This week, Blue Ventures held an Open Day for the village. We had posters, made by the volunteers, about the inter-relationship between the mangroves, seagrass and reefs, what a marine protected area would mean for the fishing stocks (and what would happen if there weren’t any protected areas), what the women’s association did, and two possible futures for a Vezo family depending on whether or not they used contraception. There were also posters on alternative ways of making money and on the benefits of using a solar stove. For the children, there was a turtle racing game and a fishing game, where you had to cast your fishing rod into a marine reserve bucket and a non-reserve bucket.
The day kicked off with the biggest rainstorm i’ve ever seen. It was so heavy that Andavadoaka rock and split rock, our local landmarks in the sea were completely obscured in rain and cloud. We hastily rescued all the posters from the leaking classroom and prayed for some respite from the rain. This is Andavadoaka – one of the driest places in Madagascar – not Manchester. It’s not supposed to rain this hard, for that long!
As the expedition manager, I had two main worries. One – that no one would come. Two – that everyone would come and we couldn’t accommodate! Happily, my worries were unfounded. The sun broke through the clouds and shone for most of the day after the initial downpour and just the right amount of people came. Children were dunked in giant blue buckets so that they could experience breathing using scuba (and received a sweet for their bravery). Others played the two games, while plenty more were entertained by the volunteers, using them as portable climbing frames. Adults came too – and most seemed interested in the posters. Our Malagasy staff were on hand to elaborate on the themes, and ensure that the conservation message was spread. Gail, our resident camerawoman this expedition, showed a slideshow of her photos to the delight of everyone, and Gildas and the ex-village president showed a crowd of intrigued and giggling adults how to use a condom – with a broom to demonstrate. The condom message wasn’t restricted to the demonstration or poster. Oh no. Nearly all of the volunteers, and most of the staff had got the women’s association to embroider messages on the back of t-shirts promoting condom use.
We were already exhausted by lunchtime – especially anyone who’d been dealing with the children (or climbed on by them) but there was still more to come.
In the afternoon, we held a pirogue race. Each pirogue had three vezu and one fazahar (tourist). While it might have been just a race for us, for the villagers it was an extremely serious business. Not only was their pride at stake, but there was prize money too. It had been a bad week for fishing because of the weather so the prize money was all important. There were about 25 pirogues on the beach, and each was assigned a vazahar to sit in. Not wanting to be completely humiliated in the race, I chose wisely – or so I thought – chosing to go with Fila, known for his rowing prowess. I shook hands with my piroguers and stood waiting by the pirogue for things to get going. Nothing seemed to happen for ages and ages but then suddenly, a lot of shouting and we were off, my three fisherman running with the pirogue into the water. I lost one shoe. Then another, into the sea. And then I was neck deep in water, swimming (I’m short) and struggling to get into the pirogue. Suddenly, I felt two hands under my armpits and I was lifted up into the air, out of the water and onto the pirogue. I felt about five.
My own pride might have been dented, but I was not going to let it stop me from doing my bit and so I began to row as hard as I could. We rowed out to the motorboat marker, rowed round it and came back to the beach. All the other piroguers were also rowing as hard as they could, rowing for their lives, or at least for their pride and their supper. These are extremely are strong motivators. Unfortunately for my piroguers, we only came in second to last. My pride wasn’t totally dented then. My arms, however, were pretty destroyed! It was such hard work!!! But then the shouting and gesticulating started. There had been a false start, and it wasn’t fair and the villagers were up in arms. The race was null and void. We couldn’t allow it to count and we had to do it all over again. The shouting and arguing continued for a while. Our Malagasy staff, diplomats that they are, calmed the situation down but ultimately, it appeared that there was nothing for it than to run the race again! It was hard enough the first time, but could I do it all again? “you don’t have to row” said Justin. Just sit in it. And so I agreed.
The pirogues lined up on the beach once again, but this time a member of each pirogue stood further back on the beach in a line, waiting for the signal. When it was given, we were all off once again. My piroguers weren’t taking any risks with me this time. They made me sit on the pirogue from the start. But there was no way that I could sit in it and not paddle. So my poor little arms got a second workout as I paddled for my life once more. “Make it count” I coached myself each time I put the paddle into the water. “Make it count”. Maybe it did. I don’t know. I kept the rhythm, and the boat kept moving forward, so perhaps I was doing something right. The second race seemed a lot further although perhaps it was just that my arms were aching with the effort of doing the whole thing twice. I don’t know. I hadn’t used those muscles for such a long time. We did better in the second race, but we didn’t win. We didn’t even come in the first ten. The winner of the first race had also won the second – so the best rowers evidently did win. My piroguers seemed happier with their placing in the second race. And I got my shoes back. So, as with most things here, it all turned out all right in the end.
The day finished with a bit of entertainment. By which, I mean the staff and volunteers sung a conservation song in Malagasy written by James, our boat driver. The village were suitably amused and impressed. Some even donated money into a hat for us! It was pretty funny and we sung to huge applause and only a little laughter. An English speaking competition then, and finally Bic’s fin-fish presentation and a film about overfishing in Indonesia before heading back to Coco Beach for supper. Everyone agreed that it had been a fantastic day. Some staff suggested that we do it all again in a few months – maybe in as little as three. I tentatively agreed. I think my arms will just about have recovered by then!