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Madagascar: The vezo people, children of the sea

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Off the coast of Africa, along the Western coast of Madagascar, live the last nomads of the sea: the legendary Vezo people. A day-to-day life of ancestral rites, which is now in danger of disappearing.

At a time when the tribes in the highlands came down to track down the coastal peoples and carry off the youngest members to turn them into slaves, the endangered children would hide in pirogues and the adults would whisper to them: “Vezo lakana!” (Row!). From this instruction to save themselves came the name of the Malagasy ethnic group of fishermen that still live alongside the Mozambique Channel on a 300-km-long coastal strip in the south-west of the island between Belo-sur-Mer and the south of Tuléar.

The Vezos (pronounced Vez), the only one of the eighteen ethnic groups in Madagascar to live solely from the sea, have never had to defend their territory as no one would dream of attempting to claim such sterile and inhospitable land consisting of sand, rock and mangroves. But along the coastline, the lagoons, coral reefs and the vast ocean offered an abundance of seafood. The fishermen and their families would travel large distances in their pirogues on huge fishing expeditions interspersed with periods in camps on the shore. Other Malagasy living inland saw them as vagabonds.

 

Kept afloat by a single outrigger, carved out of a farafatse, a tree with lightweight fibres that according to tradition a Vezo fisherman must fell himself, the pirogue (latana) can be anything from two to eight metres long.

 

While awaiting the return of the pirogues to the temporary camp, the fish are being de-scaled. The women protect their faces from sunburn by applying a kaolin and tamarind mask.

 

A free and united people

As a nomadic fishing people with modest needs, their only wealth is their freedom and sense of community. They form circles with their pirogues to trap the fish. Together they set up a bivouac on a beach, far removed from anywhere, with the immense sky as their roof. The women, who are not traditionally involved in the fishing, walk together along the foreshore gathering shellfish, crustaceans and sea urchins or catching octopus with pikes.

This documentary, filmed in the sea off Anakao, a Vezo fishing village and port of call for pirogues from all along the coast, focuses on the customs and traditions of this sea-based people. The first stage of the journey takes the small flotilla to the island of Nosy Ve, a few kilometres from the village, where copious quantities of rum are drunk in honour of the spirits of the ancestors whose benevolence will ensure the success of the expedition.

 

The pirogues force the fish into the middle by beating the sea with paddles and sticks to make noise. In the middle, the swimmers are preparing to close up the net.

 

“I was struck by how harmonious the group was,” says the photographer Pierre Perrin. “The contrast between the meagre life in Anakao, one of the most polluted beaches in Madagascar at the time, and the paradisiacal appearance of the peaceful sandbank with its sparklingly pure colours, took my breath away. I understood that these people with a semi-nomadic life were at one with the world there, and the sandbank in the middle of the ocean was their real land.”

 

Under pressure to change

 

The sea is their other natural habitat. The young Vezos who have been swimming and diving since they were very young, are diving down and fishing without breathing apparatus, readying their harpoons for the underwater hunt.

 

Legend has it that the Vezos are the descendants of a fisherman and a mermaid who was said to have taught the man the secrets of the ocean so that he could always fill his nets. A son was born of their union before the fish-woman returned to the depths. She had made her husband promise that on their deaths her son and his descendants would be buried along the shoreline where the two parallel universes met.

 



 

But although their culture and traditions have endured, the Vezos have had to evolve. Global warming is eroding the coastline. Poverty has forced the Malagasy who lived inland to move closer to the coast, creating competition for the original sea people. The growth of industrial fishing has impoverished the ocean’s breeding grounds and living solely from the sea is an increasing struggle. Many have adopted sedentary lifestyles. There are now fewer than 8,000 people living purely from the sea. Tourists are now coming to Anakao. We just hope that the Vezos will be able to make a living from tourism. Sometimes, in order to eat, they have to beg for tiny fish from the factory ships, the kind of fish that they once used to throw back into the sea to preserve the food chain.

 

 

By Joëlle Ody
Photographs Pierre Perrin