February 21, 2012

A Month in Maroantsetra [Photos]

The Anjahanambo River, Entering Maroantsetra


The Westward Beach, Nosy Mangabe in the Background

A Village Upriver

Banana Grove

Environmental Education Students

North of Ambinanitelo

In the Market, Maroantsetra

Makira Protected Forest, Ambodivaohangy


The Sun Rising over Masoala Peninsula

Crabs in the Market

Departing Navana

WCS Makira

Makira Protected Forest, Ambodivaohangy

February 20, 2012

Unnamed Ballad for Madagascar

Madagascar is one big, beautiful, messed-up, mixed-up, mashed-up country.
It is often empty but rarely desolate. There are sunrises lost in mist and sunsets shrouded in rain, night skies of incredible depth and moonlight of inexplicable clarity. Nights of a full moon the town barely sleeps; the children play as if it is day. Storms lurk just beyond the curvature of the earth and rush up from nowhere, born of air above the Indian Ocean that just churns and churns, piling clouds high high upon the horizon. There is tension in the quiet moments before a storm breaks; people gather on the stoops to talk nervously amongst themselves and to call their children home in harsh tones. Then the skies open and the world is water and the children run naked and shiny and shivering in the puddles.
People track the slow movement of the shade. One is greeted with the triple kiss of colonial origin and the double (no, this time, triple) clutch handshake of the countryside. The language is sharp and staccato, or rolling and drawn up at the end, or wheedling; it is always quite literal; it is easy to get lost in the multiple dialects, to be overwhelmed by the endless confusion. There is simply no time here. The pouring of drinks is an exact science and an empty cup sacrilege.
Roads are cultural arteries: the footpath, the bicycle byway, the cattle corridor. They are tunnels of green and life spills over their margins. Heavily laden or out for a stroll, these ways are walked to see and be seen. There is constant chatter of those calling back and forth; the notes ring out loud and attention-seeking. Men drink warm beer in the shade, or slam down dominos, or squint over card games, pursuing endlessly circular conversations. 
Bicycles make their creaky, plodding way, teetering with impossible burdens, or handlebars draped with a hundred shimmering, bright-eyed fish that swam just this morning. Or there is a toddler, perched on the rack, peeking surreptitiously around his father’s back. Everywhere one hears the universal clap-dance-chant games of children; their abilities of self-amusement are endless; they know not the meaning of boredom.
People of this country can astound with unexpected acts of kindness, can irritate with an eagerness to ask outlandish favors upon first acquaintance. Those stuck in the back of a hot and immobile taxi-brousse will yell: “We’re cooked!” “We might faint back here!” “This car is a people murderer!” Seeing a boy of no more than seven, all knobby knees and jutting ribs, driving a herd of cattle down to the river, everyone knows, but nobody mentions, that he has been entrusted with his family’s fortune. Yet along he saunters, lazily carefree. 
There is a sense, especially in some cities, of being in a single, giant, sprawling village. In the dead of noon and the bustle of evening, they are different places. One crosses the street in terror, as a dozen forms of manual and mechanized transport approach at various speeds and with limited control. Ancient Mercedes trucks, more rust than metal, clatter along and kick up suffocating clouds of dust.
Peeling oranges by moonlight; the deafening sound of cicadas; stuck at a ferry crossing; the screech and scratch of radios straining for signal; the roar of the ocean when you cannot see it; the smell of rain on hot earth. The rhythms of human life: the poling of a raft upstream, the heaving of a hauled net, the flick of the switch as cattle are herded.

February 02, 2012

Explaining Global Warming in Malagasy (or, “Making the Earth Hot”)

      In Antsohihy, people sat on their stoops and peered at the sky, wondering why the rains had not come. It was late November and the clouds should have rolled in weeks ago, heavy with rain to settle the dust and quench the soil desperate for moisture. But there were few clouds, and the days persisted, achingly hot and dry. All the population of Antsohihy could do was sit, and wait, and watch the sky with a quiet, nervous tension: for rice does not grow in dry ground.

       Walking the streets of this ramshackle city, it is not difficult to understand how the rains here are invested with a certain anthropomorphic quality; they are exasperating but intransigent; like anyone else in this country, they arrive when they feel like it. 

On the second floor of the Antsohihy commune building, in a meeting room with broken shutters and rusty file cabinets, I stood before a group of local guides and environmentalists, asking: “What do you think global warming is?” There was a long pause and many blank looks, until at last someone stood: “Well,” he began hesitantly, “we all see there are many big fires here. The big fires are making the earth hot. And then where there were fires, the earth is bare, so it soaks up all the heat from the sun, and that makes the earth hot too.” There was a long pause, then another man rose: “It is like when there are a lot of people crowded in one room and that room gets really hot. The earth is just too crowded and we are heating it up.”

There is something to be said for the latter of these two theories: it could be either right on or wildly off. And the participants of this seminar were not be blamed for such localized world-views. Madagascar is a country where the immediately surrounding elements can be, and often are, thought to comprise the world entire, where the forest is not born of the rain, but is rather the very thing that draws it in from the sea. It is a peculiar relationship of cause and effect, but it generally prevails.

Thus, climate change is a challenging topic to approach, not only for its complexity, but also for its demanding acceptance of the interconnectedness of this world. Malagasy people- many of whom have never traveled further than the rim of their horizon- can have a difficult time accepting that what happens on the other, incomprehensible side of this globe can powerfully affect what they have always known right here. I do my best to explain that in developed countries we are driving too many cars, burning too many fossil fuels, using too much electricity, filling the sky with planes; that the world over we are cutting down the forests that could trap all this extra carbon and methane; that this means the heat from sunlight is not escaping the atmosphere (in my Malagasy, global warming is translated as “mampafana tany” or, “making the earth hot”); that the ramifications of this are profound, from changing global weather patterns to rising sea levels. And as we add each link in the chain, I think, really think, that they are getting it.

It is difficult to move with great speed though, as we are routinely hung up on smaller, but no less bewildering concepts. Lands of only ice and snow; ice cores; glaciers. We are stuck on a picture of a polar bear for nearly twenty minutes. Countries where everyone drives their own car, and people keep the lights on all night. Satellites. Deserts, where there is only sand, sand like waves, but no ocean. I, inadvertently, oh so carelessly, use a diagram of Sugar Maple growth in North America. What is a Sugar Maple? What is special about your Sugar Maple? Wait, wait, are you telling us that you Americans eat tree blood? (Think about it, then tell me how you would explain maple syrup in Malagasy).

By the end of the second day though, after pages and pages of hastily drawn diagrams, after countless tangential explanations, we were there. One man threw up his hands, “there are no solutions.” He then mimed picking up the phone, “I am calling God.” Another participant rose to leave: “I am going to pray now; I am going to talk to God about our planet.” The training organizer glanced at me: “We took a little bit of their innocence today.” 

There is validity to that statement. For these local guides and environmentalists, acknowledging the interconnection of incomprehensible worlds- of ice and snow, of six-lane highways and city grids- with their own fragile life on the coast, a life of rice-agriculture, mangrove-fishing and cow-herding, is a difficult task. And do not for a second be mistaken about the resentment they feel for this discovery. As one woman said in a long, impassioned speech: “In the wealthy world, they created most of these problems. And here, in the developing world, we could suffer for them. And yet they want to tell us that we cannot develop like them, and worse, they want to tell us to stop doing what we have always done.” 

Just before we left our ramshackle classroom, a guide raised his hand. Looking out the window at yet another dry, dusty day in Antsohihy, he asked: “You have spoken about global warming and changing weather patterns. Do you think that could be why the rains still have not come?”