Although not the largest village, Vohidamba is, so far, our most bustling setting. Our school room (bedroom/dining room/methods lab/microscopy lab) is located right in the heart of the village, with just our fenestrated bamboo wall separating us from a very busy public water tap.
This morning, as with every morning, we were awoken by the village symphony:
Inconsolable babies crying, gangs of children (all coughing), the clang of pots being washed, the laughter of our cooks, families washing, geese quarrelling, the continual spluttering of the tap (which doesn’t turn off) and the mangey rooster with the hoarse voice. It feels an enormous privilege to have been accepted into the bosom of the village and to have everything continue around us as normal.
Our research here has gone very well. With such outgoing and curious children we were able to complete all our data collection on our first day – abdominal examinations, questionnaires, anaemia & malaria testing, anthropometrics and 50 very promptly returned poo and pee pots.
As such, the last day and a half have entailed sitting at the school benches preparing the stool samples for microscopy. Fairly foul work in this heat and made infinitely worse since our pot of tiger balm (to smear on ones top lip to mask the smell) has been posted missing. Nevertheless, our audience have remained undeterred – every window and door frame is filled with a clamouring of interested faces, hands and bodies all inching slowly into the room when we aren’t looking. We have frequently had to shoo them out of the “lab” in the interests in health and safety. Likely vain in this current setting.
Coupled with the worst long-drop toilet of the trip (so bad that the ‘she-wee’, lovingly packed by my mother, had to be brought out) it is little surprise that two team members were struck down with the high fevers and GI upset that typify a tropical research trip. It is difficult to create a meaningful ‘sick-bay’ in this environment and I’m afraid that my role as medical officer felt fairly superfluous as I scrambled to measure temperatures and dust off packets of rehydration salts and Azithromycin among the faeces, cockroaches and single dead scorpion (killed by Mannu’s Croc). Fortunately, with a comfortable seating area created from bags of empty poo pots & sleeping mats and a homemade episode of Desert Island Discs by way of Occupational Therapy my patients pulled through.
Vohidamba also brought us the arrival of two further medical students from the University of Antananarivo – Aryon and Gina. As with any insular group joined by fresh faces we are all enjoying a sense of renewed energy, with new personalities bringing fresh conversation and laughter. As such, the Malagasy – UK cultural exchange has remained buoyant. Most recently, the flavour revelation of mashed avocado with condensed milk. Try it. We implore you.
We have still enjoyed some rare pockets of peace in our time here too. Mornings have seen James, Kate and Corty sitting on the school steps sketching and painting the Vohidamba rooftops, each surrounded by a huddle of enraptured children. Just up the hill from our school is a small, secluded waterfall that has allowed us each a shower. Only James had his interrupted, and that was by a family of disinterested ducks. And Kate found some “me time” spending an hour getting a new hairstyle with some of the local women. The idea had been for a practical solution that would keep her hair out of the way, but Madex wasn’t ready for blonde cornrows. The hairstyle was shortlived – likened to an Ork, a swimmer and “like you’ve been scalped” – but it was a valuable bonding session with the local women.
It seemed only appropriate that this noisy, messy, charming place would give us a raucous send-off. Bags packed and porters assembled, not 1 minute into our walk to our next village and a grinning, drunk Malagasy man bounded up to join our party. He had a small, battered guitar with 4 strings (beyond all hope of tuning) and proclaimed his eagerness to accompany us on our journey, to practise his English. Running out of words after a brief exchange of pleasantries, he busied himself with singing, approximately in the same key as his guitar. Our very own bard.