Out of Africa

Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see– because I do not happen to be a `Somebody’- why my diary should not be interesting.

The Diary of a Nobody

When I stayed my longest in Madagascar, (~2 months, Oct-Nov 1998 and ~3 months, Jan-Mar 1999) I wrote e-mail letters home when the chance and transportation allowed. I think them kind of interesting, myself.

Subject: Hi (From George)

I thought I saw a forest rat
Which hopped just out of reach
I looked again, and saw it was
A giant sucking leach.
If that should come to dine, I thought
‘Twould drink us all and each

— Sylvie and Bruno Redited

I’ve been here a month now (2/2/99), sorry to be so long getting in touch, I feel nicely insulated from the rest of the world. But Chia is going down to Tana soon, so I can send some e-mail…

Weather here is funny, it is usually sunny in the mornings, clouding over around 7, and starting to rain in the late afternoon. Usually. Sometimes it rains all day, sometimes it does not rain at all. No exciting cyclones as yet.

I’ve been healthy so far, the only sick people I’ve seen are those who foolishly leave Ranomafana and go galivanting around the rest of Mad.

Happalemur simus

Happalemur simus

I’ve been mostly mapping and following Happalemur simus, I’ve also been looking at the two other happalemur species for fun. And I’ve been keeping track of every time I see one of the neat forest snails.

I think I’ve figured out that I probably do not want to be a field researcher, I’ve only been here a month and another three more looks like a really long time. I find I’m missing the strangest things: I’d find I want to read children’s books (Missee Lee by Racknum) for instance. Oh well, I’m glad I’ve made the experiment, perhaps I’ll get more positive later.

Also the atmosphere here in the research cabin is rather strained.

But on the other hand I’m enjoying the animals here, I got to see a new species just yesterday (Varecia varigata. They aren’t supposed to be in the immediate vicinity of this camp, but recently people have been seeing them nearby, and finally I did. Nice!). I’ve been enjoying filming the behavior and the calls of the animals. The cicadas are extraordinary, they make a sort of metalic sound unlike any insect I’ve ever heard. They’re also extremely loud.

So… Odi et amo as the poet said.

Varicia varigata

Varecia varigata


We’ve just heard that a cyclone is moving around the Indian ocean and may hit the coast an Manajary (about 80km from here, nearest coastal town). That may prove exciting. This afternoon we had a torential downpour around three. When I got back to the cabin it took me a half an hour to get rid of all the leaches that had found me in the 15 minutes I was out in the storm.

My linguistic abilities have progressed. I used only to be able to say “leach” in malgache, now I can say “many leaches” (these things are important). Interestingly Malgache has no verb “to be” (at least not according to the simplistic grammer I read), so “many leaches” is actually a complete sentence and means “There are many leaches.” It is a language that does not go in much for tenses (again acording to my simplistic grammer). Present, past, future. No imperfect, plus que parfait, conditional, etc. I can sort of see how to live without “to be”, juxtaposition seems to solve that problem nicely, but to live without tenses? They exist because they are useful… I guess it’s like those languages which have no words for any colors other than “red”. Nouns don’t decline (not even plural), and verbs don’t conjugate (except for two prefixes: past, future). I heard there are about 5 different ways of saying “here”, while in one part of the country the word for here is “ici”– the native words have all been lost and everyone thinks french is malgache.

I saw a nifty tenrec last night.

A bientot!

Subject: Leaches and speaches… (From George)

I took a leach to bed with me,
I fed it all night through,
But when by light I chanced to see,
I squashed it with my shoe.

Actually I noticed it in about half an hour, but the rest is pretty much true. I’m thinking of writing “A Child’s Garden of Leaches” full of drole verse, I wonder… would it sell?

Who can see the leach?
Neither I nor they,
But when the blood starts trickelling,
the leach has dropped away.

Or perhaps: “Some thoughts on the common leach”?

At the moment (2/23) I’m the only native English speaker here (and have been for the last 2.5 weeks). I feel lonely and out of place. Chia is still in Tana (though perhaps by the time this actually gets out she will be back here). Every morning I wake up and am tempted just to pack it all in and go back early.


The animals I’m following have two major areas they range in, one about a kilometer away (called the W area, for peculiar local reasons), and one right here (called K). Most of the time I’ve been here they’ve been around the cabin, in K, but today they were off in W. They’ve also (or rather the dominant male has) been trying to kick out an adolescent male (called Big Sub-Adult in our imaginative naming convention), and he’s been living mostly in the W area because whenever he joined the troop in K the male kicked him out. Anyway, today I saw him for the first time in a month, and followed him. He appeared to be seeing the troop of the first time in a month and was very happy.

The adult male (called YS) kept fending him away from the center of the troop of course. At one point his mother (called PG) came toward BSA and they played (I don’t think I’ve ever seen PG play with anyone other than her baby before), then she went back, and BSA was so happy that he went off and played with a dead branch for 10 minutes (I’ve never seen an animal play by itself before either). Then he took off, and YS chased him a bit, we followed him, and suddenly there were PG, her infant and BJ (Big Juvenile, his younger brother) all together away from the rest of the troop. Hmm. A nice little matralinial group (PG is the mother of all three, the offspring of the other female of the troop were not present, nor was the father of both lines, YS). For the next hour BSA and BJ played steadily (I’ve never seen a play bout so long before, the play was not just the wrestling which is common, but also playing chase in the trees), and the infant watched (usually the infant will play with BJ, I wonder if the infant doesn’t recognize BSA?) hanging a meter or two above the others as they wrestled and a bit behind as they chased.

But BSA could not feed close to the troop, so eventually he went off by himself. He chose a very large shoot (about 25cm circumference) of bamboo and started at it. YS swooped down out of the blue and drove him away from it, and then looked at it (still unbroken), after 5 minutes YS went away and a bit after that BSA went back to his shoot with no problems. I wonder if he chose such a large shoot because he knew (or his genes knew) YS would not steal it?


We have been invaded by 35 students from Fiana (the closest city with a university, about 2 hours drive, 25 miles away), plus their instructors. The professors seem to have made no arrangements, they just assume they can come here and interrupt everyone’s research to get help for their students. So I was asked to have my (well Chia’s) guides waste a day showing them the Happy lemur species. Grumble. Anyway, I give them guides, and various other Malgache were preempted from their work to go with them.

These poor students have a day in which to collect data. They can’t collect any interesting primate data in a day, it’s absurd. On Wed evening I was asked to give a talk on how to collect data on primates. Um, why me? Jeanne-Aimee (another one of Chia’s assitants, who is Malgache and has worked for Chia for a year) knows the methods better than I (presumably), and can speak better French or Malgache. I guess it’s the standard assumption: I’m male, I’m older, perhaps I’m white, I must be in charge. Grumble. Anyway I talk as best I can in French. At the end of my description of Focal Animal sampling we have some discussion, one of the students asks about other sampling methods, so I talk a little bit about Alison’s group sampling work. Same student then asks instructor which method they should use, and he asks me which will be easier and I say that group is certainly easier (much easier to keep the group in sight than to know which animal is which), and the instructor then suggests that they do group sampling. If that isn’t a good way to confuse students, I don’t know what is.

Anyway the next day they go out… But we can’t find simus. We look in W, we look in K, nothing. So by lunch time the simus group is a bit upset, they have no data so far. I talk to the prof about this and he says it’s ok, they can do a nocturnal primate survey, but it would be nice for them to see the animals. So two of my guides (Jean-Mari and Maro) and I go out looking again (I ask JM whether we should take the students and he says, no, we’ll come back for them after finding the animals.) Off we go to W again. Nothing.

JM and I come back to the cabin area and split up, unluckily I passed some students one of whom was in the simus group, and he offered to come help me look. Ok. We passed more students and he paused to chat. Another simus student came up to me and explained that they had a problem because they had not seen simus and had no data and what was I going to do about it? I felt like telling him: a) you have to be prepared not to find your study animals, it happens, b) I’m looking as hard as I (and JM and Maro) can for the animals c) your professor is an idiot to think that this would work anyway. But I did not have the french for that so I just said I was looking for the animals as hard as I could and his prof said that he could do a nocturnal survey to make up for missing the animals. I broke away, with my “helper” following.

I found out why JM didn’t want the students along: They can’t move very fast, nor quietly. At one point, out of the blue, he asked me which way was north. So I told him. He explained to me that I was wrong. I did not bother to contradict him. Finally when I had reached the limit of my search, he collapsed. All I wanted to do was get back, find JM and suggest it was the end of the day, but I had to wait for this guy who would never find his way back from where we were without help.

(However while we were waiting a perigrine falcon (I think) swooped down and perched on a tree fern near-by. We had a perfect view. Then he stooped on something in the bushes and we lost him. So there were compensations).

Eventually I got him moving, and found JM who was ready to go out again. So we went back to W and they weren’t there. Finally, at 4, JM suggests that we try another region (called VJ), so we do, and there at J100 are the simus. It is now 4:15. We watch them eat a few shoots. We note that BSA is not with them again, and they start travelling (They zoomed along as though they had to get back home before dark), we stayed with them until they crossed the river over to the W area.

That evening one of the students came up to me and asked how to analyze the data. I was rather dumbstruck by this, since in my opinion there is no way to get anything meaningful out of the data they have taken. I asked what his goal was, and he said he wanted to know how to analyze the data. I suggested the one thing he might do was to find the average height at which the animals did their various activities and he asked how to analyze the data. Obviously he wasn’t understanding me (The accent of these Fiana students in French is such that I can barely understand them, I suppose the reverse is true… they can’t understand me). I asked if he knew any statistics and he said no. I kept using the French word but, which means “goal”, but they didn’t understand. I generally assume that Malgache know more french than I, and it didn’t occur to me that they might lack vocabulary. Finally after a long discussion we worked out that but meant objective, and he said that his objective was to find out what the animals did all day. So I said just count up the number of times the animals are doing the given activities and express that as a percentage.

This morning the prof asked me why we hadn’t taken the students out with us yesterday. I explained that that was JM’s decision, that he often did that with me too. I hinted that his students perhaps could not keep up with JM in the forest. He told me that part of what the students were supposed to do was to find the animals themselves. They had a guide, yes, but the guide was merely supposed to tell them where in the reserve they were.

This sounded so niaf to me that I did not really know what to say. I explained that there was no way his students would find the animals (simus or any other) without help from the local guides until they have learned how to look for the animals.

The prof wanted his students to see simus and took JM a second day. I felt annoyed because the decision was made without consulting me.

I understand why Jeanne-Aimee goes off and eats by herself sometimes when there are lots of English speakers around. I felt like running away from all these Malgache, who speak incomprehensible French. Indeed I did run off over to the Lab (the only other building here). I started writing to you all yesterday, but all the students crowded over to see me working on my computer that I felt I couldn’t do that either.

I am truely impressed by Malgache education. These are Masters students, supposedly.


Today I witnessed an aerial predator alarm call for the first time, it was truly impressive. The simus don’t put too much effort into their ground predator calls, I’m not sure why that should be, there are certainly ground predators that could harm an infant– they just tick a little, wag their tails and climb into trees (if they aren’t there already). They seem sort of like little pendulum clocks in the forest (what was it Orlando said?). But when the aerial call happened, they all tumbled out of the trees and scampered off up hill. My guide and I spent about 5 minutes searching before we found the animal I was supposed to be watching. Each animal was safely hidden (alone, on the ground) under something: a small cave, a brush tangle, a fallen log, a fern with all kinds of gunk caught in its fronds. And they stayed there, without moving, for more than an hour.


Chia is back. It is a relief to have another English speaker around. There should be a car going up to Tana on Saturday, I hope — so this might get mailed Monday (the first I think).

I’ve been out all morning looking for a troop of animals that can’t be found. Frustrating, but sometimes it happens. How does one track a troop of arborial (bamborial?) animals that go to sleep around 10:30, curled up in little balls high up in the foliage making no sound? You learn to look at the trash they drop. Now some trash is obviously from animals tearing up bamboo stems (that’s one species), the other two species drop leaves. So you have to learn to differenciate bamboo leaves that have just fallen because of old age, or high wind or whatever, from those that have fallen because H. aureus has eaten the stem at the base of the leave, from those that have fallen because H. griseus has eaten the petiole that connects the leaf to the stem.

I’m not very good at it yet.

Perhaps I’ll learn more after lunch.

Oh, another nifty thing, the research cabin is running out of money to buy food with, I begin to wonder if there will be any lunch today…

Ah, the cook decided to take a vacation and didn’t tell anyone, so once we discovered that we had to fend for ourselves. But there is no longer any bread (in an effort to save money), so the rice got started very late. Ho hum.

By the way, Chia is not coming back to the states with me, she has to stay here another month (at least that’s today’s plan), so once I get to London I’ll try to change my ticket and come home a bit earlier.

Subject: There and Back Again… (From George)

Brush off your leaches, start bleeding right now,
Brush off your leaches, and the women you will wow.

28 Feb.

This morning we ran out of cooking gas.

This is the halfway point of my trip (assuming I stay here the whole time, which I sometimes doubt). I feel now that my experiment is over, I don’t need to stay longer… Except of course for all the work I have not finished yet.

Oops, we aren’t out of gas, there’s a reserve supply I didn’t know about (we are out of bread).

4 Mar

Yesterday (Wed) we started on a three day trip to Kinjiavato to try to census a coffee plantation which is supposed to have lemurs in it. Chia arranged to hitch a ride with someone in town (Jocelyn). This turns out to be a complicated task, there is no easy communication between here and town. She sent a messenger on Monday and learned that a car would be leaving Wed morn between 5 and 6 and another would be returning Friday afternoon. So Tuesday we sent our messenger again to confirm that we’d be going, but Jocelyn was out of town in the morning, again in the afternoon. Finally about 10pm we get confirmation- the car will be leaving between 5 and 5:30.

We are up Wed morning around 4, finish packing. No porter comes to carry our luggage, so I carry it. We waited for the porter a bit so we are latish and get up to the park entrance at 5:30. The car is still there.

There are three of us in our group, Chia, myself and Jean-Marie, one of Chia’s Malgache assistants. We pile into the car. Halfway down the hill we pass a stalled car, so we stop to give a lift to 3 people. The car is getting full. We pass someone else who wants a ride up to the park, but she is too late. When we get to town one guy we picked up gets out, but the other two stay– they are going to Kinjiavato too. We pick up Jocelyn (who is far too important to have been in the car before), then we pick up two more people. The car is jammed.

Two hours later we get to Kinjiavato and the five of us going there get out, stretch our legs and walk to the headquarters of the coffee plantation. It is still before 8, but there is someone there and Chia and Emil (one of the two random people we picked up on the road) go in to talk to him to get permission. Oops. It turns out we need a permit from the head office of scientific research in Tana (the capital). Our permit, from the department of waters and forests isn’t good enough. Emil has a permit from the Park Manager at Ranomafana and somehow that is good enough for him.

Emil is going to dig up bamboo shoots for a reforestation project (rebambootion project?) on the outskirts of the park. We are only going to look for lemurs, but this makes no difference, he gets to go and we don’t. So Chia decides that we’ll look around the outside of the coffee plantation and see if we can find any animals there. Emil goes into town (Kinjiavato is tiny, smaller than Ranomafana village, and far less sophisticated– Ranomafana has such luxuries as electricity, 3rd class hotels, yoghurt, etc. Kinjiavato has none) to look for a local guide for us (Emil is very helpful, it’s good that he’s along with us).

Meanwhile we are told that we can stay here at the coffee plantation headquarters even though we mayn’t go inside the plantation itself. They have a “gide” here — now a gide is a word I can’t find in a french dictionary (I may be misspelling it of course — Ah, yes I was, the word is gite), but they are all over Madagascar. They seem to vary from a cheap hotel, to a large room with bunk-beds, to … This place. It’s a room, totally unfurnished. It’s got a door that sort of locks. The room is passable, we can set up a tent in it, except the tents we’ve got need stakes to pound into the ground. We prop the tents up with rocks. There’s even a WC, its floor is filthy and one doesn’t want to inquire as to the origin of the filth.

Emil finds a guide, but the guide says there is no point in looking for animals outside of the coffee plantation, inside the plantation the animals are protected, outside they are shot at, and anyway there is no bamboo for them to eat.

So we can’t go inside the plantation, and there is no point in going outside. We go back to the beaurocrat and try to find if we can go with Emil today and see what we can see. And we get grudging consent for that. We decide that we will go back with Emil that evening, as there is no point in staying longer (Jocelyn is passing through Kinjiavato around 4 in the afternoon).

We follow someone from the coffee plantation who sets off down the main road, after a bit he branches off the road, takes off his shoes and fords the river. This is too much for Chia, she is unwilling to cross the river, and tells me not to either (I was willing to cross, but am quite happy to be a lazy lump if I’m told to be), Jean-Marie does cross.

We head back to our wonderful room, but as we walk along the road we keep our eyes open for bamboo shoots (our lemurs munch shoots at this time of year and Chia wants to analyze them for cyanide). Anyway we grab 4 or 5 shoots from the side of the road (this is a different species from that at RNP).

We sit down to wait for Jocelyn to return at 4. Around noon we go out looking for lunch. Now Chia had been thinking that we would be able to find reasonable restaurants in Kinjiavato, there turn out to be only two, and Chia decides that neither one is up to her standards. We have a little bread, and that is lunch.

At 3:30 we gather our stuff together. The coffee plantation headquarters is closed, we need to return the key for the gide to someone (and pay them something for the use of their room for the day). Eventually Chia and Emil track down someone responsible (he was asleep).

Anyway we wait on the road.

And wait.

School gets out (School is in one room, and whenever I overheard the lessons were entirely french). Now Kinjiavato doesn’t get much in the way of tourists. Chia and I are the most fascinating thing they’ve ever seen. All the children in the village form a broken circle around us. And watch us. I found it a little disconcerting after a while. So I started reciting bits of Shakespeare, and then Lewis Carrol. Emil repremands me for speaking nonsense, I should speak stuff that will help them learn. Um. I recite the only thing I know in french (a fable by La Fontaine), it receives giggles (but then so did The Walrus and the Carpenter). Emil suggests that I play with them. Um. I had barely looked at a little boy while reciting and he went and hid behind someone else, I’m not sure play is an option. There are too many to play the non-language games I normally play with children. I suggest to Emil that I am playing with their minds, but that doesn’t go over too well. So I give up. And the children stare at us.

And wait.

I finish my book.

And wait.

It starts to rain.

It stops raining.

Anyway it is too dark now to read… There are no electric lights, the oil lamps are not very bright and are only inside people’s houses. The town looks really dark.

And wait.

At 6:00 a taxi-brouse (sort of like a bus service, but much worse) arrives headed for Tana. We ask if there is room for us, but there is none. (Thank goodness).

And wait.

A little after 7 Emil flags down a private car and asks if they will take Chia and me (what about the rest of them? Well there is only room for 2 anyway) back to the Park. There is some negotiation and the price agreed on is 20,000 FMG for us both (=$4), we pay and load our stuff in, and the driver gives 6,000 to Emil. Interesting. Off we finally go in neo-colonial splendor.

We are six kilometers from the park at 9:15 (and remember we’ve been up since 4) when the driver decides to stop for dinner. Arg! all I want is to get back to my tent and sleep. So we take half an hour off for dinner and then drive the remaining 6k. We gather up our stuff, thank them, and depart. As we walk down to the research site another car drives up, full of a bunch of people from Tana. And they all stop to talk to Chia.

I get to bed after 11.

Oh yeah, Jean-Mari did find some trash left behind by our animals in the coffee plantation (but no sightings of the animals themselves). But Chia knew that already.

This morning I find out that Jean-Marie arrived about 11:30pm.

I think I’ve pretty well decided that I’m going to try to return in early April rather than early May. I haven’t decided for sure yet, I’m still hoping that if I just wait a little longer I’ll realize that leaches are fun. After all I’ve been day-dreaming about this for years… I’m planning that in about another week I’ll make a final decision about leaving.

I’ve finished one of the major tasks I set myself just this morning, and the other major task is in a state where — although there is more to do — what I’ve done is good enough. I’ll probably work some more on it. And I’ve taken many of the photographs I want to take. I originally promised Chia I’d give her three months at least, and the end of March fits that schedule too.

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