Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the impact of human land development on biodiversity and how it could potentially spread infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to people. Cara will focus on bubonic plague in small mammals and henipaviruses and lyssaviruses (two strains of viruses) in bats.
“Voalavo!” we call—Bring out your rats!— as we make our morning rounds through the village of Maharidaza, Madagascar. I am put in mind of the cadaver collectors of the Black Death, for we, too, are searching for plague—and leptospirosis. I write to you newly returned from our most recent journey sur terrain, our vat of liquid nitrogen now feno—full— with Rattus rattus kidneys for me to sequence at my tropical island laboratory in La Réunion.
Though our plague rapid tests all yielded negatives (Yersinia pestis typically hits hard in the rainy season here, which will come in the occidental winter), I feel optimistic about the mass of data we have collected—a load of bacterial and viral samples awaiting analysis—as well as pleasantly nostalgic for the host of memories we’ve amassed in the last few weeks lost in the Malagasy Ambanivohitra.
We’ve spent the past few weeks hiking amongst the remote highland villages south of Ambohitantely Special Reserve, carrying backpacks laden with rat traps to set in rice paddies and houses, in an effort to investigate risk for rodent-borne disease.
Science aside, we’ve been privileged to witness a Malagasy wedding—complete with an entourage of revelers who raced by our tent carrying the bride-to-be’s bed on their heads—as well as a funeral of the father of the Maharidaza village president.
In the highland culture of the Malagasy Merina tribe, funerals are kind of a big deal, and this region is famous for the three-to-five year ceremonial ritual of famadihana, or turning of the bones, when the dried carcasses—the razana—of each family’s ancestors are exhumed, reclothed, and reburied.
Though most famadihanas will not take place until September or October, we got a sneak preview into Merin culture as we sat through the night with the president’s family—alongside the body awaiting burial—and ate zebu meat from the cow the family sacrificed in the dead’s honor. Wealthy families will sometimes wait days, even weeks, to bury a body to allow visitors from neighboring regions to first pay their respects to the deceased, and each day left unburied is marked by the ceremonial sacrifice and consumption of yet another cow.
I, of course, can’t help but wonder about the health implications of this long funeral process—after all, what if the man had died of plague?—but I doubt this was the case here. Our village dadabe passed away at the ripe old age of eighty-four. Christian says long life is not uncommon in the Ambanivohitra. “If you make it past childhood,” says Christian, “you’ll lead a very healthy life out here—lots of hiking, lean foods, and none of the stresses of the city.”
Indeed, we feel some of this healthy lifestyle ourselves, as we trek from one village to another with our heavy packs, fueled by a diet of three meals of rice accompanied with some variation of bean—tsaramaso, voanjobory, or lentille, you pick.
Only when we are treated to zebu steak do I remark on the strict veganism of our habitual diet—save for the occasional chocolate bar which Evaline’s mom (thank you!) packed into her bag back in SFO. Indeed, that KitKat tasted of a whole different world…But I dare not complain, for the food is simple but truly good, and I can’t help but feel a nostalgic fondness for our cook, Nosy, who did his best to please us with special afternoon treats of steamed mangahazo (manioc) and mofo akondro (fried banana)—which Evaline and I happily augmented with liberal spoonfuls of precious peanut butter. “If I ever need to impress an American girl,” Christian questions gravely, “should I just offer her a jar of peanut butter?”
After the great cooking debate described in a previous blog entry, our gas stoves and pressure cooker have been serving us well, but in the last few days of our trip sur terrain, they finally gave out. “It’s okay, though,” Nosy explained to me in Malagasy with a wave towards the kitchen, “your little camp stove will suffice!” And I roared with laughter to see a vat of beans settled precariously atop my MSR Dragonfly brought from the States.
I had to explain to Nosy that the Dragonfly probably would not hold out for four hours of bean cooking—indeed, an instant backpacking meal in the US is rather less time intensive than voanjobory—and I guiltily admit that we had to cook a few meals with forbidden coal to avoid going too hungry in the field…
We made friends, too, in the Ambanivohitra, mostly with the family of the president of Maharidaza, including one bright young boy called Dauphin, who helped us carry traps and negotiate with villagers. He was mazoto-be!—hardworking and eager—and a perfect example of the kind-hearted, generous people who first made me fall in love with Madagascar.
Of course, there were challenges sur terrain—the villages are dirty, and I return to civilization with a nose as snotty and a cough as rattling as the many kids who followed me around, and just this morning, I pulled my first parasy of the summer out of my big toe. Parasys are delightful sand fleas which dig under the skin and lay a packet of eggs alongside your toenails—I’ve avoided them for the most part this séjour in Madagascar, but my previous life in Vondrozo was rife with parasy encounters, including one which made me famous in a few of the more bizarre circles on YouTube…
As ever, my clothes are wearing tired and thin, my jeans ripping, my hairties snapping, and my sewing kit getting far more use than is habitual—read never. I had a moment last week as I crouched in the middle of the Maharidaza river, beating my field pants clean against a wet rock, where I wondered if this was typical of a Princeton PhD, but it’s all part of the package that comes with field work in Madagascar. I’ll write up some models and run them through Matlab when I get back to New Jersey in September, but for now, I’m in Madagascar—and happy to be so—and every moment is its own unique adventure.