Madagascar is a wonderful and unique place to volunteer for wildlife lovers and anthropology geeks alike. As the fourth largest island in the world, it has been geographically and culturally isolated for years. While this has helped to create a fascinatingly unique culture -- which feels like a blend of traveling in Asia and Africa -- and biodiversity, it has also contributed to a lack of modernization and development.
More than 80 percent of the population live in poverty and the majority of the population of 22 million people lives without access to toilets, running water, and reliable electricity. Additionally, Madagascar's wildlife is threatened by poaching, redwood harvesting, and the destruction of forests for farming and making charcoal.
While volunteering on the red island, you'll have a chance to explore one of the world's most unique countries but also to contribute to the development and preservation of Malagasy culture and wildlife.
Approximately 90% of the flora and fauna found on the island -- like lemurs -- are endemic, meaning they are native and found nowhere else. As a volunteer, you will research protection of the ecosystem and wildlife. Volunteers can help non-profits working to promote conservation in a sustainable way by involving the local Malagasy population.
For those interested in marine conservation, Madagascar is one of the country's most affected by climate change. There has been a loss of coral reef protection on the Mozambique Channel due to overfishing.
As a volunteer working in marine conservation, you will help rebuild tropical fisheries with coastal communities. You will participate in activities such as diving to collect data at coral reefs and providing environmental education to locals.
As a health volunteer, you could help with topics such as family planning, maternal, and child health care and/or malaria prevention. You can provide communicable diseases prevention education at local health clinics in rural communities.
In these areas, people may walk upwards of 15 miles to reach a basic health center, where a doctor is not always in and medicine may or may not be in stock. Health clinics need help with vitamin distributions, record keeping and supply chain management often times.
Volunteers can also work with teaching English or assisting in teaching English to Malagasy students and / or adults.
French is widely spoken in large cities and by educated populations. If you're interested in learning French, you can study at one of the well-established Alliance Française schools.
However, Malagasy is more commonly used and is still the sole language spoken by most people in rural communities. Impress your work counterparts by learning a little Malagasy with the help of a Malagasy-English Pocket Phrasebook & Dictionary and be prepared to hear encouraging exclamations of "mahay Malagasy!"
A 90 day travelers' visa may be obtained at the airport upon arrival if you have a passport valid for at least 6 months past the extended stay. A special one-month extendable visa must be obtained, once in Madagascar, at the Ministry of the Interior. Check Madagascar's Embassy website for details on additional requirements past the 90 days.
Infrastructure such as roads, are some of the most dangerous in the world and traveling by land can be very time consuming. Local buses, called "brousses" are available for budget travelers. On your journeys, you may have to cross water on a bamboo raft, or chug along at a slow pace behind tractor-trailors, along mountain switchbacks. Bring motion sickness medicine, even if you think you don't get motion sick.
Many people fly for a lack of time, in order to see as much as possible. Domestic flights can be costly ($500, for example) through Air Madagascar, but people under the age of 27 and residents of Madagascar receive a discount. Ask about special rates, otherwise they won't mention it to you.
Overall, cost of living in Madagascar is cheap. You can get lunch or dinner for about 2,000 - 4,000 Ariary ($1 - 1.50), at local Malagasy restaurant or about 10,000 at a nicer "touristy" restaurant (~$5). Hotels can be found for as low as 10,000 Ariary in small towns, and for 30,000 Ariary a night in big cities.
Public transportation, such as brousses, are inexpensive -- fares can be between 2,000 ($1) and 60,000 Ariary ($20) typically, depending on the distance of your ride. Do not pay to put luggage on top of a brousse.
Malagasy currency is called Ariary. It is an exchange rate of about 3,000 Ariary to $1 USD. However, some regions (especially in the north of the island) continue to quote prices on the old currency (Franc), which is about 5x more than the Ariary (e.g. 5,000 Ariary = 25,000 Franc). If a price seems high, it's always a good idea to ask "Franc sa Ariary?"
Malagasy people eat more rice per capita than anywhere in the world. If you're not used to this much rice, you may want to pack some granola bars and your favorite chocolate, if you like.
Weather varies greatly by region; there's more rain on the east coast but it's more dry in the southwest. Make sure to pack a rain coat and rain cover for your backpack regardless of the time of year.
The highlands can also get very cold, down to 32 degrees fahrenheit from June to August, and few buildings are heated. Bring a good down jacket if you're passing through Tana / Antsirabe at that time of the year.
Coastal regions are typically hot year-round, getting down to the low 70s in the same months at night.
Rainy seasons depend on the region, but cyclone season is generally from January - March. Always pack:
- A fleece and lightweight clothes in order to layer
- Clothes you don't mind getting dirty
- Flashlight (in case of power outages)
- Dry-sacs to protect electronics
Cell phone tip: get your phone unlocked before you come and you can buy a sim card in country to use for internet.
Clean drinking water can be hard to come by. Buying water bottles will add up quickly (though it's a fine option if you'll be in Madagascar for just a couple of weeks). Depending on your trip length, consider iodine water purification tablets, or a steripen, an environmentally-friendly purification tool.
Make sure you wash fresh fruits and veggies thoroughly but, at the same time, don't shy away from trying food at local hotelys (restaurants). Most Malagasy dishes are either cooked or peeled, which makes it safer to eat.
Outside of the highlands, Malaria is a risk. If you'll be outside of this area, talk to a travel doctor about potentially taking a malaria prophylaxis and take precautions against mosquito bites by using bug spray and a mosquito net at night.
Those planning to travel to Madagascar should consult a travel health specialist 4-6 weeks before departure. Make sure you are up to date on standard travel vaccines for measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP), varicella (chickenpox), as well as the polio booster.
Additionally, Hepatitis A and B and Typhoid vaccinations are recommended, as is the Rabies vaccination, for those who may be exposed to animals in the wild. Check the Center for Disease Control for more information prior to your departure.
Madagascar is generally safe for tourists, especially in rural areas, where you're most likely to be as a volunteer. It's important to be vigilant however in crowded areas, such as markets, especially in the capital, Antananarivo (Tana), as pickpocketing is common. One of the most common scams in Tana is small children posing as beggars but, while asking for money in their hat / basket, will pickpocket unsuspecting tourists.
In the area of Fort Dauphin, swim with caution as there is a considerable shark population there.
It's also not advised to travel overland between Finaratsoa and Fort Dauphin, where dahalo (cow thieves) are known to be active.
Register with the State Department before traveling to be sure to be made aware of any urgent issues concerning U.S. citizens during your time there.
Contributed by Madagascar RPCV, Alle Kamela