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Building Madagascar

After I finished my degree in 2002, for the first time in my life an obvious path didn’t lay ahead of me.  Before this juncture I’d happily passed from GCSEs to A-levels and on to a degree all in an amazingly painless fashion.  My degree was fun but History of Art was probably not going to lead me to the kind of job which I craved.  After six months of temping in London offices, providing just enough money to pay for my box room in Brixton, I caught sight a poster for Pioneer Madagascar in a health food shop.

Madagascar had always intrigued me thanks to the efforts of people like David Attenborough. I knew it was a naturalist’s paradise but also that it was one of the world’s poorest countries. I gave the organisation behind Pioneer a call – finding out that this was Azafady, a small UK charity partnered with an NGO working in south east Madagascar integrating conservation and development.  Its Pioneer scheme boasted giving successful applicants a grass-roots experience of working on real conservation and development projects. Hooked by the idea, after a quick phone conversation and filling in a couple of forms, I was signed up to go to Madagascar in October with just a few short months of data entry (to pay my rent) and fundraising (to support the charity) before I was to jump on a plane to the Great Red Island.

Through what I learnt from Azafady, I was prepared for the poverty of Fort Dauphin, but its beauty was something that took me by surprise. Upon arrival I was taken to the Lanirano camp where I pitched my tent with the rest of the group. I gazed across the palm fringed beach across the blue waters of the Indian Ocean to the mountains where I would soon be working with local communities. I found it hard to take in just how far away I was from my box room in Brixton!

The first week was all about preparation for work in the rural villages; Malagasy culture revolves around a complex system of taboos and a religious calendar which specifies what activities are fitting for each day of the week.  For example, in Saint Luce village it is against local law to wear goggles when swimming, while to comment on amounts of food or touch the hair of a Malagasy is a great insult.

The following nine weeks took me to remote coastal villages and tropical forests in the region where I joined teams of inspirational people in a wide range of project work. We were buildings schools, wells and pharmacies and helping on different projects to preserve the remaining forests, working with village communities to establish viable incomes and sustainably manage natural resources.

Pioneer brought me together with people sharing a common goal: to physically do something to alleviate hardship whilst protecting the environment. I felt like I was going back to a base-level existence; cooking a simple diet of rice and beans for the Pioneer group, washing in local rivers, using holes in the ground for toilets, walking long distances from village to village and working long and hot hours. Emotions were certainly tested; I experienced the highs and lows of living and working within a group, helping me to develop understanding and flexibility. An experience definitely for an adventurous spirit, Pioneer taught me new skills and allowed me to use the skills I already had to Madagascar’s benefit.

The local music and dance took my breath away. In the evenings, I learnt to dance the “Mangaliba” to the accompaniment of traditional musical instruments. I picked up the local dialect – much to the amusement and appreciation of local villagers. The people I met certainly touched my heart and gave me an insight into an entirely different way of life. I quickly found that that generosity in a smile could bring extraordinary warmth, and that       I needed to be prepared for an audience of innocent intrigue wherever I went.

Pioneer taught me the kind of tolerance that is an essential requirement in this kind of work – learning to cope with broken down transport, threats of illness, lack of tasty food, lack of space, and with simply coping with the other Pioneers. It was undoubtedly the experience of a lifetime, for me. But, of course, what anyone gets out of the Pioneer experience all depends what you put into it. While you are enjoying what this beautiful island has to offer, it is important that you don’t loose sight of your goal. These are people who desperately need support and this is a unique environment in danger of being completely destroyed.

After squeezing the last days from my 90-day Malagasy visa I went back to London knowing that a return to the Great Red Island was imminent.  Something changed in me for the better in Madagascar and although I wasn’t convinced I wanted to become a full-time development worker, I certainly never returned to that box room in Brixton!

Anyone wishing to find out more about the work of Azafady of the Azafady Pioneer scheme can contact them on 0208 9606629 or by email on [email protected] or can look at their website on

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