Myth-confirmer: Madagascans do like to move it, move it
A year of organising, planning and saving up was finally coming to an end: it was time for two weeks in Madagascar to volunteer before returning to university in September. It would officially be my first time outside of the country (besides Scotland) since being a vegan, and it would be my first time in a country so stricken with poverty, and I was prepared for two main challenges:
- The potential for having nothing to eat besides bread and fruit and becoming deficient in B12 without my beloved Nutritional Yeast.
- Seeing for the first time what life is like in a developing country. Coming from a middle-class family and home in England, I felt ready to count my blessings.
In the time I was there, there were 60 volunteers in our camp on our tiny island Nosy Komba, or, translated, Lemur Island.
45 meat eaters, 13 vegetarians, 2 vegans. And lots of hungry locals.
Volunteers go to Madagascar for a range of projects: teaching, marine conservation, construction or forest conservation. Originally I had signed up for teaching, but then panicked since I can’t speak French beyond ‘il fait frais’ (which wouldn’t have been helpful in 30 degree Madagascar).
Instead, part of my time was spent working on forest conservation, with a goal of monitoring and then obtaining data regarding the endemic species to Madagascar, about whom there is very little scientific knowledge. The dense forest of Nosy Komba is home to many endemic species, but habit destruction threatens them – the current forest is secondary, meaning it has been completely cut down for wood once before, and is now growing back. Volunteers were needed to identify changes in forest dynamics, populations and habitat health. Fitting volunteering for an environmentally conscience vegan, eh?
The forest conservation involved a lot of hiking and a correlative amount of sweating, and a lot of getting bitten by mosquitos (turns out it is possible for vegans to hate certain living things). Many worryingly huge spiders, beautiful if a little unnerving snakes and even more geckos were a daily sighting, a constant reminder of the tropical diversity the island has to offer – and also a reminder that secretly I felt lucky to be living in huge-spider and snake free England.
The annoying thing (although it made perfect sense) was that for our data to be usable, we had to learn to identify the species we would be identifying and monitoring. I was due to be volunteering there for two weeks – about the time it takes you to learn the first ‘set’ of species – and so I decided to move on to the construction team (building a school in the local village – or letting the local children play with my hair, whichever) and make my time in Komba more worthwhile. The forest continued however to captivate me, and I can’t express its beauty and incredible diversity enough. Lemurs are cuter in real life than in the film.
On our weekend off, a group of around 20 of us went to another island, Nosy Iranja – you might recognise it as one of the places Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed (does that count as a claim to fame?). With crystal clear (turtle teeming) sea and near-white sand bridging two tropical islands, the place glittered with appeal. As a local showed me to the hut I would be spending the night in though, what caught my eye was far from pleasing. Rope tied around its scrawny body trapping it between two wooden posts, a lemur.
The tiny thing looked terrified, and jumped nervously between posts as we walked past. A concerned vegan, I of course asked the local why the lemur was there. Despite some language barriers, it was obvious that the lemur had been taken from the wild and was now used by the local people as a means of income; at weekends, locals and lemur would go to another more touristy island, and pawn off the lemur for photographs.
I couldn’t understand what tourist would want a photo with such a distressed, unhealthy and captive animal. But then I thought about the number of people who go to Seaworld and zoos on a daily basis and it made more sense – people just don’t think about whether the animal should be there.
This created an interesting moral dilemma in my head. With 70% of the Madagascan population living beneath the poverty line – 85% in rural areas, such as Nosy Iranja – should they not be doing all they can to sustain themselves? Or, is the wellbeing of an animal never worth less than human needs?
Language barriers meant that I regrettably couldn’t find out any more on the issue, and left my thoughts somewhere between a rock and a hard place.
Hungry for change?
This thought process extended to issues of mealtimes too.
A few of the other volunteers made jokes about me coming to Madagascar to spread the vegan word here, a vegan missionary, and discourage the consumption of animal products.
I explained (often through gritted teeth) to them that while I think every person in a developed country, with the ease of access to every nutrient we need without animal products, I don’t expect the same from those in developing countries. There is a vast difference between Westerners eating burgers from cattle kept indoors all their lives and pumped with antibiotics just because it tastes good, and the local Madagascan people I encountered who go out daily fishing desperate to bring food home for their families.
I don’t want any animals to have to die, but I don’t want people to die either – the children I met and played with were already skinny.
It was strange being in an environment where for the first time I was not staring disapprovingly at people eating meat. I missed this privilege I have back home, when I can glare at my dad and say, “do you really need that?”
The meals prepared at volunteer camp were, let’s say, a little repetitive.
Breakfast, 6am: bread, with jam
Lunch, 12pm: rice with beans, in – in all fairness – some sort of delicious Madagascan sauce, with a slice of pineapple or orange for dessert
Dinner, 6pm: see lunch
Snacks available: banana
Once a week we had noodles, and once a week we had pasta, for which everyone on camp was abnormally excited. The food was samey, but it was still delicious. The meat-eaters had the same but zebu (their version of a cow) or fish rather than beans, which they claimed was tasty. However, considering that with only 15 of us in the queue for the non-meat option we were sat and eating within a couple of minutes, and the meat eaters queue stretched beyond the length of the canteen (ha), I question whether this ‘tasty’ meat was worth it.
Only once could I not have the main food, when it had egg in it, but since it was early on in the trip, I wasn’t yet bored of rice so didn’t mind all that much. It was, luckily, surprisingly easy to eat vegan. Even the local restaurants would make pizza without cheese and dairy free pasta dishes.
Mealtimes also meant social time and, inevitably, some questions. The expected dessert island question came at me a few times (when will this end?), and lots of ‘but what do you eat?’
I found out that people are genuinely interested in veganism, but most still definitely see it as being unattainable. I also found out that even if you barely mention veganism, some people will still believe you are ‘shoving your opinion down their throat’. I got called preachy once even though I only ever spoke of veganism when asked about it, and did nothing more than answer people’s questions as briefly as possible… I didn’t think I’d have much luck making friends if I was busy telling everyone how unethical and unnecessary their chosen lifestyle was.
One highlight was when I saw a fellow volunteer order a pizza minus the cheese: FELLOW VEGAN! Obviously, he became my favourite person in Madagascar – even when he tried to hide from me the fact that he’d had pancakes for breakfast one morning, despite the likelihood of egg. For the sake of his vegan dignity, I will leave this person unnamed (Tomos Wootton).
Pls no photos with the fake vegan
I had an incredible trip, and two weeks wasn’t enough – although by that point I was excited for a bath and to feel clean again. I learnt many lessons, and one of the most pleasing and encouraging things I realised was how doable it is to be a vegan when travelling, even in Africa. Having said that, it made me realise how lucky I am to be able to be vegan – I have the luxury of B12 fortified foods, fermented seitan, vegetables and fruits imported from all across the world, Vegan multivitamins to make sure I’m not missing out anything, while so many others across the world have no such luxury.
I’ll be going back to Africa.