There is something inescapable about this country and its people, it is not without reason that Madagascar is warmly referred to as “boomerang island” amongst NGO workers in the south. It only takes a few weeks in any part of this country for you to realize that you will stay or find a way to come back. I am one of those returnees who could not stay away for long, every decision I made from my time as an SIT student in Fort Dauphin to my first job after graduation to pursuing a Master’s in Medical Anthropology were all made with the intention of returning to Madagascar. Honko’s affordable volunteer fees and openness to academics of various fields and interests provided me the perfect opportunity to do my dissertation research, and also gave me a good excuse to go back to this place I kept close to my heart.
What struck me the most about Honko was its size- both the amount of staff and the place itself- which allowed for the staff and volunteers to get to know each other well and for volunteers to make a direct impact on the organization. I was initially interested in Honko’s relationship with the community as a conservation organization and had intended to observe this relationship through their nutrition program. Instead I found myself going into the communities and speaking directly with the women about the previous nutrition program, and whether there was a need and interest in having another. I could not imagine my luck at having the chance to do exactly what I was trained to do as an anthropologist
– work directly with and for the people – and that the NGO trusted me to do this work and to gather information that they would then use to design their program. Experiences like these make Honko the rare and special space that it is.
The women that I interviewed were open and kind, but were wary of researchers coming in and gathering information that did not seem relevant to their lives and that they would often never hear about again. The photos that I took of the women I made sure to give back, and with Honko organized a day where the women could come and try different dishes with the Moringa leaf that we were promoting in our nutrition initiative. Even with these gestures I could still feel the weariness and suspicion of the women. This made me question both the practices of volunteers before me and this pervading belief- or rather lack of awareness- that we tend to have as volunteers of the benefits of our work that are clear to us but may not be as clear to the participants, and of the fact that these benefits may not be enough compensation for the time taken and information gathered. I implore future volunteers at Honko to think about this before they go into the communities and to find ways to compensate your participants – not monetarily as that can get tricky – either with food or whatever else they may need.
My work with the women from Ambondrolava, Belalanda, and Ambotsibotsike culminated in a day we christened Moringa Cuisine day. As I mentioned earlier it was a day in which the women came to Honko to see why I had asked the questions about their use of Moringa and desire to learn more about the plant. I found through my interviews that the women knew about the plant and its health benefits but were unsure as to how to cook it and include it in their meals. Moringa Cuisine Day gave them the opportunity to see how the leaves could be incorporated into their meals and the different ways to use and prepare them. From Moringa salsa to rice and Moringa stew the women and their children had a chance to taste Moringa in a little bit of everything. Being a part of this event showed me how NGOs can impact communities without imposition – the women had asked about and showed interest in the plant, its benefits, and ways to cook it and we were able to provide a space in which that was made possible.
Overall I had a really wonderful time with Honko. It was only for a month – which was just barely enough to complete a solid project, I recommend two months to really dig your heels in and to see the impact – but in that span of time I fell completely in love with the organization and people it attracts. The experience I gained here was invaluable, and has influenced my view of NGOs and the ways in which they function within their local communities. I hope to have another opportunity (… excuse) to come back to boomerang island and further continue working with communities either in nutrition or to simply ensure that their voices are heard and included in these spaces.