Along with a few other short-term volunteers, I arrived at Azafady's camp in Fort Dauphin (Taolagnaro), at the beginning of April. We joined a group of 14 Pioneers on a longer programme who were there already, plus the local co-ordinators, guides and other Azafady staff who would be with us throughout our trip.
We spent the first day acclimatising and exploring Fort Dauphin, before we were due to head out into the bush.
One of the reserves near Taolagnaro is Nahampoana. A former colonial garden, it is home to several species of lemur, in addition to some reptiles and indigenous plant species.
Following our guide, we met a whole tribe of acrobatic ring-tailed lemurs (left). I was enchanted as one of them, dangling upside down from a branch, took a piece of guava from me, his tiny soft hand plucking the fruit whilst his bright eyes gazed at mine.
We were also lucky enough to see a whole family of brown lemurs, and a group of bamboo lemurs, before the heavens opened, soaking us for the first of many times.
After a night of heavy rain, during which several tents leaked (and some even floated!), we broke camp and packed into a camion for the trip out to the bush. In the long rainy season it is not uncommon for bridges and roads to be washed away, but fortunately we got through without drama, and arrived at Emagnevy, near Mahatalaky in the South-East, where we were going to be working.
The scenery was breathtaking as we were welcomed by the village chief and crowds of excited children, pitching our tents anew in our home for the next few weeks.
The day after arriving in Emagnevy we began our construction project, repairing and improving the primary school.
The plan was to build a roofed veranda around the existing school, which would keep the rain off the walls, preventing them from rotting in the wet season. To do this we dug out the foundations, erected a wooden frame for the roof, cemented in the foundations (creating a walkway as the veranda floor), then attached the corrugated tin roof to the rafters.
At the same time, we replaced broken and rotten planks on the existing building, repainted the walls and details, and fixed a number of desks inside. The roof would also be painted - completing the colours of the Malagasy flag, and protecting the metal from rust.
On our first day off those of us not suffering from traveller’s sickness trooped down into town to the market. Market day in Mahatalaky is very colourful and busy, with people everywhere. On sale are various fruits, rice, tobacco, pots, pans, woven hats and mats, and various unboxed drugs in the ‘pharmacy’.
The two main products of the local economy are woven reed mats and moonshine, which is actually illegal to sell in the market, but can be bought just outside the town.
In the evening on the 21st April, we had a special treat – a Bush Party. First we had fantastic food, with zebu, zebu kebabs, four types of salad, English-style chips, cassava balls, the obligatory rice and an amazing banoffee pie.
As the stars came out, a local band arrived. Together with a vast crowd of locals, we gathered round a bonfire in the field to watch. The band had djembe (kind of a drum), a local version of an acoustic guitar, a kind of musical bow (jejy lava) singers and a troupe of really energetic dancers. After watching for a while we got up to join in, trying in vain to keep up with the dancers.
In the heat of the roaring fire and the never-slowing music we were dripping with sweat, laughing along with the locals. The party continued until long after midnight, with the people of Emagnevy and Mahatalaky joining in the dancing later on.
Malaria is a huge problem in Madagascar, with over half a million suspected cases in 2009. The health centre in Mahatalaky, has just one nurse, no doctors, and very basic equipment, but deals with thousands of people in the local area, making malaria awareness even more important.
Monica, a local Peace Corps volunteer, had organised various events for local children and their families at the site of the new secondary school, including a huge mural painting. The other volunteers and I contributed by performing a play about the risks of malaria, the importance of mosquito nets (not as fishing nets), and what to do when someone displays symptoms.
On the 27th of April, we went down to the site of the new secondary school in Mahatalaky for the opening ceremony. Built by Azafady on previous schemes, it includes 3 stone classrooms, a well and latrines.
The grounds were packed with hundreds of locals, plus the village chief, the mayor, delegations from the region and capital, most of Azafady's Malagasy board, volunteers and guides. First there were speeches from the various dignitaries, before a zebu was sacrificed to honour God, religion, ancestors and friends.
With the ceremony over, we wandered around the site chatting to the locals and perusing the myriad stalls selling food, goods and gambling opportunities.
With our construction project complete ahead of schedule, we spent a few days at a beach near Evatraha on the south eastern coast. Secluded, empty and stunning, it was the perfect place to relax and rinse off stubborn accumulations of dirt and cement.
On the second day we walked about an hour round the coast to Lokaro Bay, which has an even more beautiful beach, along with a small coral reef, and some giant lizards.
That evening marked the end of the short-term construction programme with Azafady. As I and the other short term volunteers prepared to leave, the Pioneer team were looking forward to another construction project, tree planting and other adventures still to come.
On the way home, I stopped off for a few days in Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar. Brightly-coloured houses line the hillsides, whilst rice paddies encircle the city and sprout at random in its suburbs. 'Tana has a large number of cultural and historical attractions, making it well worth a look if you can.
I particularly enjoyed visiting a local zoo, Croc Farm, where we saw hundreds of crocodiles, a few species of chameleon, lizard, gecko, lemur and fossae. The fossa (fosa in Malagasy), is the largest mammalian carnivore in Madagascar, similar in appearance to a cougar.
I enjoyed every moment of my time in Madagascar, and came away with a number of fantastic memories. I'd thoroughly recommend visiting this enigmatic Eighth Continent, even more so with Azafady.