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.
Before 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.