A Joyful Adventurous Life Together

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Antananarivo, Madagascar
VAZAHA = foreigner VAO VAO = news

Friday, August 27, 2010

Updates from Andavadoaka

Hello dear readers. Greetings from Andavadoaka! For those of you who don't remember my stint here last year, we are at Blue Ventures' research site on the SW coast of Madagascar. (Blue Ventures or BV is a small NGO.) The marine protected area (MPA) we are studying surrounds 40 km of very remote coast; Andavadoaka is the central village. Despite the temptation of diving, azure waters, white sand beaches, warm sunshine, sailing on lakanas, ... we've been keeping ourselves busy. Tom is working on analyzing the octopus landings dataset that BV has collected over the past 6 years. Octopus is the major income source for these very poor fishers, so getting an idea whether the management techniques being implemented are working is very important. I am tangentially involved in that analysis as well -- but really I will be asking different questions of the data than the biologists. While they want to show that the
reserves "have an effect" (on size of octopus, catch per day, etc.), I
want to know if the sacrifice made in closing the fishery is made up for
with the gains. My questions come next...

While Tom works on the biological analysis, most of my time is spent setting up an economic valuation exercise. This involves asking a lot of questions to a lot of people. I'm learning a tremendous amount designing this. I'm taking my time -- trying to do the best I can with foresight. Still, I know some things will go terribly wrong. I just hope that it won't be because I made a stupid mistake in the sampling or something equally preventable. If the survey team gets stranded because of weather...fine...but if I can't draw conclusions because my sample isn't representative or there is some bias, I will cry and/or beat my head against a wall. I'm in the process of testing the survey method now -- it is a complicated game where we ask people to make a series of choices across some future scenarios. Not an easy task with folks who have different values and very different time horizons that I do. For example, a Vezo saying says something like: today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow. Basically: "why save a fish from today's catch for tomorrow? Tomorrow I can go out to fish again. If the weather is bad, then the ancestors don't want me to fish...but they will provide." Designing questions that get at the essence of what I need to know without obscuring what their values really are is incredibly hard. The next month is going to be very, very busy!

So that's an update from project octopus and project valuation #1. Our other project continue to keep us up late into the night (until our computer batteries die -- the generator cuts off at 9 pm). Tom is currently cussing at his machine as he runs code to analyze data from the Rapid Assessment Program he worked on in March. He has to compile all the other scientists' data into one comprehensive report. I keep hearing the Mac ribbit-ing or whatever sound that is when something is bad. He is also, of course, immersed in about 100 projects of other folks here on site. All BV staff come to him for advice, ideas, help...of course, his teaching is a hot commodity and while it keeps him from working on his own stuff, he loves it! I have my other NSF projects -- hopefully I'll have a couple of weeks to finish one of them when my survey team here rolls out before our data comes in.

All in all, life in our decrepit hut is lovely. The weather is turning a bit warmer. We are going to dive this weekend for my birthday (I hope -- weather permitting).

lots of love, Kirsten

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

late May - early August update (= slackers!)

Months and months
I’ve gotten some worried emails from friends about our lack of updates the past months. I don't really have a good excuse...after all, Madagascar is training me to WAIT -- for everything -- thus the glacial internet to upload photos shouldn't be a hindrance to posting. Short version: everything is well.

Here is a quick summary of our lives:

The start of the month saw us both us in the northeast of the country doing different parts of the same project. Conservation International is doing a “Rapid Assessment Program” of the coastal/marine environment. Tom was on a boat most of March doing the coral reef surveys, and returned to do one more site. I passed him in the night in Diego (literally), when I went up to do 2 weeks of household surveys with a Malagasy collaborator, Ando. After that, Tom went to Hawaii to marry our good friends, Anthony and Nicole. He then headed to CA to work with his old Stanford team, and to Nantucket to visit family. I traveled to Holland for 3 weeks to work with a professor at the Free University Amsterdam to design the next project. Oma came all the way to Holland to hang out with me – amazing at the ripe age of 90 to travel across the Atlantic! We walked 3 – 5 km each day we were together, hanging out at a café newly built at the bottom of the water tower in the dunes of Scheveningen (a landmark that figures prominently in both our childhoods).

Just after Tom and I both returned to Madagascar in early July, 3 good friends from Stanford came. Erin, Andy, Kate joined us for a week-long adventure traveling part of the Route National 7 to Ranomafana national park, taking a train into a community-managed forest, and attending an exhumation just outside of Ansirabe. It was our monster truck’s first voyage. Its name is “dimy” as a result – it means 5 in Malagasy. Kate thought “dimy” meant “everyone” until late in the week because we kept ordering beers for dimy, food for dimy, … Anyway, I guess you had to be there. It was fun to see Madagascar through their eyes. The exhumation is a ceremony that highland families do every 5 years or so. The village throws a big party – 3 bands competed at the one we attended –food (rice and boiled pork, replete with hairs and a thick layer of fat. Mmmmmm!) and toaka gasy (moonshine) are consumed before a parade heads to the family tomb. Anyone who died in since the last opening of the tomb is removed and a new “lamba” (material – usually silk) is wrapped around the corpse. I was expecting a really gruesome scene, but the bodies just looked like white sausages, loosely wrapped. They were never unwrapped, so no bones and sinew.

I had a week to get a lot of work done before our next round of guests arrived. Gina and Hannah (Tom’s aunt and cousin) flew in to help us with our fieldwork. They joined us and Ingrid, a master’s student from Holland who is working with me this year, on another voyage along the RN 7. This time, we drove all the way to Tulear. We again stopped in Ranomafana to visit the rainforest and our friendly lemurs and chameleons. Then we headed south of Fianar to a community-run ring-tailed lemur reserve nestled in mountain canyons. Hannah was especially popular with (human) children as she perpetually had a bag of candy with her. We spent two nights at a luxury hotel in the Malagasy Sedona. The good news is there are no Sedonans there. Gina, Hannah, and I spent the afternoon riding through Bara villages. The Bara are a tribe best known for the habit of stealing cattle. In order to get married, a man has to steal cattle. A kind of coming-of-age ritual, I suppose. And since the people with cattle are also Bara, I suppose what goes around, comes around…

The week-long journey brought us to Tulear in the southwest. I split from the Dimy-travelin' crowd to fly back up to Tana to attend a workshop at WWF with the park managers from Nosy Hara (my next field site, in the north of the country). I’m 2/3 of the way through the workshop now, and very glad I came. Aside from meeting everyone, I have a good idea of what climate change adaptation measures the park is considering integrating. On Friday I will discuss with WWF about my next steps to help their project move ahead. WWF is enthusiastic, but the trick is going to be to get Madagascar National Parks excited. They are the association in charge of running the park day-to-day. They are over-worked and swamped with bureaucracy. I can imagine that they roll their eyes at a foreign researcher with all sorts of ideas about ecosystem services, their values, and how important they are to quantify!! I think I’ll focus on wooing a senior woman who seems open to new approaches. If I attack the park manager with my research ideas, he might keel over…

Saturday I fly back to Tulear, and 4x4 up to Andavadoaka. Tom, Ingrid, Hannah, and Gina are already there (although no one has called or texted me to let me know they made it – grrrrr.) Blue Ventures is also holding a workshop this week which I needed to miss because of the WWF one (wouldn’t you know it!), so Tom and Ingrid are representing me there. Ingrid and I kick off our big Total Economic Valuation exercise this week. It will run through the end of September at least. Tom has been hired by BV to do the statistical analysis of the octopus landings data. Finally, FINALLY I might have some data to finish my study from last summer. If you hear some frustration in my tone, … well, let’s not go there. Nothing good will come of a rant right now.

So, as you can imagine, there has been little time to catch our breaths. Nor to write blog posts. Still, I’ll try to be better…the next 2 months I’ll be out in the boondocks but supposedly there is now a cell phone network so I might be able to post some updates.

Rest of August and September:
Andavadoaka! Visitors will include: Bob, Danna and Anton, Eline and Natascha, then...our parents in October! As I said to our friends in an email last night, I think Tom and I alone are responsible for doubling Mada's tourism figures this year...

- Kirsten

Friday, May 21, 2010

security update

Everything has calmed down. There are varying reports of 2 to 5 dead. The 30 mutineers have allegedly been captured. So have a number of DJs of the radio that broadcast messages from the protesters. Allegedly the government doesn't know the whereabouts of the leaders of the ecclesiastical cult that joined the protests. I think I'd be in hiding, too.

This morning I had a meeting in the Ministry of Environment buildings just next door to the Fort where the fighting took place. There were still burned out dumpsters and some large boulders in the middle of the road, but the taxi-bes, taxis, pedestrians, and other travelers took it in stride - taking turns going around, flashing their lights or waving in thanks. This is the Madagascar I know.

Our lovely weekend plans to go on a 3-day bike ride have been disrupted. We're hatching new plans, though. Off to a local lake with some new friends...for a piquenique.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Birthday Conflict

Hey all -- I wanted to thank each of you for your birthday greetings, and update you all on some of my birthday goings-on.

What did Madagascar give me for my birthday? A little inter-military clash! [See the BBC story]

Yesterday was actually pretty quiet, but it set the stage for a pretty eventful morning. Kirsten had an early meeting today, and returned to the house around 9:30 AM, carrying newspaper reports of a stage set for a conflict. Essentially, a small group of military forces (FIGN - the 'gendarmerie') loyal to the previous president (Ravalomanana) barricaded a street outside their Fort yesterday and arranged a large demonstration this morning. The military forces (FIS) allied with the current 'transitional' government tried to stop the demonstration and barricade this morning. [For those of you new to the political scene here, the 'transitional' government came to power via a military-backed coup last February]

From our high vantage point in Andohalo, we saw trucks loaded with soldiers heading to the other side of town (where the fort is located). We could see the soldiers move across the hill, but could not see the actual conflict. The noises of automatic weapon fire and tear gas launchers echoed around the hills of Tana from about 10 AM to noon, when everything fell quiet. Reportedly, the soldiers were primarily firing into the air to disperse the protesters. By 1:30 PM it was announced the the FIGN (the opposition's military force) had surrendered, and that 5 people (unclear whether civilian or military) had been admitted to the hospital. We've recently heard that they haven't surrendered, but are now just at a stand off. While editing this post, sporadic gun fire has started again.

The shops down-town closed their doors and everyone is a little shaken, but life goes on here. Maman'angie is making beans for dinner, our neighbor Marie is helping our other neighbor, Jean-Cristophe, to decorate his house with new curtains - and she's more worried about making the design 'too female' for the bachelor than she is about the fighting across town affecting her life directly.

Folks here who lived through the actual coup last February saw much worse fighting. Even then, the combat was mostly just between soldiers and was very localized. The attitude is essentially, "You live your life around them -- everybody knows where they are, and you don't go there." A local editorial that Kirsten found puts it very well: “Il faut rappeler qu'il y a une différence entre la vie de tous les jours, plutôt calme, et la vie politique, plutôt très agitée.” [local editorial, Sobika.com] = “One must remember that there is a difference between everyday life, often calm, and political life, often very agitated.”

So, if you read about the scary events in Madagascar, please know that we're safe and as informed as we can be.

Tom and Kirsten

Monday, April 12, 2010

Fombas and finoanas

Today, I went to a funeral in my slippers.

Saturday night's all-night party at the neighbors, and the singing I disparaged in my Facebook post on Sunday, were to mourn the death of our neighbor. Mourning involves an all-night singing session. This morning, Madame Bernadette, the self-proclaimed 106 y/o nun (maybe 86 but who am I to say), asked me to meet at the end of our street at 6:30 pm. The 'gasy custom (= fomba), it seems, is for neighbors to stop by to offer condolences and a collection. I was immersed in editing octopus when she came to get me -- I darted out the door only to realize that I had fuzzy feet. No problem on the dark street, but when we were in the family living room, all in a circle, with eyes cast downward, praying, well, I thought I might die. (Maybe they think it is a vazaha custom?!)

What other customs might there be? My favorite so far is the ingrained belief (= finoana) in ghosts and witches. Witches, in particular, are a real problem. So much so that our language/'gasy culture teacher did not want to teach us about them. Eventually,she capitulated, but we had to plan the lesson to avoid Wednesdays because that day is when you can/are more likely to see them. I'm not sure anyone has ever seen a witch, but the say, "They say that witches..." and continue the rumor. Witches are often possessed and suffer greatly, and if you allow them to touch you, they can pass on the evil spirit to you. They dance on graves (of course). If you see a witch, you much talk first or you will be turned into a horse. Luckily, you can identify witches by their messy hair and "alternative" clothing. And you can keep them out of your house by putting some voangabory (my favorite bean here) on the doorstep and window sills. You can also indirectly accuse someone of being a witch by feeding them voangabory -- apparently witches can't eat them, so you know right away. (Much nicer than Salem!) But now I know to make a joke when I ask Juliette to make us voangabory -- she was minorly offended the first time.

Witches are kind of handy when you think of it -- when things go missing or creepy things happen (someone breaks into your hut, for instance) -- you can blame a witch. This way, you don't need to confront anyone. It fits in well with the tendency of 'gasies to avoid conflict.Witches can be male or female, and are different from witch DOCTORS, who can cast nasty curses to, for example, kill your competition for your paramour. Witch doctors are a legit business. Um, calling. They use herbs and spells...and have immense power. (I wonder if I can give nasty peer reviewers bad diarrhea??)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

New photos posted!

I put up photos from biking, Andasibe, and other fun things.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Research updates...

Once again an apology for the lack of communication. Busy, busy with gasy lessons (a upcoming blog post will detail some interesting 'gasy fombas (customs) and finoanas (beliefs) about WITCHES and CREATURES. Look for it...), research, and fun. For the moment, let me try to tell you why we've bad bloggers.

The octopus saga continues, dear friends. Last month -- it seems so long ago! -- we had 2 biologists from Blue Ventures living in our house for 3 1/2 weeks. Tom taught them statistics. A surprising realization for both of us was that biology training in the UK does not include stats. But Sophie and Haj worked their tails off, learned basic stats and a hardcore computer coding language called R, and are now well equipped to run some analyses on the enormous datasets that Blue Ventures continues to collect. Tom volunteered for a month to teach us. (Really in the end, my octopus problem became his octopus problem. Fetsy aho! (= sly I!)) We now have biological results about the successes and failures of the reserves. WOOHOO! Let the economics begin (a year late)!

But in case you think that is all we were doing last month, not so! Tom was preparing for a "Rapid Assessment Program" of biodiversity and ecological health in the northeast. While he is paid for the work by Conservation International, he worked days and days off-contract to gather materials, herd cats (a.k.a. the other marine scientists), confirm the methodologies, etc. He sat on our patio cutting and assembling quadrants...try explaining THAT in 'gasy. A wonderful coincidence of the RAP is our first friend visited Mada -- Sea flew in the night before the expedition. I got to spend more time with him than planned because Air France kindly left all his luggage in Paris (including enormous amounts of gear for the expedition that he schlepped). Lovely for me!

(News flash: Tom is well. He's in Vohemar, the infamous shipping port town from which all rosewood is being illegally exported. In fact, a friend of mine told me that this morning 'gasy radio reported suspicion of the RAP boat -- CI team are illegal exporters of rosewood! They clarified that the boat was full of SCUBA divers, and they had no idea what they were up to. So much for the communications push CI did -- Tom was on TV before they left.)

I have been working (for Blue Ventures) on a funding proposal for a UK call regarding ecosystem services. It was a nightmare -- the proposal was 2 pages, but the call included 36 pages of instructions. And then their online systems kept adding up our budgets incorrectly. Finally we gave up and left the sum 2000 pounds off, only to receive an email weeks later acknowledging the mistake and asking for spreadsheets. (The best part was that ALL the applicants were copied on the email, so now I know who else has applied -- Gretchen, Peter Kareiva, and a bunch of other usual suspects! Tough competition.)

Back to octopus, I've been developing the economic models to value the marginal benefit of the marine protected area. It bends my brain a bit. Lots of fun, though, now that I have data to work with. Unfortunately, sometimes I can't break my connection to my model (just one more adjustment! one more run!) and I don't sleep until the wee hours of the morning. I'm hoping to have a rough draft to vet with some folks here by the end of this weekend.

My climate change policy analysis project is cooking as well. I hired a fantastic research assistant (a law/environmental policy student) who is helping me gather the myriad documents and understand the legal/institutional context of marine conservation here. People in the NGOs have been incredibly generous with their time and with information. Soon I'll approach government agencies for interviews, which is going to be a whole new can of worms...

Tom and I have narrowed our potential sites for fieldwork, I think. I'm going to meet him up north the end of next week to check out two of the sites. One on the NW coast is an existing MPA where WWF is working on climate change integration. The other is on the NE coast, a new MPA co-managed by Conservation International. Projected climate impacts are quite different in the two sites. I don't know enough about the sites and management regimes yet to know if they offer interesting contrasts.

Then there are all the extraneous things going on that an economist can sink her teeth into. Commenting on World Bank policy notes, discussing environmental impacts of ginormous mining projects, debating export policies, tracking down facts about illegal concessions being sold by a corrupt government...

We've also been having a lot of fun. Amend that. I (Kirsten) have been having a lot of fun. While Tom taught octopus, I went to scope the marine parks on Masoala Peninsula (and hike for 4 days). Masoala is the largest remaining standing forest in Mada (its protection is run by the 3rd big NGO here, Wildlife Conservation Society). Unbelievably fun. I'll blog soon about that trek. While Tom herded cats the weekend before last, I went mountain biking through the rice patties about 3 hours outside of Tana. I suffered a bloody knee (I didn't realize we were supposed to bike on the tiny dike, I guess, and literally went INTO the rice patty). I have some great photos I will upload (of the landscape, not the bloody knee). Then this past weekend (Easter), I joined a group of folks to go back to Andasibe to worship the lemurs. We got up close and personal with indris and Goodman mouse lemurs (OMG! Like, SOOOOO CUTE!).

The inter-tubes have been clogged recently, so this is probably all they can handle. I'll post again soon!