‘Isn’t that where the lemurs are from?’, ‘I only know Madagascar for its vanilla’, ‘You know you’re not going to see Penguins in Madagascar’, ‘don’t get the plague’, were all comments I received before embarking on my one month volunteer programme to Madagascar. For many people, this is what springs to mind when one thinks of Madagascar and admittedly my knowledge beforehand wasn’t much better. However, after a month of teaching English and living in a homestay, I have discovered that this extraordinarily diverse country is rich in culture, wildlife and full of surprises.
As my first big trip alone, I was quite nervous before leaving for Madagascar; it wasn’t the same as floating around South East Asia with my friends but a much bigger step into the unknown. On arrival in Antananarivo airport, the culture shock hit me more than expected as I was suddenly plunged into constant hassling and staring; not what you want after a 14 hour trip. I also felt very, very far away. Yet the culture shock, mixed with jet lag, soon passed once I flew to the much more serene and remote Fort Dauphin which is tucked away in the south east of the country. The small town nestled between rich green mountains with white sandy beaches seemed much more manageable. To ease the culture shock even more, the family I was staying with were extremely warm and welcoming since they were used to clueless volunteers staying with them. In fact, the mother worked for the NGO I was volunteering for and she helpfully gave me a few heads up on Malagsy culture. For example, when I arrived she was quick to say ‘don’t pat the dog’ as in Madagascar dogs are extremely ‘Fady’ (taboo) and therefore lowest of the low.
Beach in Fort Dauphin
‘Fady’ and ‘Fomba’ are extremely important in Malagasy culture and it was thus very important to respect them; Fady means taboo or the wrong way to do things and Fomba is the right way to do things, or more simply, good manners. Luckily, my homestay and the NGO I was teaching English for extensively informed me on this and much of ‘Fomba’ and ‘Fady’ are similar to how we would behave in the UK. However, there are some notable differences and taboos which are rooted in superstition. For example, you must not buy salt after dark, not step over people selling food in the market as feet are perceived as dirty and open defecation is viewed as more hygienic. Unfortunately, one of the beaches in Fort Dauphin is a human defecation site and given that we view defecating in confined spaces as cleaner in the UK, this was the biggest culture shock for me. Indeed, open defecation is the root of many sanitation problems; the NGO I was volunteering for is working hard to change people’s mentalities and encourage the use of latrines.
Another thing I was unaware of is that Malagasy, the first language spoke in Madagascar, is nothing like French but is in fact grammatically much closer to Indonesian. As a French language student I did manage to get by but it isn’t as widely spoken as I thought and was often stumped when people could only speak Malagasy. Although Madagascar is an African country, I was told that the first settlers came from around Indonesia and Malaysia. Therefore, not only was the language Indonesian sounding but also the people vary greatly in appearance. In addition to this, the many rice terraces surrounding Fort Dauphin reminded me of Asian countries I’d visited, making Madagascar an interesting fusion of different influences and cultures.
Yet just a few hours south of Fort Dauphin, these rice terraces soon disappear and are replaced by reddy-brown soil, cacti and other spikey vegetation. It is here, in answer to one of my comments before coming, where the ring-tale lemurs are in their natural habitat. My visit to Berenty reserve, which was undoubtedly the best weekend of the trip, is a playground for wildlife lovers; five different lemurs swing from the trees, chameleons come out at night and I was lucky, or unfortunate enough to see a huge Boa constrictor slither by. Unsurprisingly, the Planet Earth camera crew (I saw this in the visitor’s book) paid a visit to film some of David Attenborough’s amazing series, Planet Earth. If you find yourself in the Deep South East of Madagascar, Berenty is one hundred percent worth a visit.
The Spiny Forest
Now back in the UK Madagascar seems like another world and regrettably, a world I wish I could have discovered more of. My friends and family ask me ‘how was it?’ ‘Did you get the plague?’ and although I returned relatively unscathed, I have struggled to explain my experience there. There is no doubt that there were some considerable lows, especially due to my sensitive stomach, yet these were certainly outweighed by the highs: breath taking views from my homestay, fresh food straight from the lake, white sandy beaches offering amazing surf, unique wildlife around every corner and a team of like-minded people to share the experience with. Unfortunately, Madagascar remains to have low levels of education, poor sanitation and a high infant mortality rate and seeing this first hand made me realise how lucky I am but also how NGOs do make a massive difference on the ground. As cliché as it sounds, going to Madagascar gave me a different perspective and made me realise there is a beautiful, exciting and diverse world out there which we are unaware of and perhaps only hear about from the films, the news headlines and the stereotypes; we must take the plunge and discover it.