By Daniella Sachs. One of the most incredible experiences I have had so far was my trip south with Thomas, a former Malagasy shark fisherman who now runs the Turtle and Shark Research Project for BV. I had joined Thomas merely to catch a ride south in order to research the building techniques used in the various villages and to survey the proposed campsite which BV plan to build as part of the Eco-lodge project in Tampolove.
The two day pirogue journey however peeled open my expectations and revealed to me a realm of experience, sight and understanding I had not in my wildest dreams anticipated. The journey began with the rising sun, and a lesson on how to lift the diagonal mast of the pirogue sail, and off we gently floated with the early morning wind over the still asleep sea to our first stop in Lamboara.
How does one describe a journey by pirogue? The pirogue seems as part of this earth as the sand and the sun. The pirogues are carved from trees in the forest with great skill – as I was to learn in Ampasilava the next day, a village renowned for its pirogue makers. With only an axe as a tool the various different woods are carved into something of great beauty and dexterity that flies over the sea as if it too were a wave. Although a pirogue appears quite a simple thing, the skill needed to sail one is matched only by the skill needed to make one.
Lamboara was our first stop where Thomas met with his first sous–collector1. Thomas’ dream is to start an education project, whose first step would entail teaching people not to catch baby shark and turtle. But how do you teach a people who live a subsistence existence to put back something they have caught? Surely the challenge would be too great? The sous-collector in Lamboara however, convinced me that Thomas’ dream is not so farfetched. She shone with pride when she brought her book of data out to show him and had a bucket of Kasioke shark (a small species of shark I have yet to identify in a book) ready to measure and document in order to show how methodical she was at her job2.
Although Thomas is from Andavodoaka, he was treated with great respect in each village we went to. The idea of kinship is very important to the Vezo, but the people’s reaction to Thomas was more than this, it was the reaction of people to a leader, they really listened to him, and sought to speak with him when we arrived.
From Ankintambagna we set off to Antsepoky, where I encountered a village that seemed to rise out of the reflected heat of the snow white sand. A village of mall wood huts set in white sand dunes and filled with people who once again welcomed a Vazaha (white foreigner) and invited me to take pictures. Since it is impossible to post pictures as yet to accompany the blog I will have to attempt instead to describe the image of a reed shelter of white sand floor with wooden benches on either side. A woman with a yellow painted face and multi-coloured sarong bursts into a smile on seeing me and poses for a photo, framed by the azure blue sea.
From Antsepoky we travelled to Tampolove through the Baie des Assassins, a bay of crystal blue water edged with mangroves and punctuated by egrets and flying fish. A place so quiet that you can hear the coral crackling underwater while sitting in the pirogue. The most amazing thing about travelling by pirogue is that time takes on a new dimension. Your travel becomes zen-like as it’s governed by the elements and as such the idea of being in a rush is non-existent, impossible, a non-entity. Some would say that being here is like being in a bubble yet I find that time here seems more real tied as it is to the sea and the wind.
Tampolove is a village of the sea, for the tide shapes its very soil, creating islands of village when it comes in and uniting the village when it goes out. For a village shaped by water I was fascinated by the attention paid to the built form and the pride that was apparent in the way that the people decorated their houses, and gardens. Sitting at the epibar, watching two piglets and a troop of ducks waddle past, while listening to the laughing musical voices of the people around me while they sorted the catch of the day, I was struck by how at peace Vezo life is. Sailing off into the sun setting over the mangroves while Thomas told me stories of his people I was silenced by the incredible sight before me of a sky fighting for glory over a perfect sea, painting and repainting its colours continuously as a last show of glory before the hush of evening fell.
Waking up with the sunrise in Lamboara, I took a walk along the still quiet beach watching the first of the fishermen slip their pirogues into the orange-tinged sea. After a breakfast of bok bok (fried bread) and sweet Vezo tea we too slipped into the water for our journey to Ampasilava. Arriving in the village after a leisurely pirogue ride with a wind still half-asleep I was greeted by the whisper, scrape and sliding of axes, the smell of freshly sawn wood, and the flashing of colourful clothes drying on fences. Ampasilava is legendary in the Velondriake region for its pirogue builders and as an architect all I could do was stand in awe at their handiwork which they showed off to me with great pride. As I hoisted the diagonal mast of the pirogue for our sail home and tightrope walked across to the ballast to take up my position of holding onto the sail to correct our balancing in the waves, their laughing voices were carried over to us in the wind- apela vezo foty they cried with delight (a white girl fisherman)!
1 The aim of each sous-collector in each village is to record any sharks or turtles that are caught, to write down their species and measurements and then to take a photograph for the records. The project at this stage is merely a survey to monitor what is being caught and to research what effect this is having on the shark and turtle populations.
2 The sous-collectors do not earn a lot of money for their work, it is a job they agree to do because they want to help. The idea of helping your village and helping your community is an important concept to the Vezo people. This is something I saw again and again throughout this trip.