On the Ground in Madagascar
Go somewhere you may never be able to go again. Go somewhere that challenges every notion that you hold as normal.
I was born and raised in Ithaca, New York, and I knew when I entered Cornell that I wanted to spend at least one semester away from home. My parents claim that I chose to go as far away as possible, but I had better reasons for choosing Madagascar. I wanted to see firsthand what conservation looked like on the ground, in a post-colonial state.
Growing up, I had a close family friend from Madagascar, who told enticing stories about the island’s incredible biodiversity. I was tantalized by his descriptions—and intrigued by lemurs.
I received my college’s African Study Abroad award, which funded my airfare to and from Madagascar for my semester there. My living expenses in Madagascar were considerably lower than in the United States, but getting assistance with my travel expenses was a tremendous relief.
I enrolled in the School for International Training Program, Madagascar: Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management—16 credits, taught in French, spanning a breadth of topics including colonial history, ecology, biodiversity management and the Malagasy language.
Outside of my coursework, I gained valuable cross-cultural communication skills—including a firsthand knowledge of life in the Global South, and a deeper respect for the ability of people to find hope in situations where hope doesn’t seem possible.
My academic program culminated in a six-week research project, which I designed and implemented. I chose to study beekeeping practices on the east coast of the country, within the region of Vatovavy-Fitovinany. I investigated local knowledge surrounding the endemic Malagasy honeybee and the threats this species has encountered due to both climate change and the impacts of globalization. At the end of my project, I had a published research paper—along with three beestings and a new appreciation for the importance of a day of rest!
Life moves slowly in Madagascar, in comparison to the United States. In stark contrast to the constant hum and thrum of the ever-ticking clock back home, people in Madagascar spend hours sitting at the table talking, chatting in the morning with coffee and sweetened condensed milk. A common phrase in Malagasy is “mora, mora,” meaning “slowly, slowly.” This more relaxed approach to life was evident in familial relationships, and I treasured the time I spent talking story with my host family.
I am not sure exactly what my career will look like, or where it will take me, but I imagine that my interests will lead me back into an international setting.
The most valuable insights I gleaned came from living somewhere fundamentally different. Many of these insights were not beautiful: I learned about the painful reality that some face every day, often as a direct result of how we live here in the United States. I also learned that however dire the situation, hope is resilient, and human kindness and warmth can stretch across great divides.
I had always has been fascinated by animal-human interactions. I was inspired by a course I took at Cornell with Professor Karim-Aly Kassam, International Professor of Environmental and Indigenous Studies, entitled Ways of Knowing, which explored biocultural knowledge through indigenous lenses. This course helped me frame my research project on endemic bees in Madagascar.
Before studying abroad, I was not sure how my interests could converge into a feasible career option. After my research experience, I can clearly see myself working at the intersection of theory, policy and action. I plan to pursue a graduate degree in environmental geography and hope one day to engage in participatory action research alongside communities, building their local capacity to respond to climate change.