Madagascar Memories Series: Finding Home

It’s impossible to visit Nosy Komba and not fall in love with the life and the people there. This time of great change and uncertainty in the world has me thinking about “home” and what that word means to me. It has me thinking about people, humanity and connection. 

This is a glimpse into the world of the past, in my memories of Madagascar before the pandemic. But it’s not just about the past. It’s also about hope and optimism for the future. As much as the world changes around us, some things are forever constant: the feelings of closeness and community that come from connecting with other human beings – that remains unchanged and priceless. Even in the age of COVID. Maybe especially so.

I want to share with you a diary entry I wrote in February 2018, which for me truly encompasses these sentiments.

Friday 2nd February 2018; afternoon at MRCI Camp

What I’ll remember from this week is the food. Today at lunch, I watched as the local staff huddled around giant bowls of rice, beans and vegetables on the floor – right next to an empty table surrounded by stools. They crouched in that familiar deep squat, each with their own spoon, no plates, digging into the huge bowls at the center of the huddle.

“Rojo,” I said smiling, “No table?”

He smiled back at me and shook his head. “This is the traditional Malagasy way. Join us!” he beamed. “It’s also traditional that when someone invites you, you must join, so you must join us!”

“Well ok then. Let me grab a spoon.” I dug around in the kitchen for one, Tsitsy (No) spoons, Rojo! Only a fork.”

I walked toward the group, fork in hand. But the ladies, laughing, confiscated the fork as I passed and handed me a freshly washed spoon from the sink. I crouched down next to Bobby, our Forest Program Officer and Rojo our Community Coordinator. I dug in, mixing beans, rice and veggies all in one big bite. It tasted good, all mixed together this way. I made a mental note to remember the combination. They all seemed entertained by my presence there; especially the builders, who are not used to interacting much with “vazahas” (white foreigners). They are on camp for the next few weeks making repairs and building a new hut for Gariste, our grounds keeper.

“Tsara be!” (Very good), I said, “Misoatra besika!” (Thank you very much), as I rose again to head back down the stairs. They laughed and bid me farewell.

Friday 2nd February 2018; evening at MRCI Camp

Tonight, camp is quiet. The serene ocean waves leave a muted, gentle sound in their wake as the water laps up onto shore. A slow, steady breeze rustles through the trees and the river on the property’s southwestern perimeter flows calmly down to the sea. I hear the usual buzz of frogs and crickets, the sounds of a peaceful night. Quiet does have a soundtrack. The neighbors too are quiet though occasionally I hear the distant thrumming of music. Tonight, every volunteer and almost every staff member went into the neighboring village of Ampang for dinner and drinks.

Mama found me basking in the silence of main house, book in hand. I lay on my back, propped up not quite under the mosquito net staring out at the view of the sea and Lokobe National Forest stretched out in front of me. Waking to this view at my feet every morning is a true wonder, a gift. A reminder to start each day with gratitude. I lounged, half reading and half staring blankly out over the ocean. Mama came and sat across from me on an empty twin-bed frame I use as a storage shelf. Zakia is her name, but no one calls her that.

“Just you, dinner?” she said.

“Yes, anaro mandeha Ampang! Everyone went to Ampang! It’s just me, Mama.”

I’m in the habit of translating everything I say; I think I do it to reassure myself of what I’m saying. My vocabulary in Malagasy is not much past toddlerhood. Truth be told, I’m not certain I even used the words correctly there. “Mandeha” means “to go” or “am going”, first person. For example, “Zao mandeha Ampang,” means “I am going to Ampang.”  But I don’t know if it changes when describing where others are going. None the less, Mama just smiled at me and nodded. She doesn’t usually correct me, but one of our forest guides, Menjah does. Unapologetically. I always appreciate that about him.

“Mazava,” (I understand). She smiled broadly at the prospect of less mouths to feed.

“Barbecue chicken, salalde tomate (tomato salad) and pom frites (French fries). No rice!” she continued, putting real emphasis on that last part.

I smiled back at her, “Misoatra besika (thank you very much), Mama! It sounds delicious.”

It took me a while to understand the mix of Malagasy, French and English usually spoken on camp. I learned “briquet,” the French word for lighter thinking it was Malagasy. Months passed before I finally realized it was French. I’m still unsure of the Malagasy word.

Together we stood from our perch on the bed frame and walked to the edge of the wooden deck staring out over the water. “Tortue” she said, motioning over to where a turtle was surfacing. Recognizing the French word, I turned to her,

“Mama, karakory atoaw mivolana, ‘turtle,’ in Malagas?” (How do you say ‘turtle’ in Malagasy?)

“Not tortue,” she replied, “sokatra.”

“Sokatra,” I repeated, watching yet another one surface in the waves.

“Sakafo (food), not six,” she said, “six is too…” She motioned to the sky.

“Too bright?” I said, “Too early?”

“Yes. Six-thirty, it’s ready.”

“Sounds good. Misoatra (thank you), Mama.”

With that, she disappeared through the curtains into main house leaving me alone on the deck.

The view from main house at Madagascar Research and Conservation Institute. In the distance is the larger island of Nosy Be, to the right is Lokobe National Park.

Just as the sun set, I found my way back up to the kitchen. The chicken was juicy, tender and smoky. Perfect. I dug in ravenously, suddenly realizing my hunger. Mama shook her head looking at the chicken on my plate and pointed to the meat on her plate,

“Zebu,” (beef) she said.

“Oh… Do you want some chicken?” I said, sliding my plate toward her, offering up the chicken thigh there. She shook her head more vigorously and pushed the plate back toward me as the grounds keeper, Gariste joined us at the table.

He laughed, “She doesn’t like chicken,” he clarified. “I don’t know why.”

“Ah, ok. Well, it’s so good Mama!”

She laughed, “Thank you.”

I don’t understand how someone who doesn’t eat chicken could cook it so incredibly well. 

They say the sense of smell is the strongest sense tied to memory. There must be some truth in that. With the scent of smoked meat filling the air, Madagascar disappeared around me. I was back at home in Van Zandt county in my uncle’s backyard watching smoke rise off the grill and listening to someone strum a guitar. In the next blink of an eye, I’m at ‘the farm’ on the other side of Canton. An old chimney upcycled into a giant slow smoker stands at the center of happenings on the farm. You could feed a small army if you were to fill the thing to capacity. On cold days, family and friends huddle around a bonfire, our plates collapsing under the weight of all the food. This is what I remember most of the farm:  the smoker, bonfires, food and family. That and sliding along frozen dirt roads on an old piece of carpet chained to a truck. (But that’s a story for a different day).

The barrel grill in the kitchen at Madagascar Research and Conservation Institute. You don’t need a fancy grill for some amazing barbecue chicken!

All these memories flood back in a millisecond and I smile as I snap back to the present where I’m staring into a big metal barrel that serves as a barbecue grill. I listen to the laughter and chatter in Malagasy around me. As different as life is here, it awakens the same emotions, pulls at the same social fabric as home. It feels familiar. That is true everywhere I’ve been on this little blue ball. Happiness, contentment, sadness, loss and loneliness, joy and exhilaration all taste the same here as back at home. I feel peace wash over me and take in another big breath of barbecue as it sizzles on the grill. I am so very close to home no matter the thousands of miles. Home, it turns out, is the people you love. It’s a memory, triggered. It’s a feeling more than a place and it’s everywhere and nowhere all at once.

Submitted by Emily Whitton, former MRCI Director of Operations

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