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.
By Hakeem Angulu, Harvard University undergraduate and Planetary Health Undergraduate Scholar
When I first applied for the Planetary Health Undergraduate Fellowship, I was very focused on the intersection between human health and social justice. For a long time, I struggled with a dilemma about my future: the majority of my classes and other academic endeavors surrounded the pursuit of a career in medicine/human health, while my extracurricular activities told the story of someone who was passionate about justice and equality. While reading the initial email soliciting applications for the fellowship, I thought to myself, “I have found the solution to my dilemma,” and now, three weeks into the program, I realize that I was correct. Nearly everything I love about improving and sustaining human health has been enmeshed with the social contexts in which these people live, all subject to some of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change and environmental degradation. However, what I did not expect this trip to be was profoundly inspirational, or a catalyst for introspection. Now, three weeks into the program, I realize that I could not have been more incorrect.
I approached this experience with a very utilitarian mindset. I was traveling to this unique place, a hub of biodiversity and a birthplace of this field that has captured my interests, to learn more about the field by seeing its work in action and participating in projects that further that work. Nevertheless, after every Wednesday meeting, I found myself comparing Madagascar to my home country, Jamaica, and feeling a very similar love for this place and its people. The music videos and spoken word films that we watched reminded me about Jamaican artists. Professor Golden’s description of the friendliness of the people reminded about Jamaican hospitality. The footage we saw of the cyclone reminded me of the devastation I witnessed as a child after a hurricane hit Jamaica. After analyzing the trip more critically, I understood that this was much more than a standard and solitary “educational experience.” I was engaging with a culture that, while definitely unique, is unique in a lot of ways that my own culture is. My time here so far has proven many of my assumptions well-founded. That human, or “cultural,” aspect is key to doing good, and lasting, work in these places, and I have had the privilege of witnessing that firsthand.
Marofototra, the village we visited on the northeastern coast of Madagascar, is one of the most gorgeous places I have ever seen. The coastal living struck me as very similar to Jamaican coastal lifestyles, with a harmony with and respect for the ocean that one doesn’t see everywhere. It is also home to beautiful rock formations only a stone’s throw from the center of the village. Geologists view this area as an anomaly, with these rocks, and the materials that compose them, being uncommon and unexpected in this area. Much more unexpected are the shapes of these rocks. One of the most beautiful structures is a pair of two nearly identical rocks that are separated by a wide space, with a rock below – a perfect spot to stand on to see a beautiful, unobstructed view of the Indian Ocean. Being here, and experiencing the beauty was one thing, but getting to experience the beauty of this place with kids from the village was another. I saw a group of five children from Marofototra playing on the rocks, expertly jumping across them. I tried to climb some of these rocks and I realized exactly how slippery the rocks were, and how treacherous the mere activity of climbing them is, much less running on and jumping across them. At the moment, I thought very little of my lack of agility and skill, but as I reflected on this experience more, I understood the gravity of this interaction. Malagasy people, like the Jamaican people I grew up with, display a level of resilience that is unparalleled. This resilience, combined with a deep love for and extensive knowledge of the environment, results in a unique harmony with nature.
This harmony with nature, in my opinion, is necessary for true positive impact on the environment, and maintaining a respectful relationship with your resources. The fact that these people understand, from centuries of practice and interaction, the intricacies of when it is beneficial to plant crops, where it is least harmful to burn land for farming, and how one connects with animals in the forest is invaluable. Malagasy people, from the village chief to the young boys jumping across rocks like experts, possess a specific knowledge that is integral to planetary health research and solutions. Many Jamaicans, including my own family, maintain a similar respect, love, and unique knowledge of and for the environment, further cementing the similarity of these two cultures in my mind, and heightening my appreciation of the people like the boys I met. It is that love and respect that so well defines their iteration of planetary health, and only with love and respect for them can we, as outsiders, engage with this field, these people, and their home in a meaningful way.