I just got back from my first field mission in a rural community in eastern Madagascar. The village of Antsiradava, literally meaning the long beach, is located in Ambatondrazaka district. A handful of mud houses with straw roofs are scattered around the red dirt road - all around it, agricultural fields, zebu pens, and a few fruit trees. Red dust covers every single building, villager, or farm animal, and there are quite a few of those. Shepherds lead small herds of zebus through the main road, and hordes of chicken, geese and ducks chase each other among the houses. Hungry-looking dogs and barefoot children complete the picture. When the sun is out it's pleasant enough to stay out in the streets, sipping some warm coke – no electricity for the fridge, here – but during the Malagasy winter a fine rain often falls on the dusty village.
We're staying with Madame Denise, the president of the women's association Madagasikara Voakajy is working with. Madame Denise owns a small shop, where she sells liquor, soft drinks, toothpaste, sugar, grains and so on. The shop takes one of the rooms on the ground floor, while the first floor is used as a storehouse and guestroom. The kitchen is in a small building next to the main one. There's a fireplace in the corner, and when it's time to cook the smoke fills up the room in a couple of minutes. Dishes and cutlery are on the mats on the floor, and get filled with rice and stew while the housecat stares at the food, waiting for its turn to eat. Night falls quickly out here, and the only light comes from our headtorches, the cooking fire, and a few candles. At dusk chicken and geese find shelter in the baskets in the kitchen, and the streets suddenly get quiet. It doesn't last long, though, and the air is suddenly filled with screeches. Small bats start flying out of the roofs, to go hunting for the night. Apparently they stopped flying out all at the same time, and now leave their roosts in smaller groups, because children were waiting for them armed with sticks. After the bats have flown away there's not much else to do, and the village falls asleep early, to wake up at dawn.
We have breakfast with rice, vegetables and coffee, and then we leave with the representatives of the local authorities to see the work they have been doing. Madagascar is increasing their protected areas' surface, and among the new reserves there's a tiny forest fragment, nestled in the hills around the village of Analalava. Fruit bats roost in the forest, and locals used to hunt them for their meat. Their numbers dropped to a few hundreds, but after the reserve was created the population started growing again. The landscape is breathtaking, with yellow steep hills continuing towards the horizon. There isn't a real path to the forest, so we basically have to stumble down the hill, holding on to the tall grass and minding every single step. As we get closer we start to hear the bats as they screech when something wakes them up, and the dark shapes hanging off the trees are easily recognizable even from afar. It is however when part of our team enters the forest that the bats put on the real show. Disturbed by our presence, hundreds of fruit bats start flying over the forest, filling the sky with red shapes with enormous black wings. The flight goes on for about half an hour, and I can't help but look at them with a smile on my face as some of the bats leave the forest to fly right over my head. The colony slowly calms down, and the fruit bats go back to their branches, covering themselves with their wings. We start walking back to the car when the last few animals are still in the air, looking for the right tree.
The rest of our work here mostly comprises meetings with several groups. Let down by incompetent authorities, villagers found farmers groups, women's associations, sports teams and so on. And conservation and development organizations provide the chance to discuss issues related to life in the village. Meetings take place in the most unusual places, at the most unusual hours of the day. Sometimes it's the school building – just a big room, with wooden desks and chalkboards with misspelled French words scribbled on. Another group gathers in our room, and open bottles of rum, coke, and lemonade. Meetings are sometimes whispered, other times, when dealing with key issues, people yell and point fingers. We need wells to have water. What should we plant now? Sugarcane? Coffee? Cassava? ... baobab?? How can we share the peanuts from the last harvest, now that the organization has twelve new members? How can we organize the patrols in the forest?
The last meeting is with Madame Denise's group, and it takes place in her porch. Women of every age make their way to the house in the sun, but the meeting last longer than expected and eventually it gets darker. The women wrap themselves in brightly colored printed sarongs as the bats start jumping off the roofs. Herds go back to their pens, and finally the association reaches an agreement. A contract is signed, and a stereo plays some music. Then I get called to stand in front of the community, and I get formally introduced again – Nick is a very young, strong vazaha. After that Madame Denise gives me a chicken, as a gift on behalf of the community. I try to put together some words to express my gratitude for letting me be their guest, and I think I don't quite succeed. But it's late now, we can hear the crickets, and it's time to go to sleep.
Nick is an Italian conservationist who is spending summer with Madagasikara Voakajy, focusing on the Mangabe forest reserve. Currently based in Moramanga, he will blog his experience with us as he visits our projects and works on the management plan for the reserve. His experience includes working with forests and deer in Scandinavia, heathlands and bogs in the UK, sea turtles in Cape Verde, and water birds in his native Sardinia. He enjoys travelling, good food, coffee and wildlife.