’s is a major point of conversation among the volunteer cohort, and the source of nearly all sugar and baked goods I have had during my time at KAFS. Without that noble establishment, our volunteer positions here would be notably less pleasant.
That afternoon, to a record-high audience of 14 students (yay!), I taught what I feel might be the most successful of my English classes yet. We covered a long list of adjectives, from old favorites like “noana” (hungry) and “mangatsika” (cold) to new words like “misokatra” (open), “mikatona” (closed) and “mahaliana” (interesting. We also reviewed “this” (ity), “that” (io), and “these” (ireo). Then, in the most conceptually challenging part of the lesson, we covered the forms of “to be” used to indicate past, present, and future tenses: was/were, am/are/is, and will be. The Malagasy language doesn’t have any equivalent for the verb “to be,” the forms of which are so omnipresent in English. Madagascans indicate tenses by changing the first letter of verbs and adjectives: n- for the past, m- (as in misokatra, mikatona, and mangatsika) for the present, and h- for the future. It seemed very strange to my students that English speakers tossed in these little untranslatable words into nearly every sentence, and that they varied all the time for seemingly random reasons. After a while, it seemed strange and random to me too: why can we say “you are,” “we are,” and “they are,” but not “he are,” and why “I was” and “she was” but not “you was” or “we was”? Especially when we have a clear example of one standard cross-pronoun method of indicating tense: “I,” “you,” “he/she/it,” “we,” and the rest can all be depicted in the future with “will be.” However, it was important to know these words to make sense and sound credible to English speakers, and so we learned them: I drew up a three-column, three-row grid of words, with pronouns on the left side and past (lasa) present (amin’izao), and future (hoavy) on the top. We drilled with these for a good hour and a half, and by the end of the class everyone was correctly translating into English, on the first try, such difficult sentences as “Hangatsika isika” (We will be cold), and “Nisokatra ny boky” (The book was open). I love teaching English! (Pictured below: the whiteboard).
Thursday was a lower-key Reforestation day. Dakota, Dana, and I joined Fredo, Romuald, and many other staff members on the standard weekly nursery check. At the last of these nurseries, Antobohitra (ATB) we had a rather interesting cultural experience. The nursery manager, Monza, had just had a baby, and we held a little micro-“fomba” for her. The fomba is a uniquely Malagasy social custom. I’ve seen it directly translated as “wake,” but it can occur for births as well as deaths. It simply consists of certain members of the community, often leaders (or in the case of Fredo and Romuald, employers and coworkers) showing up to the house, exchanging greetings and congratulations or commiserations as appropriate, and giving gifts. Fombas can be huge, whole-village occasions with lavish gifts, or, as in our case, a somewhat impromptu visit from a small group of people, with our gift being a discreet envelope filled with a little monetary contribution from all present. Monza was happy to show us baby Aurelia (a beautiful name), a perfect cute-as-a-button little primate. She also offered us all glasses of “Bonbon Anglais,” a light, fruity sparkling water. In a Malagasy household, it must have been a considerable luxury.
The fomba reminded me of the Quaker tradition of “bearing witness”: for some events, it was simply important to have more humans present, more eyes watching, to lock it in as real and remind the family at the focus of it of the presence of the community. This cultural tradition of community support for big life events fits in very well with MBP’s general approach of serving as a sort of social safety net for their employees. Nursery staff and guides get their medicines paid for, and gifts of money for weddings and funerals, as well as regular vacations (even though they generally need to spend them in some other form of labor). Returning to KAFS for the rest of the day’s work, I was glad to be a small part of such an open-hearted, culturally sensitive, and overall supportive organization. I taught an aye-aye team English class of four that afternoon, and rejoiced in the knowledge that I was helping give the local citizens the tools to be more effective guardians of their wildlife.
The next day, Friday, I attended a Forest Species planting event on a hill right next to the Morarano Nursery. We walked to a forest of acacia, bonary mena, and albizia trees, all at least fifteen feet tall. However, this forest had been degraded land last year-all of these trees were one year old, legacies of a 2018 MBP planting event! Since the pioneer species had done so well, we were now enriching the species community with other species, like ramy and varongy trees, that would provide new ecosystem services. It was heartening to see the newborn forest, and inspiring to imagine the trees planted during my time on the Reforestation team being full-grown adults in 2020.
At the end of this week, we left for another weekend trip to explore a new Madagascan marvel: Anja Community Reserve, home to ring-tailed lemurs, and accessible by a day trip from the city of Fianarantsoa! More on that later!