A year in the life of a World Responsible Tourism Award Winner

Abi Blandon, Honko’s Social Media Coordinator, looks back at the year where Honko was the “Best for Wildlife Conservation”

As I travelled down to London to attend the World Responsible Tourism Awards last November, I had no idea that the coming year would be a historic year for Honko, Madagascar and mangrove conservation. Honko had been short listed as a finalist for the Best for Wildlife Conservation category of the World Responsible Tourism Awards, and I was attending as their Social Media Coordinator. Getting short listed and invited to the ceremony was in itself a massive deal for a small NGO like Honko. To have our name associated with a global award was going be a big boost for our projects. I was ready for an exciting day full of networking and telling people all about Honko. To be honest, the possibility of winning the Award was not at the top of my mind.

The ceremony itself was very inspiring, getting to learn about other organisations that were striving for sustainability and social welfare through tourism made me feel really enthused! But what a shock when Honko’s name was called out as winner of Best for Wildlife Conservation! To be compared to the other brilliant finalists and to be judged as the winner was real proof of how hard everyone at Honko has worked. I was thrilled to be able to pick up the award and a bit humbled to represent all the people and hard work behind Honko’s success.

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After a short (and nerve-wracking!) interview, the rest of the day was spent talking to a lot of different people about Honko’s work – tourism operators in Madagascar, government officials and other sustainable tourism representatives. Returning home from the event, I was buzzing with the conversations I had had with other attendees, and couldn’t wait to tell the team out in Madagascar all about it. Honko was making a mark and people were noticing!

Just two weeks after winning the award, Honko was visited by a government delegation, including the advisor to the First Minister, and was filmed for national TV! The delegation learned in detail about the work of Honko and the VOI (the local natural resource management organisation) and congratulated us on our efforts to protect and restore the mangrove ecosystem in the area.

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Following this, Honko has become more important in the region. In April this year, we were chosen to lead a mangrove reforestation programme, with a planting activity to which the Secretary General, General Director and Regional Director of the Ministry of Fisheries attended. This was a large event involving 2000 community members, private enterprises and many of the NGOs in the region.

We have also started to teach others eco-tourism skills, passing on our knowledge to other projects looking to learn from our success. In July, our eco-guide Sala helped to train locals from villages south of Tulear, as a result of a collaboration between a German NGO GIZ and Honko. The training involved teaching about the ecology of mangrove systems, the important flora and fauna found in the area and guiding techniques.

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And of course, our visitor numbers have increased – we had more than 500 visitors in the last year, which equates to almost 2 people per day. For somewhere as remote as Honko, this is a big boost, with numbers up by 20-30% from the year before. One of our volunteers Amelia worked very hard to contact tour operators in the region, sending information such as tour details and tariffs. This, together with our recognition from the Responsible Tourism Award, gave a big boost to our visitor numbers. We have also had interest from groups such as World Challenge and we welcomed several expedition groups from England and South Africa in July and August. The groups learned about and participated in Honko’s conservation and reforestation programme, as well as our community based projects. This was a great benefit both for the students and for us!

A year on from our World Responsible Tourism win, where do we find ourselves? We have carried on striving to make a difference in remote south-west Madagascar, working within the community to help them manage their mangroves sustainably. But the Award has given us something else, it has given us recognition and status, and for our eco-tourism project, these qualities have been essential. This year has seen Honko grow not only in visitor numbers, but also in reputation and our ability to pass on our knowledge to others. Hopefully we will continue to grow this way in the future! But for now, we are excited to see who we will be passing our Award on to for the next year. Whoever it is, we wish them all of the same successes that we have enjoyed!

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Sous le soleil d’Ambondrolava, par Werner

Salama ! Je suis Werner, un étudiant de pisciculture à l’université de Wageningen, dans les Pays-Bas. Je vais travailler dans le projet pisciculture de l’ONG Honko pour quatre mois, dans le cadre de mes études.

Lorsque je suis arrivé à l’aéroport de Tuléar, le choc culturel était plus grand que ce que j’attendais. Je savais que Madagascar fait partie des pays les plus pauvres, mais si on conduit dans un bidonville, sur un chemin qu’à vrai dire on ne peut pas appeler un chemin, l’image est déplaisante. Cependant, je suis tombé amoureux de Madagascar après quelques jours. Le désordre a sa beauté. Le taxi-brousse est un bon exemple. Le taxi-brousse peut être décrit comme un autobus remplis d’hommes, 34 poules, 21 canards et une chèvre – sans compter le toit. Les speakers pourvoient toute la promenade des rythmes africains et joyeux. Là où je peux faire le tour de mon pays en deux heures avec les transports publics, on doit réserver cette même durée pour un petit voyage avec le taxi-brousse entre deux villages. Naturellement, l’expérience est plus captivante et aventureuse. On ne peut pas prédire ce qui va se passer.

Pendant mon travail, je collabore souvent avec la population locale et particulièrement avec les propriétaires des étangs. Ce qu’est surtout surprenant durant le travail à Ambrondonlava, est l’engagement et l’intérêt des habitants. En cinq minutes, l’étang sur lequel nous travaillons est encerclé par la moitié du village. Même les plus petits aident avec plaisir pour attraper et mesurer des poissons. De cette manière, on connait rapidement beaucoup des habitants. Après le suivi, il y est temps de discuter en mangeant de délicieuses kapiki (le casse-croute local, des cacahuètes grillées) et quelques-uns des poissons mesurés sont frit. Sans un interprète, la communication est dure, mais si on sait quelques mots en malgache, surtout les enfants sont impressionnés.

La phase de planification est presque achevée, après quoi la construction des nouveaux bassins peut commencer. Je ne peux pas attendre !

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Toward the end of a journey in Honko, by Nga

Summer has knocked our door in this small village of Ambondrolava for a few weeks. Day after day, I can feel the weather gets warmer and warmer. On the one hand, I feel lucky that I won’t have to endure the Malagasy summer (which can reach 40 degrees Celsius at some point, as far as I heard), since I will leave Honko in a few days. On the other hand, the strange and unnameable feeling I always have when I am about to leave a beloved place starts growing stronger, and obviously refuse to be vanish even when I try to remove it with the tempting idea of getting back to Germany, sleeping in my own room and not feeling dusty after a whole day outdoors.

Madagascar in general and Honko in particular have taught and made me realize a lot more things than I thought they would. Prior to my arrival, I signed up to participate in two main projects: mangrove monitoring and an independent research about the VOI Mamelo Honko – the local association regulating the use and conservation of the mangrove complex. The former is purely natural science, where I need to go into the forest and collect data of forest structure, organic materials and abiotic factors. As I had never had a real fieldwork experience before, I thought it would be interesting to try. Later, it turned out, that the project was not that fun, at least to me. Walking to the mangrove took quite a while, and that the sandy soil seemed to sink after each of my step made it even harder than usual. The waterproof shoes felt very uncomfortable, and kept scratching my feet until they bled. Walking in the mangrove was even more challenging, as it was muddy and full of mosquitoes. The combination of mud, mosquitoes and bug bed attacks made me feel constantly itchy, and left a lot of marks on my legs, which until now haven’t disappeared. Marion and Gonzalo, the other volunteers, had the same problems, but unlike me, their bite marks just disappeared after a much shorter time. I decided to give up after monitoring 6 out of 101 plots, being fully convinced that I was not born for working with nature.

No longer getting involved with the mangrove monitoring project, I devote most of my time to the research about the VOI Mamelo Honko. After reading quite a lot of papers in Honko on similar topics and discussing with some key members of the VOI, I prepared a list of questions to ask the locals surrounding the mangrove complex, in order to know more about their viewpoints of this local association. My initial plan was to interview 20 people in Ambotsibotsike and Belalanda, two out of five villages that are members of the VOI. I thought that their lives were pretty much similar to what I saw in Ambondrolava, where Honko is located, and therefore they would give similar information. However, their answers to my questions were completely diverse, which was not what I expected. Some do depend on the mangrove forest but in various ways, such as fishing in the mangrove channel, cutting mangrove to build huts and selling them in the city, or cutting reeds. Others have nothing to do in the mangrove, or go there only once per year to find woods to renovate their own huts. Getting to know locals from villages other than Ambondrolava is really an eye-opening experience. Their villages are next to each other but they have totally different lifestyles. Being more curious, I decided to interview 30 more people in the remaining three villages (Ambondrolava, Tanambao and Belitsake). And since Ainhoa (the manager) wanted to get more information about the two villages bordering the VOI’s supervision area, my number of interviewees increased once more by 15. In the end, I interviewed 65 locals, talked to the chiefs of each village, and also had multiple discussions with key members of the VOI.

The whole interview experience is really amazing in many aspects. For starters, I learn to recognize people by their faces and their names. To me, they are no longer “some locals”, “the guardian”, or “the guy who wears that shirt”, but Dolly, Richard, Manala, Dina, Fetina, Tranombiby and so many more. Part of their lives and personalities were revealed after almost 30-45 minutes of talking, which never failed to interest me. I saw their husbands, wives, children, mothers, and fathers. Some of them are married, while others are single or divorced. Some are sick and others are healthy. Some have just moved in and others have been there forever. I hardly ever notice such things before, for I live in a big city where people don’t talk to random strangers, and someone who lives further than 100 meters from my house is no longer considered my neighbor. The more people I talked to, the more I realized how complex it is to work with the community. I used to work for a few years in a governmental agency, and during that time I was always frustrated with waiting for mountains of procedures to be completed before seeing any result. I thought things would be much simpler from a bottom-up approach, because I can work directly with the beneficiaries, and understand their problems better. However, the experience in Honko is far from what I imagined. Yes, it is true that I now can see the problems clearly; however, the struggle to find a satisfactory solution for everyone is not less extreme. Also, we lack finance and authority to implement ideas, which was something I never had experience with in my previous job with the government. Finally, political issues still exist, which was truly surprising.

The time in Honko is a stepping-stone both in my personal life and professional pathway. I have met amazing people from all over the world, fulfilled some and disposed of other stereotypes about Asians. Seriously I didn’t think that there were so many myths about us Asians, haha. I wish I could do a bit better, so that I can be seen as an individual, not as a Vietnamese, or a Chinese (as all Malagasy think when they saw me), or an Asian (as all Westerners think). I have felt more and more confident about my choice of career pathway. Leaving Honko and this very unique African country means leaving behind part of my heart, which I have no regret, because at the same time, I surely will carry with me plenty of beautiful memories.

Ambondrolava, 11.10.2016

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Sick and happy, by Marion Atkinson

I had only a month to prepare for my trip to Honko; not a whole lot of time to make all the necessary arrangements. Shortly after I booked everything (flights, overnight stays –two!- for long layovers, confirming my stay), I got sick and discovered that I contracted Lyme disease. I needed to take a course of antibiotics lasting until two days before departure. My doctor asked, “Do you really want to go to Madagascar?” implying that it’s a bad idea. I was worried, but not willing to be deterred. Canceling everything was hardly an option, especially since I got funding for travel expenses and didn’t know if I’d have an opportunity like this again.

I had very little idea what to expect at Honko. I have type 1 diabetes and had to bring enough supplies (insulin, blood sugar test strips, needles, etc.) to last my entire stay. Getting that stuff is never easy in less developed countries. Before I left, my boyfriend asked if they have a fridge to store my extra insulin. I considered emailing to ask, but decided not to bother, thinking, “They have a cook-they must have a fridge!” Upon arrival I was surprised to find that there is no running water, only limited electricity from one solar panel, and definitely no refrigerator. It turned out to be no problem: Ainhoa the manager had a friend in Tulear store it for me.

Those antibiotics served me well with the Lyme, but have been a curse in another way. Having basically no gut bacteria and going to a country where most people get sick here and there anyway has not been great. At least that is my theory for why, every week, like clockwork, I’ve gotten sick. Mostly diarrhea, sometimes vomiting, and once: both (a real treat). On a weekend trip to Isalo national park, it struck just as we were about to begin a two day trekking and camping excursion. My fellow volunteers kindly asked bus-fulls of tourists if they had anti-diarrhea pills. (With success! Thanks guys! And it was an awesome trip.)

Meanwhile, I’ve had the strangest experience with my diabetes while here. Right from the start, the amount of insulin I need has dropped drastically. In the first few days, I kept getting unexplainable low blood sugars. I adjusted the doses lower and lower. At this point I take almost half of what I used to take back home, which is great. I actually expected to have to take more insulin, because back home I ate mostly low carb and here the diet is mostly carbs- rice, beans, pasta, potatoes.

I don’t know what the reason is, though I’ve had several thoughts: something about being in the southern hemisphere (earth’s magnetism?), my pancreas is starting to make insulin again and soon I will be cured (hooray!), the malaria pills I’m taking… But, I have no idea. I am curious to see what happens when I return home.

Despite all of my health ups and downs and weirdness, I’m so glad to have had this experience. At some point, I realized that I am happier here than I’ve been in awhile.  Being out in nature most of the time, going to bed and waking up more or less with the sun, and not having constant access to the internet have been just what I needed; a welcome break from my normal life. I enjoy mangrove monitoring with Gonzalo and Kivo (the Honko dog), seeing all of our animal friends (Pepe the albino frog who lives in our shower room, for example), interacting with the local people, and pillow talk with the other volunteers, to name a few. It has also been quite the adventure! I could have written about the time it took 8 hours to travel 200 km in a taxi-brousse (a sort of bus the locals use) made for 15 people but crammed with 25 with the “gas tank” between my legs, or the time I got into the canal while mapping only to discover the mud was waist-deep.

Many thanks to the other volunteers and staff! You have made it a temporary home away from home, and we all know how easy it is to get homesick when you are actually sick. I’ll miss Honko!

 

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A short cut to the mangrove, by Gonzalo

Hello Honko followers. Probably you are wondering, how the working-life at honko is. As you probably know by now, each volunteer has a specific task or project which he/she develops during the entire term of their Honko life. So let me tell you what I have been working on, but first think on the title of this blog. Did you get it? No?  Well, what do you need to know to create a short cut in a place that you are not familiar with? A MAP!!  

In the last couple of weeks I have been walking around the Mangrove forest with only two important items, a GPS and water-bottle. Along with Marion (an amazing volunteer), we have been walking through reeds, clouds of mosquitos, rivers, dunes and the mangrove forest, in order to improve the accuracy of the current map at honko, and also to upgrade the actual land use coverage around us.

This has been an amazing task so far. Why? Well have you ever pictured yourself as an explorer in the wild? In my case that was always my dream when I was a kid. Well now I truly feel like an adventurer, especially when I am walking through areas where at first it seems that nobody had crossed in the last few weeks. The other nicest part about mapping is having the chance of normally being in the right place to see exotic Madagascar birds. Last week for instance we spotted a Madagascar Kingfisher. Unfortunately I cannot share those pics with you, as all of them have been recorded only by my eyes.  Anyways, what I can share with you are all the short cuts that I mentally created to get to my favourite parts of the forest. So if it ever happens that you are nearby Honko in the next two months, then I will be happy to show you them.

Additionally to this I am working on the mangrove-forest assessment and monitoring, but this should be told as a new post. By the way I attached a pic of a few points that I took on one part of the river during this week. Hope you like it.

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Madagascar: a trip of travelling back in time, by Nga

It has been a month since I started working as a volunteer in Honko, a small NGO located in Ambondrolava village, Southwest Madagascar with the mandate of conserving the mangrove complex in the surrounding area. Before coming here, I did not think much about what would happen. More precisely, I did not have enough time for that. My position in Honko was confirmed at the end of June, and I only had a month to get prepared, including vaccinating, applying for visa, buying a bunch of stuff as suggested in the packing list, completing documents to submit to my scholarship sponsor to receive payment for the flight tickets, and writing a research proposal for the independent project that I will do during the time in Madagascar. Waiting for my flight departure at Frankfurt, I still found it hard to absorb the fact that I would spend the next three months in Madagascar, a country that I know nothing of and haven’t thought about before. I haven’t even watched the cartoon series “Madagascar” yet. I landed at the airport in Tana (the capital) having absolutely nothing in mind and being willing to go with any flow.

My family used to struggle financially when I was a small child. We lived in a tiny one-room apartment of 10 meters square on the fourth floor of an old building in Hanoi. There were always more or less 10 people in our apartment, including my parents, grandparents, aunts and some other relatives who I could not remember. There were only one bathroom and a couple of toilets shared among 15-20 other families in the building. A huge water tank for the whole building was located on the ground floor; every afternoon, we went there, washing our clothes together, catching water in small buckets and taking them back to our apartments for other uses. Lack of water happened on a regular basis. Sometimes I went to my grandparents’ house in the countryside, where conditions were more intense. They used dry toilets far away from the main house. Electricity was limited and usually cut during a certain time, especially in summer. Even if there was electricity in the evening, it was impossible to read since the light was weak. Water was taken from a well, poured into a filter tank and then could be used for cooking. We didn’t filter water if it was for laundry.

Our life is much more comfortable now. We own a private house in Hanoi, with toilet inside, and electricity, running water, as well as Internet are available all the time. Our grandparents also renovated their house in the countryside, making the living conditions closer to what we have in Hanoi. One year ago, I went to Freiburg, a lovely city in Germany to start my master’s program. With such changes, my memories of those harsh situations almost faded away, until I went to Madagascar.

Sitting in the taxi from Toliara airport to Honko, I thought I was traveling back in time. For starters, the taxi itself looked like something taken from a landfill. The road (or something so-called road) was super bumpy and dusty. Being dropped off at Honko entrance, I recognized that this is an extremely arid region, and the soil is all sandy. Lalas, the volunteer coordinator, showed me around. That was how I knew the place had no grid electricity but a solar panel that provided very limited power and only works during daytime, and no running water but a well for washing purposes. The bathroom is located far from the well. In order to take a shower, I have to take water from the well in a bucket and bring it back to the bathroom. I didn’t expect any flushing toilets, therefore I wasn’t surprised when being shown the two dry toilets. However, the distance from the toilet to our volunteer room was painfully far, and with the fear for darkness, I knew from the moment I saw it that there was no way I would use it during the night. And of course there is no Internet.

What drove me the craziest was the custom of taking off shoes whenever entering a Malagasy house. I always wear slippers in my house, partly because I want to keep my feet clean, but more importantly because I easily get a cold when walking barefoot. Sometimes I got severe sickness just after five minutes of walking barefoot at midnight to the toilet. Being sick to me always means taking a lot of antibiotics and having serious headache for at least a week, which is not what I want here. Therefore, during the first week in Honko, I tiptoed as much as possible in the house to avoid touching the cold floor.

The first night in Honko hit me hard. I was the first volunteer to arrive, and as far as I heard, the others wouldn’t come until a few days later. Darkness completely covered the area and there was no human-made noise, which was scary to me. Even though I don’t talk much, I always live in cities, thus I am used to hearing noises, and being aware that there are a lot of people around. Here in Ambondrolava there were none of those things. All the sounds I could hear were from rats, crickets, lizards or other non-human creatures. I wasn’t able to contact my family and friends, because I hadn’t yet bought a sim card. I felt more isolated than ever, even though it wasn’t the first time I lived alone. That night I wasn’t able to sleep at all.

Exactly one month has passed since then. I have gotten used to Honko life (or the life I previously had) gradually, thanks to its lively activities and other amazing volunteers that came later. I am still afraid of the dark, but less than before. I am not (yet) sick. I feel less uncomfortable when being stared at by locals. Speaking no French, I am better and better at sign language to get what I want.

Somehow I have started thinking of Honko, Ambondrolava and Madagascar as my “home”. There are two more months to go, but I already miss this place!

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Connections, by Nikki

When I decided to come to Honko for a grand total of nine months I was worried I wouldn’t find people to connect with, not properly – I knew I’d be working with a small NGO, and that other volunteers would come and go much more quickly than me. I shouldn’t have worried. I’ve been here for eight months now, and the end of my stay is approaching at an accelerating rate. And in my time here I’ve made some of the best connections of my life.

I’ve become friends with people with an incredible diversity of pasts and, I’m sure, equally diverse futures ahead. An ex-gold miner, an ex-lawyer, a documentary producer, herpetologists, anthropologists, student doctors and the manager of a local bar – the place to be in Toliara! And they’ve coalesced in this small patch of Madagascar from all over the world – Alaska, Australia, Cameroon, all over Europe and from every corner of Madagascar, such a diverse country in its own right.

Time shared is often limited – a few weekends, a few months. This often means people are all the more willing to open up and share their stories, their pasts and their dreams for the future. You see a snapshot of them, but like a candid photo of someone caught unawares it can be more real than any staged photo. You take people out of the society they normally function in and the barriers that would normally restrict you from making connections dissolves – without the invisible lines that divide any society such as where you live, your work, your class, gender or race, first language or nationality, you can find connections you’d never find back home. It doesn’t matter whether they are here working at Honko or at one of the other NGOs in the region helping in conservation, education and development, working in Toliara in bars and restaurants or in ‘import-export’ business, or studying at the local university. We are all here looking to connect.

DSC_0408Before I leave I have one more chance to appreciate these connections – to celebrate Madagascar, mangroves, and Honko. International Mangrove Day is a chance for Honko to bring together everyone from the five communities they work with to celebrate. We celebrate mangroves for everything they give us: resources to build homes and feed families; habitats for a remarkable diversity of animals, especially birds and crabs; and protection from the sea. And more abstract values, such as increasing precipitation in an arid region through evapotranspiration, water purification, carbon sequestration and the production of oxygen. Mangroves, like forests everywhere, are also more than a sum of their parts. They represent a future for this community, for their children and their children’s children. And for me, they now represent a place of learning and personal growth, and of bucket-loads of fond memories. Breath-taking sunrises and sunsets, countless rides in taxi-brousses, swimming through the tranquil mangroves, evenings of laughter and card games by candlelight, and dancing hard to Malagasy music.

I have fallen in love with this incredibly diverse country, so rich in nature and cultures and full of kind, generous people. Life may not always be easy here, but the Malagasy share an uncomplicated happiness that is hard to find in the West. If you ever get the chance to visit, I highly recommend it. I will be coming home with a wonderful selection of memories and a profound respect for those that dedicate their time and minds to helping the people of Madagascar, the Malagasy themselves and the vazaha (foreigners).

It may be time for me to leave this country, but I’m not ready to say goodbye. So instead I’ll just say manaraka koa – see you next time, Mada. It’s been great.

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