IVHQ volunteer Forester shares his experience volunteering in Madagascar, complete with tips, inspiration and a wedding proposal….
My fiancé and I were looking for our first adventure together, asking ourselves “what experience do we want to have, and what can we offer?” Both of us being active and open to challenging both our mind and bodies, we chose the most remote place we could find - Madagascar, land of the Lemurs.
“Who goes to Madagascar?”, “Is that a even a country?”, “Oh, like the movie right?”. These were some of the questions we received on a constant basis after our decision to travel there. Going into this adventure without any expectation of how it would turn out allowed for some great surprises. This volunteer opportunity through IVHQ has proven to be one of the most memorable decisions that we have made in our lives for it deeply changed us.
Here are the things you will need to be successful as a volunteer in Madagascar: Patience, a love for the outdoors, being comfortable working with people from all over the world, and an open-mind.
Patience is a thing foreigners will need to either have or quickly gain, as you’ll often hear the locals say, “mora mora” - what’s the rush? Everything here takes time to happen properly. The travel there alone takes patience (it took us five days from Texas, USA!) to get to the camp that’s located on one of the northern-most islands of Nosy Komba, our second home.
I grew up in the woodsy south of the United States, and with my fiancé enjoying the same luxuries of nature, we were so stoked we found such an interesting forest program in Madagascar working with lemurs and exotic reptiles, come on, how does it get better than that?! Our expectations were vastly surpassed as the lemurs soon stole our hearts. We would start our work with the lemurs in the lower elevations of the island, then with the lemurs at the higher elevations soon after. Both treks maintained the same goal, to record all behavioral patterns for both the lemur group and its dynamics and each individual lemur. We were pinpointing preferences in foods and other environmental factors. The individual studies were more detailed and allowed us to specifically identify each lemur and name them. The research being done was on the Black Lemur (Eulemur macaco), an endangered species. Our efforts, over time, will allow for better knowledge of the types of plants, trees, and environmental factors they prefer, as well as how they behave individually, as a group, in different seasons, and around people. With this information we will be able to approach the government with evidence that makes reserves and land protection more possible. Other wildlife included chameleons, snakes, birds, and amphibians, all of which we studied for purpose of identification and population numbers.
The hikes on the island are strenuous and demanding both mentally and physically, and the heat and sweat didn’t help either. Nothing in Madagascar can harm you, and the animals are so docile and friendly. This was great news as our accommodations were very nice open air, doorless huts, with no way of stopping geckos and other animals from coming in and greeting you. I found this a fantastic experience living this close to nature, trying exotic fruits, and seeing amazing wildlife of which a majority can only be found in Madagascar.
Our interaction with the locals was a daily delight. The island of Nosy Komba has the nicest, happiest people I have never had the pleasure of being around. They are incredibly hospitable and accommodating, whether it be going out of their way to help you figure out the land, helping you carry heavy loads, or arranging a taxi boat. They often will invite you into their homes for a meal, or will teach you Malagasy in exchange for stories or English lessons. On camp we had local staff helping with meals and general upkeep of the facilities. Our fellow volunteers were a joy to be around. Reaching numbers as high as 45 on camp at one point, you quickly are exposed to many perspectives and world views. My fiancé and I were there for three months and developed friendships that will last a lifetime. Being as the camp is very open and there are six people to a hut you become acquainted and attached to others surprisingly quick. The social life of the camp had a strong pulse that made life there both interesting and enjoyable. We would have an end of the week themed party every Friday. Whether the theme be pirates, formal, cross-dress, or ‘pub-quiz’ it was always a blast and they hold so many good memories.
Being open-minded will allow for great leaps in learning and understanding of how you can help the locals as a volunteer. Being open to how the locals live reveals that they are happy and all their needs are fulfilled in many ways. How can we share with them? By being you, showing them who you are and teaching them how you live objectively. The locals lose their minds when we try to speak Malagasy and show us respect while they are just as excited and curious about our countries, languages, and customs. They are eager for knowledge, especially pertaining to English. As volunteers we must be open to their customs as well, as mentioned above with patience.
As for the wildlife, further information on a species is always welcomed and our efforts to help the endangered populations of the country through local presentations in the villages and physical data does help. You quickly learn that luxury is subjective and that phones, wifi and electricity are not the important things in life but rather experiences, relationships, and helping people and wildlife are. Madagascar does not hold back on memories either - we jumped in the ocean and swam with whale sharks (the largest fish in the world), snorkeled with massive sea turtles, found a rare chameleon the size of your fingernail (Brookesia Minima), and saw the truly mystical sacred tree of the Malagasy while the natives sang and danced for us. “Come expecting to fall in love and wanting to stay longer,” as my fiancé would say to future volunteers. It was here that I also proposed to this woman on a black sand beach of Nosy Komba at sunset with the company of dear friends. Be open to experiencing opportunities and to have some of the best experiences of your life.
With patience, love and respect for the outdoors, being comfortable getting to know both locals and other volunteers, and being open minded you’ll do fine as a volunteer in Madagascar. Madagascar is a place that changed me for the rest of my life, and hopefully along the way I changed someone else’s in what little ways I could.
_ Forester’s Top Madagascar Tip : Various things you need in terms of physical items are a mosquito net, a book or two, playing cards, snorkel for the reef right off camp, hiking shoes for the forest and teaching programs because the trails are tough, a good day-pack to carry journals and wildlife data, and personally I would bring binoculars to be able to get up close and personal with the colorful birds sailing above the jungle, or for spotting whales, sea turtles, and dolphins swimming in the waters off our camp. The Marine programs require a bit more equipment you need to bring involving dive gear, and teachers are recommended to bring colored pencils, pens, coloring books, or anything that would be fun or useful in a teaching setting as it is hard to find supplies on the island without ordering it in. Experience, love, and make a mark in whatever way you can wherever you go. _