September 25, 2012

Slipped Through the Cracks [Photos]

An odd assortment of photos that have slipped through the cracks as I bounced around the beautiful island...

Maromandia, November 2011

Tana, December 2011

Maroantsetra, July 2012

May 2012
(Don't panic, it only appears that the plane's 
propellors are oddly melting upward...)

Rantabe, April 2012

Fizono, July 2012

Maroantsetra, August 2012

Fianarantsoa, May 2011

Ranomafana, May 2011
(Don't panic, it only appears we ran this man over...
He is actually under there fixing things)

Antanambao, July 2012

Fizono, July 2012

Morondava, May 2012

Tana, December 2012

Toliara, December 2010

Maromandia, November 2011

September 24, 2012

Mpianatra Mafana Fo - Hot to Learn

       I like to think that I have a healthy skepticism when it comes to the intentions of teenagers, a skepticism born of the fact that I was once one. Sure, they have good hearts and one day they will turn into people I would like to hang out with, but if I remember correctly, teenage years are generally defined by an extreme narrowness of vision and a sense of a self-centric universe. 
But the kids of our recently-concluded environmental course (that of leech infamy) repeatedly defied my expectations. Not only did they sign up, and show up, for forty hours voluntary education, but they did so religiously: two-thirds of our students boasted perfect attendance. They stayed late on Friday nights and often showed up early to our Saturday activities. The course was a five-week marathon: ten 3-hour sessions, a four day field trip, a research project, and a final, full-day commencement ceremony. I am still exhausted, but their primary complaint on that final day was that the course was ending (“what do you mean I have to take my certificate and go home?”). I will remind you: this was their summer vacation. These students are, in short, mafana fo mianatra: hot to learn.
Allow me to toss. My supposedly healthy skepticism. Out the window.

For students that have come up through an education system that works largely against them and suppresses creativity at every turn, they never fail to impress me with their insight and willingness to grasp new, often difficult concepts. The whole point of the course was to teach these kids in a way they have never been taught and show them things that they have never seen. Sometimes this meant starting at a very basic level: rivers run to oceans, the earth circles the sun (a student puts on a headlamp and serves as the sun as our blow-up globe spins around him, seasons a-changing). But you build and build, and by the end they are watching “An Inconvenient Truth” and understanding the seasonal oscillations of carbon in the atmosphere.
It is amazing to see the world through their eyes, to see things that are so familiar to me anew. It is a thousand little revelations: the incomprehensibility of the formation of the earth, the radical meaning of human evolution, the scientific mystique of Madagascar, the incredible diversity of life on earth and the pace of its destruction. We show them photos from space and watch as they wrap their minds around the scale; then photos of their own capital- where few from Maroantsetra have been- and they are shocked to see the pollution, smog, and overcrowding of extreme urban poverty. They see pictures of American farmland and simply cannot believe that it is tany olo araiky fo, the property of a single person. 
It is amazing too, to watch them make connections, to watch them use their minds in pressing, unfamiliar ways. “How long until this plastic folder decomposes?” we ask. One month, one year, three years! are the shouted responses. Everyone looks at the three-yearer like he is insane, until we say: basically never. Then they are thinking, where does all that plastic go? Looking at a photo of the Great Pacific Trash Gyre they suddenly get it. We see them thinking through the math of exploding population growth, counting their five six seven siblings, and recognizing what that could mean for their country. The last day of class we draw a chart of the interconnections between all the environmental issues we discussed and the students researched, and as the lines squiggle back and forth the volume of their participation grows until finally one kid shouts victoriously: TSISY DISO! There is no wrong answer, and he is right, they are all interconnected.
These are teenagers though, not a Hallmark commercial set to “We are the World.” Sometimes, admittedly, discussion devolved into “who makes airplanes?” and “an important issue of globalization is that the electric lights are killing all the bugs...” Um. What. Let’s refocus. When trying to delve into species distinction, asking the question “what is the difference between a cat and a dog?” and receiving the oh-god-please be joking answer of “only one is good for eating!” And finally, watching Wall-E struggle to sort a spork, a student yells: ratsy sotronazy, his spoon sucks! A maybe that is another revelation: a spork is pretty sucky on a planet made unlivable by mankind.
What I want to express about these kids is that I have thrown my skepticism out the window for good reason: they are genuine, they are interested, they care. On the first day of the course, we tried to teach them an exercise known as Props, in which students stand up individually to commend each other, on anything really: a good question, a concept well-explained. We thought, at the conclusion of this class, that Props was an utter failure: received with blank looks and non-participation. But as the course went on, the students warmed to it, thanking a classmate for translating our questionable Gasy, for carrying their bag up a mountain, for a presentation, for bravely picking a leech off their foot. On the last day of class, one of the students rose and said something like this: “We would like to give props to our teachers first, for introducing us to these new ideas. But we would also like to give props to ourselves, all of us students here, because we understand now that we must use this knowledge, that the future iankinatsika, depends on us.”

September 21, 2012

Pause Dinta [Photos]

The group in Anjanaharibe

Getting ready to climb the mountain...

Population Growth Lesson, Andaparaty

Showing off some skills

The "Human Knot" Game

Avoiding Leeches, Anjanaharibe


Transects, Sahavilory

Biodiversity Lesson

Leaving Andaparaty

Inspecting Research

Looking down on Andaparaty from Anjanaharibe

Final Wrap-up

Pause Dinta

Sometimes ideas just snowball. One night you are sitting around and you suddenly say “we should show the Madagascar series to kids here, so they can appreciate what the rest of the world sees about this country” and somehow, three months later, you find yourself deep in the rainforest with thirty Malagasy teenagers, most of whom are disgustedly berating you about leeches. Actually, the course of events that brought us here was less of a snowball and more of an avalanche. First it was the BBC Madagascar series, then Planet Earth; a documentary and discussion course was planned; UNICEF got on board and a budget was allotted; plans correspondingly grew grander. By this time, the avalanche had begun and there was no escaping its momentum. By the beginning of August, we were teaching a thirty-hour course, which included a research project, a mural, and a four-day field trip.
Which is how I found myself at the back of a long, straggly line of Malagasy teens as they climbed the sheer, slippery and generally unforgiving side of a mountain. Kerry (the other half of this avalanche-caught “we”) was leading the more endeavoring end of the line; I, in the rear, was doing my very best to encourage those students who thought, but did not say, that they in no way signed up for this. I could hardly tell them that I did not sign up for it either. Instead I told them that we had bought cookies for those who made it to the top. 

To say that we brought these kids to the countryside would be technically accurate: we organized the paperwork and handled the budget, set the itinerary and created the curriculum, led (or in my case, followed and bribed) the group to its various destinations. But in reality, these kids brought us. Displaying the remarkable level of self-sufficiency which defines Malagasy youth, they planned and purchased all of our supplies, cooked (over open fire) our three meals a day. They woke up each morning at five, were ready to go with surprising punctuality, and, whether it was on foot or by boat, they brought their indefatigable ambiance- which is to say, they danced and sang the hours away. Oh, and when they were not doing all of these things, they were learning.
We traveled by boat and trooped into Sahavilory, a portion of rainforest in the Makira protected area, where they conducted transects and counted species, in an effort to understand both the scope of biodiversity and the difficulty in assessing it. (They, as you likely will be, were shocked to learn that approximately one percent of the world’s biodiversity is found in the combined Makira-Masoala landscape). The next morning class started at seven, with a lesson on population growth and the associated environmental pressures. Noon found us in Andaparaty, a village far upriver and on the rainforest’s edge, where the students fanned out to conduct a community survey and natural resource assessment. No rest for the weary, we then crossed the river and entered into the forest. Which brings me to the leeches.
Despite their remarkable level of maturity and self-sufficiency, these kids of Maroantsetra were efa lasa tsy zanaka ambanivolo, which is to say they were no longer children of the countryside. The mountain, sheer mud and a difficult climb even without bags and full pots of rice, was enough to ask. But when we entered that rainforest in Anjanaharibe and began our activities- hikes, interdependence demonstrations, and presentations on an active carnivore research project- the students encountered a foe simply too horrifying to bear. The leeches. 
I will concede, there were certainly many of them, doing what they do in their unpleasant blood-sucking way. For a short period, the excursion devolved into borderline hysteria (despite Kerry’s best efforts to persuade the kids that “leeches are really just like mosquitoes, except better! because it won’t itch afterwards!”). But in the end, the students’ response exemplifies why I have so much respect for them: hysteria quickly gave way to acceptance of an unpleasant reality, this unpleasant reality gave way to humor, and in no time everything was leeches. Snack was immediately and irrevocably renamed from pause cafe to pause dinta, the leech break. 
Even after our safe return from the land of leeches and endless muddy mountainsides, the dinta refused to die. Environmental problems? A student raises his hand in class and says with the utmost seriousness: “People killing animals. People killing leeches!” One kid asks another to open a window, and the latter responds without skipping a beat: “what and let all the leeches in? You must be crazy.” 

September 10, 2012

Through Another's Eyes [Guest Photos]

Max Friedman's photos of a month in Madagascar:

Market, Antananarivo

Ramikoaka- Net Fishing, Bay of Antongil


Gecko and Shadow

Eyes, Andaparaty

Port, Ambinanitelo

Running with Sharp Objects, Ambodivoangy

Market, Maroantsetra

Fisherman Launching, Bay of Antongil

The Regal Milk Lady, Maroantsetra

Leaf-Tailed Gecko, Nosy Mangabe

Village Life, Ambinanitelo

South of Maroantsetra

Betsa Bar and Cinema, Andaparaty


Market, Maroantsetra

Chameleon Contemplating a Wasp, Ankompy

Fisherman, Bay of Antongil