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Lova Rakotomalala: Putting Madagascar on the map

Lova Rakotomalala, aka the Malagasy Dwarf Hippo (because extinct species have feelings too), was born in Madagascar and reports on his homeland blogosphere from Lafayette, in the USA, where he works as a Research Associate at the Cytometry For Life (C4L) Program and a Research Coordinator for C4L in Ethiopia and Kenya.

He is one of the core people at Foko: it takes a village to raise an idea, a project committed to the development of Madagascar which has just launched its outreach arm, the Foko Blog Club.

Considering that Madagascar is one of those countries that doesn't make the world's headlines often, and sometimes doesn't even make it to the African map, Lova's articles on GVO and his helping hand with the Lingua project in Malagasy are extremely important to make this unique island better known and heard.

How long have you been blogging? How important is it to you?

I have been blogging since Dec 25th 2005 because for once I could not spend the holidays with my extended family. I still wanted to share the spirit with them so I thought I would start a blog. When I realize that other people could read and where commenting, the focus of the blog shifted from family to more general themes.

As sad as it may sound, I believe that blogging had made my life more complete in many different ways. For example, I have been living abroad since high-school. Blogging allowed me to reconnect with my homeland in ways that I could not have achieved otherwise. Interacting with GVO folks was also enriching in many ways, online but more importantly in real life. The opportunity to exchange ideas in a face to face context is invaluable. Coming from an academic perspective, I believe one can always learn from someone else’s expertise and experience. It has definitely been the case with the many people related to Global Voices Online that I have met so far.

You seem to have quite a few blogs. What are they and what are they about? I particularly liked The World of Ginga and Boo-Boo. Would you introduce them to us?

I caught blogging fever sometimes in 2006 so I started blogs about different topics. Then I realize that I was way over my head so I had to let go of some of those blogs but I did not delete them, just in case…. The ones I am most active in besides GVO are my personal blog where I would talk about anything from my dad's phobia of hippo to my close encounter with the Iranian president; foko-madagascar where we use digital media to add our tiny contribution to development in Madagascar; Malagasy miray, a Malagasy blogging community and my favorite, the world of Ginga and Booboo, 2 dogs that are being cared for by a community of friends in Lafayette, Indiana. It is the easiest blog to update because those two guys are always up to no good and they don't mind us taking thousand photos of them.

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That's Ginga. He is a tad overweight so this is our effort to get him to lose a bit of weight.

Talking about Foko, what is the idea behind it and its goals? How did it all start? Has it already contributed to a change in Madagascar?

The conversation on the Malagasy blogosphere revolves around how to best tackle the social, economic and environmental issues that plague Madagascar. Since 85% of Malagasy people live with less than $2/day, there is no shortage of issues to tackle. A few of us thought we could get together, apply some of those ideas concretely on the field and illustrate the progress or failure of those ideas on the web. Foko focuses on promoting the use of digital media in Madagascar as a mean to contribute to the protection of the environment and social progress. The starting point had to be the TEDAfrica conference in Arusha, Tanzania that many GVOers attended.

Harinjaka, a fellow blogger, was invited and he initiated the idea for Foko. It is too early to know whether we have a made a significant strides towards our goals. With two other bloggers, Mialy and Joan we have given 5 digital media workshops to date in 2 different provinces with a 3rd province already scheduled, dedicated one session to middle school children, contributed to 2 tree planting events and laid down the groundwork for partnerships with a few rural villages. Citizen media is growing but the social significance of it all probably need more time for an objective assessment.

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“This photo was taken on the Stand up Against Poverty day. Foko went to Kelilalina, a village in the South-East region of Madagascar. We are listening to the grievances and concerns of the women council regarding their everyday lives and what could be done to improve their economic welfare”

How long have you been a GVO author for? Which are the main topics from the Malagasy blogosphere to report?

I have been an author on GVO since Feb, 2007. I did not know about GVO before. However, Alice Baker who was the editor for the francophone region at that time was looking for a blogger who would cover the Malagasy blogosphere. Two years ago, the main topics in the Malagasy blogosphere were environment, climate change and poverty. Those are still hot topics but because presidential and municipal elections happened since then politics and the role of the community overseas have become more frequent topics.

What is your most memorable blogging experience?

I think my post and Mialy‘s post (also a GVO author covering Madagascar) about Africans’ reactions to Sarkozy's claim that Africans are stuck in their cultural past are the most memorable. The reactions of people to those posts were stronger than I expected and the quality of the writings we tried to summarize were an outstanding learning experience.

How did you end up in the USA?

I finished high-school in Paris, France and attended Université of Paul Sabatier in Toulouse for one year when I was granted a scholarship by the United Nations to Tulane University, New-Orleans, LA. It was not an easy decision to leave the French academic system back then because of the language barrier but also the difficulties in validating course credits and diplomas between the French and the US system. This process is much simpler now but back then, it was still a bit confusing.

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On the photo is my girlfriend I-mei and me at our graduation commencement. I believe that Purdue U. is strongly considering annulling our degrees after seeing that photo. It was a fun moment in an otherwise quite laborious 5 years of research.

How different would you say the Malagasy community in North-America is from the Malagasy communities based in Europe and other parts of the world?

I think most Malagasy in the Diaspora would agree that there is a distinct different feel to the Malagasy community in North-America compared to the one in Europe or back home.

First, even though the North-American Malagasy community has grown exponentially the past few years, it is still a very small community compared to the one based in Europe or home. Language (French is spoken by most Malagasies) the main reason but also Madagascar is historically and culturally closely linked to France.

Therefore, the Malagasies living in North-America tend to seek each other out because getting acclimated with the culture would take more time without the help of someone who went through the same process.

Our community in France is one of the largest group coming from Sub-Saharan Africa (70,000 to 80,000 including bi-nationals in 2001 as estimated by the French minister of Cooperation link.

If we compare that to the fact that there is 1 Malagasy in Lafayette, Indiana (pop: 184,000), I think there is still ways before the N-A communities reaches the European Community.

The community in French-speaking Canada is evidently growing faster. Another amusing fact is that the two major cities that are the most further apart in the world are San Francisco and Antananarivo so I assume that geography plays a role in the difference between Malagasy Diaspora in Europe and North-America.

Apart from a GVO author, you are also a supporter of the Malagasy Lingua Project. Could you let us know why such a project is so important for a language spoken by less than 20 million people?

The Malagasy language has a unique place in the history and culture of Madagascar but also in the context of international languages. It is the only official language in Madagascar that was not brought on by former colonial powers. It is spoken by anywhere across the island and almost exclusively on the island.

Therefore the Malagasy language is a very strong symbol of the nation's unity, and independence and is also the prototypical “isolated” type of language. We thought that it would be an interesting experiment to observe how news from all over the world (GVO in Malagasy) would be received by a group that is by definition a secluded, introspective community. The return so far has been surprising, in a good way. We hope the trend continues.

Blogging apart, you are have been developing some important research on HIV/AIDS. Could you tell us what you are working on at the moment?

The issue we are trying to address in our laboratories is the issue of low-cost, point-of care diagnostics for resource-limited regions in the context of HIV/AIDS.

A lot has been accomplished by governments, foundations and volunteers on sites with respect to HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness. Similarly, many governmental agencies and NGOs have made great strides in providing AIDS anti-retroviral therapy to the regions most affected.

The missing part so far has been the ability to dispense treatments efficiently and monitor the efficacy of the treatment in the field. To do so, one needs to test the level of CD4 of patients, a way to evaluate the immune system. We are a non-profit organization that will provide a point of care CD4 testing at low-cost in areas where it is most needed.

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This is a photo of my dad's family taken in 1955 probably. My dad has 11 brothers and sisters (not all are on the photo). My dad is the scrawny boy with the funny hair cut behind the baby seating in the rolling chair (he was 8). He was often teased by his much stronger brothers.

16 comments

  • Yay Rakotomalala! Excellent interview and great to learn so much about you.

  • This is great Lova… And what a good choice Paula, I enjoyed reading this.

  • joan

    Foko team, Dwarf Hippo team, Malagasy team, GVO team, maybe you should get to the national soccer team man, so they could get to the CAM, at least the 1st round…

    Lova rules!

  • Thanks all! All credit goes to Lova himself, who I’m looking forward to meeting up with!

    Paula

    • raharinosy

      Hi Mrs Paula,
      I am just passing by in San francisco , quite a long way from Home(madagascar
      I would like to be in touch with some Malagasy people here ,Could you advise me ,at which door to knock?
      thanks

  • I think Jillian should write the lyrics to Lova’s song!

  • Thank you all for the awesome vibes !
    Paula was kind enough to fix my erratic grammar and she asked the funnest questions.
    >Jillian and Eddie,
    How about a GVO song instead ? ( To the melody of “voices that care” maybe ? :)

  • Hi. I have ended up at your site because my students (called the minilegends)said they hoped to have visitors to our class blog from Madagascar. :) We are a Year 3 class in Adelaide, South Australia. My students love getting comments from people from all over the world. And how serendipitous that I should stumble across such a wonderful ‘Global Voice’ blog that speaks so clearly how blogging can enrich our lives. The kids will also love ‘The World of Ginga and Boo-Boo’ and the picture of your dad at 8 years old because that is how old they are. You might even consider becoming a mentor http://alupton.edublogs.org/minis-blogs/
    Thanks for a wonderful introduction to yourself.
    Cheers, Al

  • Lanto Dunkhase

    I am so proud of you and you made me so proud for being a Malagasy living in Indianapolis because of your wonderful way to put Madagascar on the map!!!!!!

  • Heritiana Andria

    Hey Lova & Co
    Great initiative guys!
    Keep up the good work!

    Hay ve ialahy ka tena mahavitrika toy zao Rakoto o!

  • been away for a while, just saw the comment you left on my blog. and wanted to tell you that i have not received the info about foko, you were going to send me. so i’m still interested in helping out and getting involved. let me know where i could start
    thank you.

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