Wooden huts, sand under feet, a cold water tap among the free roaming chickens; if you’ve never visited a developing country or been anywhere out of your comfort zone it’s hard to know what to expect. When I first walked into the local village on Nosy Be, Madagascar everything was completely alien to me. There were no tower blocks, no electricity pylons, no supermarkets, no roads; just smiling locals and open fires.
I was in Madagascar to volunteer with the organisation Frontier. I’d had to arrange my flights but my transport once there and accommodation were to all be arranged by their staff. Had it not been I would have been at a complete loss on arrival in a foreign country with little knowledge of the language! After an internal flight, 30 minute truck ride and a boat ride I arrived on camp – it certainly felt remote.
Nosy Be where we were based is a small island, just off the north of the main island, and we were lucky enough to be right on the coast. When the tide was in I went to sleep to the sounds of waves breaking and then woke to the sounds of the chickens which had been attracted by the cooking of breakfast right outside my hut.
I was in Madagascar as a wildlife conservation volunteer so I got to venture into forest which bordered our camp on a daily basis to see a variety of different animals including lizards and frogs. Our walks often involved wading or even swimming through water which could seem daunting as you didn’t know what might lie beneath the surface. But the heat of the day meant the cooling water was a welcome change. Night walks were my favourite experience; with only the moon and my head torch for light we ventured off the paths in search of the elusive mouse lemurs. We crept around as quietly as we could until we saw the sparkle of an eye hidden among the leaves up in the trees. Although mostly they only sat still and ate the leaves and fruit they found, I was fascinated by the small shy creatures and could have stood for hours just watching them.
Our own camp was just as basic as the villages which bordered it but that was part of the charm of living there. I enjoyed embracing the relaxed and simple lifestyle just as much as the project itself. Some days we had our meals cooked for us by a local woman and her family. We got to sample Zebu and freshly caught seafood from on our doorstep. It was inspiring to watch them cook food, sometimes for up to 30 people, all on open fires and see the delicious dishes that they created.
There were three other projects, aside from mine, based in the same camp. It meant getting to meet a variety of other volunteers from different backgrounds but that all had similar interests. The Marine conservation volunteers often rose earlier than us in order to get ready and take a small boat to whichever site they were diving in that day. We both had lots of species to learn and used books to try and memorise them so that we would be able to identify them in the field. The teachers walked to neighboring villages or took a boat to the nearest town to help out in the local schools and often worked on new ways to engage with the children. During the breaks from working, everyone would relax on the beach or sit in the shade to read or take a dip in the sea when the heat got too much.
Whilst I was there I also got to meet the children and local families as Frontier held an Environment Day in the village. Children from all around the area came together to play and learn. Although I knew they came from less privileged circumstances, they were very happy children and it was great to see them enjoying themselves and learning important lessons which will help them conserve their environment for the future.
All in all the experience of volunteering in a developing country is one that can bring many benefits both to the local people and to yourself and is something I wouldn’t hesitate to do again.