Gap year and volunteer work in Madagascar

Done Something Brilliant

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by Clare Callow

My experience with Pioneer Madagascar ended more than 3 months ago – in fact, I have been back in England for more time than I spent in Madagascar. But I still think about Madagascar every day. Last night, I even dreamt about Madagascar.

People tell me that almost everyone who is lucky enough to visit the Great Red Island return with the strongest resolve to change their lifestyle, become more conscientious about trade and development issues and help advertise the plight of this magnificent country. But it is all too easy to slip back into the old English lifestyle of seeing your wage cheque on a Friday as the most liberating and exciting thing in your life, staring out of the window of the office (where I sit to write this), contemplating which pre-wrapped Tesco sandwich to buy for lunch and forgetting all about the amazing experience you had in Madagascar.


But I will return. Given the chance, I would go back to Fort Dauphin this afternoon. That sums up what Pioneer Madagascar was for me – a chance. To visit the most beautiful place in the world; to work on inspiring projects that give you the opportunity to make a difference to the depressing situation of poverty and environmental degradation present on this forgotten isle, projects which also make you appreciate the comfort of your cushioned lifestyle at home – even the smallest things like bread and toilet roll!

When I was facing the challenge of raising the money I needed to go away, I felt excited about the prospect of my trip, but I think my over-riding feeling was one of anxiety. I had made the decision to leave my cushy flat, easy job and all my friends in Brighton to travel to the other side of the world to somewhere I didn’t really know anything about (during the course of my fund raising I found out I wasn’t the only one!) and I was leaving my boyfriend behind. I was also nervous about the health risks of going to Madagascar and unfortunately when I bought my guidebook it fell open straight to the health section. I read all about the hundreds of types of worms I was going to be exposed to, diseases that eat the flesh from your face away, leeches, mosquitoes and spiders. The reality is of course not nearly as bad as an overactive imagination may suggest.

However, as soon as I got out on to the tarmac at Antananarivo airport, I knew I’d made the right decision. The heat of the tropical sun hit me square in the face and there was just so much life everywhere. Even in the waste ground around the terminal building there were beautifully coloured tropical flowers, the likes of which I’d never seen before, fighting for space with each other. From Fort Dauphin, the other weary Pioneers and I took the journey to our new home in an old Renault 5 taxi in complete silence. I was overwhelmed.

There was so much to feed the senses – sights, smells, sounds and of course we weren’t yet used to the precarious nature of the Malagasy roads so there was an element of fear in there somewhere too. But when I saw the view down to the Indian Ocean I fell in love with Fort Dauphin. The staff at Azafady put on a party for us that first night with a local band and lots of dancers – they really put us to shame dancing the mangaliba and one of them was only 15! I woke up the next morning to the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach and we went to work.

Almost every day two of the lovely Malagasy staff with whom we were working gave us lessons in the local dialect of Antanosy. They were very patient with us, and by slipping a few words into conversation from day to day, all of us became proficient in the language. This made it easier to communicate with the local people, and also gave us better insight into the system of fadys or taboos that govern social relations in Madagascar. We learnt about why it is fady for the Malagasy to refuse hospitality to strangers (part of what has led to foreigners feeling so welcome and relaxed), why some people keep turtles in with their chickens and why it is of the utmost offence to point at people.


The Malagasy way of life can be frustrating to those of us brought up in Western countries where things are expected to be done ‘yesterday’ and much importance is placed on punctuality. In Madagascar, before every action there is a good few hours of discussion about the best way to carry it out, the best person for the job and what risks are involved, even if the job is simply banging a nail into a piece of wood. But actually, this makes the whole pace of life much slower and makes everyone seem a lot more relaxed and at ease. Don’t get me wrong, the Malagasy staff that we were with worked harder than anyone else I’ve met when they eventually started.

We stayed in a place called Ambinanibe for ten days, a fokontany (group of hamlets) comprising two villages next to a huge lake surrounded by forested mountains and a beautiful deserted white sand beach (where we saw a pod of dolphins whilst swimming in the sea at lunchtime). Our main task while we were there was to build a well. The leader of the builders was an ex-teacher called Bic who was rather strict about what had to be done and ran a team of 6 staff whom he often reprimanded when he found them fooling in a boat on the lake during their breaks. With our best help (which wasn’t very helpful – before Pioneer I didn’t have any idea about how to use a shovel, let alone build an entire well) we managed to build the well from scratch – no mixing machines, just rocks, water, cement, shovels, and a couple of old wheelbarrows. They made a level on which to stand while collecting water and fenced it off to protect the well from chickens.

There were many different aspects to the work we did in Hovatra and Sainte Luce; we made puppets, we wrote music, we went to schools to try and teach kids about the importance of washing your hands, we hammered, we shovelled, we built bee-hive shelters, we painted signs, we dug latrine pits, we had women’s group meetings, we had village committee meetings, we mapped lemurs in the forest, we surveyed deforestation in the most beautiful area of forest I’ve ever seen, we organised a football match, we made displays about the wildlife for a visitor centre, we planted an immense tree nursery, had some tree planting sessions, we collected rare palm seeds from the forest, we learnt about first aid, sanitation issues and many other things.

Madagascar has countless problems, many of which seem unsolvable. But I really felt like a lot of the work we were doing had a very positive, if slow, effect on the environment, but most importantly for the local people. Some of the hardest obstacles we faced were related to the embedded traditions and beliefs of the Malagasy. For example, huge health problems stem from the unsanitary conditions so we were involved in trying to teach people about the importance of hygiene – using a latrine rather than the road or the beach. But due to local fady dictating that if you come into contact with other people’s excrement – even the smell of it – you will become diseased, people were often sceptical about our motives. But the reluctance of Malagasy people to change their ways also has positive effects on their society – many areas of primary forest are protected by the traditional beliefs that these areas are sacred.

These differences made it even more rewarding when we saw that people had ingested the message we were trying to give. In Hovatra, we went to the school and had a few sessions with about 600 kids who were colouring a poster we designed depicting the importance of washing hands before eating. In the village the next day, I saw hundreds of these posters displayed around the village, and grinning parents made hand-washing gestures at me as I passed. Apart from working, I learnt to surf, had dancing lessons, had drumming lessons, had amazing parties, made some good friends and saw some truly incredible plants and animals.

Some of the times were hard – we spent 26 hours trying to make a 35km journey in a truck, had to walk 7km in the driving rain to camp for a night in the middle of it and I fell into a stinking mud puddle with all my possessions on my back. But by the next morning we were all laughing at our ridiculous situation. The generosity and beauty of the people there, the attitude they have to the immense problems which sometimes almost overwhelm them and the mesmerising beauty of the environment and the wildlife there (especially the dancing sifakas!) have simply made me want to promote the island’s plight and get as many people as possible to go there and see how important it is to try and help to protect it.

I was so sad to leave Fort Dauphin that I spent the whole plane trip back to Tana crying like a baby. I turned my head to the window as I didn’t want to get caught, but the steward had obviously seen how sad I was and when I turned round I found he had put 3 chocolates on a pillow next to me!

Further Information

If you would like to know more about the volunteering opportunity Pioneer Madagascar or the work of Azafady (registered charity no. 1079121), please visit

Image courtesy Franck Vervial




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