Angel of Antalaha

Meet Joey Moscovitch, rebel with a cause.

Or two; or three; or four; or five; I’ve lost count. A Montrealer by birth and a world traveller by life, Joey found herself in Madagascar about four years back when she chose to chuck the corporate life and listen to the inner her. She probably did not have to listen very closely as her inner voice speaks loudly.

When Lori and I decided to hitch our wagon to the Madagastar the Coincidence Game commenced. Within a few weeks, Carole Rocklin, a new friend who we’ve encountered through community work, mentioned that her daughter Joey ran a foundation in Madagascar and was coming to town to present her work in a few weeks. Lori and I gussied up for the Sunday educational session and were introduced to Joey at the end of the presentation. Fast forward four months or so and we are being picked up at Sambava airport by our hostess. 

Even here

It took about twelve seconds to get comfortable as we all dealt with the ‘can’t believe we’re all here together’ sensation. While none of us initially realized the physical similarities between Lori and Joey, the point was driven home by at least ten individuals who assumed they were sisters. And it’s true – the resemblance is there; not just a question of all Vassas (us white folks) looking alike.

Three nights and four days was the allotted time for our whirlwind visit. And Joey has originated more whirlwinds than the state of Oklahoma. Here’s an overview – 
We drove with Joey at the wheel the hour from Sambava to Antalaha in a mini-bus, accompanied by another couple visiting from Europe. Jean Marc and his girlfriend were visiting Marie-Helene, first wife of J-M’s father who treated Jean-Marc like a son. Marie-Helene is part Chinese and part Malagasy. She owns the town pharmacy, multiple real estate properties, has replanted and reforested acres of stripped and denuded former primary forests, works with children in need, acts as mentor to Joey, and although there is a mayor (and a very good one to boot), not much happens in Antalaha without at least Marie-Helene’s tacit approval. She is married to a Bengt, German dentist who made Madagascar home 35 years back. Dinner night one we were their guests. The flat they occupy is atop the pharmacy.

Decorated in rosewood and palliser paneling, replete with oversized quartz and amethyst crystals, fossils, antique cannon and a hodge-podge of other curios, they were the consummate hosts. I also received a history lesson about Maurice, Count de Benyovszky, explorer, writer, nobleman and first self-declared king of Madagascar, at least until Sasha Baron Cohen showed up. I guess a baron outranks a count. Bengt was somewhat of a world authority. He knew more facts about Benyovszky, his travels, his deeds, his treasures, and his heroics than the average person could count.

But let’s get back to our hostess. Joey was born independent, striving always to listen to her soul and pursue whatever paths she choses to carve out for herself, regardless of where the specific choice fell. Leaving the Toronto corporate world behind, she took her severance package and set off for Africa. Step one was establishing a foundation. The JHA (Joey Helps Antalaha) Fund was born. Given the plethora of undertakings she is involved with, I do not recall which of the projects was the original goal. We knew something was up when, at each checkpoint from the airport along the highway, over the bridge and into town, each of which is manned by a petulant guard or two looking for a payoff, Joey smiled, waved, and was let through. The next giveaway of her impact were suspended garbage cans along the public sitting area that borders the road. Doesn’t sound like much to the North American ear, but believe me, Africa can certainly use these as well as a few more.
The green bins had red lettering on them – JHA – a gift from the foundation. In addition to giving out garbage cans, Joey provides resources to a leper village situated just outside city limits.

Cute toy at the leper village

Soccer played with ball made of plastic bags. Held together by twine.


Entire families live there, shunned by the rest of the locals. Often it is a parent who has been afflicted and even though cured, the missing or deformed limbs prevent reintegration into mainstream society. But the family remains

together. One family member of one of the families is a 16 girl, Yola. Joey has unofficially adopted her. Education is paid for, love and direction provided free.

The rest of the community has to rely on government schooling. An exception is Jardin d’Orchidé,

dedicated to mentally and physically challenged children for which there is no place in Malagasy society.

Joey has collected a twenty foot container of clothing, books, a few bicycles and toys.

She is storing the stuff in a large bay at the vanilla plant. Not plant, plant. Today she distributed the items to the children at l’Orchidé. They are a small intimate  group of 8-20 children. Plus caretakers and parents and teachers. We were informed that the previous night one of the younger children went home, complained of a stomach ache at supper and was dead by midnight. Funeral slated for the next day. That’s how it is. 

In addition to English and French, (that most of us Montrealers speak), as well as Hebrew (that a smaller subset of us Montrealers speak), Joey is quite fluent in Malagasy (which almost none of us Montrealers speak). Teaching English to the youth of Antalaha is another facet of our Angel’s activities.

Some of the linguistic beneficiaries are the guides at Macolline, an agricultural oasis in a land of ‘slash and burn’. Marie-Helene owns a hill that had previously been denuded. Twenty-five years worth of selected replanting by her and her people has led to a semi-canopy growth. Rosewood,

Makes a very solid table 800 lbs (table, not me). 

ebony, vanilla vines, and other rare or endangered species are now a living classroom to the hundreds of local schoolchildren and outside visitors who visit the reserve.

. During the replanting, a species of tree, known locally as the ‘marriage tree’ was determined to be a new species and was named after Marie-Helene. It sprouts beautiful white blossoms directly from the trunk and makes for wonderful background if you are considering a destination wedding in Madagascar. Plan for a May ceremony; trees are in bloom. Best to BYOR (Rabbi).

Once you’ve completed your hike through the paths of Macolline

and have been entertained by the charming sermons on the mount by the guides,

you’ve seen the chameleons,

millipedes, eaten the jackfruit and mangoes off the trees,

you are smoothly and quickly brought back by canoe to the entrance by a pirogue paddler left almost limbless from leprosy, you are invited to stop in at the gift/souvenir shop – also run by Joey. Buy something. 

Rasta Bruce

We spent the afternoon at Joey’s hacienda.

It is situated at the south end of town, known as Belle Rose, or Hampstead. She is a guest of Marie-Helene’s, staying on an expansive property at the seaside. The home itself is a beautiful structure comprised of exotic wood and has all the amenities one could ask for.

Hand Ground Coffee at Java Joey’s 

Except hot water. Situated on several acres of landscaped magnificence, out buildings housing property guardians and their families, Joey’s digs is the least she deserves. I began referring to her as Miss Scarlet. She blushed. Paradise. Except for the loutish Czech neighbour building a tasteless, oversized home on the adjacent piece of land. 
Then there’s vanilla. Current prices have skyrocketed. Presently sells for $500 US/lb. Up from $25 in 2012. There is a serious vanilla cartel happening here. And since Madagascar sells 80% of the world’s vanilla, you may want to prepare yourselves for chocolate or strawberry ice cream this summer. In case any of you are thinking that there is at least a silver lining; that the farmers are finally getting a fair shake -no; the money is going to the mafioso hooligans who own 4X4’s and traverse the countryside paying the farmers a pittance and middling the deals to the large exporters. Most of the big money families are Chinese-Malagasy. Europe is their primary residence. They return to rape and pillage the landscape as required. But wait, there’s more. Apparently the profits from vanilla are just the seasoning atop the sundae. The real money is made in smuggling rosewood. While illegal to harvest, it’s amazing what a few well placed Ariary in the hands of the appropriate parties can do. Skids are greased, hundred year old trees are cut down and smuggled to China. Unfinished logs can fetch $1,300 a piece! 
So with the price of vanilla and rosewood so expensive, what’s a poor boy to do? THB Beer goes for about two bucks for a 3/4 litre bottle; weed costs eighty cents an ounce. And as long as you don’t get the munchies for a rosewood and vanilla milkshake, you’ll do fine here.

  • Carole Rocklin
    Posted at 14:27h, 22 January Reply

    Bruce – this is the best overall description of what is happening in Mada. Thank yo and Lori so much!!!

  • Bruce Burnett
    Posted at 22:47h, 22 January Reply

    Truly our pleasure, Carole.

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