I spent my last semester studying abroad in Madagascar. As a component of my program, I spent a month of my trip completing an independent study project. I chose to look at the distribution of two endangered endemic palms in the extreme south of the country. I knew this was a very remote area with few villages and periodic droughts so all of the food I would be eating for the 21 day field competent of my project I would have to bring myself. I hired a guide, Cedric, who was fluent in English, French and Malagasy, the local language, to act as my translator as well as a cultural liaison and a helper with the logistics of the trip. The first day I met Cedric we headed to the local market to buy food for the entire trip.
As I entered the market, bustling and teaming with flies, noise, and the movement of people, I became worried as I faced for really the first time in my life the problem of how I was going to sustain my body. For me to do grocery shopping for 21 days in the United States would be daunting let alone in Madagascar. In the United States I just take for granted that eating normal food will provide all of the nutrients I need but here I was faced with providing for myself in market that looks very different than any Hannaford’s. Cedric and I came up with a shopping list on the fly and the first product we bought was rice. Madagascar is one of the world’s largest per capita consumers of rice, a fact that really surprised me as I generally don’t associate rice and Africa. We then purchased seven different varieties of beans, salt, sugar, coffee, cornmeal, condensed milk, cooking oil and tomato paste. At the end of the day, I was unsure if we had bought enough food or if this amount and variety of food could sustain us nutritionally. Despite my uneasiness, we headed out in the bush the next morning for the trip.
There’s certainly no way to call ahead to make reservations to stay in a small rural village in Madagascar so when we got off of the bus, we had to make arrangement for accommodations and cooking extemporaneously. We ended up staying in a village, Anjamahasoa, a mile into the bush from the road and another 3 miles from the site of my project. The women in this village were happy to cook for us as they were compensated in cash as well as food. We set up camp in this village and lived there for the next 20 days.
Eating rice and beans three meals a day for that long wore me down. By the end of my trip, food was running low as well as cash and some meals consisted of only cornmeal or only rice. I was doing lots of physical activity and the days were long and tremendously hot so my body was demanding nutrition but there was little I could give it. I was glad to leave at the end as I was getting dizzy easily and I was finding it hard to do my work. I devoured as much food as I could when I got back to the nearest city and I felt much better. While I might have felt bad for myself a bit, thinking that I had really roughed it, it was sobering to think that compared to the people of Anjamahasoa, I was eating much better as far as calories and nutrition than they could afford to eat and that malnutrition is a problem many face every single day.