Five weeks down, five to go!
While my first two weeks in Madagascar actually felt like two weeks, the next three weeks passed so quickly that I can’t believe I’m already halfway done with my time here. Since I’m here for 10 weeks total, I have the unique opportunity to watch many different sets of volunteers come and go. It’s been wonderful to meet and get to know people from all over the world, but it also means that most of them will leave long before I do. It’s really nice to have friends who are here for a longer period of time like I am, but I enjoy getting to know everyone no matter how long their stay is.
A lot has happened in the past few weeks, but here are some highlights.
“We got to know the girls and see how resilient they are, and happy and comfortable with much less than we’re used to having in developed countries.”
The closest village to the volunteer camp is called Ampang, and their girls’ basketball team qualified for the regional competition this season. The team is composed of teenage girls aged 15-17, and the Madagascar Research and Conservation Institute (MRCI) held a fundraiser to send the team to the competition in the city of Diego Suarez, which is located on the northernmost point of mainland Madagascar. MRCI sent our photography and social media intern to document the trip, and several of us volunteers decided to come along for the weekend to support the team and see a different part of the country.
We took the 6 a.m. boat to pick up the girls and the coach in Ampang, as well as a few people from each of the villages we passed on our way to the mainland until the boat could hardly fit any more people. Once we arrived at the port on the mainland, we crammed into a taxi brousse, which is basically a van that people pay to ride in for longer road trips, like a bus. For the entire 8 hour journey, there were Malagasy music videos playing on the screen above our heads. By the end of the day, all the songs started to sound the same.
The taxi brousse stopped at a large concrete building that turned out to be the athletic facility where the games would be held. Across a small field was an outbuilding (probably a storage room) where all of us slept in the same room on the concrete floor — the girls, the coach and the four of us volunteers from MRCI.
Their first game ended up being scheduled for the end of the weekend, so we spent our free day exploring Diego and going to the open air market with a few of the girls to pick up some ingredients. In the field next to the athletic facility, there was a small concrete cylinder in which the girls started a cooking fire. Despite the language barrier between us and the girls, we had a good time peeling and slicing vegetables together and cooking the meals that weekend. They did most of the cooking, and we’d help wherever possible and buy some of the ingredients at the market.
We explored the streets of the city during the day, visiting a park, a cathedral and the bay. When we went looking for a beach, we just found a trash-covered waterfront, which is a pretty typical sight since Madagascar doesn’t have a good waste disposal system. Most trash is either burned or dumped somewhere.
But if you think about it, is there any truly responsible way to dispose of waste permanently? The ideal situation would be to not manufacture or purchase single-use products that require disposal and years to break down, but our world is a long way from that point. We can each make a difference with our everyday decisions — every time we go to the store or vote in an election. Whether it’s buying in bulk, telling the waiter you don’t need a straw in your drink or choosing to bring your own lunch in a reusable container, there are countless ways that we can contribute to a better world.
Being here — where the evidence of extravagant consumption is inescapable — I’m inspired to make changes in my own life while I’m here and once I return home.
Back to Diego… On that Sunday, the girls had their first game and they played incredibly well, beating the other team by more than double the points. That night, we organized dinner and cooked for them as a congratulations and a thank you for showing us around.
The team stayed to play more games later in the week, but we left the next morning on a taxi brousse that was slightly nicer than the initial one, since it had individual seats for each passenger and there were no music videos blasting the whole time. There was an adorable little girl sitting in front of us who kept turning around to play with us and trying to brush our tangled hair.
As dusk was approaching, we arrived in a town where we took a bicycle-powered tuk-tuk (a small covered but open vehicle that is usually engine-powered) to a spot where we crammed about 15 people into an 8-seat car to ride to the port. We took a moonlit boat ride with some guys and their chickens to the town of Hellville, where we got a hotel for the night; we have never appreciated beds and being clean more.
It wasn’t a vacation weekend by any means, but I really enjoyed the trip because we got to experience more of the real Madagascar, as opposed to the comparatively luxurious conditions at camp. We passed through villages, forests, open plains, mountains and got to see a city that’s much bigger and different than our little corner of the country.
We got to know the girls and see how resilient they are, and happy and comfortable with much less than we’re used to having in developed countries.
No stove? No problem, just start a fire on the ground.
No sleeping mat? No problem, just sleep on the floor.
I really enjoyed getting to know them and seeing a new and different part of the country.
We spent the next day in Hellville for Madagascar’s independence day, where they celebrate their 1960 official independence from France with parades, flags, string lights, music and speeches. We took the afternoon boat back to camp, and I returned to forest hikes after the long weekend away.
One evening later in the week, everyone gathered at a restaurant in Ampang to watch the World Cup, which everyone is pretty enthusiastic about. We were rooting for Germany, Colombia, and England, since we have several volunteers from those countries, but the local guy sitting near us kept getting bummed out when Colombia would score because he was rooting for Senegal.
This past week, I went on a week-long construction trip with about 14 other volunteers from various projects. We took a boat to a small coastal village on the mainland to continue building a medical clinic that other volunteers started working on about a month ago. The village’s doctor is also the mayor of the whole region, and right now he doesn’t have anywhere to treat his patients. Several families opened their huts for us to stay in, and we drew water from the well to take bucket showers.
We spent the mornings building cement bricks and digging the foundation for the clinic, and in the afternoons we taught English to any of the villagers who wanted to learn, and played soccer with the locals. One time, we were trying to explain how to pronounce the word “water,” but it was confusing for the student who wanted to know, because my American accent sounded very different from the other volunteers’ British accents; the student wasn’t sure which way was correct.
The sunrises and sunsets from that beach were spectacular, as were the stars. I spent the first night sleeping under the stars on the beach, which was amazing except for the persistently biting sand flies. We’d spend the evenings after dinner around a bonfire on the beach, enjoying the beautiful nights and each other’s company.
We used up all the bags of cement that we brought and dug the entire foundation. We wanted to do more but we were told we had to wait for the specialist to bring certain necessary materials in a few weeks before anything more could be done. The locals were a big help in showing us the best ratio of cement, sand and water when we were mixing the bricks. Sometimes they’d help with shoveling and carrying water, sand and wet bricks. It was cool to work together with them because, in addition to being more experienced with brick-making, this clinic is going to directly benefit them and their families when it’s completed.
MRCI also plans to build a school in this community when the clinic is finished. We already have a lot of programs on Nosy Komba so we want to expand our impact and help more communities.
It was really satisfying to help with such a tangible project that’s going to provide an essential service for a community we’ve grown to know and love. I’m back on the forest project again now that I’m back, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to help out with that project and experience another part of Madagascar and get to know some really cool people.
Being away has made me realize all the places I want to explore — both in my own country and the rest of the world. Sometimes I’m just struck speechless when I realize how complex, messy and amazing our world is. We’re so lucky to live on this planet and I can’t wait to explore more of it and embrace other cultures that have such different and valuable perspectives.
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.