It started back in July when I got an interesting item in my “Google Alerts” for Madagascar. A small NGO was looking for a filmmaker and a social media manager to support their project in eastern Madagascar. I quickly fired off an email doing my best to convince “Sam” that this project was tailor-made for us – me, with my passion for short films, and Anne, with her love of photography and her experience managing a large social media effort. “I’m not a professional,” I confessed, but I hoped our passion, and the fact that we live in Madagascar and came with our own 4×4 would act in our favor.
Excitement mixed with disappointment when Sam wrote back raving about Anne’s photography, but he’d keep me in mind if he didn’t get a better offer. Still, we were welcome to join and help out where we could.
As things would turn out, there were no other takers and we were both in. The task would be to make a crowdfunding video that would persuade donors to contribute to this new NGO. We’d explain how they planned to find talented young people in remote, rural parts of Madagascar, and turn them into computer coders. They’d learn English and be given the skills to work and earn many times their potential salary otherwise, and feed back part of their profits into the system which would help train others after them. They were currently testing young people, and we agreed that in mid-September, we’d go out and shoot a video featuring one of the top scorers, to introduce people to the concept by relating it to real people. He didn’t know how far we’d have to go but there would be some walking involved. “Are you fit?” he asked, and we started to worry a bit. Maybe that 4×4 wouldn’t be so useful after all…
As the day came closer, gear started arriving from Amazon. Most of it would be useful, but along the way we also ended up with a solar panel, and what amounted to a car battery, which we had somehow imagined would solve our power needs, but was ridiculously heavy. We were going to be off the grid for a few days and we’d need to think about other ways to keep our cameras, phones and lights running for the duration of the project.
The plan was to meet Sam in Mahanoro, a town of maybe 50,000, on the east coast of Madagascar. According to Wikipedia, “though a small airport is situated on the north side of the town, the location is quite isolated and with limited tourism, though it is reported to have a single hotel.” We’d stay overnight, then set off overland for a day or so to meet “Jerome,” the star student of the testing they’d been doing for weeks. The Land Cruiser would be staying in Mahanoro, because where we were headed, there were no roads…
I was nervous as we met Sam, a quiet young Kiwi who, we would learn, had developed the concept for his NGO while still in New Zealand, and had specifically chosen Madagascar based on his own research and its potential. A trained engineer, he had quit his job, and brought his savings to Madagascar, moved into a village, learned the local language, local customs, learned to plant rice and survive on the local cuisine, gradually gaining the trust of the villagers. Only once he had done all that, he had launched his search for a “video maker.” The more I learned, the more I worried maybe I had taken on more than I could handle. Was Sam really depending on my videography skills to collect over $30,000?
Too late to turn back now…
We woke up bright and early, packed all the food, water, and supplies we thought we might need for 4-5 days into our brand-new REI backpacks. Plus another backpack with lollipops, notepads, crayons…to hand out along the way. We walked down to the local “bus station” and loaded into the back of a covered pickup truck. All of the bags were strapped to the top, and maybe a dozen or more of us piled into the back of the truck and tried to make ourselves as comfortable as possible sitting on the spare tire, bags of rice, cases of Coca-Cola… We had negotiated with the driver that we’d pay extra, and that he’d cram fewer passengers than normal into the back. We wondered how many would fit in the back had we not done that…or maybe the joke was on us…
Along the way, we picked up a few others who would be introduced by Sam as additional members of our entourage. One of them was Jerome’s teacher, who Sam thought might be useful in the video.
We tried our best to keep the circulation in our legs moving as we headed eastward down a sandy road that would rise and fall almost rhythmically where the rain had worn huge indentations that were often filled with water. After more than an hour (it seemed like three!) Sam announced that we had arrived at the end of the road, and would be continuing on foot.
Things started off OK, but it quickly became obvious this was not going to be a walk in the park for us old folks…even though I had said I was “fit.” The days of carrying a 60-pound pack and hiking through the North Carolina woods had gone long ago. We went up and down hills, through streams, slid on muddy clay roads. I spent the first hour cramming more and more unneeded clothing items into my pack – starting with shoes, which would have just been heavy, wet blister machines.
Here I decided to strategically include the first of two photos, where Anne has gone calf-deep in mud, and I am crossing on the log. In the next photo I am calf-deep in the mud, hanging on to the log to avoid toppling over into the creek. I was carrying all of the electronics, and this would have spelled disaster.
Every now and then, I would ask Sam, “how much farther?” and he would say “oh about an hour.” After about 3 hours, I asked one of the others, “Are we getting close?” and she answered “We’re not even halfway!”
In the photo above, everyone wondered why I had stopped – I had overheated, and had pretty much immersed myself in the stream for some relief.
Every now and then we would pass through a village – maybe 300 people or so – and the locals would stare curiously at the odd band of people who were passing through. We would get a break while Sam would drop his pack and pay a visit to the village “President.” The President would listen to Sam explain what we were up to, and would give his permission for us to pass through his area, and assign us a “policeman” (the gentleman in the red t-shirt is one such policeman) to escort us to the next village, whereupon he would disappear and be replaced by someone else. Invariably, the policeman was always carrying Anne’s pack…and would carry it like it was filled with pillows, not 50 pounds of gear!
Along the way, we would pass others, either carrying their own luggage in rice bags, or often it was young men carrying (for example) two cases of large soda bottles tied to the ends of a bamboo pole which was balanced on one shoulder, or the equivalent amount of commercial goods, for sale upstream.
Finally, I was told, we had arrived. We crossed one last stream and climbed uphill into the village that would be our home for the next four or five nights. The locals stared as we came into town – a few smaller children cried, afraid. We went to pay our respects to the village President, to explain what we planned to do, and he gave us his blessing and showed us to a vacant hut – one of the few which had a light, thanks to a solar panel – and a low bed with a mattress stuffed with straw. The others insisted we take the bed. When I protested, they insisted…”because you are the oldest.”
Getting old has got to be worth something, I guess.
In my next post, I’ll introduce you to the village of Andovolalina, and we’ll meet Jerome.
Photos are mostly by Anne, and some by Sam.
Learn more about the crowdfunding project we were supporting here.