One Year in Madagascar

In a few days I’ll be back in Heathrow after an unforgettable year in Madagascar. It’s hard to describe any time in this beautiful country without employing a few clichés. The people continue to amaze me with their resilience, ever-present smiles and welcoming friendliness. Sure, as a vazaha you attract more than a few curious stares, and “Bonjour vazaha!” can sometimes be annoying, but as soon as you return a greeting in Malagasy their faces light up. The scenery here also continues to impress me, varying so massively between low littoral forest to sudden mountain ranges, lush green rice paddies to the scorched desert of the south, and of course the other-worldly spiny forest.

Photo of the Spiny Forest

The work of Azafady has been a source of pride for me the past year. Despite being only a small charity facing a funding crisis, it continues to punch above it’s weight. We’re carrying out projects to improve education in a dozen villages, to conserve critically endangered forest species, to provide sustainable livelihoods for hundreds of people and to build sanitation infrastructure that will benefit a town of 63,000 people. All that and more, plus projects still in the planning and funding stages which will do even more for the people and environment of Anosy.

Photo of the Azafady UK crew, June 2014

It’s been a real pleasure to be involved in some of these projects over the last year as Coordinator of the Pioneer programme. My role is mostly based in the field, leading the international volunteers who come from 2-10 weeks, each contributing vital funds to Azafady and labour to it’s projects. I’ve worked with 49 lovely volunteers, from Germany, Portugal, America, Norway, Australia, South-Sudan, Argentina, Canada, Ireland, The Netherlands, Sweden and of course the UK. We’ve shared in-jokes, the odd splash of rum, great days out, rainy days stuck in tents, hundreds of card games, excellent bush parties, and lots of rice and beans.

Photo of a bush party

The work we’ve done has been pretty awesome too. In my time here the Pioneers and I have worked on benches (mine are the ones with the odd extra nail…); made over a hundred flat-pack latrine kits; studied geckos, lemurs and rare trees; repaired 3 wooden primary schools; taught English; searched for herpetofauna (a task at which I am singularly useless!); helped to host World Environment Day In Sainte Luce; repaired a tree nursery; and built one-and-a-half concrete schools. I find it very difficult to choose my favourite groups, schemes or even moments from this year, but I can say for certain that my favourite project was the CEG build in Soanierana.

Photo of a sack race during World Environment Day

I got in a little bit of travelling too. First to Lavanono, deep in the South of Madagascar, taking in the spiny forest and arid desert scrub before spending a few brilliant days drunk on a beach (thanks for that one Nick, Lomba, Rachel and Dino). Later on the RN7, through beautiful burnt-orange towns and winding valleys to the wonders of Andringitra and Ranomafana (Emily, I’ll never forget you falling over that parked pousse-pousse).

Photo of a scenic village near Ambalavao

The wildlife has also been a highlight for me. While I haven’t seen enough (could I ever?) I have seen about a dozen beautiful lemur species, lots of frogs, a karma of chameleons, some fantastic geckos, snakes (and even been bitten by one…), spiders and other beasts. I’d thoroughly recommend Azafady’s Conservation Programme as I’ve had some brilliant days there chasing lemurs and studying herps. Also Ranomafana National Park of course – lemurs in abundance.

Picture of a lizard

So then, a huge thank-you to everyone who has helped to make this year so special for me. Thank-you for all the fantastic memories, for your great company, and thanks to everyone back home for putting up with my constant barrage of do-gooder prattle (though it probably won’t stop here).

What’s next? Back to the UK for a bit of a rest I think. To Madagascar and Azafady: not goodbye, but rather indraindraiky koa

Soanierana finished

Back in January, we broke ground on the most exciting project of my year with Azafady in Madagascar: Soanierana CEG. A two-room brick and concrete school building, it would add capacity to an overcrowded middle school attended by around 560 students. With just 4 classrooms available before we started, most students were receiving just half a day’s schooling, far from enough in the crucial years leading up to high school and the Baccalaureate exam. It was an extremely important project for Azafady as our first in that community, for the children and their education, and for me personally, as I saw it from start to finish.

In total construction took around 5 months. Doesn’t sound particularly quick? Azafady’s approach isn’t about speed. We don’t use power tools or vast teams of construction professionals from out of town. Instead we have a small core team of highly-trained veterans, international volunteers from our Pioneer and short-term schemes, and labourers from nearby villages, who learn valuable construction skills whilst earning a wage1. The local community was involved with the project every step of the way, initially inviting us to build the school, providing some of the materials for the build, and attending the opening ceremony when all was finished. Nor do we neglect any aspect – in addition to the building, we built a new latrine block, a rainwater harvesting system for hand-washing, and fully kitted out both classrooms with desks, benches and blackboards.

A time-lapse video showing the construction of the school, using photos taken from a fixed point plus a little magic from Conor Friel.

Postcard for volunteersOn July 22nd, I attended the inauguration ceremony along with other representatives from Azafady, visiting dignitaries, teachers and pupils. We officially handed over the keys to the school, toured the classrooms and facilities, and had a great ceremony to mark the occasion. It was a very proud day for me, not only as it marked the completion of my favourite project here, but also as I was representing the fantastic international Pioneer volunteers who helped to build the school. Well done everyone!

Here are just a few photos from the finished school:

  1. We also run several projects at once, so sometimes our core team or volunteers were elsewhere