Yes! It has finally happened! After months of organizing, learning the language, training physically, and preparing gear, my voyage to Madagascar has begun! This is the first in a series of volunteer blogs chronicling my sojourn as a volunteer research assistant for the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP).
Entering the Country
I arrived in the country at about 11:00 PM (local time, so about 4:00 PM EST) on July 23rd, after a sequence of Air France flights from Boston to Paris to Antananarivo (the capital of Madagascar). An immense, sinuous line awaited me at the airport once I disembarked, snaking between customs, visa checking, health inspection, and passport inspection, all before baggage claim. I had resigned myself to tedious hours of bureaucracy, when an airport official came up to me in the line and asked if I was Sam. “Oui. Etes-vous Monsieur Sedy?” I asked. The volunteer handbook had told me of a Mr. Sedy, friendly to MBP. It was indeed he, and I soon learned of his inestimable value. In an astonishingly short period of time, Sedy got my passport and visa validated, waved me through customs, placed me at baggage claim, introduced me to a fellow volunteer, Dakota (who had taken the same flight as I, though we hadn’t met), and arranged for a portion of my American dollars to be changed into Malagasy ariary (at a rate of 4000 ariary to the dollar). (Pictured below: a 5000 Ariary bill). Once we picked up our baggage, Sedy deposited us in a car with MBP driver Jean-Pierre. As we hurtled through the night-shrouded city of Antananarivo, I practiced my considerable French and nascent Malagasy with M. Jean-Pierre, and when he dropped Dakota and I off at our hotel, gave him a hearty “Misaotra besaka” (thank you very much). I unpacked and sank into sleep.
My New Colleagues
Over the course of July 24th and 25th, I became acquainted with my fellow volunteers, the young scientists with whom I will be spending the next few months. They’re a fascinating group of people. In our cohort of five, in addition to myself, there’s Dakota, an American Environmental Science major from Creighton University (and my hotel roommate), Soumaya, a French Biology master’s student from the Sorbonne, Claire, an aspiring primatologist from Illinois, and Dana, a German Ph.D. primate geneticist. Everyone is kind, friendly, and fascinating. Between them, my new colleagues have visited and/or conducted research in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Egypt, China, Mali, Senegal, most of America and Europe, published several scientific papers, worked at zoos, schools, and universities, and (in Dana’s case) helped discover a new lemur species. I look forward to working with them further over the next three months!
On our first day in Antananarivo, Dakota, Soumaya and I (Dana and Claire had not yet arrived) were at liberty to explore the city, and we did so. After getting to know each other over breakfast at the hotel, we walked a few blocks to see the historic palaces of the city: the Rova, or Queen’s Palace, and the Prime Minister’s Palace (now a museum). The next day, Dakota, Dana, Soumaya and I walked down to the city lake and stadium, a much longer journey, also on foot. (Pictured above: views of the city from our hotel, and from the street).
During these explorations, we took in the street scenes of Antananarivo. A critical visitor might have seen it as chaotic or squalid: there were admittedly chickens and dogs running around in the streets, a complete absence of traffic lights, crosswalks, or traffic control, and channels of open sewage running alongside the sidewalk. However, I was enchanted. The ancient rock walls lining the streets were festooned with strange and beautiful flowers, their identities a mystery to me. (Check them out on my iNaturalist feed at www.inaturalist.org/observations/sammatey). Throngs of schoolchildren in blue uniforms marched down the steep, angular cobblestoned streets, laughing and chatting among themselves gaily. Younger children kicked around makeshift soccer balls. Families played, cooked, and hung their laundry out to dry on bushes along the narrower, car-less side streets. There were fewer panhandlers than in Portland, Maine: everybody seemed occupied. The entrepreneurial spirit was everywhere: small businesses ranging from hairdressers’ shops to all-in-one clinics to vegetable and dried fish stalls to taxis and buses to open-air welding yards (!) to restaurants thronged the streets. (One of these last, “Mini Pizza,” even advertised (in French) that it cooked with a wood-fired oven, just as Flatbread Pizza boasted back home!). Billboards blared ads for bank account initiatives, English lessons, and cellular data plans, engines of prosperity and increased economic reach. Civic spirit was strong too: the little neighborhood of Manakambahiny had its name spelled out in white wooden letters on a grassy verge, like a Malagasy microcosm of the famed Hollywood sign. Despite the US State Department’s warning of increased crime in Antananarivo, I felt entirely safe, lost nothing, and was struck by the overall friendliness and cheerful aspect of the citizenry. Whenever I spoke Malagasy during our walks, even something as simple as “Azafady kely e” (excuse me), people broke out into smiles and laughter, excited by the spectacle of a foreigner speaking their language. Even when I was refusing to buy something from a street vendor, with a polite “Tsara fa misaotra” (I’m good, thanks), the joy at hearing their tongue seemed to outweigh any disappointment at the loss of a sale.
In short, Antananarivo may be impoverished at the moment, but it has spirit. It has spark. It has character and potential, and perhaps most importantly, self-confidence. I shall not be surprised if in the next few decades, as the population of Madagascar increases and its current youthful population grows educated, “Tana” will become a great world city.
The History of Madagascar.
There is an incredible sense of history and place in Madagascar. When Dakota, Soumaya and I visited the palaces, we hired a highly knowledgeable local tour guide, with the exotic appellation of Franz Florida, to walk us through the exhibits. (Pictured above: the three of us in front of the Rova, or queen's palace). The man knew his stuff: what we experienced was essentially a condensed, interactive version of the fantastical history of the old Kingdom of Madagascar under the Merina rulers, from the unification by Andrianampoinimerina (literally “Lord Heart of the Merina,” who famously proclaimed “the sea shall be the boundary of my rice fields”) to the deposition of Queen Ranavalona III by the French in 1896. Along the way, Franz Florida touched on such points as the transcription of Malagasy into the Latin Alphabet, encouraged by Radama I the Great, the persecution and mass murder of Christian converts by Queen Ranavalona I the Cruel, and the curious career of Rainilivarony, the prime minister who ruled as the power behind the throne for much of the mid-1800s by the simple expedient of murdering King Radama II and marrying his widow, the queen regnant Rasoherina. It was his old palace that hosted our tour, complete with portraits of the monarchs and many of their personal effects, such as Radama I’s bed and throne, a tea set sent to the monarchy by Queen Victoria, and Rainilivarony’s writing desk-which in a melodramatic desk, had a hidden chamber for a gun. (In case you’re wondering about the names: “Ra” means something like “blood,” and is one of two standard beginnings for a Malagasy name, along with Andriana, or “lord”). The Rova had sadly burned down in the 1990s, but a magnificent stone replica had been raised in its place, with the historic environs of the royal gardens and tombs still present just outside.
Furthermore, at our hotel, the Relais du Haut Ville, we were treated to an entirely unprompted and highly eloquent speech on Malagasy history by the proprietor, Monsieur Serge. With astounding depth of knowledge, he told us (in French) about the sparring between British and French for influence in the old Kingdom of Madagascar (until it fell entirely into the French sphere of influence in 1843), the use of the ravenala palm tree as the emblem of Queens Rasoherina and Ranavelona III, and the story of Madagascar in the Second World War, when it was held by Vichy France and invaded by the British. His knowledge was deeply impressive: imagine if an American hotelier began discoursing learnedly on the doings of James K. Polk or Grover Cleveland. Evidently a deeply patriotic man, he also spoke of his pride in his country, and how he did not desire to live anywhere else in the world. “I sent my children to study in France, but they came back. We always come back. Madagascar is a special, a sacred place.” From the little I have seen so far, I quite agree.
Tomorrow, Friday the 26th, the plan is to “run errands,” obtaining SIM cards for personal wi-fi hotspots and supplies for the camp. On Saturday July 27th, we will all be driven down to the main research station at Kianjavato! I will send out another volunteer blog sometime next week. I can’t wait to see my first wild lemur!
I'm Sam Matey, an environmental scientist and University of Southern Maine graduate. I founded The Weekly Anthropocene because I believe the world needs a succinct, accessible rundown of environmental news.