This story won the Africa Geographic Travel-writing Competition 2002
I had been warned, but even so I was disappointed. In 1982 there were no trained guides in Périnet because there were so few tourists. But, leading my first trip to Madagascar, I did at least expect an adult, not this spindly child.
Bedo was 12 years old but looked much younger. He wore an old T-shirt, once black but faded to a pale khaki by soapy poundings on the river rocks, and enormous shorts like upturned flower-pots from which brown skinny legs protruded like twigs. His feet were bare and his huge eyes and enormous grin seemed too big for the small, bony face. He spoke French and only a few words of English.
We walked down the track to the forest where the wet foliage steamed in the afternoon sun, joining the smoke seeping through the thatched roof of the warden’s cottage. ‘My house!’ said Bedo. He was one of five children, we learned later, who had grown up in Périnet. While other kids were kicking a ball or bowling a hoop along the village street, Bedo was out with his father or a visiting naturalist learning about the rainforest. Motioning us to wait, the child scampered into his house and emerged with a stick on which clung a huge and very cross chameleon. Bedo beamed with delight at our excitement. ‘Parson chameleon’ he said carefully.
The five of us walked through the forest, wrapped in the damp smell of leaf litter, our eyes picking out movement or sudden colour against the browns and greens. There was little that Bedo didn’t know but a lot that he couldn’t name. Except in Latin. ‘Neodrepanis coruscans‘ he whispered urgently, pointing to the dark interior of a shrub. What was this? A reptile? A bird? All we could see was leaves. ‘Yes, bird!’ Then it moved. A shiny black ball of a bird, with a slice of brilliant green above its eye. Bedo wrote the name in my notebook and I found out later that it was a velvet asity, a rare endemic that we were lucky to see. Next he pointed to a plant with huge, spear-like leaves. ‘Pandanus’ he told us. And, look, Phelsuma. We could see nothing. Then the sun slid out from behind a cloud and brought the lizard hiding inside the green leaf into sudden silhouette. ‘How does he find these things?’ marvelled one of the group as he wrote down the name. There were no field guides to Madagascar in those days. Just Bedo, our child wonder.
‘Where are the indri?’ we asked. ‘Indri. Yes, I show you’. He knew that name. All the visitors to the reserve wanted to see indri but I knew it wasn’t easy. Hadn’t David Attenborough spent a week in Périnet looking for these lemurs, and trying to record their song? That was 20 years earlier, but there was no reason to think that we would be lucky in the two days available to us. Bedo motioned to us to stay where we were and trotted away down the path. We felt bereft. What were those birds we were watching through binoculars? Could they be parrots? But black parrots? Surely not. And what was that blue job that looked, so the Americans said, a bit like a blue jay? We needed our walking guidebook.
Bedo returned wearing a look of triumph. ‘Come’. We came. The sun was disappearing behind the trees; darkness would soon follow. Bedo put his fingers to his lips and cupped his ear with his hand. ‘Listen!’ All we could hear was the moaning of wind in the trees far, far away. But it was not the wind. A wail like the first, despairing cry of a small baby erupted from the canopy only a hundred yards away. The indri were calling! Like the song of whales, we agreed afterwards, but louder. The song rose and fell, sometimes in duet, sometimes a group harmony, sometimes a solo. We were tranfixed, our grins as broad as Bedo’s. ‘Tomorrow’, he whispered, ‘we see them!’
Years passed and Madagascar started to open up to the outside world. Lemurs were in and the world’s animal lovers couldn’t get enough of them. Television teams and photographers spent months capturing them on film, and when they came to Périnet they asked for Bedo. Ornithologists, too, and zoologists: they all needed Bedo, and rewarded him generously.
The boy learned fast. He not only increased his knowledge of natural history but gained enough English and German to ensure that he was the most sought after guide in Madagascar. The tips became bigger and he started to present invoices to make sure that they stayed that way. Gone were the ragged clothes and bare feet. The poised teenager now wore Nike trainers and new T-shirts showing the emblem of American universities. His sharp eyes were supplemented by state-of-the-art binoculars. In contrast to the other youths in his village, mostly still in rags, his future looked bright.
By the late1980s Bedo was, by Malagasy standards, a very wealthy young man. In one day he could earn the same as the average Malagasy makes in a month. And he still lived in a small village where there was nothing to spend his money on – except alcohol. It wasn’t just his clothes that set him apart from the other boys; he was becoming more at home with foreigners than with his own people. But naturalists who had employed him for years complained that he was becoming unreliable, sometimes failing to turn up.
One July evening in 1989 Bedo had been drinking heavily. An argument with two other teenagers developed into a fight. Some say that Bedo won and went down to the river to wash, others that he was chased there. As he stood on the river bank one of the youths hurled a rock at him. It struck him on the head, he fell into the water and was drowned.
© Hilary Bradt