AiE in Madagascar IV: Centre ValBio & Night Walking with Mouse Lemurs

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

Note in our previous episode that I wasn’t sure if I had meetings set up, with who, or about what when I arrived at Ranomafana. I received a message from Dustin that I had a 10AM appointment, but he had not been able to confirm, so I should just ask for Maya Moore or Pascal Rabeson. When I arrived at Centre ValBio (CVB), Maya had left for Tana and Pascal was in another village until later in the day. Nevertheless, I was able to get an appointment for later in the day with him.

In the meantime, I explored the village, taking photos. I came across one of the silk making coops. I couldn’t afford to buy a scarf but was given permission to take photos. However, I overstayed my welcome, taking so many photos of every corner of the room that the coop president (How do I know she was president? I took photos of all the photos and lists of offers and deduced who she was) asked me to pay them 5000 ari for the photos.

I went down to the bridge to the town’s thermal baths and took photos of the bridge they were replacing. It had been knocked out in a big cyclone that hit Madagascar 20 days earlier.

I’m glad I took so many photos. Later, when I was meeting with Pascal, it turned out he was lab mates at the University of Georgia with our close family friend Jon Benstead. Jon had done his dissertation research in Ranomafana when CVB was just a shack in the woods.

The shacks in the woods that used the be the Centre ValBio facilities are still there but unused.
The shacks in the woods that used the be the Centre ValBio facilities are still there but unused.

CVB had the best wifi in the village so I shot Jon an email while I was there, and he asked me to take lots of photos of the Centre and village for him, since he hadn’t been there in 18 years.

I ended up meeting with Lova Razafindravony and Pascal. Lova runs the My Rainforest My World project, and Pascal and Maya are co-directors of outreach.

But let me back up. Because I walked in here rather cold. CVB is a rather famous world class facility for conservation and education. It was started by primatologist Patricia Wright from Stony Brook University (SUNY). I have been meaning to invite Pat Wright for an ALLELE lecture ever since hearing what a great talk she gave at SUNY New Paltz. I have even more incentive now.

Dr. Wright discovered a new lemur species at Ranomafana, the golden bamboo lemur, and established the park to protect it. One of the amazing thing about bamboo lemurs is that they eat young bamboo, which contains toxic amounts of cyanide. So they process it somehow because they don’t die (at least not from cyanide—humans, on the other hand…). The current buildings of CVB were built later. They are a facility that hosts researchers, conducts study abroad, houses both, and provides lab and lecture facilities. They work with the local community to provide vocational training for Malagasy to work in or with the Centre and facilitate and develop cooperatives to promote economic and cultural sustainability, such as the aforementioned silk cooperative. My nature guide Rodan said, “Pat Wright is like a mother to us all, to the whole village of Ranomafana.”

Lova told me abut the MRMW project and the education efforts more generally. Those involve efforts to train teachers to provide conservation and science-related education in remote village and at “road” schools, or those reachable without too much difficulty by car and the main road.

By the next meeting with Pascal, I had a thought on how we could collaborate. I told them about our project and we arranged for them to send us their lessons which we will curate and share on our website. Their programs were developed in conjunction with American educators but are only being implemented in limited schools around the park. We will put them in a format that can be used by our teachers in the US, Greg’s class in Costa Rica (more on that later), and Eagles Wings in Tana, and other schools around Madagascar and the world (maybe yours?). We will link the material back to CVB to ensure credit but hopefully extend their reach of the material.

On the surface, these things don’t seem so complex they could not have been done by email. But it’s easy to send an email and just as easy to ignore. It’s equally easy to say yes in an email and not follow through. There are no stakes to an email. But taking the trip to Madagascar, to go to see how a partner is doing what they do means a lot, I hope. I intend it as a strong signal of commitment. It enables us all to vet each other using our senses and guts and to establish a rapport and trust.

Let me reiterate: There is nothing out there to give guidance for teaching 4-field anthropology at the primary school levels. There are things here and there, but what we are creating is a unique resource and testament to the value of and excitement for doing it.

Lova gave me a tour of CVB after my meetings. Then I rendezvoused with my guide for a night walk. I was pleased to be able to see and photograph several mouse lemurs and chameleons.

The chameleons were very very cooler—cooler than I expected—but LEMURS!


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

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.