Hear it from them!
We have asked some of our past volunteers to write up a testimonial offering any useful advice for those who are thinking about joining our Volunteer Program. A few of them really took it to heart, and below is some valuable information for anyone traveling to Madagascar!
Prolemur Simus Team
Written: January 2, 2017
I joined the Prolemur simus team for 3 months in September 2016. Before I left, I had no idea of what to expect from Madagascar – the handbook provided by MBP and contacting previous volunteers are great ways of ensuring that you are prepared, but discovering the realities of the country can only truly be done on arrival! It didn’t take long for me to realise it was a very special place to be, and my experience with MBP was an extremely positive one.
Life at KAFS is blissfully simple. There is everything you need, even if it is perhaps more ‘rustic’ than life at home. Showering from the well is refreshing after a sweaty morning in the forest and solar panels worked well enough to keep phones and laptops charged for data entry and contact with the outside world. Having to eat rice three times a day was a bit monotonous but the accompanying vegetables were well flavoured, and we supplemented our diets with fried stuff and fruit from the nearby villages. November/December is lychee season, the best time of the year!
It was also a good time to be following the lemurs, as baby season began justas we arrived. It was lovely to watch them grow and start to explore their surroundings over the three months. The fieldwork was normally pretty relaxed – the lemurs are habituated to the Malagasy guides and volunteers, and the guides are incredibly good at their jobs. Sometimes we’d spend most of the morning moving around, but there was normally a significant amount of time spent in one place, which allowed time to get to know both the guides and the individual lemurs a bit better! Keeping a book in your bag is a good idea, just in case the lemurs rest all day. The sheer variation of species in the forest also never failed to surprise me. I think I saw a new species of bug almost every day I spent in the forest; it really highlights the level of diversity in Madagascar! Make sure to go out with some of the other teams too, to see Varecia variegate and the reforestation efforts.
Weekends were predominantly spent away, in one of three places. Fianar is the place to go for a bit of luxury and home comforts, Mananjary has the beach, and Ranomafana (my personal favourite) is home to the closest National Park. All three have pizza and karaoke! I highly recommend an overnight stay in Ranomafana park, as well
as kayaking down the Namorona River. We were also lucky enough to get a long weekend off, and so visited Ambalavao and Anja Reserve to see Lemur catta. It’s a long, uncomfortable journey on overcrowded taxi brousses, but well worth it.
If you’re interested in a career in research or conservation, I strongly believe volunteering with MBP is a great opportunity. While my masters in conservation was comprehensive at highlighting key issues and mitigation strategies within developing countries, including Madagascar, there really is something extra moving about experiencing it first-hand. To be able to work so closely with the guides allows you to get a really good understanding of the ongoing research, as well as the Malagasy culture. I think 3 months gives you a thorough taster of what fieldwork involves, but I left feeling like it wasn’t long enough in the country, and I hope to return to Madagascar in the future.
Written: July 2016
My name is Samantha, I am 24 years old and have been working in Madagascar since 2012. I graduated in 2014 from the University of Cumbria in the North of England in Animal Conservation Science. During my time here I took a placement year which first brought me to this beautiful island of Madagascar, where I worked as a research assistant for a PhD student following Eulemur rubriventer in Ranomafana National Park. I then had to return to university for another year to write my undergraduate dissertation and attend lectures. Once graduated, I knew that I wanted to return to Madagascar to experience the Island more and gain further experience here. When working in Ranomafana, I heard about Dr. Edward Louis Jr and the program that he was running not far away in Kianjavato, so being so curious, I looked into his volunteer programs currently running. In 2014, I started to volunteer for the reforestation program to gain management skills, test my organisation and gain valuable experience in dealing with budgets, large teams and hiring labour. This was a fantastic opportunity for all of this and has given me experience working in a third world country with many difficulties.
I was a volunteer for 6 months for reforestation, and then was given an opportunity to be hired on as the reforestation supervisor with a one year contract, and of course I took it. My role changed here at KAFS where I had to transition from being a volunteer to a supervisor. I was given more responsibility, which was perfect for me. I am a person that likes to always be busy, thinking about new ideas, or testing these ideas, and secretly I like to be challenged. This job has been a challenge on many levels, with a lot of obstacles, but finding ways to overcome these has been a daily occurrence. I think that I have had an incredible opportunity to use my organisational skills in a difficult environment and I have grown as a person with the challenges I have overcome. I was given another opportunity to extend my time here at site, but I now feel I need to further grow and adapt my capabilities with a new adventure, but will sorely miss my job and time here.
The things I have enjoyed the most about my time here would be learning on the job, being here through all the seasons of the year and adapting to them, especially for planting and nursery operations. I love that I have developed a long-term knowledge of the area and MBP and hope that I can keep a good relationship with the NGO and the people that work within this organisation. I have been here through a huge development stage for the Kianjavato site, with the building of new nurseries to increase the number of trees planted a year and seeing how these nurseries develop in terms of growing trees and the managers working hard to consistently produce them. I love watching this site develop and hope to visit again in the near future to see its changes and see it flourish. And lastly, I appreciate how this organisation works closely with the community to protect the environment and how you can be integrated into this as part of a family.
I am looking forward to hearing all about their accomplishments as an organisation and how the Kianjavato site particularly develops and is protected by the local community there in the future. Thanks for making me a part of your ever developing team of awesome people!
Prolemur simus Team
Written: March 2014
I originally joined the program for 6 months in November 2012 but ended up not returning until November 2013. So, needless to say, I enjoyed the time so much that I wanted to stay on. The time goes a lot quicker than you’d expect if you’ve never been away that long before. I also wanted to stay for some ‘good’ weather because honestly, the November – April season was difficult in terms of climate!! Compared to that, May – September was a big improvement. As sad as I was to leave, it was starting to get much hotter again in October (waking up sweating at 4 am in the morning) so I did look forward to some cold weather back home – I’m from the UK. Anyway, if you are going for the May start date, the climate is manageable, in fact make sure you pack warm clothes as it gets pretty chilly at night and a lot of us found ourselves buying thick blankets for our tents. There’s also far fewer mosquitoes in this time, and far less people suffering staph infections (I think that’s what they were anyway). In the wet season (the first part of the year) it could be pretty difficult to dry out and a few of us got infections in our feet that, though not particularly serious, need to be treated pretty aggressively if you don’t want them spreading and end up taking a lot of time off work. This didn’t seem to be a problem in the dry season as you can dry everything out and avoid wearing wet boots.
Living conditions were actually better than I expected and improving all the time, that was another reason why I wanted to stay on (it’s difficult to leave when there’s so much expansion!!). I think it would even be a shock to go back now, a few months on, as I believe there has been even more going on there. Once again if you are planning on going for the May season it’s a lot easier – the rainy season makes everything a bit difficult, from going up to your tent sites, going back down again, showering, being stuck in the kitchen etc. Once the dry season sets in, you can enjoy the bucket baths a bit more hassle-free and not have to worry about tipping your bucket of water over by slipping in a puddle on the way from the well to the shower.
I suppose the best thing you can do is be really prepared, as perhaps this is one thing I wish I’d done differently as I didn’t make the most of my baggage allowance. I wish I’d taken lots more clothes (second hand or cheap stuff that you don’t mind leaving behind! They may well get ruined through vigorous washing and field life in general, or you might not want to bother taking them back when you can fill your luggage allowance with Malagasy souvenirs). If you are prepared for the wet weather it’s not a problem, good raincoat, lots of dry-bags (good for getting stuff like electronics up and down from you tent site). Desiccant/drying agents too, to keep in your dry-bags. Good boots! The ones I took were durable but a little on the heavy side, so a good idea to go for lightweight. If it was possible I’d take 2 pairs if I were to do it all again, to give one a chance to dry after wetter days. Quick drying stuff is good for in the field, and a good waterproof jacket essential. Also a good backpack for the field, mine broke quickly and it’s hard to find a good one there.
Getting up early really isn’t a problem as you’re typically in bed early, and get up with the sun rising. As for being in the field, this could vary a lot as some days would need a lot of energy if you are monitoring un-habituated lemurs and need to cover quite a bit of land to find them. Other days (a lot of days) you’ll be monitoring lemurs from habituated groups that spend quite a lot of time sleeping….. you might not find yourself doing as much exercise as you’d expect, and honestly the major hump I had to get over at the start is mental stamina needed. By the end I could happily sit and watch the lemurs for hours on end and chat to the guides. I think this is easier if you really work on having a good rapport with all of them; it’s easy to make friends if they can speak good English but I got a lot out of working on friendships with those that spoke less English. That way you won’t get days in the field you dread because you can’t communicate with the person you’re working with. Their English improves all the time, and it doesn’t take long to pick up enough Malagasy to have some interesting conversations. I’ve noticed a big difference in how much patience I have since getting back as I have no problem waiting for something and long journeys are not a problem. You can use the time in the field well anyway, try and get into getting lots of good photos of the lemurs and getting to know the forest and species. They’re great animals to watch and I didn’t get bored of them, as their behavior changes so much throughout the year anyway, and the more you are with them, the more you’ll notice this and get to know their interactions.
Travelling about is great though perhaps a bit more difficult in my experience from some countries. It’s not quite so well visited as areas I’ve been to in mainland Africa. Journeys here are quite long since the roads are quite primitive and there is great distances between towns and villages. Travel is fun, but it takes quite a bit of time to get to places. I recommend doing your research beforehand and be selective as you’d need a lot of time to visit everywhere you’d want to go. The taxi-brousse is fun and you learn quickly how to get the best journey possible – what seats to book, etc. .. we did have one coming back from the coast (a 10 hr journey as we went to Toliara) where the brakes were broken (we found out about 30 km in after noticing him using the handbrake quite a lot… ) in which case we thought it best to switch brousses at the next city. I was glad I took my e-book reader since it’s difficult to carry 6 months worth of books around, and an ipod is good. I’m not sure if a laptop is worth taking. I took mine. It’s an extra load to take if you want to use it for internet on weekends in the city (especially if you’re taking the research laptop for data reporting). But then, if you will need internet access and it’s not your data weekend, it might be useful – some volunteers have done a lot of job hunting, I watched one volunteer have a skype job interview in a cafe ( she got the job!) . I had my smart phone with me so that can be just as good for skypeing and catching up with people and easier to carry so depending on what you’ll need, that can be just as good. “
Hope this covers it though reading it back I might have been a bit harsh on wet season!! Though I think there is quite a difference in the 2 seasons in terms of both living and working conditions. Perhaps you have to go through the perpetually wet, hot, humid stuff to appreciate the dryer, cooler months!
Prolemur simus Team
Written: March 2014
I was one of the original two Prolemur simus volunteers in Kianjavato. I stayed for 9.5 months, from November 2010-August 2011.
I grew up in Omaha so I was familiar with the Henry Doorly Zoo and with the conservation genetics department. After applying and finding out I was chosen, I was thrilled. Ever since I was young, I have always been fascinated with lemurs and Madagascar.
My time in Kianjavato was incredible. Although I say that, it was not devoid of challenges. It was mentally and physically challenging, but one of the most humbling and life-altering experiences I’ve had to date. Since I left, it has made me a stronger, more level headed individual and it has opened up a lot of opportunities for me.
When I first arrived at Kianjavato the infrastructure was VERY rustic. We slept inside a giant shipping container. However, I had to opportunity to visit again this past summer, and it has improved greatly. There are tent platforms (communal and individual) for you to place your tent. There are two toilets, which are in effect, holes in the ground, but there is privacy and saw dust which helps mitigate the smell! There are two places to shower and you get water from the well. It is a simple bucket shower, but you definitely get clean, and it’s so hot there that the cold water is usually a relief. There is a large kitchen/gathering area with chairs where people eat and play games.
The wildlife around Kianjavato is outstanding. Daily you will see several species of lemur along with geckos/chameleons, other reptiles and amphibians, and arthropod species. The forest you will be working in is close to the village proper, where you can purchase extra food or “treats”- even can get a cold beer (usually on the weekends). The local guides are incredibly inspiring, continually educating themselves on the area and becoming more and more fluent in English (when I was there almost none of the them could speak any. When I hear stories from them I’m astounded at their dedication). I have made life-long friends with them, and have received written letter from one in particular.
You will get to travel around a bit and there is unlimited things to see in the country. Every two weeks you get to visit a larger town and use the internet and indulge in some western pleasantries.
Although I want to highlight the positive aspects, it is still a developing country with little to no governmental influence. You should always approach new situations with a cautious eye and be aware of your surroundings. However, this doesn’t mean you should be nervous about any new person you meet, the Malagasy are interesting and lively persons with sharp, and sometimes “jabby” personalities, but they’re always excited to meet different people, especially Americans. Mostly, if you are aware of your valuables and are generally level-headed you will be fine. Kianjavato felt very safe to me, only when visiting other places where I was less familiar was I a tad nervous.
My recommendation: learn as much malagasy as quickly as possible. The locals love it when you are able to speak their language (not French or English) and you will survive outside the bubble of Kianjavato much easier.
There will be times when you’re there where you will be stressed and angry and crave the luxuries we’ve known to rely on, however once you get into the forest and one of the rarest primates in the world jumps over your head, most of that dissolves away.
It will test your patience constantly. I adore the Malagasy people, but their culture is much different than ours and on a much different pace. At times this is lovely, however when you’re trying to accomplish something, it can be the most frustrating thing in the world. It takes innovation and the patience of a mother of 10, but you will walk away a better person.
You will also get cuts, and bruises, an occasional weird rash, and lots of hornet stings; but those are the stories that you live for later, and tell your friends back home- it will forever make you a bad-ass.
I came back to Northern Madagascar this past summer to collaborate with Dr. Ed Louis et al. researching the behavior and plasticity of the Northern Sportive Lemur. Since leaving the Kianjavato program, I was accepted to graduate school at UW-Madison. Part of this acceptance I’m sure was due to my work in Madagascar (and the recommendation I received from Dr. Louis).
Kianjavato is a lovely place to work, because it’s almost an intermediate step between truly isolated field work, and a community. There is so much support there and other westerners mixed with Malagasy workers, I never felt uncomfortable. Up North, where I was this past summer, was much different, and the only way I could have survived was because I had that initial period in Kianjavato.
If you have a lot of field experience, especially with primatology then you may feel a bit stagnant. Often days in the field can get repetitive, but the data is absolutely valuable
I really hoped this helped and gave you some more information on the program. Best of luck with your decision!