National Geographic Explorer Dr. Christopher Golden and his team of Harvard Planetary Health Scholars spent six weeks in Madagascar to better understand the human health impacts of environmental change. This series of stories will document this journey across Madagascar through the personal experiences of these students.
Ataovy toy ny amboalava ka todihina ny lasa ary banjinina ny hoavy.
Act like the chameleon. One eye facing backwards at history, the other facing forward toward the future.
Nearly twenty years ago now, in 1999, I visited Madagascar the first time. Although I knew the experience was profound, I could have never predicted the direction in which it would take my life. Yes, the direction it would take my life. Madagascar has always been a living actor inspiring, challenging, burdening, and changing my life. Now I’ll do as the Malagasy proverb says, and act like the chameleon—to look at my past and appreciate how my history has led to my present, and to keep one eye on my future without ever forgetting that past.
What started with a 3rd-grade animal report on the ring-tailed lemur sparked a hunger in me to read everything I could get my hands on related to Madagascar.
I can still remember plopping down on the musty smelling beanbag chairs at the Paul Pratt Memorial Library in Cohasset, Massachusetts, and earnestly reading every word in all the books and magazines that featured Malagasy wildlife or people. With each passing page, my fingers pulling the top right corner of each leaf seemed connected to a string that widened my eyes and tugged at the sides of my mouth. National Geographic magazine features, Gerald Durrell’s The Aye-Aye and I, Franz Lanting’s A World Out of Time: They all focused on the exotic, the bizarre, highlighting the differences between the narrator and the world they witnessed in Madagascar. Each vignette, each book, produced a certain image in my head and I wove together each image into a rich tapestry upon which I hung my dreams and desires.
I desperately wanted to experience that difference, to feel that the fantastical worlds that I read about both in non-fiction and fiction, could actually be breathed to life half-way across the planet. What I didn’t expect, now looking back nostalgically, was to find a new home, with more similarities than differences.
Trandraka milevina aminy tany mena, volon-tany no arahina.
The common tenrec buries itself in the red earth, and the coloring of his coat follows suit.
Over the last 18 years in Madagascar, I have developed a unique body of research in what is now being called planetary health, a discipline dedicated to understanding the human health impacts of environmental change. I have always striven to live in partnership with the Malagasy with whom I work. Integrity and loyalty are so important in Malagasy culture. I have tried to show that respect in the communities where I work.
This is not a purely selfless behavior. Malagasy people will always sniff out liars and frauds and once trust is lost, it’s impossible to rebuild. There are many cautionary proverbs of those who hide true intentions: mihatsara vela-tsihy (“those who show only the good site of the woven reed mat when guests come over”) or trandraka antsalazana mimoehy tsy ravo (“tenrecs who smile while being smoked by a fire”).
During my research in 2004 I was taken in “as a son” by a Malagasy husband and wife, Laurent and Ravaoliny, whom I’ve taken to calling Forest Mom and Dad when I describe them to my friends and family in the U.S. The two of them combined have been my greatest teachers.
It’s been over a decade and my learning curve has yet to plateau. My greatest assets in leading the research that I do in Madagascar stems from my fluency in Malagasy and my rich cultural knowledge that I owe to them, and many others. Sometimes it amazes me to think how much time has gone by since I first arrived in these villages—almost being jolted to reality when I look at old photos.
Mason’antsora ka zay kely anana no ahiratra.
The eyes of the lowland streaked tenrec may be small but they are everything he needs.
The body of work that would become the focus of MAHERY (Madagascar Health and Environmental Research) started in 2004 when I first arrived in Maroantsetra, northeastern Madagascar. I became fascinated by the ways in which local Malagasy relied on the forests and the oceans as their grocery stores, hardware stores, pharmacies, and churches. Their surrounding environment was critical to their well-being. If the environment was damaged, so too would local people suffer. This seemed to be a great motivation for our team—to practice challenge oriented research around forests/oceans and food security, health surveillance, and interventions that could optimize the health and environment. Our team was tiny, but we did our tata-bitsika, working like ants, little by little, but together as a team.
We wanted our research to be applied, and based in local needs. We wanted to design interventions that would simultaneously address the threats of environmental change while improving human health and local economies. To do this effectively, significant bodies of research were required to understand the potential theory of change, the adopt-ability and cultural acceptability of interventions. We didn’t want our interventions to have perverse outcomes, lest our work became like the bushpig’s tusks: curved and sharp against its owner (“vangan-dambo, marangitra aminy tompony”).
Ny hevitra toy ny atody, ka fo manan-kelitra.
Ideas are like eggs. Once hatched, they have wings.
My latest efforts have focused on bringing my journey full circle, and transitioning from student and apprentice to mentor.
Through financial support from the Henry David Thoreau Foundation, and with logistical support from the Planetary Health Alliance, I launched the Planetary Health Undergraduate Scholars program at Harvard College in January 2017. The program would involve a weekly course throughout the spring semester to train the students in planetary health research, and teach them about the language, culture, history, ecology, and economics of Madagascar.
We just finished a five-week hands-on research experience traveling through diverse rain forests, coastal communities that rely on coral reefs, and the spiny deserts of the Southwest where water is a luxury. In each location, we were able to observe how the ecology of the system was linked to food production systems and how local people had adapted to their environmental conditions.
I sent out a request for applications for this fellowship program and received 75 applications from 22 different departmental concentrations at Harvard. Seven students were selected in January and will complete a capstone project based on their field experience this winter. This program has been enormously rewarding to me—an egg that took a long time to hatch and is now ready to take off and fly.
Please continue to follow this blog to read the stories we will share from our field season together.
Mitabe tsy lanim-boay.
Crossing rivers together will protect us from being swallowed by crocodiles.
This research journey was not always a smooth sail, but owes tremendous gratitude to those friendly gusts of wind that gave me a push, and those particularly bright stars that came before me to light the way. My mom for showing me that nature was always worth more than its constituent parts, Luke Dollar for welcoming me to Madagascar, Richard Wrangham and Eric Chivian for helping me to craft my undergraduate education so that I could become a leader in this field, Claire Kremen for trusting me and supporting me through my doctoral studies to work on a very unconventional topic, Sam Myers and Steve Osofsky for including me on their own journey to help create the field of planetary health, and Laurent and Ravaoliny and hundreds of other Malagasy people who have allowed me into their world to become an apprentice of all things Malagasy. I also want to extend my deep appreciation to those stars who are starting to lead their own way with MAHERY: Ben Rice, Cortni Borgerson, Hervet Randriamady, and Tata Anjaranirina.