Religion writer Valerie Tarico is on a five month trek through the southern hemisphere with her husband and two teenage daughters. Missives from the Southern Cross are her occasional dispatches from the road.
I crawl out of bed before dawn, and not long after the sun comes up my husband Brian and I are scrambling up a muddy trail in Madagascar's Ranomafana National Park. We are in search of Golden Bamboo Lemurs, one of two rare species that prompted the designation of the park. Madagascar has been stripped of its foliage to the point that it is known as the Red Island; less than ten percent of the island bears native vegetation, and less than three percent is protected. But that precious three percent contains the remnant of a "biodiversity hot spot", with hundreds of bird species and small reptiles, and agile multi-colored lemurs, each with its own ecological niche, found nowhere else on the planet.
We are tramping through the mixed use zone, a buffer where local villagers are allowed to cut wood for their own use, and following a guide, Loret, who is one of those villagers. Back in 1985-87, Loret spent two years with a team of biologists, helping them to track lemurs, including the Goldens, who until that time were not known to the scientific world. Ahead of us somewhere off in the tangle is Loret's young apprentice, Marina, who reached the mountainside before us and is now bushwhacking barefoot through streams and around thorny vines searching for the elusive lemurs.
As we walk, Loret talks about the six months yearly when he works for scientists from Suny who return to the park for ongoing research. They sent him for training in Kenya and Tanzania to learn more about ecological reserves and park management, but he is the resident expert on the local species. He tells us about their markings, breeding patterns, territorial and family size, and eating habits. He uses terms like commensalism and epiphyte, and primary and secondary forest, and crepuscular; and our brains scramble to keep up.
Loret is shabby. His boots are cracked and worn. His daypack has been stitched back together by hand. His gray cargo pants have a round patch on each side of the butt in a slightly darker shade of gray. But by dint of his own skill as a tracker and by dint of the training he acquired from the foreign biologists he is a naturalist and a treasure trove of knowledge. Last night, we followed him in the dark along a roadside and saw beautiful chameleons, including one, fully grown to the size of my pinkie finger, that changed colors under our flashlights. We saw a pair of tiny birds, sleeping together on a small branch under a leaf just big enough to keep off the rain. And we caught a glimpse of the miniature nocturnal mouse lemur.
This morning Loret, by using whistles, intuition, and (when it works) a cell phone, finds Marina, who has found the Golden Bamboo Lemurs. We bushwhack -- not barefoot -- over muddy streams and up through the tangle of vines and limbs, to the place where Marina waits. Above us, big brown eyes peer out of unnaturally thick tawny fur, so fine that the sun lights the tips like a halo of light. We watch the family cut bamboo stalks with their incisors, strip off the leaves and munch the insides. We watch them bound from tree to tree. And when they move on, we do too, because by then Marina has spotted a family of Common Brown Lemurs, high in the canopy, chasing, grooming, and sunbathing.
Deeply satisfied, we finally fight our way back down the mountainside. Marina is in front surefooted. Brian and I follow in our specialized footwear slipping and sliding, hanging on tight to our bulky camera bag and somehow managing to lose a stainless water bottle that cost as much as Marina earns in a fortnight. We emerge from the forest into banana fields and rice paddies and then onto the open road.
On our way back to the hotel, we pass the local ecole primaire, the local school, and I find myself thinking what a bizarre mix of information we Westerners pump into this country. Coca-Cola representatives tout the benefits of zero-calorie CokeMax (in areas where many people are malnourished), and, dutifully, the signs appear on windows and walls. Biologists arrive, and from their privileged position of prosperity and education, they talk about ecosystems and primary and secondary forests, and people like Loret adopt their way of thinking.
But much more often foreigners with the same privileged status come to tell the locals about water that turned into wine, and talking donkeys, and people raised from the dead, and golden tablets that were found in upstate New York. Pentecostal and Adventist churches and even the odd evangelical radio station mark the streets of villages and towns. A clean white building on a small dusty street bears a sign for Colorado-Springs-based Youth for Christ. Tidy signs point the way to tabernacles of Jehovah's Witnesses. And city streets sport pairs of peach-faced Mormon "elders." The number of foreigners that are here to promote one or the other Western religion is so substantial that our hotel tonight in Fianarantsoa advertises itself as being "well appointed for business people and missionaries."
Most locals as far as I can discern have little access to information that would allow them to differentiate one kind of Western expert from another, and because of this, the presence of the missionaries makes me a bit crazy. After losing my equanimity a couple of days ago (much to the horror of my daughters) and scolding a pair of young Americans wearing white shirts, ties, and nametags, I explained to Brynn and Marley that I think the missionary activities here are immoral:
When we base our own life priorities on a set of assumptions, we have a responsibility to research those assumptions, to do the best we can to make sure they are accurate. But if we are selling a worldview to other people, we have an even greater responsibility to make sure what we are saying is true. The more vulnerable the people we are selling to--the greater the power differential, and the less ability they have to fact-check what we say--the greater the responsibility.
"With great power comes great responsibility," intoned Brynn. She has heard variants of this speech before.
The irony is that, thanks to the flow of history, we Westerners do have privileged access to information; we know things that not everyone is privileged to learn, and some of that information is worth sharing. But much of what passes for information in the West is like CokeMax: empty, distracting, and taking the place of real nutrition. I, myself, can drink can after can of diet Coke (there are times in life that I have) because I have access to such a variety and quantity of real food that I'm bound to end up well nourished. But that is not the case for everyone, and the pernicious effects of Coca Cola, whether syrupy or sugar free, are inversely proportional to the nutritious bounty with which it must compete.
I think the same is true of mental junk food, including outdated dogmas. At home in the U.S., the religions that are targeting Madagascar like Pentecostalism, Mormonism and Adventism, have a negative effect on the birth rate, meaning they increase it. All the same, few American devotees pump out twelve or fifteen children anymore. The free flow of information in the wider culture counterbalances any superstitions about a god who wants to manage human reproduction all by himself.
But Madagascar is a different environment. The annual growth rate is already three percent; the doubling time less than twenty-five years. The government -- when it functions -- is trying frantically to stabilize population. Most people eke out bare sufficiency today by cultivating rice on land that is rapidly degrading. Add to this context Western superstitions that say: God will decide and God will provide. Ideas that are relatively benign in one context can be devastating in another.
Even those ideas that are beneficial in one context may be distracting or empty -- or simply irrelevant -- in another. Ranomafana's ecole primaire serves the villages that follow a river valley in the heart of the national park, an exception to the park's protections. Like primary schools around the planet, it is based on a European model of education with the goal of putting "the three r's" in place before puberty. As we drive by I find myself wondering how relevant the ideas are to the local people. The population in the park is a young one -largely teens with babies and toddlers and preschoolers. Besides growing rice and bananas, many earn a living by chipping rocks into gravel. In openings between the clustered mud-brick houses, sit the small mounds of gravel, surrounded by children toddling while other children and adults pound rock against rock.
What kind of knowledge might most improve the quality of life in the next generation? Knowledge that is largely irrelevant to your average European -- or is easily absorbed from the cultural context: Agricultural refinements including erosion control. Sanitation and family planning. Cottage crafts like woodworking, furniture making, or basketry. French and English that open access to the tourism industry. Ecosystem knowledge like Loret's that would let them take full advantage of the incredible riches at their fingertips -- a treasure trove of beauty and biodiversity in a world that is hungry for glimpses of our primordial past.
When India gained her independence from the West, most of these kinds of information were carried to the villages by a cadre of young missionaries with a cause that was spiritual but not religious. They were inspired by Gandhi's vision of sarvodaya, social and economic programs that would lift up the most marginal members of society and bring economic independence, gram surat, to match political independence, raj surat. In India, the movement was home grown. Here in Madagascar, most social reforms still are pushed or led by Westerners. Even people who hate colonialism recognize that we have information worth sharing. How can we ensure that the ideas being promoted are the best we have to offer? With great power comes great responsibility.