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Seeing Exploration in Madagascar Through New Eyes

“You’re telling me you’re not nostalgic, then give me another word for it” —Joan Baez, “Diamonds and Rust” It’s almost two years to the day since I arrived in Madagascar to begin my doctoral research, brimming with dreams and idealism and a secret terror of the enormity of the tasks set before me. At the time, there...

Years of repeated research means familiar faces in Madagascar. Here, Tojo smiles at the camera in Angavokely, District of Manjakandriana, Madagascar. (Photo by Cara Brook)

“You’re telling me you’re not nostalgic, then give me another word for it” —Joan Baez, “Diamonds and Rust”

It’s almost two years to the day since I arrived in Madagascar to begin my doctoral research, brimming with dreams and idealism and a secret terror of the enormity of the tasks set before me. At the time, there was a field project to start and data to be collected, and I did not even know what pathogen I would study, what host I would sample.

There was math to master, too, for Princeton has high standards, and I was on the fast track to becoming an epidemiological modeler—with no past experience in computer programming whatsoever. And in a whole different twist, there was Malagasy to learn and French to perfect and an entire fantastic, foreign country to attempt to understand. And when I finally found direction and decided that bat-borne viruses were going to be it, well, I had still never caught a wild fruit bat in my life—much less done so in Madagascar.

It seems like a lifetime ago to me now, though really it was not so long, and I look back on past writings with a smiling nostalgia at my own naiveté—about bout the Malagasy language and the scientific concepts we’re dealing with. And so much more, I am sure, to understand better still.

An Ever-changing Morality

We are back in the ambanivohitra, the land under the hills, and as ever, the shooting stars are falling, as our cook brings out her coal-burning fantapera to heat up the evening’s ration of rice and tsaramaso fotsy (white beans).

I remember a time when I forbade our field team from cooking with anything but natural gas. I’ve given up, so it seems, and we now use eucalypt wood quite often and coal occasionally, and I wonder—always—if I am doing the right thing. My Princeton classmates who study climate change will no doubt judge me for my negligence, but it is not easy to alter customs that run deep—nor is it always correct. A gas-burning stove is too expensive to be a possibility for most everyone I work with, and for us to run it for hours on end conveys a profligacy I do my very best to avoid.

Local woman, Claire, cooks rice on an open fire. Ambakoana, District of Moramanga, Madagascar, May 2015. Photo by Cara Brook.
A local woman, Claire, cooks rice on an open fire in Ambakoana, District of Moramanga, Madagascar. (Photo by Cara Brook)

Daily, I still fight my battle against the sachet—the ubiquitous plastic bag, for which there is rarely a means of disposal—but this does not always work out either. “Efa manana sachet!I already have a bag!” I tell the yaourt maison vendor down the street, handing over the thin plastic as I place my order. She smiles at me brightly, then double-wraps the yogurt in both my bag and hers. “Amin’izao, tsy mitate mihitsy!” she tells me, “Now it really won’t leak!” And I laugh out loud at her sweetness and its irony.

A Long Way From Home

A month ago, fresh from the intellectual stimulation of a scientific conference, I blogged about coevolving pathogens. Today, my hair is grown long and wild, my jeans worn thin and threadbare, my shoes shred into tatters, and once more, I feel at a very far distance from that academic other-world in which I also live. In between field missions—and occasionally, ridiculously, from my tent in the middle of nowhere—I send grant proposals to the NIH, and I compile abstract figures of pathogen dynamics.

For the moment, though, I find myself lost in the ambanivohitra, and we arrive late to camp, and my path in life is simple. We divvy up the tasks, and the local boys, Ando and Bido and Rabetsy, rush to set the bat line—they don’t really need my help, nor that of my Malagasy colleague, Christian Ranaivoson. Instead, while Christian sets up tents, I find myself hauling a 20-liter jerrycan of water from the nearby river, chuckling to think this is the most helpful thing I can do with my Princeton PhD.

We’re drawing towards the end of our year of field work, and though I still have two months remaining in Madagascar, at some sites, we’ve already begun to say our farewells—until next time.

The eyes that look back at me are doubtful when I explain that I have studies ahead in the U.S. but that I will be back in December or January, and I know that everyone wonders if I will return at all. There was a time, I think, that Christian used to wonder too, every time I hopped a plane to the far side of the world. It is common, after all, for vazaha (white foreigners) to go away and never come back. But I will be back—to all of these people. And like Christian, they will eventually come to understand that even if I sometimes come and go, this vazaha is here to stay.

Christian Ranaivoson holds up his [upside-down] bat cake on his 31st birthday. Antananarivo, Madagascar, May 2015. Photo by Cara Brook.
Christian Ranaivoson holds up his [upside-down] bat cake on his 31st birthday in Antananarivo, Madagascar, May 2015. (Photo by Cara Brook)
Birthdays Mark the Time

It is Christian’s 31st birthday, and I dance with his baby and laugh with his wife on their rooftop porch on the outskirts of Tana. His mother snaps a photo, and his brother hands out drinks, and he gives me a grin and says, “It’s like you’ve always been here.” And I tear up a little to think how it feels that way to me, too.

In the past two years, I’ve spent more time in Madagascar than I have in America, and it has come to feel like home. Let’s hope, though—a few more years down the road— that my American university will still be happy to give me a degree.

Read All Posts by Cara Brook

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Meet the Author

Cara Brook
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.