AiE in Madagascar III: Road to Ranomafana

See previous post 1 and post 2 in this series, or related posts to this month-long trip here and here.

The drive to Ranomafana is about 12 hours. After experiencing the Tana roads, I thought maybe it was close via bad roads, but it’s really 12 hours in a 4WD at relatively high speed but through winding roads. For 12 hours, I was tossed side to side, tires screeching on the road.

I was very passive in this adventure, which is ironic when I think that this project arose because the TMSE PTA asked me to offer an anthropology course several years ago when my kids were in 3rd grade. I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t have the time to take on any more service, but I wanted to do it because I wanted to be able to share what I do with my kids and help their school. I remember discussing it with DoVeanna Fulton, then chair of Gender and Race Studies, whose son had been a classmate of my kids. She said, ‘if you wait till you have more time, will your kids still want you to do it and will there still be an opportunity?’ Thank you, DoVeanna.

So, Duke Beasley and I collaborated on the course that first time, and it went well that first time. But only my sons Lux and Jagger took it. The next year, Bailey wanted to take it, so Duke and I offered it again. Still, I was never going to do it again, but it was popular and I’d got a curriculum developed that I could hand off to students to teach, so I kept it going. Later, I recognized an opportunity to turn it into a service learning course when I saw an application to develop a community service course. At the time, I had another course in mind and didn’t realize I was already doing one. Then later, Jason DeCaro came across a Wenner-Gren Foundation grant call because he was flying to New York and would be meeting with president Leslie Aiello. So I threw together a proposal, got feedback from her, tweaked the proposal, and got funding for this project.

I met Dustin Eirdosh, who has been my liaison on this Madagascar collaboration, just as serendipitously in a way. He was working with David Sloan Wilson and the EvoS Consortium for resources and in touch with Becky Burch. I started contacting Dustin to brainstorm about collaboration potential and saw that his energy is similar to mine. So I say “passive” when I describe my activity in Madagascar, but what I really seem to do is flap my wings hard and fast like a hummingbird until an opening appears, then I hit it hard and without hesitation.

I set this trip up without any real game plan. I deferred to Dustin and Josia to give me a lead that I would then take. So it was Dustin who suggested a trip to Ranomafana and Josia who booked the driver for me. The first one got in an accident the day before, so she arranged the second one at the last minute. She used the same company she books for her own research, but I’m not sure that that was the same in both cases.

The driver was going to cost 140,000 ariary/day (around $50/day, 460,000 ari total). Gas would cost me another 420,000 ari for the trip. Then I would need hotel for 3 nights, which I found for 100,000/night. That’s about $400, not including food or other things. That’s a sizable amount of money, considering I had no specific plans of who I was going to talk to or if I would even be able to get a meeting and had very little money with me.

This was covered by grant funding, but universities never want to give you your grant money up front. They want you to pay it out first and reimburse you. Presumably, there’s liability involved. I also think it’s being used in some slush fund somewhere or earning interest. When I asked for a $1,000 advance, I was treated like I was asking for money to go binge drinking. I was told I was asking for a LOAN and that it is against state policy to LOAN employees travel funds. Load of crap. We researchers have rents or mortgages to pay back home when we travel. Sorry to tell the world, but you don’t get much financial compensation for a PhD in the social sciences and humanities. I’m so deep in debt from student loans, I will never be free (see the notice of being served because of my student loan debt from the first day of this trip).

So $400 is a lot for money for me, as I was traveling exclusively cash and carry, with nothing in a bank account I could access and no place in Madagascar takes credit cards. What an adventure, right? This means I was riding for 12 hours in a car to meet with people I didn’t know would meet with me about what I didn’t exactly know and not sure I’d have enough money to pay the driver when I got back.

Jao gripping the wheel.
Jao gripping the wheel.

But this is not a mystery story, so I’ll let you off the hook. I stressed on the ride, tallying up my expenses, especially when Jao, my driver, stopped at a tourist hotel restaurant for lunch to eat “normal” food. Normal for me, is what I think he meant. Also, “clean,” he said. But it ended up costing me a pretty penny. The next meal was a little better, but I had to keep pushing him: “Let me worry about the food poisoning. Let’s eat Malagasy food at hotelys.”

If there are traditional musicians selling their CDs at the hotel restaurant, it probably costs more than you want to spend for a quick road stop. Or if there are old New Yorkers talking loudly at the table behind them.
If there are traditional musicians selling their CDs at the hotel restaurant, it probably costs more than you want to spend for a quick road stop. Or if there are old New Yorkers talking loudly at the table behind them.

And I had to ask Jao to help me change currency so I could pay him. Banks there won’t change $100 bills, which is all I had. And we were returning on a Sunday when everything was closed. So we had to meet a black market money changer by the side of the road on the way back into town. I don’t mean to make this sound in any way like Romancing the Stone or Indiana Jones crap. Other field researchers have a million such stories, as do all the people who live in such countries. And they are unfortunately not rare in the world. I borrowed my money belt and steel-reinforced bag from a friend who regaled me with stories of dealing with a cholera outbreak, regularly carrying vast quantities of cash on her to cover field school expenses, meeting sketchy money changers in strange homes, and drinking with murderous warlords during her field seasons. It’s all a matter of perspective. But this time, I was in Africa, while she was back home attending the premier of Beauty and the Beast!

I took lots of photos as Jao drove in silence. He listened to music all the way back. At the first, I felt bad he had obviously not felt comfortable playing music in the car until I heard him playing Otis Redding and asked him to turn it up. We listened to that and a Beatles album on the way back, which I loved singing along to, but then the next 9 hours were taken up by bad 80s hair metal and Celine Dion. And I was stuck with only Neil Gaiman’s new Norse Mythology as my Audible book. It was interesting for about an hour, but then stories of Thor’s dumb brutishness and Loki’s selfish mischief just lulled me to sleep.

However, the Betsiloa countryside was beautiful. They are the tribe that occupies the highland south of Tana. Their homes are tall and made of red brick that matches the red clay of the ground. Their terracing for rice, corn, and other produce is more distinctive than terracing elsewhere (I got great photos of this but—foreshadowing—those photos are sadly no longer with me). Apparently, they get three annual harvest, where other only get 1-2.

As we passed through Antsirabe, suddenly there were colorful tricycle taxis everywhere. “City of Pouse-pouse,” Jao told me. The region is resplendent with bicycles and pouse-pouses. I couldn’t get enough photos of them and the colorful markets (alas, many of those also lost with someone on the road to perdition—okay, maybe a little harsh, but I’m very annoyed about it).

We rolled into Ranomafana around 4, a bit earlier than expected. I got a place at Hotel Cristo, which came recommended both by Lonely Planet and Josia and Rija. It turned out to be very lovely.

Again, in true colonial style, I sat on the veranda watching the sunset over the rainforest and Namorona River, while people spoke Dutch and English nearby, and brown-skinned hotel employees brought me a double expresso. But at least they owned the place this time. Dear Malinowski

Anthropology is Elemental is currently funded by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

AiE in Madagascar II: Studying & Teaching Abroad Opportunities in Madagascar

The first post of this series is at http://evostudies.org/2017/03/fleeced-at-the-palace-of-the-mad-queen-other-poignantly-colonial-experiences-in-madagascar/.

I’ve been jet lagged from the 8-hour time difference and keep waking up at 2:30 AM, unable to go to sleep. After a day or two, I remembered I have Starbucks instant coffees in my bag. I got some hot water from the sink and hazarded a coffee in the middle of the night to get me going enough to get some work done. Later I checked and learned that the water has some dirt in it, but, according to Jurgen, the owner of Villa V where I am staying, the German Embassy actually had it tested, hoping it would be found undrinkable and merit them getting raises for working in an undesirable location. It’s got some silt in it but is fine otherwise. No raises for them, no dysentery for me.

It says 37 minutes but generally took over an hour to make this trip because Rija would get stuck in traffic, much to his delight (he did not enjoy this)
It says 37 minutes but generally took over an hour to make this trip because Rija would get stuck in traffic, much to his delight (he did not enjoy this).

I spent Monday and Tuesday going to Eagles Wings Elementary and Middle Schools. The elementary is run by Omega Rakotomalala, who gave me a tour of the four classes spread across three buildings.

With Omega & Tana behind us.
With Omega & Tana behind us.

The first two EW Elementary buildings are across an alley of sorts from each other. The third is a mile or so away, and we had to drive there. I observed the first three classes, which were two pre-K age classes and a 6-9 year old class.

When we went to the other building, I sat in circle time with the 10-12 year olds and chatted, had lunch, watched them play soccer outside.

Then spent the rest of the day showing them how to use the iPad to make a video. I had them pass it around, introduce themselves, and edit it to include their names. We went back to the 6-9 year olds later and recorded them singing the Eagles Wings theme song to add on at the end.

Middle school kids working on a video on the iPad purchased with Wenner Gren funding for our cultural exchange.
Middle school kids working on a video on the iPad purchased with Wenner Gren funding for our cultural exchange.

We did roughly the same thing on Tuesday but with the older kids. They were a bit more intransigent, but, on the other hand, Josia had me give them a bit more of a lecture on what anthropology is. We did a few activities, such as primate relay races, to get them up out of their seats and involved. According to Josia, it went over very well. They paid more attention than usual, so I consider it an all around success.

Eagles Wings Middle School & friends
Eagles Wings Middle School & friends

One of the more exciting things to come out of the few days was the realization that Eagles Wings has teaching opportunities for my master’s level or above students that includes room and board and a little stipend for food. During the year, the middle school is looking for native English speakers (Eagles Wings teaches in English) who might want to work in country while conducting research. Alternatively, there are opportunities to help out with summer workshops for those who can’t go during the school year. Either way, it includes room and board in their offices. Also, Josia could take students to the field with her when she collects data for their ethnoprimatology project. This includes lemur observations, as well as interviewing local people about their relationships with the lemurs. There would be opportunities for collecting additional data in the course of this. For students who stay at least a year, they have means of defraying or paying the travel costs to get there. I’m really excited about presenting this opportunity to my quality students.

University of Antananarivo campus
University of Antananarivo campus

On Wednesday, I met with faculty from the Anthropology and Experimental Natural Science Education departments and gave talks at the University of Anatananarivo. Their anthropology department focuses on humans and environment, genetics of origins of Malagasy, and assessing diachronic variation of human character (which I took to mean environment and development of human, health, growth and development, and human biology). Their department was very interested in developing a collaboration with UA. They asked if I or any of our biocultural doctoral students would be interested in being visiting lecturers, anywhere from a semester to a few weeks before heading to the field to do research. There were several good questions after my talk, despite my concern that my inability to speak French or Malagasy might hamper our communication. However, since the students need to speak English to attend the mandatory field schools hosted in conjunction with Northern Illinois and Bristol Universities, they all seemed to follow along. Their department chair asked what kind of support I had in mind when I discussed our future collaboration, since many of their students cannot get funding to go anywhere to conduct research. I suggested that they are in a position to collect data in Madagascar to compare with similar data collected elsewhere, such as the PATHS study Michaela and I are conducting, that would give them to the opportunity to co-author publication in US and Europe-based journals. This would enhance their chances when applying to U.S. or European graduate programs. This seems to have been appealing—when I asked if anyone wanted a business card, more hands shot up than I had cards to distribute.

This is all very exciting and has my mind reeling. I want to figure out how to harness this energy and excitement before I return home and tumble headlong into the next deadline without processing all of these experiences.

Anthropology is Elemental is funded through a grant by the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

Race at TMSE – What is race anyway? – A Team Teaching Effort.

Today at TMSE we discussed race and human variation. The lecture covered the intricacies of how we perceive race in America by addressing what anthropologists view it as. It is important to know that race is a social construct, rather than based in biology, which means that while it appears natural and factual it is actually largely reliant on the interpretation of the individual. In addition to having no biological, scientific basis, anthropologists do not use race as a definable category because our perceptions can so easily differentiate.

Instead, we recognize that what is perceived as race (i.e., skin color), is due to our ancestor’s adaptations to different environments. For example, lighter skin developed further away from equator to facilitate the absorption of vitamin D, while darker skin developed along the equator to protect from the sun’s harsh UV rays. Further, rather than classifying or categorizing people based on race, we tend to examine ethnicity instead.

We told the students about how our views on race might differentiate from what they have grown up believing. This lesson is incredibly important to teach at this age because it teaches students that while we may have different genetic makeup, race is not a reliable way to classify people and should not be used to make further assumptions. To demonstrate this for our activity we gave each clan a group of pictures featuring portraits of different people across the country. The students were then asked to classify each face into a certain racial category (white, black, asian, or hispanic) that they felt best described each picture. Some of these caused disagreement and confusion which led the students to question what exactly race must signify. Once they finished, we read the results of each picture out loud to the class and after each one at least one of the groups seemed to be shocked! They seemed to realize that race was not as black and white as they had assumed.

The Mighty Animal Dinosaurs trying to figure out where to place this woman…their final choice was incorrect!
“He looks hispanic!” “NO – he’s ASIAN!” “You guys are crazy, he’s white!”
Despite their best efforts NO CLAN got all, or even most, of the racial categories correct. Race isn’t so easy!

We used the remainder of our class period to color pictures of people from all over the world with different backgrounds and discussed why we should not categorize people in terms of the color of their skin. All in all, the class was successful and we have been so proud of our third graders these past seven weeks!

Evolution at TMSE – Adapting Animals by Madeline Anscombe

Today at TMSE we taught the students all about the theory of evolution and let them see how this theory transcends into their own lives. Teaching evolution was an important topic to teach our third graders because not only is it important when dealing with anthropology, but it allows us to see how each individual is somehow tied together.

 

A new animal has emerged! It has huge wings and a springy tail for getting away from predators

The lesson opened up with talking about the history of the theory and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species which took 22 years to write! Our young anthropologists learned that because evolution is a theory, it has been tested hundreds and hundreds of times and has never been proven false. This gave us some validation in order to support some examples of how different animals are able to change given different environmental factors. Our activity gave the students three different ecosystems to create made-up animals that have adapted to their environments.

This animal’s long legs and wings let it walk or fly over a rough terrain

The students got super creative! Some of the creatures included a “Billy Belly Bull” and a “Monkey Bird” which was able to camouflage in with its surroundings as well as used its arms and wings to steer clear from predators. When the students were able to explain the ways in which their animals had adapted to their environments, they got the opportunity to get crafty! Each student was supplied with a foam ball and crafting materials to bring their animals to life. Some of the students even asked for extra pipe cleaners to make tails for themselves so that they could match their new creations.

 

The elusive Pika-bunny is finally caught!

Primates at TMSE! by Mary Gibler

Students of the Might Animal Dinosaur Clan seated around a table

This past week, our lesson at TSME focused on Primates. We taught the students that monkeys, apes, and humans are all primates, surprising the class with a picture of them that we had taken the previous week to demonstrate the concept. To distinguish between monkeys and apes, we discussed the presence of tails in monkeys (some of which are prehensile), not apes, and why that tail might be beneficial for smaller apes based on their arboreal environment. We showed the students Indonesian apes, including a loris, gibbons, macaques, a proboscis monkey, a javan lutung, and an orangutan. This helped the students understand the context of primates in their environment and why they can find certain types of primates in different places. We asked the students why we study primates, and concluded that studying primates helps us to learn how to better save the environment while also teaching us important concepts about ourselves. We discussed that we study primates’ behaviors, social structures, genes and anatomy in order to better understand our own behaviors, social structures, genes and anatomies. To illustrate these similarities, we talked about how we share 90-95% of our genetic DNA with chimpanzees, and that primates are the only animals that have opposable thumbs, brachiating shoulders, and binocular vision. We emphasized these points through primate locomotion, in which we had students “walk like monkeys” by brachiating their shoulders and walking on their knuckles. We concluded the lecture on primate’s diets, by discussing herbivores, omnivores, and frugivores, and how the larger the primate, the more calories they need to consume in order to sustain their energy. Smaller primates eat bugs, while larger ones eat a lot of plants and fruits. We stressed the caloric value of small insects, plants, and fruits, which led into our activity.

Students of the Might Animal Dinosaur Clan seated around a table
Mighty Animal Dinosaur Clan

The activity, Meddling Monkeys, was effective at reiterating primate locomotion, diet, social structures, and environment. We had the students line up outside while we scattered construction paper around the classroom. Red paper symbolized fruit for 3 points (with the most caloric value) while green symbolized plants for 2 points, and yellow symbolized insects for 1 point. Each of the three clans had orange monkey babies on their tables and the rule was that one person had to guard the babies at all times, emphasizing the importance of social structures. The other members of the clan then ran around the room, gathering pieces of construction paper. They were only allowed to pick up one at a time, and they had to keep one hand on the ground at all times while walking on their knuckles to emphasize primate locomotion. After all of the pieces of construction paper were gathered, we tallied up the points and the winning team got to go first for the second part of the activity- eating crickets! The other student teachers and I spent the previous night with live crickets- first freezing and then baking them. We seasoned them separately with ranch, mac and cheese powder, and Cajun spices. At first, the students were hesitant but by the end every single one had tried a cricket and were coming back for seconds, even chanting for their teacher to try one. A University observer in the classroom said that her favorite part of the period was when we told the students that we were going to play the Meddling Monkeys game again and then eat more crickets and they all began to cheer.

A Meddling Monkey has found a leaf! 2 points!
Two Monkeys on the hunt

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overall, the lesson was successful. We asked the students at the end of the period to go over the concepts that they had learned and they gave insightful answers about why they had to guard the babies, walk on their knuckles, and the construction papers, or foods, had different point values. The only thing I would recommend for teachers attempting to perform this activity would be to explain the rules beforehand because once the students get started it turns into chaotic fun.

Seconds are much more appealing
The first taste of crickets is always the hardest…