Madagascar: Volume 1

Mbola tsara from Madagascar!

Most days this summer, you’ll find me hiking through the forest on a tiny tropical island called Nosy Komba, located off the northwest coast of Madagascar. I’m volunteering with an organization called Madagascar Research and Conservation Institute, doing forest conservation work in a threatened type of rainforest called sambirano. Despite the hot and humid weather, the absurd number of mosquito bites on my legs and the occasional pangs of homesickness for the people and places I’ve left behind, I’m incredibly glad to be here.

I’ve met some really cool people from all over the world, I’m learning new skills while helping to protect a valuable forest ecosystem, and I get to live in a beautiful location all summer.

“The people are strong and innovative, and I’m so grateful to be here and to be able to learn from people who are wiser than me.”

At the volunteer camp, I share a hut made of reeds with five other girls. From my top bunk, I have a great view of the ocean and the nearby island of Nosy Be. It’s winter here, which is the cooler, dry season. It’s still so warm though that I usually start out sleeping on top of a thin sheet and then I’ll climb under it a few hours later when the night cools off. Several huts share a bathroom and a shower with cold water, which feels pretty amazing after getting back from a long hike. The ocean is also a great temperature for taking a dip at any hour of the day. All the structures here are pretty open to the outside, so it’s not uncommon to see bugs or a bright green gecko climbing around the walls and bedframes of the hut, or hanging out in the bathroom while you shower.

There are a few local women who work at the camp and cook three meals a day for the volunteers. The meals tend to be carb-heavy since we’re pretty active and burning a lot of calories each day. Lunch and dinner are usually rice or pasta with some form of protein such as beans, eggs or zebu meat (zebu are similar to cows or oxen) and sometimes salad or fruit. The perks of being a vegetarian here include a much shorter and faster dinner line than the meat line, and never having to eat questionable meat.

There are two cats who are always hanging out near the covered dining area, and the neighbors have chickens that wander into camp and scratch around in the dirt all day. In case you miss your alarm, you can usually hear the roosters crowing early in the morning. There is a chicken that some of the girls nicknamed Florinda who walks into their hut every morning, climbs onto the bottom bunk bed, and lays an egg.

There are no cars on the island where I live. It’s basically one big mountain with small villages scattered around the island, so most people just walk or take a boat to wherever they need to go. A nearby village has a restaurant that will actually deliver pizza by boat to the volunteer camp. It’s a 40-minute boat ride to the nearest town with a real grocery store, hospital and bank, located on the nearby island of Nosy Be.

The economy of this area is pretty dependent on tourism, moreso than other parts of the country, but agriculture is also very important here. Farmers grow tropical crops such as banana, pineapple, coffee, vanilla and cacao. Every Friday we do agroforestry, where we help local farmers with whatever tasks they need, as they integrate forested land and cultivated cropland in an environmentally responsible way. My first time doing agroforestry, we hiked to a farm but the farmer wasn’t there like he had said he would be. So we hiked to a different farm, where we helped the farmer plant banana trees and remove an invasive plant species called lantana.

Working alongside the farmer, doing tedious labor in the hot sun on a steep mountain slope has given me an immense amount of respect for people who practice subsistence farming — or any type of manual labor — for a living. Madagascar is definitely not a rich or developed country, but people find ways to live on much less than we have in the United States. The people are strong and innovative, and I’m so grateful to be here and to be able to learn from people who are wiser than me.

As a forest volunteer, my days usually start off with several hours of hiking up the mountain to various sites around the island to collect data on different wildlife species such as reptiles, birds and lemurs. The terrain is pretty steep and uneven, so getting anywhere involves climbing over boulders, sand, roots, packed clay, slippery leaves, etc. We usually return to camp in time for lunch, and then we’ll work on something else in the afternoons, such as data entry, watering tree seedlings, studying the many different animal species that we encounter here or going back out in the field for more data collection.

On the weekends we’re free to do whatever we want, so most people usually leave camp and explore other parts of Madagascar. So far I’ve been to several nearby islands, and there’s some really cool national parks that are on my list to visit. This coming Saturday, there is a 20K and 30K running race on Nosy Komba, so I might swing by the village to catch the beginning or end of the race if I’m around that day. The country’s independence day is also coming up next week, so I’m looking forward to seeing how they celebrate it here.

The other day, we could hear some sort of party going on as we hiked past a village. On the informal, hand-drawn map in the forest manual, that village is nicknamed “Hello Village” because every time we pass through, there is a chorus of little hellos from groups of children as they wave wildly at us. Most of the locals live in huts made of reeds that would never pass American building standards, but they seem to hold up pretty well.

One afternoon last week, we hiked up to a church partway up the mountain to drop off our sleeping gear, ate an amazing home-cooked meal at a nearby house, did a night transect where we recorded reptile data right after a rainstorm and then returned to sleep in the church before hiking back to camp in the morning. When we walked into the church that night, a classroom-sized room with wooden pews and a concrete floor, there was a bat, a bird, a rat, and some ants and cockroaches. But after we swept the floor and made some noise with our talking and unpacking, nothing bothered us during the night.

The people who cooked us dinner had a radio playing, a speaker system, and a large TV, even though their house was located in a pretty remote part of the island. It’s pretty common for people to have smartphones and other technology here. Since I haven’t bought a local SIM card though, I only have service when I’m in a cafe or restaurant with wifi, so I don’t usually have service during the week when I’m in camp. Everyone here is really friendly, and we exchange greetings with anyone we pass on a path.

Since the nature of the forest project means that I spend most of my time with the other volunteers and staff — both local and from other countries — I’m not as connected to the local community as other volunteers who help with community-related projects such as teaching and construction. I’d like to help out with some of the other projects while I’m here, in addition to the forest project.

Most of the locals speak the native language, Malagasy, and many people also speak a little French, which is nice because I can communicate with them. People here embrace the idea of “mora mora,” which means slowly slowly. They might show up on time, or they might not. The 6 a.m. boat usually arrives around 6:30 or later, so at least it’s pretty predictable. Once you realize that your time constraints aren’t as important as you thought they were, it’s kind of nice to take a more relaxed pace — unless you’re really trying to be somewhere or get something done quickly.

It’s been almost three weeks since I left home, and I don’t regret my decision to spend the summer here. Like most things in life, it’s different from initial expectations, but in a good way. It’s been hard and fun and mind-opening. I love meeting new people from around the world, helping the long-term ecosystem health of this region, gaining new skills and exploring this beautiful country.

I’m looking forward to new adventures and whatever else is in store for my next two months here.

Kristen Burgess is a sustainability major and geography minor. She is volunteering in northwest Madagascar all summer doing forest conservation work through International Volunteer HQ.

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