National Geographic Young Explorer Alizé Carrère is researching an innovative method of agricultural adaptation in the Malagasy highlands that has emerged in the face of severe deforestation. Known to locals as “lavaka”, literally meaning “hole”, they are massive erosional gullies that provide surprising agricultural and socio-economic benefits, turning a deforested landscape into one of opportunity, not hardship.
The bubonic plague is something that not many people give much thought to these days. This is understandable, since it has been largely eradicated from the realities of the 21st century, save for a very few remote pockets on the globe.
I’ll admit that up until a week ago, I didn’t even know the bubonic plague still existed in our modern age. So I was a bit surprised when someone told me that east of where I was doing fieldwork in northern Madagascar, a village was being hit with a deadly plague outbreak. In the last week, medical tests confirmed that at least 20 people had died in the northeastern village of Mandritsara as a result of this rare disease. In response, the BBC, the Guardian, and various other news outlets released alarming articles warning of the serious possibility of a plague epidemic in Madagascar if it wasn’t brought under control.
The Bubonic Plague is most famous for its deadly grip across Europe during the Middle Ages. It was called The Black Death, a general reference to the dreadful gloom and terror of the event, as well as the common blackening of a sufferer’s skin in the form of spots and blackened extremities due to acral gangrene (i.e. gangrene of the fingers, toes, lips and nose). It killed an estimated 25 million people, or roughly 1/3 of the population of Europe at the time. It is a disease typically transmitted to humans via fleas who bite infected rats.
Today, the plague is a rare malady. Antibiotics are largely to thank for this. However, more than 80% of the world’s remaining bubonic plague cases come from Madagascar alone, often spread within the island’s prisons due to cramped and unhygienic conditions. Last year, Madagascar reported 60 deaths from the plague, the highest number in the world. While most of these cases are the bubonic plague, the pneumonic plague (affecting the lungs) is also still reported. It is an outbreak of the pneumonic plague that has affected the village in Mandritsara most recently.
So timing wasn’t, or maybe was for the sake of the wild experience and producing this article, the best when my field schedule had me headed for that exact village in just two days.
While most people would probably run as far as they possibly could in the opposite direction, I ran to the closest pharmacy, bought plague antibiotics in one hour’s time (thank you, modern medicine), tossed them down with very-much-in-season mango juice, and jumped on the next taxi-brousse (“bush taxi”) headed for Mandritsara.
The reason I was scheduled to go to there is a story in itself, and also explains my extreme persistence in making it happen.
For two months now I have been trying to find a way to get my own aerial photos of the lavaka that I am here researching. One really only gets a sense of scale and the magnitude of the erosion problem when witnessed from well above.
In the tiny network that is the international/ex-pat/vazaha community of Madagascar, I was put in touch with a pilot from a Swiss NGO that takes on volunteer helicopter pilots for humanitarian missions in some of the most remote regions of the world. Their Madagascar team frequently flies to villages that remain off the grid in terms of access to basic services and amenities.
I asked if it would be possible for me to join a helicopter ride to take some research photos of lavaka in the event that they had a free spot on one of their upcoming missions. The pilots said certainly, and that their last mission before a month long break for the holiday season would be this week, for a trip to the village of Mandritsara.
If I could get to the village before Thursday evening via ground transportation (a two day journey), there would be an extra seat in the chopper when they flew back to Tana Friday morning. Knowing that this would be my only chance at capturing my research subjects from the most desired view possible before I left Madagascar, that was when I decided to run to the pharmacy.
I now write to you safe and plague-free from the comfort of my hotel room in Tana. Cruising over Madagascar’s highlands in a helicopter for 1 hour and 41 minutes was worth every sweaty minute of my two-day journey in dilapidated, crammed minivans to a village suffering a plague outbreak. If there is any country to be seen from a bird’s eye view, I can assure you that it is Madagascar. It was truly one of the most spectacular things I have seen in quite some time.
As countless other folk of the NatGeo photo community can surely relate, I think the moral of the story is: never underestimate the lengths one will go for a good photograph – because sometimes the journey behind the lens is just as captivating as the photo itself.