Menja: An Interview with the Soul of Team Tsitsidy

"Show me how you dance!"

That would be Raboavola Bernadette, known to everyone as Menja. You're likely to find her stirring up Field Cake over the fire, painting her face with handmade sunblock from the masonjoany tree, or inciting a dance party.

Menja shows off her masonjoany during a rainy day at our Antavindalona camp.

"Like this?" she asks, imitating my tentative dance moves. Dropping it low in a meadow of ferns and sugarcane feels wildly out of place, but Menja doesn't care. She's going to master this dance with the same patient attention she applies to her mosquito trapping for Team Tsitsidy.

One of Menja's mosquito traps hung in an Ampitavanana rice paddy. As an interesting aside, the red batik in the background is used by the rice farmers to scare away Madagascar fody, tiny scarlet songbirds than can devour a rice crop.

Menja has been working with researchers in Ranomafana National Park since 1998, five years before the first buildings of Centre ValBio were erected. She recounts how it all began. "My friend was the camp manager for researchers at the park," organizing their tents and meals before such luxuries as dormitories and kitchens existed here. "She needed a cook, so she asked me."

Menja rests in our Ampitavanana camp before the afternoon round of trap-baiting.

After two years as a backcountry chef, tending charcoal stoves in remote rainforest camps, a visiting scientist asked Menja if she would be not her cook, but her guide. I can picture Menja's enthusiastic grin as she told that scientist, "I want to do it!"

The tent Menja and I shared in Ampitavanana.

Menja remembers that first research project -- on the hormones of two brown lemur species, Eulemur rufus and E. rubriventris -- and every one since. She's recorded the behavior of Ranomafana's diurnal lemurs, from Milne-Edwards' sifakas to the rare species this park was founded to protect, the golden bamboo lemur. She has tallied leech and ant species by transect. Recently, she translated "child-led tours" for a Ph.D. candidate's study on perceptions of rural environmental identity. Menja summarized this cerebral project as "the same thing as usual, but with children instead of lemurs."

A pair of red-fronted brown lemurs, Eulemur rufus, observe our behavior.

That's something you'd notice about Menja within minutes of meeting her: she's down to earth. When our car dropped us off at Tsaramisoandro, a roadside village from which we began our hike to the forest, there was chaos. I watched helplessly. Menja organized throngs of shouting porters into an orderly line, each person carrying a reasonable load and paid a fair amount. She taught me how to bathe at camp and where to bury my toilet paper. Her only advice for how we could improve on our first expedition: buy a live chicken instead of dried fish. That tip resulted in tonight's delicious akoho sy vary, boiled chicken over rice.

The team Menja helped organize to pack our gear out from Ampitavanana village, including local cook Edmonde, local guide Njara, master's student Gaetan, and Centre ValBio guide Zaka. Photo credit: the one and only Menja.

Menja thinks forest conservation is important for three reasons: to keep the rains coming, to keep the water potable, and to provide "clean winds." When I pressed her for preferences, Menja's tastes were characteristically practical. Favorite animal: giant bamboo lemur, because it's easy to follow. Favorite research: fanadihadihana, interviews, because she gets to sit in a house and ask questions, "no hiking!"

Menja poses with a massive nest of a hamerkop. This uniquely Madagascan bird has the soaring pattern of a raptor, the dietary habits of a heron, and the silhouette of a hammer.

Even so, Menja's hiking puts mine to shame. For every trap I bait, Menja baits two. After hours of sweaty bushwhacking, banana juice coating her fingers and spiderwebs lacing her braids, Menja still has energy to seek cell service on the nearest hilltop. Her motivation: hearing the voice of her twelve-year-old son, Tsiafoy, who spends most of his time two hours away in the city of Fianaratsoa so he can go to school. Menja had to drop out after fifth grade because, she puts it simply, "no money." She's determined to send her son to school "until the end," as far as she can. She hopes he will become a doctor, she tells me, but for now he prefers playing with his friends to studying. He's halfway through seventh grade.

Menja stands at the heart of our camp kitchen in Antavindalona.

"If you had a magic wand," I ask Menja, "what would you---"

"Ina?" she interrupts. "A what?"

After a short digression to explain magic and wands, I continue. "If you had a magic wand, and you could create one new national park in Madagascar, where would you put it?"

"The beach," she tells me with a mischievous grin, the same one she wore when she told me she was from Texas. It emerges after much laughter that she just wants to go to the beach, like she wants to visit Texas.

I press further, and she spins a tale of her dream park: a strip of protected western coast where the forest meets the ocean. Menja has a fondness for that edge, the meeting of two worlds. I am reminded of Menja herself, a person where goofy joy washes up against serious determination.

At our Ampitavanana camp, Edmonde and Njara spent their free morning digging us a latrine, complete with a log platform for squatting on. I was so excited, I asked Menja to take my picture demonstrating how to use it. She then asked for a reciprocal photo. Thank goodness for Menja's enthusiasm and lack of inhibition.

"What would you name your park?" I ask.

"Rainalatrondro," she answers as confidently as if she'd had the name picked out for years.

"What does it mean?"

"Raina means waterfall. Ala means forest. Trondro is what lives under the water," Menja explains. She's checking on the strips of beef drying on a branch over the campfire's smoke.

"You mean fish?" I clarify.

"Yeah." For a brief moment, she gazes into the flames. "Rainalatrondro," she repeats. "I like that." Then she's back in motion. Her ears have registered the faint brush of raindrops on tarp.

As I scribble her last words in my notebook, she zips tent windows and rescues our nearly-dry laundry from the line.