Saturday, 28 March 2009

Letter from Madagascar

As short holidays go, a two week trip to Madagascar is pretty ambitious, especially in the midst of some of the worst political unrest for years, but these are the only two weeks that I’ll get to see Jones for at least six months, so here I am. Seeing the work that she’s involved in with ONG Azafady has been really inspiring, and the whole lifestyle and location is truly enviable.

Picture a lush narrow coastal plain bordered with white beaches and azure seas, backed by rolling verdant hills and grey granite cliffs. Top it off with a remorseless sun beating from a clear blue sky and you might be getting close. The town of Fort Dauphin is an intricate maze of narrow paths and dirt streets pushing onto a crenulated coastline of sandy bays and rocky headlands. Scraggy stilt-legged chickens strut the streets with dirty dogs and grinning children. Round every corner a different stereo pumps out a different afro-dancehall classic at high volume and you have to pinch yourself to remind you that this isn’t a festival, its everyday life. Everywhere you look there are people; people standing, people sitting, people chatting, people laughing. Selling, buying, building, cooking, dancing, playing, watching. It’s a very foreign thing for the Brit-abroad, seeing so many people just taking the time to enjoy the world going by. And everyone is so happy. That’s foreign. Back in Britain, we’re so used to seeing Africa portrayed as a war-torn, disease crippled land that I’m almost surprised not to see starving bodies littering the pavements. Sure, times are hard here, but that’s not getting anyone down. I guess it’s that age-old truth, money doesn’t buy happiness; a simple existence, lived in harmony with nature and the seasons, the ebbs and flows of harvests and the mercy of the weather brings much more fulfilment. It’s something that many in Britain have been trying to say for a long time, and a notion I’ve always subscribed to, but living it isn’t so simple.

In town there’s a big extended family of Vazahas (white folk) and Malagasy that are involved with the running of Azafady’s many impressive projects, so Jones has slotted right into the party. I have to say, I’ve been so impressed by how welcome they’ve all made me feel, and I’m nothing to do with anything. The volunteers that come out to work for ten week stints must never want to leave!

So, what is ONG Azafady? It’s a British-based charity that works in the villages and communities around Fort Dauphin in the south east of Madagascar. It’s probably easier to ask what they don’t do, rather than what the do, because they’ve got a lot going on. I guess the main thing is what we might call rural development in the UK, so that’s everything from environmental work to education to nutrition to health and hygiene, and everything in between. And of course, all this stuff is linked, and it’s about trying to get communities to work for themselves to sustain their own livelihoods, rather than constantly relying on others for help. Basic GCSE geography really, but it’s somewhat easier said than done. Jones co-ordinates the Pioneer scheme, a ten week placement where volunteers come out to work on Azafady projects, be it tree planting, teaching kids how to wash their hands or building a school. Ten very intense weeks, but clearly very rewarding.

And Jones, well, it’s just great to see her. Especially now that she’s in her element, doing something that means so much to her and somewhere that makes her so happy. Unfortunately for me it just so happens that this somewhere is a tropical paradise on the other side of the world. But hell, who ever said life was easy?

Photos to follow when bandwidth allows........