In some areas of Madagascar, it’s considered bad luck not to respond to an animal’s call. At least this is the excuse I give as I hike down to the campground with the rest of my classmates, whistling back and forth with the Vasa parrot perched somewhere in the canopy below. I can’t quite mimic its sliding whistle call exactly, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.
After three hours of winding dirt roads, we finally left the city behind and made it to Ankafobe forest, a thin strip of trees the width of my pinky finger in the valley below. Although it doesn’t look like much, Ankafobe is one of the last areas of old growth rainforest in the country left intact—a snapshot of what the island looked like before it was mowed down for rice fields and zebu pastures, the local cattle I always see dotting the hills as they graze.
The next day, our teachers woke us up at six in the morning. After a quick breakfast of rice porridge and dried zebu, we headed into the forest to lay down our transect lines. Though the methods seemed simple enough when we went over them in the classroom, I quickly realized how much the forest didn’t want to be measured. Twisting lianas threated to trip me at every step and the one tree I leaned my hand against left my palm covered in thorns. As we bushwhacked through dense shrubs and hurdled across streams (sometimes not so successfully), I could see our botany professor’s smirking face in my mind as we left that morning.
Just when I’d decided that it was impossible to navigate this forest, our guide casually took off his boots and shimmied up a thin palm tree in his bare feet to cut down a flower we needed to collect. I wordlessly labeled, pressed, and bagged the branch and nodded along with the other Malagasy students as if this was an everyday occurrence. Listening to our guide talk about the forest was like discovering a new color in an already vibrant world.
“This plant is called mora pika,” literally translated to easy to break, he says as he snaps off a branch as thick as my wrist with his two fingers.
“This one is delangana,” translated to duck tongue, as he points to the small, curved leaves peaking out between two larger bill-shaped ones.
That night as I lay zipped-up in my tent nursing my mosquito and leech bites, the cyclone finally arrived. Rain beat down so heavily against my tent that the rain fly sagged and threatened to leak throughout the night. Our guide’s tent was flooded around midnight and I could barely hear the sound of his scrambled packing and retreat back to the road over the wind. To top it all off, I almost fell into the river around three in the morning when I ran out into the downpour and into the forest to pee in my pajamas and untied, muddy boots.
Back in the comfort of my host family’s home, I entertain them with stories from my brief camping trip as we sit at the dinner table. As I should have known, this only makes my host mother Onja remember an even more shocking tale.
“Let me tell you about a town called Bevoay,” she says. Names always have meaning here, and this name happens to mean Big Crocodile in Malagasy.
“There was an old woman who came to the leader of the town asking for water,” Onja begins.
”C’etait un homme, un vieux homme!” my host father interrupts.
Onja waves him off. “Old woman, old man. It doesn’t make a difference.”
She continues with the story she’s obviously heard many times told by her mother, her grandmother, elderly relatives at rowdy family reunions or by a sibling as they tucked her into bed at night. “So the old woman asks the leader for water, but he refuses to give her any.”
I can’t help but think of the dry, arid south and their rural, riverside towns. Empty rice fields and the constant wish for water. “The woman starts to leave, but before she does she casts a spell that floods the town and turns everyone who refused her into a crocodile.”
I smile and start to laugh, but there is not even a shred of doubt in her eyes. “Now every year the people go to the river to play music and share meat with the crocodiles. They always swim up when they hear the people playing.” Onja mimes a small guitar in her arms. “It’s because they’re the people’s ancestors, those crocodiles. They need to visit them every year to pay tribute.”
That’s when I realize this isn’t just a story to her. This is her family’s history.
My host father nods. “That’s why we can never eat crocodile, or use them to make…” He gestures to his belt, his shoes, his wallet lying on the table.
“And some of the crocodiles are even wearing…” My host mother spins the bracelets on her arm and waves a hand around her neck. “Des bijoux.”
“Why would people put jewelry on a crocodile?” I ask incredulously.
“No, no! It’s because they were turned into crocodiles. It’s their own jewelry,” Onja says. “It’s strange, I know.”
I stare at the silver bracelets around her wrists, around her son’s wrists as he toddles between the table legs, and I imagine them both turning into crocodiles to meet their ancestors. My host mother doesn’t ask me if I believe her, doesn’t offer any proof or explanation. She just smiles and continues eating her rice and fish, picking out the bones and making a pile at the edge of her plate.
I wonder what it must be like to live in a world where men turn into crocodiles, where animals crawl out of the river when called, where your ancestors are a living, breathing, threatening part of your daily life. I think back to the forest, to sleeping in the rain, to watching the fog roll over the hills around us in the late afternoon, and I find it’s not so hard to imagine after all.