Sometimes ideas just snowball. One night you are sitting around and you suddenly say “we should show the Madagascar series to kids here, so they can appreciate what the rest of the world sees about this country” and somehow, three months later, you find yourself deep in the rainforest with thirty Malagasy teenagers, most of whom are disgustedly berating you about leeches. Actually, the course of events that brought us here was less of a snowball and more of an avalanche. First it was the BBC Madagascar series, then Planet Earth; a documentary and discussion course was planned; UNICEF got on board and a budget was allotted; plans correspondingly grew grander. By this time, the avalanche had begun and there was no escaping its momentum. By the beginning of August, we were teaching a thirty-hour course, which included a research project, a mural, and a four-day field trip.
Which is how I found myself at the back of a long, straggly line of Malagasy teens as they climbed the sheer, slippery and generally unforgiving side of a mountain. Kerry (the other half of this avalanche-caught “we”) was leading the more endeavoring end of the line; I, in the rear, was doing my very best to encourage those students who thought, but did not say, that they in no way signed up for this. I could hardly tell them that I did not sign up for it either. Instead I told them that we had bought cookies for those who made it to the top.
To say that we brought these kids to the countryside would be technically accurate: we organized the paperwork and handled the budget, set the itinerary and created the curriculum, led (or in my case, followed and bribed) the group to its various destinations. But in reality, these kids brought us. Displaying the remarkable level of self-sufficiency which defines Malagasy youth, they planned and purchased all of our supplies, cooked (over open fire) our three meals a day. They woke up each morning at five, were ready to go with surprising punctuality, and, whether it was on foot or by boat, they brought their indefatigable ambiance– which is to say, they danced and sang the hours away. Oh, and when they were not doing all of these things, they were learning.
We traveled by boat and trooped into Sahavilory, a portion of rainforest in the Makira protected area, where they conducted transects and counted species, in an effort to understand both the scope of biodiversity and the difficulty in assessing it. (They, as you likely will be, were shocked to learn that approximately one percent of the world’s biodiversity is found in the combined Makira-Masoala landscape). The next morning class started at seven, with a lesson on population growth and the associated environmental pressures. Noon found us in Andaparaty, a village far upriver and on the rainforest’s edge, where the students fanned out to conduct a community survey and natural resource assessment. No rest for the weary, we then crossed the river and entered into the forest. Which brings me to the leeches.
Despite their remarkable level of maturity and self-sufficiency, these kids of Maroantsetra were efa lasa tsy zanaka ambanivolo, which is to say they were no longer children of the countryside. The mountain, sheer mud and a difficult climb even without bags and full pots of rice, was enough to ask. But when we entered that rainforest in Anjanaharibe and began our activities- hikes, interdependence demonstrations, and presentations on an active carnivore research project- the students encountered a foe simply too horrifying to bear. The leeches.
I will concede, there were certainly many of them, doing what they do in their unpleasant blood-sucking way. For a short period, the excursion devolved into borderline hysteria (despite Kerry’s best efforts to persuade the kids that “leeches are really just like mosquitoes, except better! because it won’t itch afterwards!”). But in the end, the students’ response exemplifies why I have so much respect for them: hysteria quickly gave way to acceptance of an unpleasant reality, this unpleasant reality gave way to humor, and in no time everything was leeches. Snack was immediately and irrevocably renamed from pause cafe to pause dinta, the leech break.
Even after our safe return from the land of leeches and endless muddy mountainsides, the dinta refused to die. Environmental problems? A student raises his hand in class and says with the utmost seriousness: “People killing animals. People killing leeches!” One kid asks another to open a window, and the latter responds without skipping a beat: “what and let all the leeches in? You must be crazy.”