Madagascar in the Season of Lightning

Christian Ranaivoson faces the rainclouds in the Bay of Antongil, Madagascar. November 2014. Photo by Cara Brook.
Christian Ranaivoson faces the rainclouds in the Bay of Antongil, Madagascar. (Photo by Cara Brook)

“It’s not down in any map. True places never are.” –Herman Melville, Moby Dick

In Malagasy, the fahavaratra corresponds roughly to the season that we in the West like to call “summer.” But it’s a different sort of summer from any I have ever known. Varatra means lightning, of the sort that strikes the ground, and with lightning comes rain such as I have never seen. It pours from the sky in heavy torrents, rips giant chasms in the city streets, claws through the roof in rivulets that there are not buckets enough to catch.

I stare out my window at the dusky Antananarivo skyline and watch through the ceaseless downpour as the lights go out in one dramatic sweep across the city. Tapaka ny jiro! a neighbor calls out. The power is cut.

What’s Old Is New Again

I’m back once again on the far side of the world and settling into yet another five months of Madagascar. It seems incredible to me that less than a week ago, I was deep in the snow flurries of what my Vermont-borne housemate called “a proper winter,” and now, I find myself enveloped by the long humid days of Malagasy summer.

It’s my first time ever visiting Madagascar at the height of the rainy season, and I feel every sense alive with its newness. There are fruits I have never seen before, street snacks I have yet to try, buildings that have been swept away in a few weeks worth of flood. It’s a country I know, and yet, as always, it is different, challenging, new—in Madagascar, I never cease to learn.

What We’ve Been Up To

My eight weeks in America were far from insignificant; indeed, I slide so easily between my two disparate worlds now that, in some ways, I felt like I had never left. The many lonely hours of introspection and paper reading under the bat nets paid off with the publication of my first-ever review article, highlighting possible mechanisms related to the evolution of flight by which we think that bats might tolerate microparasitic infections more easily than non-volant mammals.

My collaborator, Christian, and I and a host of other amazing collaborators witnessed the release of our first-ever Madagascar paper, too, which reported evidence suggestive of vector-borne transmission for Bartonella spp., a bacterial pathogen, which in some varieties, causes cat scratch and trench fever in humans. We found the same types of Bartonella spp. in Eidolon dupreanum fruit bats and their obligate ectoparasites (bat flies), but the pathogen was absent in Pteropus rufus bats living in the same region.

Because these P. rufus appear not to host bat flies—perhaps due in part to their tree-roosting lifestyle (E. dupreanum roosts in caves)—we hypothesize that Bartonella spp. may be transmitted among fruit bat hosts by said bat flies, which act as “vectors.” In her dissertation defense last week, my labmate, Jenni Peterson, cleverly described “vectors” as the “public transportation of the parasite world.”

Net maker Ando contemplates the rain in the fahavaratra. Marovitsika, Madagascar, March 2015. Photo by Cara Brook.
Net maker Ando contemplates the rain in the fahavaratra. Marovitsika, Madagascar. (Photo by Cara Brook)

Realities of Madagascar

Fascinated as I am with science and excited as can be about the forward progress of my PhD, I can’t help but feel it slip a bit into the background when I face the raw reality of life in the fahavaratra in Madagascar. International news headlines are reporting dozens dead and tens of thousands displaced from cyclone rains, but you would not know it in the Tana city center, where things are wet, yes, but life goes on.

But, just yesterday, I hopped a crowded city bus down to fasan’karana, the taxi-brousse station that serves all south-bound traffic from the Malagasy capital. I brought gifts and news from my former Peace Corps friend, Kim Conner, to her Malagasy family, who have recently moved from their countryside home to try to eke out an existence on the edge of the city.

It is here that the levies have breached, and the floods have swept away thousands. Hanta and family showed me the bathtub ring in their house where the water stood waist-deep just a few days prior, confessed sadly that the framed photos I brought them last year had been swept away in the flood.

Time for a “Lord of the Rings” Quote

And yet, in spite of it all, they smiled and laughed and were delighted to see me, and I found myself overwhelmed by their warmth and welcome and astonishing generosity. They plied me with presents of their own, insisted I share their noonday rice. “Hope remains while the company is true,” said Galadriel so wisely to Frodo, and I have never known company more true than this.

Madagascar brings out the better half of myself, and I spent the past week communing with that self—visiting old friends, laying plans for a myriad of present and future projects. It’s the fahavaritra, yes, and the city struggles, but we head back tomorrow to the field and the fruit bats and the land that is even truer still. I am beyond excited for the months—and years—ahead. The rain patters on outside my window, but there is something magical and mysterious about Madagascar that makes me as happy as I have ever been.

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Meet the Author
My name is Cara Brook, and I am a postdoctoral fellow with the Miller Institute for Basic Research at UC Berkeley. I study the role of bats as reservoirs for some of the world's most deadly emerging viruses, including Ebola and Marburg filoviruses, Hendra and Nipah henipaviruses, and SARS coronavirus. I bridge field ecology, cellular immunology, and quantitative epidemiology to investigate this question, at both within-host and population levels. I blog from my field site while tracking down fruit bat viruses in central Madagascar. Tonga soa --Cara E. Brook is the recipient of two research grants from the Nation al Geographic Society.