The Malagasy term for the environment, tontolo iainana, translates literally as “the sum of all things,” which is both pretty cool and a terrific resume builder (it says here you spent a couple years “protecting the sum of all things,” can you tell me more about that?). It also provides an excellent excuse for frequent spontaneous renditions of the “Circle of Life,” and with pride my personal version grows ever more inaccurate with each passing day.
But I also find it to be an apt term to approaching environmental protection here in Madagascar. (Though, do keep in mind, like Lion King lyrics, opinions on the matter trend towards wide personal variation, even within the Peace Corps).
Before I offer my equation of how it all adds up, before I build my circle if you will, I think I should explain how I arrived at this point. The transition from Niger to Madagascar required some considerable tangible adjustments- I had to replace the orange filter on my camera with a green one, skin fungus became the newest threat to our health, dreams of camel ownership had to be sacrificed- above all else though, it demanded a change of mindset. In Niger, the approach of the volunteer was direct, which is to say, the aid offered by an individual seemed more concrete, likewise the impact on a community. This is a delicate point to express because I hesitate to give the impression that Peace Corps has less of an impact here. That is certainly not the case; it is just that it feels more tangible. Above all, it is extraordinarily situational.
Personally, upon receiving site assignment- which at first glance appears to be heavily conservation oriented- I had some difficulty reconciling the change of approach. But after months of hyphenated-activities (you know: yard-sitting, canoe-hopping, tree-counting, mud-wading, etc.), I began to understand (slowly, slowly, this skull is pretty thick) that truly it is all connected: the people and the land, the park and the communities in and around it; that by addressing human needs, one is able to promote protection in a more indirect but also more sustainable and effective manner. This recognition was an important step for me: both in letting go of Niger and in embracing my service here in Madagascar.
Take for example the mangrove forests of Sahamalaza National Park. The communities bordering and within these forests are supposed to harvest the mangroves in only extremely limited capacities. But they are people; they have needs. They cut down the trees for firewood and they clear the land for further rice cultivation. It is simply not enough to ask them to stop; they depend on these things for survival. So in order protect the land, one must address the human needs that are causing the pressure in the first place. To reduce the amount of firewood needed, more efficient cook stoves can be built from local materials. And by implementing improved rice farming techniques, productivity can be raised in existing fields.
But this is not just about conservation for conservation’s sake (though believe me, I am in that corner); this is about the communities protecting their own livelihood. The degradation of the mangrove forest ecosystem in Sahamalaza is severely affecting local fisheries, an important diet supplement and form of extra-income. This is especially true of crabbing; time and again, fishermen describe how the crabs they catch are smaller in both size and number than a decade ago…if they catch any at all.
It is at this juncture that the vital role of environmental education becomes apparent. In these small communities, education rarely extends beyond the elementary level and few adults can read and write. For this reason, the connections are not necessarily easily made; do I need to put on my Birkenstocks and “Save the Whales” t-shirt to tell you that people may not always recognize how they are endangering their own future when they degrade the environment?
So, maybe the Gasy have things figured out when they call it “the sum of all things.” This is, after all, cultural exchange we are undertaking here. Maybe they can teach me how to paint with all the colors of the wind while we’re at it…
If there is one lesson I can boast to have learned thus far in Peace Corps, it is this: everyday is warfare. Oh, you find that a tad contradictory? Dare you say hypocritical??
Well, I say this: You must never have taken up residence in a house where the creepy, crawly, slithery, all together unpleasant creatures of this world already reside in abundance, astounding in darkness and daylight alike with their sheer size and number, their brazenness and willingness to die a martyr’s death.
Yes, one could write an entire entomology textbook on the ecosystem contained within my abode: the stinging centipedes, mud-dobbers, and scorpions; the beetles that fall inexplicably from the ceiling; the mosquitoes that attack in droves; the ants of infinite variety and dogged persistence; spiders that weave vast webs overnight, ensnaring me in my morning daze; moths hell-bent on lunar landing (predictably, tragedy follows the discovery that my headlamp is not the moon); roaches of such daring that their antennae hardly quiver when I yell at them “I though you were supposed to be afraid of light!!” and have you ever had the honor of witnessing a preying mantis take flight??
I know what you are thinking: surely she is exaggerating; But au contraire mes amis, I have yet to even begin on the creatures of a somewhat higher order: giant snails that dissolve all in their path, a sizeable population of lizards, the occasional delicate neon frog, the clatter of rats in the night, bats that poke their out from the ceiling as if to say “we know you’ve heard us squeaking, just wanted to confirm your fears,” and one, solitary, beautifully patterned, googly-eyed, long-tongued chameleon that lives in my mango tree. Needless to say, the latter of these is the only one whose company I appreciate.
But I am not the particularly squeamish type; I have been the designated roach killer in my day (though, I must add: if the roaches of Charleston could survive nuclear holocaust, those of Madagascar did survive the Big Bang). For months I persisted in my stubborn belief that we could all peacefully coexist. Even when one of the aforementioned beetles fell in my oatmeal, even when a lizard met an unfortunate demise in my boiling pot of beans, I was only antagonised into brief murderous rages about how they were throwing off my rationing.
When I look back on those months of relative peace, it calls forth that great work of literature that everyone skims freshmen year of high school: All Quiet on the Western Front. (On the other hand, who could ever forget the all-important definition of trench warfare: “when opposing sides traded huge losses in manpower for pitifully small land gains??” But I digress…). Yes, in many ways, we were entrenched, with a clear understanding of whose territory was whose: the daylight hours were mine; the night belonged to the rabble. When darkness descended, when a moth too many would smash into my face, a roach skitter a tad too close to my toe, I would hastily retreat to my inner sanctum, the keep of my castle: the mosquito net.
In this way, we maintained an uneasy peace and I maintained my sanity, until the unthinkable occurred. On a night like any other, I awoke to a most unpleasant creepy-crawly sensation on my bare back. The light of headlamp revealed- horror of all horrors!!- a Big Bang survivor, now scuttling about in panic near-equal to my own. It is fortunate that nobody in the immediate vicinity speaks English, because the obscenities I was shouting likely constitute sufficient grounds to have me exported as a corruptor of humanity.
After this unspeakable outrage, as I come to terms with the shattering of the myth of the insect defense shield, open warfare seems the only recourse. Not that it helps me sleep at night, dreaming of reinforcements of the famous hissing variety come to avenge their fallen comrades.
[Good thing my family’s tickets are non-refundable.]
Don't worry, you won't be undertaking this adventure alone! Rather, you will be sharing your covered wagon with twenty to thirty other enterprising souls and personal collapsibility will be at a premium. Don't be quickly disgruntled with the fellow travelers asleep on each shoulder, or the woman snuggled up in the small of your back; after all, that is probably her baby in your lap. In fact, it might be a good idea to let go of all notions of personal space, unless you prefer the roof-rack.
Always, the wagon will be leaving 'soon,' a term which encompasses the next one to eight hours, but never 'on time.' Travel, when it does finally occur, will do so at one of two paces. The first of these is warp speed, in which maximum velocity is attained between gaping holes in the road and brakes are applied only to reduce the likelihood of losing a spoked wheel or small child as the vehicle tumbles over the precipice. In this scenario, a passenger quickly comes to appreciate the padding provided by excess humanity; one can't play JELLO if there is nowhere to slide.
If your 1985 Hyundai wagon is not failing in its bid to break the sound barrier, than it is moving tortuously slow, stopping every half mile to load and unload passengers, bags of rice, bunches of bananas, goats, chickens, canoes, unassembled houses- tasks you can't help but notice could be accomplished at your original rate of progress. Upon encountering a hill, all must extricate themselves and walk alongside. At each stream crossing- no, no caulking and floating- a break is required for the radiator.
Given the choices, it is a matter of picking your poison. Motion sickness or arrival sometime tomorrow? Dislodged teeth or, really, another hill, will you give me a discount if I push? Then again, there is no choice; it is a blind lottery at the depot, all in equal state of disrepair, kick the tires if you please. The best rule of thumb is this: your wagon will move at a speed inverse to your desire to get to Oregon.
So, if rousing games of JELLO are out, how are you going to pass the long hours on the trail? Well, if you are lucky enough to be traveling with a Peace Corps volunteer, there will be endless rounds of “What would you eat now?” and “Would you rather?” that end up sounding suspiciously like a middle school Bible camp (...sit on a couch or take a hot shower?). If you are trekking alone- though, do keep in mind, you are never truly alone- hours can fly by while you attempt to get the baby to stop crying or to persuade the driver we have all heard enough Celine Dion for a lifetime.
My personal wagoneering past time of choice? One that provides even more entertainment than “Breyers of Hoeggarden?” The composition of elaborate national nicknames! All things become that much more bearable when you realize that tourist brochures should actually read “The Land of the Crippled Chicken” or “Madagascar: Somewhere a Dog is Always Barking.” And that someone desperately needs to inform Lonely Planet that Niger is actually “Where Flip-flops go to Die.”
No? Entertainment hungry Americans remain skeptical? Fine, how about watching one of the world's most beautiful countries go (depending on your luck that day) whizzing or crawling past your frame of view. I can tell you, it sure beats television, even if you can't turn down the volume on that crying baby or Celine Dion. And don't worry, you will get to Oregon eventually, even if you do lose a couple bags off the top and little Susie to typhoid.