A DukeEngage adventure in Madagascar

As French lessons go, living in the highlands of northeastern Madagascar can be pretty rough. But as a  lesson on the human side of environmental conservation, working in one of the world's five poorest countries is as good as it gets.

"When you go into a village that has never seen white people before, they all yell 'vezaha' which means foreigner," said Cameron Tripp, T ’15, an evolutionary anthropology major with a French minor who spent the summer on a DukeEngage project near Andapa, Madagascar. "The Malagasy are really happy and very welcoming. They try to speak French when they can and if they don't know any they'll find someone who can and try to help you."

Tripp knows this because he went door to door in the rural rice-farming area north of the city to take a census of adults, children, chickens, and other livestock surrounding a private nature reserve. When he wasn't an enumerator, he did GPS mapping on the private reserve, logging sightings of the few wild lemurs it harbors and noting the size and location of their preferred food sources.

His partner and housemate for the summer was junior Sophia Staal, T ’15, a public policy major and French minor, who is now arguably the world's authority on dried and "fresh" fish being sold in the markets of Andapa.

"I was supposed to be running a freshwater fish farm raising endemic Malagasy fish," says Staal, who is a member of Duke's rowing team. "But most of my time was spent conducting market research in local fish markets, assessing what species are for sale. Hopefully, this data will help us develop a business model that other communities can use to start their own fish farms."

The juniors landed in Andapa after proposing independent projects to DukeEngage. Both had developed the idea of working in Madagascar, where French is the official holdover language from the colonial period, living alongside the island's unique and polysyllabic Malagasy, who have Indonesian roots.  DukeEngage steered them to Duke Lemur Center conservation coordinator Charlie Welch, who founded the SAVA Conservation project in and around Andapa two years ago and was ready for some student help.

SAVA Conservation's director, Erik Patel, set them up with a house in town and a pair of $800 mountain bikes for getting around on the area’s pocked and crowded dirt roads. Cameron turned left after forty-five minutes to reach the reserve, and Sophia continued another fifteen minutes uphill to reach the fish pond.

Back in town, they lived together on the first floor of a relatively nice house in town, next door to a raucous nightclub and below what sounded like at least fifteen people wearing heavy boots.  Tripp brought a special power adaptor to protect their computers and the Internet was good enough for small, plain text emails, but not much else.

They also got some memorable sidetrips into the Marojejy National Park and the nearby Anjanharibe-Sud Reserve, southwest of Andapa, with Patel, who is a world-famous lemur researcher. At Anjanharibe they saw and heard the Indri, the largest -- and possibly loudest -- of the lemurs. Tripp learned how to do a passable impersonation of their odd, rising hoot. Uncertain at first about even eating a commercial banana in Madagascar, he also became a connoisseur of a variety of wild fruits found growing throughout the wild areas.

By the end of the term, they were craving the relative civilization of Sambava on the Indian Ocean coast. It would be two hours away by private car, but takes a whole day in an overstuffed minivan with a pile of goods on the roof known locally as the Taxi brousse, or bush taxi. They tried that just once. And, at one point near the end of the summer, they even threatened to ride their bikes down the narrow, winding highway to the coast, a death-defying act their adult supervisors wisely vetoed.

Back on campus this fall with a huge wifi signal everywhere, Sophia said she misses the street dogs, chickens, and cows that are everywhere underfoot in Andapa.

"I didn't expect that people would be so welcoming and open and friendly to us," she says. "Doing development or community service, people can be sort of resentful or bitter, but the Malagasy, in general, were super-friendly and eager to work with us." --Karl Leif Bates