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.