TRI FIELD NOTES: Storytelling and local forest guides in Andasibe, Madagascar

TRI FIELD NOTES: Storytelling and local forest guides in Andasibe, Madagascar

By Justine Cefalu, 2015 TRI Fellow in Madagascar

We are sitting together in Diary’s wooden house, the walls covered in cloths to keep the cold out. Diary lives at the highest point in the village, and from his door we can see the other houses dotting the hillside, the rich green of the primary forest reserve to the left and the cleared slopes for rice, pineapple and taro cultivation to the right. The rain that followed us on the two-hour walk to the village subsides and the air loses its cold edge. Diary is telling us a story, his creased face animated, his eyes wide and alive.

I am going to tell you the story of why the long-eared owl has such big eyes. Before, he could see during the day, he flew about the forest with the rest of the birds. But he was lonely and self-conscious. His eyes were big and he didn’t have any girlfriends. Diary smiles. Every day he watched the white-eyes, elegant yellow-grey birds with white rings around their eyes, chattering in flocks. He got up the courage to ask them for advice. ‘What do you do to have beautiful eyes? How can I be popular like you?’ The white-eyes, laughing, gave him a recipe: ‘Go into the forest and collect the sap from the samata tree, make it into a paste and apply it to your eyes. It will make them small and white and beautiful, just like ours.’ The long-eared owl, desperate for beauty, followed their advice. But he forgot that samata is poisonous, and when he put it on his eyes, they widened to twice their size because of the shock and pain. He was blinded and humiliated, and started sleeping during the day to avoid meeting other birds who would laugh at him. ‘If I meet other birds, I will eat all of them!’ And to this day, the long-eared owl, bitter about being tricked, hunts smaller birds, under the cover of darkness.

Man and children Credit: Justin Cefalu

For these few moments, Diary transports us into the forest, perhaps one much like the National Park reserve less than 15 minutes walk from where we now sit. His story is entertaining (the language barrier doesn’t matter, we are on the edge of our seats), instructive for the villagers (do not underestimate the cleverness of the young), but most of all a representation of respect and understanding about the environment and the village’s intimate connection with the creatures of the forest.

My research has been full of stories like this one, colorful, unexpectedly detailed, illustrating an understanding of the world, be it through tradition or through science. In some ways, it is obvious that oral tradition is important for the conservation of the forest—especially in a community that has been shaping this landscape for hundreds of years. The landscape is not separate from the people living here, but intimately connected to every aspect of their life, from farming to medicine, from work to leisure. Diary was a particularly striking example of how life connects to the forest through tradition. His responsibility as tangalamena, or chief of the village, was to keep and teach traditions, to connect with the ancestors, to decide the outcomes of disputes, to instruct the younger generations, and to teach the history of the forest and the history of the people to local guides working in tourism at the local protected areas. These guides collect stories from all over: their parents and grandparents, ethnobotanical researchers from Europe, the tourists themselves, Conservation International primatologists, professors at the tourism institute in Antananarivo, and wise keepers-of-tradition like Diary. Each of these stories describes one aspect of life and of the forest and the guides shape these stories together, changing them, molding them into a picture they share with tourists.

Oral tradition is very important in the lives of people in Madagascar. Before colonization, nothing was written down, there were no documents to tell future generations about present life. According to one elder in the village, “I sit down with my son and tell him how life was for my grandparents. Otherwise things are lost.” The guides are public storytellers and their stories are vital for conservation. Most of them have spent their entire lives in the village and in the forest and so they understand the successes and struggles better than anyone. It is through their stories that the forest and the people come alive for tourists traveling through and for researchers like me curious about the environment and its connection with local people. It is through these stories that there is hope for the future of the land and for the future of the village. Without these stories, things will be lost.

“TRI Field Notes” share the stories of TRI Fellows as they conduct independent summer research throughout the tropics. The Tropical Resources Institute (TRI) is a center at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. For more information on research and fellowships visit