This April Tasneem Bhindarwala officially graduated from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor – a top public university in America. Her degree was a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies and Environmental Studies with a specialization in Law and Policy; a course focused on human rights while being enmeshed in the environmental context of the changing world we live in today.
A requirement of her degree was to have a practical experience – study abroad, field experience, internship – of research. Tasneem decided to combine all those ideas and spent a semester in Madagascar. There she studied, researched, and finessed her data collection skills. The whole time in a rida, she swam in grottos and trekked through rainforests to track lemurs. She spent days in villages without running water and electricity, and even conducted her own research project about land tenure and women in Majunga.
Even domestically in Ann Arbor and her summer holidays, every job or internship she took, she felt proud to be the only Bohra (or even only Muslim) in the office or community. Wearing rida in the US, especially with the current political climate, requires strength and perseverance, a fortitude she said comes from the love we have towards our spiritual father, Syedna Aali Qadr Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS.
The program Tasneem participated in was called “Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management” and included four main stages: home stay and traditional lectures, traveling and experiential learning, the Independent Study Project (ISP) and reflection and evaluation of the course. The course ran from January-May 2016.
The first part of our time in Madagascar was defined by our six-week home stay in Fort Dauphin. Fort Dauphin is located on the southeast coast of the Madagascar and is a relatively small city that is currently influenced by the activities of the mining company, QMM.
We would have lectures during the week from 8am to 5pm with classes including Malagasy language instruction (the native language), French (the colonial language), a lecture on biodiversity and natural resource management (mainly in French and by guest speakers) and an environmental ethics and research methods course (mainly in English by our academic coordinator). After class was over, we were free to go around the city, finishing assignments, spending time with our home-stay families, or visiting one of the many beaches in the city.
During this six-week period, we also had excursions to national parks (i.e. Andoahela), QMM protected areas, fishing villages, and other environmentally important areas in the city. The excursions were an important learning experience for me because it was a true test of adaptability. For example, we would do Malagasy language lessons in a national park, without desks and chairs, and sometimes even in the pouring rain! I quickly came to understand that experiential learning is all about being anywhere and being able to adequately take in and absorb the knowledge around you.
Two weeks of this period were also spent in collaboration with the “Centre Universitaire Régional à Ambovombe” (CURA) students. These students were also studying the environment and sustainability. During our time of collaboration, we did a Botanical Methods Study in the protected area of Saint Luce in the littoral forest and a village stay in Ambovombe for six days where we utilized Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) methods to understand village-life. After both of these studies we presented our findings in both written and oral form in both English and French.
This first phase of my Madagascar experience gave me the opportunity to learn about the natural and environmental history of Madagascar, but I also had the unique chance to spend time with individuals who showed me the true essence of hospitality and kindness of Malagasy culture.
Following our stay in Fort Dauphin, we flew to Tulear (on the southwest coast) and after four days of camping in the spiny forest we began our 3 week journey to the capital, Antananarivo. Along the way we stopped at multiple towns, protected areas, and national parks. During this time we were also doing preparatory work for our ISPs. Among the places we visited were Honko’s Mangrove project in Ifaty, the Bay of Ranobe’s protected coral reef area in Mandily, Isalo National Park, Fiananaratsoa, Kianjavato protected area, Ranomafana National Park, Antsirabe, finally arriving in Antananarivo.
In Kianjavato we camped at the Kianjavato Field Station and conducted a three day lemur ecology study using different types of natural science methods. After the study, we presented our findings both verbally and in written form in French. During this time, one of the most important takeaways from this stage was not only learning how to set up a tent proficiently, but also understanding why Madagascar is such a biodiversity hot spot and how conservation programs do exist to help the local population be involved and educated in their programs. Ultimately, I learned that conservation has to come from the community in order to really be effective.
The third portion of our program was our ISP. This entailed each of us going to the site of our choice to study a topic of our choice. I studied land security in the northwest of the country in Majunga and Marovoay in the Boeny region. There I conducted social science research using structured surveys, semi-structured interviews, and participant observation to understand the reality of land security and the role of women in gaining land titles and other forms of security.
This three-week period of fieldwork was extremely trying, frustrating, and an eye-opening experience. I learned a great deal about how to properly and ethically conduct research, how to analyze my data, and to draw conclusions.
Our last portion of the study abroad, prior to returning to the United States, was a week-long period where we traveled to different locations on the east coast of the country reflecting and reminiscing about our time in Madagascar. This country is truly unique; it has a vibrant culture, with strong roots to land, ancestors, and zebu (cattle). The language of Malagasy is very symbolic and meaningful, for example, there is no word for birthday; instead “a day that comes around every year to signify birth” is the translation.