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!