The joys and rewards of volunteering

For one month now, we have been volunteering on the West coast of Madagascar. It proves to be a privileged moment in our lifes: interesting, fun, and recharging.

Blue Ventures (BV) has been taking volunteers in Madagascar for over a decade. They take up to 15 at a time, for periods of 6 weeks. Most volunteers come here to dive on the coral reef and collect data about the abundance of certain species in the Velondriake area (a marine protected area supported by BV and managed with the villages).

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The house hosting the Velondriake Locally Managed Marine Area, in Andavadoaka.

Instead of diving, Johanna and I decided to focus on the conservation and community activities. We wanted to experience and support BV’s “integrated approach”, bringing together environment, health, education, and population (improved access to family planning and contraception).

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Johanna poses in front of the mural she helped paint two years ago. It encourages people to use condoms, see a doctor during pregnancy, and keep their hands clean.

Our first contribution as volunteers was to make a short video about the Madagascar Population Health Environment network which was created by BV and other partners. The purpose of the video is to promote the work of network in social media and with donors. It was great fun to do this video and record the voice of Laura Robson from BV as the narrator. We enjoyed it and it inspired us to do some more.

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Self portrait of the film crew at the Population Health Environment workshop 🙂

Here in Andavadoaka, we get to experience several aspects of field work. One of them is education. Education levels are very low in the area, and it remains an obstacle to social and environmental progress. In order to change that, BV is doing two things. They provide scholarships to help as many families as possible pay for school and high school. They also complement the public school system with a range of activities: English lessons, an open access library, a Saturday School and a great “Girls Club”.

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The Girls Club provides creative activities and also advice on a wide range of topics: education, job opportunities, health, relationships, contraception.

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As volunteers we explained a number of potential jobs (and how to get them) through presentations and also through fun and creative games. For a moment, I was a doctor  🙂

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This club creates an amazing space for girls to learn and gain ownership of their own lives.

Johanna and I are also helping a small French NGO called Steph’Andava, which focuses on teaching French. This is important because the whole school system is in French but many of the teachers don’t speak it properly. Karine and her two Malagasy staff are very happy to have French speaking volunteers, so we spend a lot of our time working with them.

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Karine and her team do a great job at teaching French to school teachers and kids in Andavadoaka and the neighboring village of Befandefa.

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We go with them to classrooms to help kids practice their oral French skills.

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Norva reads stories, and then we explain the text and discuss it in French with the kids.

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On some evenings, we also do a bit of theatre improvisation. The kids get to be creative, which is not often the case in their school system.

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I really enjoy these activities!

In order to support education efforts, Johanna and I are also preparing two promotional videos: one presenting Steph’Andava, the other focusing on BV’s scholarship program. Hopefully these videos will help raise more funding.

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One day, Johanna spent several hours on a zebu cart to go to the nearby village of Befandefa and interview Jean-Larsson: a former BV scholar who became a teacher.

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Another day, it was my turn to do the trip to Befandefa. The ride is very uncomfortable but the views on the baobab forest make up for it!

Working with the kids here is very enjoyable, but also fascinating. One day I presented images of Paris: the kids asked if the Eiffel tower was a “tour Telma” (a mobile phone provider in Madagascar). I managed to explain what is an elevator, and what are traffic jams, but the concept of metro proved really hard to grasp!

Apart from education, we are supporting some of the conservation work.

Johanna spent a great 5 days conducting surveys in other villages, asking people about fisheries and marine resources. She also documented the meeting of the Velondriake Committee that manages the marine reserve.

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Representatives of villages to the Velondriake Committee.

We were also very excited to spend a day with BV staff and other volunteers in a region south of Andava, to do a census of rare endemic tortoises.

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Our mean of transport was a French military truck from the 60s. BV wisely asked everyone to not indicate on the internet where are these precious tortoises.

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Some like it hot. Believe it or not the tortoises were hard to find because many had already started hibernating. Hard to grasp when you come from Brussels!

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This is the Spider Tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides brygooi), in critical danger of extinction. Each of these beauties was measured, marked, and released to their spiny forest habitat.

As you can imagine, my artist wife is also working on several illustrations: one on hygiene, one to help education activities, another one to explain why data is being collected on sharks and how fishermen can help. Pretty varied work!

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Sharks are in decline in Madagascar and globally. Blue Ventures asked Johanna to make this poster to explain data collection to local fishermen.

One last story: we joined the “village clean up”, an initiative run by the kids of Saturday School with the support of Blue Ventures.

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This is how the site looked like when we started. Even though consumer society has not really reached Andava, some waste does accumulate.

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The clean up was a great collaborative effort between BV staff, volunteers and the kids.

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Dans la joie et la bonne humeur 🙂

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We basically gathered the trash and made large holes to burn it. Come on Johanna, show them what the vazaha girl can do! 🙂

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This solution is far from perfect. In fact, I am now exploring options to install a basic waste incinerator in Andava.

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Still, it was a morning well spent and the result was rewarding. The shower afterwards felt pretty good too!

I hope this gives you a sense of our activities as volunteers.

It is the fourth time I volunteer abroad. Before coming here, I sometimes wondered if it still made sense, at this point of my life and career. Today, I can say the answer is yes. In fact, volunteering has always recharged me in my life, and it is working once again.

Both Johanna and I feel extremely privileged to be here. It is a rare chance to meet great people and bring contributions without the pressure, over-planning and stress that is sometimes associated to work. Everything we do here is very concrete, and no matter how modest our roles may be, we see the concrete products of our work along the way. We do what inspires us and stimulates our creativity. We live in the present moment in a beautiful environment, with very little noise and pollution. We learn a lot, we laugh a lot, and we feel uplifted by NGO staff and volunteers, local people, kids and nature.

5 thoughts on “The joys and rewards of volunteering

  1. BRAVO Jean-Philippe. Vous faites tous les deux du très bon boulot “dans la joie et la bonne humeur” ! Keep going !

    Like

  2. Pingback: Madagascar!!! - Johanna Medvey

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