Barefoot in the Malagasy Jungle: the Making of Onja’s Crowdfunding Video (part 3)

In the third and and final installment in this series I have written about a trip we took out to a remote village in Madagascar, to help film a crowdfunding video for a great cause, Onja.  In this post I share (with the help of Anne’s photos) our impressions of life in the 700-person village of Andovolalina, about 35 kilometers west of Mahanoro, Madagascar, and the nearest drivable road.

The first thing I should probably talk about is food.  We had thought to be as self-sufficient as possible.  We’re not big eaters anyway, so we brought dense foods – nuts, granola-type stuff, pop tarts (vitamins!!) and a few ziplocs of sugary, fortified cereals…candy.  I grabbed a few small apples out of the bowl on the dining room table on the way out.  Boiled the last few eggs in the fridge, filled the water bladders in our backpacks with 3 liters each, filled some ziplocs with powdered gatorade…

It turns out that Sam had planned ahead.  To make sure we didn’t go hungry.  Every evening, the women in our small group would disappear, and then reappear mysteriously an hour later with the lady that lived in the next house, and a huge dinner (pictured here).  The neighbor and her son would join us for dinner.  We’d have red rice, some sort of spinach, and there would be french-fried potatoes and a delicious grated carrot salad.  Sam made a point of telling me they had brought peanuts and fish, I believe – which were added to various dishes.  For those of us not used to these foods, we probably looked like reaaallly moderate eaters for the first few meals.  I will admit that we were craving Coca-Cola by the second night, and I found the store where I’d buy a big bottle for us to share.  The village store charged me just over a dollar for the big bottle – which was a huge luxury for most of the village.  And seemed like a really good deal when I thought about how it had been carried the entire distance we had walked a few days earlier.

Around the third day I had grabbed an apple out of my pack, and Sam explained to me that there were no apples to be had in this area.  He explained that the “normal” food was just the rice and the spinach, every single night.  He told me that it had been our group which had brought all the potatoes and carrots, so we (Anne and I) wouldn’t go hungry.  Feeling guilty, I went and dug all the apples out of my bag and gave them to our host…

The real treat for me was breakfast.  We’d walk across the village every morning, to a house where we’d be served bread which was made by dropping lumps of batter in hot oil cooked over a wood fire.  We’d go inside this “Andovolalina Denny’s” and sit on small stools, and be served this bread with little metal enameled cups with the best coffee we’ve had yet in Madagascar.  The secret is that it’s sweetened with cane juice.  And while we’re on that subject, here’s where cane juice comes from:

Basically you take chunks of sugar cane and put them in this device, which looks like it’s made of stone – but it’s wood, and the stick is used to smash the cane so the sugar runs into the pot underneath.  Mmmmm.  So like 4 or 5 of us would eat our fill, and everyone had a cup of this delicious coffee, and at the end one of us would pay like 300 ariary.  An American dime.  There are completely different economies at play in Madagascar.

After some time in the village I reached a point where I couldn’t stall anymore, and so I asked Sam, “Um…so where’s the bathroom?”

I wasn’t sure – the village was surrounded on three sides by creeks, and hills.  There are actually two churches – one Protestant and one Catholic, all on hills surrounding the village, plus a major river.

Sam, ever the gracious host, didn’t say anything at first.  He left for a bit, and then came back 20 minutes or so later and announced that he had arranged for us to use the “toilet.”  I realized he meant that he had asked for permission for us to use the single outhouse in the village and I laughed, “No, I meant, like which ‘woods’ are the ones we’re supposed to use when we have to ‘go’?  I don’t want to just pee anywhere I want and risk offending someone!”

Laughing, h briefed me where we should ‘go’…when we had to go.  And so that was that.

I should mention at this point that mobile phone coverage in Andovolalina is pretty much nonexistent.  And as it turns out, where you go happens to be up one of the hills surrounding the village.  So one evening I figured, well, I guess I can kill two birds with one stone!  So I went out into the night to do my business.  And check email.

The former didn’t take me that long, but the latter…well, I never got a decent signal.  But I stumbled around in the dark for awhile searching.  And getting to and from the hill took a bit, and I didn’t really notice time slipping by.  But as it turns out, while I was away, a major crisis had erupted in the village.

It turns out that at a certain point, Sam had become concerned at my absence, and when Anne told him I was out tromping in the woods in the dark, he worried that maybe something had happened to me.  By now, most of the village was in the process of settling down to sleep.  Apparently this evening would be when the village drunk would decide to try and make off with someone’s hen by crawling under their house where they had settled for the night.  Hearing the ruckus, the chicken’s owner had come out to investigate, and caught him in the act, and with a loud shriek, instantly had the entire village on its feet!

Of course since I had gone missing, Sam assumed that I was somehow involved in the crisis, and as he hurried out to rescue me, the entire village went running up the hill to confront the thief.  The villagers “handcuffed” the thief, scolded him, and marched him around the village to shame him.

Of course, minutes later I wandered nonchalantly onto the scene, frustrated that I couldn’t check my email and wondering what the fuss was about…

Evenings, our cabin was a hotbed of activity.  During the day, kids would watch us shyly from a distance.  We were always horrified when some of the village’s youngest residents would burst into tears as we approached!  We learned that it’s a common practice in Madagascar to tell young children if they don’t behave, the “vazaha” (foreigners) will come and take them away.  So naturally they were terrified that the boogeyman – us – had appeared in their midst.

But by the second night or so, the older kids, curious, would visit the cabin.  Anne had brought bags of crayon sets and small coloring books, so this was the entertainment for one evening.  And lollipops.  And Pixie Stix.

On other evenings, Sam would give English lessons, or teach the kids how to play “rock, paper, scissors.”  Which apparently in New Zealand, is called “scissors, paper rock.”  You know, southern hemisphere….

Sam had been talking to us about “market day.”  Apparently, Andovolalina is a sort of hub in the region, and people were expected to come from miles around for the market which would take place the day before we left.  And that night, there was to be some sort of dance.  We thought this would be a great video/photo op.

Early the morning of market day, we were awakened to the most horrendous sound coming from near the creek.  And then again.  And again.  The expression “like a stuck pig”?  We learned about it at 5 am on market day.  Bacon in the making.

Since we were awake, we stumbled down to the creek with our toothbrushes and our towels, and came upon the process where fire was used to singe the hair off the pigs, and then cut them up into sellable portions.  Because we are used to our food magically appearing on the shelves at the supermarket, all of this biology caught us off guard a bit.  So we decided to go upstream a bit for our morning personal hygiene rituals…

Nevertheless, market day turned out to be a great photo op as we suspected.  People came from miles around, and they all wondered who these strange foreigners were, wandering around taking pictures of the most mundane, everyday things…


But it was an interesting day – people came from miles around to trade in all sorts of goods and we got a better idea of how things work out here, far from all of the shopping centers and malls, “in the middle of nowhere.”

As the market wound to a close and people started to close down their booths, we thought things were winding down.  We went to start packing down our bags and equipment, and there was a commotion outside.  I ran out with the camera to see what was going on.

It seems that part of market day, which we had apparently missed, is a soccer tournament.  Fans belonging to the winning village had been celebrating throughout the tournament already, and things really came to a head once their team won the final championship!

We left the winners to their celebration and continued our packing.  Sam told us that tonight there would also be a dance.  We had caught a glimpse of the huge speakers, powered by several car batteries that had been charged with solar panels.  After dinner – as late as 10 pm, we were told, the party would get going, and it would go all night.  We were a bit skeptical – after all, we were in a remote rural village.  We thought about getting up to check out the party, but by the time things got going, we were all quite literally sacked out, exhausted from the previous few days’ activities.

But we would not be left out of the fun.

While we tried to sleep, literally all night – until well after sunrise, at about 6:30 am – the “dance hall” – a large hut at the end of the village, packed with speakers and lights and all of the young people from miles around, were the scene of throbbing techno music that kept the entire village up all night long.  It was completely surreal.

When we made our way down to the coffee shop in the morning with our packs, saying goodbye to our new friends, paying our respects to the President, to Jerome and his family, we saw many of the night’s revelers, still tipsy, tired from the party, and preparing for their own journeys back to their villages.


We said our goodbyes, and in a light rain, we reversed our journey on foot through the many villages we had passed through a few days earlier, stopping each time to pick up our escort policeman from each village’s President.  Anne passed out the last of her lollipops and Pixie Stix as we passed through the last few villages, and we arrived exhausted at the village where the pickup truck had dropped us off.

We were too late for the truck, which was already full, and would have to wait for the next.  The prospect of being crammed again into the back of one of these trucks was not something I was looking forward to.

Down on the river sat a barge.  I asked Sam if he thought he’d be able to talk the boatman into taking us downriver.  Apparently the boat was waiting for a load of bananas, but after some haggling and a fair amount of pressure from my end, the boatman finally agreed to take us back to Mahanoro.

We had a pleasant ride back and reflected on the adventure we had experienced.  Sam was very thankful for our help with the video, but in fact it was us who felt the most grateful, for simply having been able to have an insight into village life as it is not experienced by many outsiders in Madagascar.   Now it was time to head back home…and actually edit the video!

As usual, photos are mostly – but not all – by Anne.  Video clips my own.


Postscript:  As it would turn out, it took months – hours and hours of work editing the video, uploading it, dreading the corrections Sam would suggest but would ultimately make the video better.  We probably sent 25 versions of the video back and forth before we finally felt comfortable with the end product.  It wasn’t until one of the late versions that Sam finally convinced me to add some music (a huge improvement) and I finally convinced him to finally choose a name (other than “Project Livelihood”) for his NGO and project, and he furnished us a logo for the end of the video.

We also thought about our trip – in the meantime we also managed to print many of the photos and had them sent to Mahanoro, where someone was able to carry them out to the village and distribute them.  Separately, we had asked Sam to look into whether anyone knew what it would take to repair the village’s well.  Other members of our team located a technician who knew what the issue was, and though we offered to cover his trip to Antananarivo, the cost of the parts, and his return trip to the village to make the repair, as it would turn out, the technician and a variety of other people ended up contributing their time and money and the well ended up being repaired about  a month ago.  A village of 700 people has a working well again for a grand total of about $10 in parts…

We have talked with Sam about returning to the village,  and hopefully carrying out some things they can use like schoolbooks or other supplies, and going out to film/photograph updates to the project.  So far, no firm dates – but we’re in the middle of the rainy season.

In the meantime, if the people of Andovolalina have made a little bit of an impression on you, as they did with us, you can visit the crowdfunding page that was created using the footage and photos we managed to collect on this amazing trip, and learn more about the unique project Sam has come up with to try and help talented kids like Jerome from his region.  Thanks for stopping by!

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