Volunteering in Madagascar
Alice, who studied French, Russian and Arabic at Durham University, lets us know about volunteering, fascinating facts about Antananarivo, what not to miss, what to take with you and what to leave behind, what to do in case of emergency, and how to keep in touch with home.
When? August 2007 – December 2007
What? The Dodwell Trust
Where? Antananarivo, Madagascar
What did I do?
I spent four months working as a volunteer English teacher for the Dodwell Trust. This was set up twelve years ago by Madagascar aficionado, Christina Dodwell after she visited the island whilst researching one of her books. It is a small charity, therefore the costs are not huge and most of the money that the volunteers pay goes directly back into the projects. The costs include accommodation, transfers to and from your placements, teaching materials and a daily food allowance. I had four different placements over the time I was in Madagascar, with teaching groups varying from children age 4 to English teachers aged over 50. I taught approximately 25 hours per week, with some occasional private tuition on the side, which we would teach in our garden. The flight costs are generally fairly high, as it has been relatively untouched by tourism. Therefore I would recommend a stay of a few months to make the costs worthwhile. You will also have the opportunity to visit more of this beautiful island. It is an ex-French colony, and most people do still speak French. If you want further practice, you can easily organise French lessons with the Alliance Française, which cater for all abilities. Arriving in Madagascar can be a massive culture shock especially if, like me, you have never been to a third world country before. As one of the poorest countries in the world, you would expect the people to be very deprived. There are many people who do struggle, however as the country in general is poor and not just the people; there is less of a divide between the extremely rich and the extremely poor. I had an absolutely amazing time there and was really touched by all the experiences that I had, the people I met and the incredible places that I saw. This island is truly unique and I would highly recommend it!
5 fascinating facts about Antananarivo
- The Malagasy diet consists of rice three meals a day!
- The taxis are cream coloured and many of them are really old school cars like 2CVs – don’t be surprised if you have to stop for petrol half way through the journey and pay your fare there and then! There may also be holes in the floor, but generally they are very safe, and they know the capital very well.
- The Malagasy people are generally very welcoming and happy to have visitors from the UK, as most of the tourists are from France or Italy – they will ask you a lot of questions about the Royal family!
- You will be called ‘vazaha’ wherever you go – it is not an insult, it simply means foreigner.
- Unlike the film, there are no lions, giraffes, zebras or hippos on the island (there are dancing lemurs though - watch out for the diadem sifaka).
Not to be missed
- Ile Ste Marie or Nosy Be: beautiful Bounty advert beaches with pure white sand and palms overhanging.
- Chocolaterie Robert, Antananarivo: delicious Malagasy chocolates – really cheap and delicious presents!
- Akany Avoko: shelter for destitute children and young people. Located a short taxi-brousse ride from the capital. A beautiful place to visit as the children seem very happy. The shelter is very environmentally friendly with solar-powered cooking pots, a fertiliser toilet and they hand make cards from shredded documents. There is also a small handicraft shop, where you know the profits will go directly back to the children. It is an excellent place to visit if you don’t have any space left for your clothes and would like to donate them to a worthy cause.
- Tzimabazaza zoo: unfortunately the natural history museum was closed when I went but apparently it is excellent, with a skeleton or a giant lemur measuring over one metre and a skeleton of the elephant bird which measured over two metres! It is also home to many fascinating creatures that are unique to this island, and the conditions are a lot better than expected.
- The hotel Vakona Lodge Lemur Island: well worth a trip to see lemurs which have been rescued from awful conditions as pets in hotels. As they are so used to humans they come down and eat bananas out of the palm of your hand. They cannot be released into the wild as they would not survive but are well treated and they have a lot of space.
- Avenue of the Baobabs Tsingy: national park of limestone rock that has been eroded by acid rain and gives the impression of a vast, alien landscape. Wearing a harness, you can climb over the rocks and cross a high suspension bridge Indiana Jones style!
What to take
- Insect repellent
- Suntan lotion
- Malaria tablets
- Cosmetics – shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste etc.
- Big backpack
- Money belt
- Small bag – with zip
- Packet soups, stock cubes: adds a lot of flavour to vegetables and rice
- Water purification tablets – bottled water not expensive so these are not a necessary item, but useful if you want to save your pennies
- Cotton clothing
- Leave plenty of space in your bag to take home souvenirs/presents
Continental European style
What to eat
- Lots of very fresh fruit and vegetables in the markets in every town
- Meat can look dodgy in the markets but some friends ate it and were perfectly fine
- Hoteli along road side – very cheap but be careful
- Restaurants are generally very cheap and delicious food
- Zebu steaks are delicious.
- Taxi-brousse: go to the station in advance to book tickets and reserve seats. Can be very squashed. Look after your belongings.
- Pousse-pousse: a sort of tuk-tuk but without a bicycle, the men literally pull you along.
In case of an emergency
Contact the British Embassy in Antananarivo:
Ninth Floor Tour Zital
Email: [email protected]
Tel: +261 (0) 2022 33053
Consular assistance (24 hour) +261 2022 33053 (Local) / +261 0 2022 33053 (International)
Advice for parents
Timezone is GMT +3
Dialling code is +261
Use Telesavers to call. Occasionally there is a delay in the conversation, but you get used to it quite quickly, and it is significantly cheaper than calling from a landline.
Buy a Malagasy SIM card as soon as you arrive, even just for a short stay: they are very cheap and not only will it be much easier to keep in touch with your many new friends in Madagascar, but also it’s cheaper to text home! There are not many internet cafes: outside the capital they can be quite expensive and fairly slow.