Travel

Volunteering in Madagascar: Interview with a UoN student

From July to September last year, University of Nottingham Geography student Bethan George visited the African island of Madagascar for 10 weeks. Whilst there she worked on a conservation and human development project with a charity called Azafady. From planting trees to monitoring lemurs and educating village children, Bethan tells Impact Travel about her incredible experience.

What prompted you to join a conservation/humanitarian project in Madagascar?

I was interested in development and stumbled across a charity called Azafady. At first I was just reading about it as it was interesting – I didn’t know much about Madagascar and it seemed to be a ‘forgotten’ country. As I read I became more inspired and thought that I would raise some money for the charity. I found that they offered a ten week volunteering scheme, but was a bit wary at first, as there are so many large volunteerism projects which I don’t really believe in – I feel they are unsustainable, a ‘scientific development’ view where someone goes in and ‘does development’. But Azafady seemed different; it worked with the community and most of its staff were local Malagasy. Its conservation project looked interesting, exploring Madagascar’s biodiversity and species richness, but I was interested more in the humanitarian side, so opted for the ‘pioneer project’. In the end, we actually got to go to the conservation project for 2 weeks, so I got the best of both worlds!

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What were the main elements of the project?

We spent the first week getting used to the culture and people, and learning more about the charity and the local situation. We also used this week to build school benches (an ongoing need for children in the area who often work on the floor). In weeks 2, 3 and 4 we went ‘out bush’ into the rural villages of the Anosy region. We set about building a primary school for the local children, working with a team of local construction workers. We dug foundations, mixed clay and built walls, yet with no electricity, every task was physical work, so you really got an idea of how easy we have it back home.

Week 5 was back in the town constructing concrete ‘san plats’ (long drop holes) for the urban sanitation project. I also worked in the head office searching for funding/grants, which I found interesting as Madagascar doesn’t seem to classify as part of Africa on much funding criteria, meaning finance can be extremely hard to find.

Weeks 6 & 7 were back ‘out bush’ for more building and tree planting of a nourishing plant called the ‘Moringa’, which could  be added to the children’s diets as a supplement to their meals. During weeks 8 & 9 we visited the beautiful village of St Luce to work on the conservation programme. The littoral forests there have many endemic plants and animals, and are key for the survival of the local people. These are now under threat due to a mining company who want to destroy the forests for a mineral in the soil. Azafady works to research the species in the forest to understand the threats of mining, so we monitored lemur behaviour and undertook questionnaires about endangered geckos whilst also running a conservation club for the village children, to emphasize the importance of their local habitat.

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We got one day off a week and often went on walks to beautiful places or swimming at rivers or beaches. We visited markets and mixed with the locals, making friends within the villages that entertained us. We put on ‘bush parties’ by hiring a local band to play Malagasy music and bought lots of food to put on a banquet. We would invite the entire village to dance and sing with us; it really was the most fun experience I have ever had!

How did the charity Azafady support you during your experience?

You are given so much information when you apply and even after your trip. The charity are so organised helping you book airport hotels and connecting travel. They couldn’t have been more supportive and there is a member of staff available 24/7 as well as guides employed to help you understand the culture, show you round and teach you to speak Malagasy. You often camp with the staff, so you gain a real friendship with them. 

What are the core challenges facing the Madagascan people that you met?

Everyone you meet in Madagascar is extremely humble and generous. Never have I had so many people say hello to me as I walk down the street; well actually they shout ‘Salama Vasa’, which means hello foreigner. Yet you can see the everyday struggle that these people are facing – there is a sanitation issue; most houses lack toilets, encouraging open defecation, leading to illness. This is increased by the lack of access to improved water sources. There are issues with access to healthcare and health education too, especially with the use of indigenous medicines and traditions in childbirth. The society is strongly male dominated; women marry and bear children at a very young age. Schools are overcrowded, understaffed and employ under-trained teachers thus many children do not attend school and many don’t make it past primary enrolment. Rural populations face the loss of their local habitats, which are vital for survival and the government has been in a long term political crisis for a while which has reduced international aid to the country. Since the 2009 coup, there has been increased poverty and environmental damage – the cutting of government spending has had huge impacts on the people of Madagascar.

How did the experience relate to your degree? Did you see things you’ve learnt from lectures come to life?

I’ve recently been learning about rural environmental development in less developed countries. I saw so many of these issues in Madagascar; issues of gender, indigenous knowledges and development challenges. I saw problems with companies trying to undertake corporate social responsibility, witnessed political instability and understood the impacts of colonialism. I learnt about biodiversity, lived in a unique cultural setting and learnt how to collect information through participant observation and field diaries. Overall, the experience has given me an insight into many issues that my course has introduced me to, and it has helped me put some of the theory into practice. In fact, I will be basing my dissertation on this area of Madagascar and further researching development issues.

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How different was the culture in Madagascar to what you’d experienced before the trip?

Extremely different. You had to be very respectful of Malagasy culture and beliefs. There were a range of ‘fads’ – cultural prohibitions or taboos connected to the idea of supernatural powers and ancestral worship. Everywhere you went you stood out as a foreigner – our group were among very few foreign visitors in the town and definitely the only foreigners in the rural areas. I never felt uncomfortable, but you were automatically judged as being ‘wealthy’ which meant that everything was more expensive for the foreigner. 

What advice would you give to other students or budding conservationists/aid workers who are contemplating going on this type of adventure?

Do it, but don’t just do it because ‘I have nothing to do this summer’ or ‘I need something for my CV’. Show some passion and do research about the charity and the destination. Get truly involved, don’t just take selfies of you ‘doing charity work in poorer nations’. It is hard work, and you will probably see things which break your heart. It isn’t all fun, you will learn a lot about yourself along the way, but in the long run you will come out a much more confident person.

We understand that you have continued to fundraise for Azafady since you left Madagascar, how is that going?

Yes, I have managed to raise money for a project to rebuild a dilapidated school. One day we walked to visit the old school which the children can no longer use because the building has been deemed unsafe, even in Malagasy safety standards. The school had a lasting impact on me; it had been there since the 1960s and had no work done to it since. The roof was falling in, the walls were unsafe. The place was eerie, old books were abandoned and writing was still on the chalkboard but no one had been able to learn anything in a long time. Lessons had been relocated to a tiny church, where children sat on the dry, dusty mud floor, which would obviously be affected by rain which would run straight through the building’s foundations. Half the children in the village were unable to attend school due to the church not being of their particular faith and so had no schooling at all. I decided that on my return I would try to raise the money to transform the ruined building into use once again. I sent an email round explaining the situation to my family and friends and used my contacts to get the message spread to businessmen. I am looking to do a fundraiser over summer but I’m struggling at the moment to find more contributions due to university workload, so any donations would be great!

Caitlin Kelly

You can donate to Bethan’s project at: http://www.globalgiving.co.uk/projects/tsagnoria-school-building-project/

Or email Bethan at: [email protected]

If you’re interested in visiting Madagascar with Azafady visit http://madagascar.co.uk for more information.

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One Comment
  • Tegan Jones, International Volunteer Coordinator
    26 February 2015 at 13:06
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    A fantastic read! I was very lucky to meet Bethan on a field visit to Madagascar, and we both visited the school building which she has been desperately fundraising for. The donations that Bethan has raised will certainly make a huge difference and we are now planning to get the school refurbished this summer once the rains have stopped!
    Azafady is very grateful for Bethan’s work as a volunteer on the ground, and since her return, and we look forward to supporting her in her future research in Madagascar!
    Thanks for all your efforts!

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