By Christi Turner, Education & Youth Outreach Coordinator, Andavadoaka, Madagascar
It is quite extraordinary to be back in Madagascar. This is my adopted home, filled with my extended family, a place that has brought me tremendous personal and professional growth.
Madagascar was my home for five years, from 2004 to 2009. First as a Peace Corps Volunteer, then as a freelance consultant, then as project manager for the Education Development Centre, and finally as manager of an ecolodge. I came to know and love the people, culture, and nature on this island, and grew deeply devoted to its sustainable development issues and conservation challenges.
I’ve hardly been able to absorb the fact that I’ve returned! The journey back has been a long and furious one, consisting of; a 35 hour-long trip from the other side of the planet, followed by 12 hours of sleeping in the capital city, then an evening flight to the southern city of Toliara, a morning overland departure up the rural southwest coastline, a two-hour breakdown on a desolate road (because no Madagascar road-trip is complete without a breakdown!), and finally a late night arrival to the Blue Ventures headquarters at Andavadoaka. These were my first two hectic days back in Madagascar. Any bits of free time were spent reading and editing documents vital to my new position: Education and Outreach Coordinator, the first position of its kind here at Blue Ventures.
The Blue Ventures team welcomed me straight away. Many of the staff faces around the dinner table were familiar: Kame, Matt, Shawn, and Brian are also Returned Peace Corps Volunteers like me, all of whom served in Madagascar and now all working in Blue Ventures management positions. Tom, the Peace Corps Volunteer placed in Andavadoaka, brings the count up to six and I’d like to think that the success of Blue Ventures as an organisation speaks to the success of the Peace Corps mission in Madagascar as well. The new faces here were as welcoming as the familiar ones and what an impressive crowd; marine scientists, social scientists, public health experts, conservationists, and sustainable agriculture experts, from the UK, France, Zimbabwe, the US, and Madagascar. These experts in their individual fields comprise a team that is pushing the scope of conservation and sustainable development to new and award-winning heights. I’ll have my work cut out for me just keeping up with their rigor.
I learnt more about just how hard-working everyone was over the course of the next three days at the annual Blue Ventures staff conference or ‘BV Love-In’ as it’s affectionately known; the reason for my early-August arrival. BV is responsible for a dizzying array of programmes; sustainable sea cucumber farming and seaweed farming, health and family-planning services for the coastal south-western population, research measuring local resilience to the effects of climate change, a growing network of village-based conservation associations and their Locally-Managed Marine Areas, a shark and sea turtle conservation project, and one of the world’s most successful octopus fishery management schemes, among many other activities and achievements! At the conference, staff from every aspect of BV’s work shared their achievements, challenges, and plans for the future, reinforcing the synergies that link all of BV’s activities and support its success as an organisation.
As for my work for the next year, I’ll be managing a range of educational and outreach activities for BV. Blue Ventures’ existing girls’ scholarship program will be expanded to bring at least 100 new girls into the fold, covering their school fees and materials, and documenting their progress through photos and videos. The youth environmental education club here in Velondriake will be reinvigorated, and partnered with a UNICEF-funded program called the Junior Reporters’ Club; these clubs will be trained to use low-cost audio-visual technologies to spread environmental education among the local youth population. I’ll be helping to develop radio programs, short films, and a new interactive BV website to help improve education, environmental awareness, and youth-led conservation activities in the BV intervention zone. Additionally I will be overseeing the construction of our very own ‘Connected Classroom’ as part of the UNICEF Connecting Classrooms initiative – designed to improve computer skills and use innovative technology-based education throughout the island, and eventually throughout the Western Indian Ocean region.
But for the next few days at least, I’m focussing on the basics; learning my colleagues’ names, finding my way around the BV grounds, and understanding everyone’s role. I will be catching up on sleep too as after three days of intense sessions at the annual conference, my brain is exhausted. The bar has been set high, but I’m excited to take on my new role with Blue Ventures, working to improve education and access to information within a fascinating culture, a complex ecosystem, breath-taking natural surroundings, and an amazing team.