Although I’ve already been to Andava, I hadn’t explored the surrounding “countryside” in depth. When the opportunity arose to join Blue Ventures staff in conducting a socio-economic survey in four tiny villages south of here, I didn’t hesitate for a moment!
Liz, Njara, Gildes and I had two zebu-carts scheduled for us for Monday morning. Together with the wooden pirogues, zebu-carts are the primary means of transportation around here, both strongly subject to weather conditions of course. Despite the dry and clear morning, our zebus arrived 45 minutes later than agreed and one of the carts broke down just outside Andava, obliging the guys to walk the 2 hour road to the Bay of Assassins.
From there a pirogue took us to Tampolove, where we found out that we’d missed our zebu-cart connection… I still find this really funny, but my colleagues were rather disappointed as it meant we couldn’t reach our destination on the first day and were bound to be delayed for the rest of the trip. I was just smiling and thinking to myself: “What an adventure! And we are actually here for work…”
The objective of our survey was to gain a general understanding of the social and economic situation of four villages. In theory, Antsepoke, Bevohitse, Beangolo and Ambatomilo form a Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA) called Manjaboaky. An LMMA is a tool for people to manage their natural resources in a sustainable way, usually with some external help (from NGOs and/or government). In practice, however, these villages are at the very early stages of the process of eventually, perhaps one day becoming a functioning LMMA…
Blue Ventures has already experience in supporting such a process at a larger scale. During the past decade, they worked with communities from 30 villages, including Andavadoaka and built up an LMMA called ‘Velondriake’, which means ‘living with the sea’. They are considering doing something similar with the four villages we visited.
Our visit was one of a series of visits, and we conducted one-on-one interviews with about 40 people. We asked them what they would do if they were village chiefs, whether they feel listened to in their respective communities, whether decisions taken in their village are implemented, whether they discuss among themselves about fisheries. We also asked them how the quantity and size of fish evolved over their lifetime.
It was an absolutely fantastic experience to spend five days among these fishermen and their families. My interviewees (over 20 people) were men and women ranging from their early 20s to their mid 60s. Some had no children at all, others had 15 children, some were born and raised in one of these villages, others arrived later on in their lives. What they had in common though was their total dependence on the sea and their increasing struggle to provide food for their families.
We hear about these people in UN and World Bank statistics, they are part of the millions living below the poverty line on a dollar or so per day. Without meeting them in person and seeing the realities of their everyday lives, it is impossible to grasp the meaning of such statistics.
However, irrespective of the numbers and material possessions, the people we met didn’t seem unhappy. In fact, I found it easy to relate to them on many levels: they were friendly, curious, they love their families and especially value children, love joking around and having a good time (and no language barrier will stop them from doing so), they hope to have more unity within their communities and provide a better life for the next generation.
One of the highlights for me was my interaction with the children in Antsepoke. We were interviewing a woman and were surrounded by at least 15 young children. At first they were looking at the images I had with me from some distance, then they came a bit closer and a bit closer, and by the end of the 30 minute discussion I had about 7 kids touching my leg, brushing off the sand from my skin, blowing the hair on my arms and falling with laughter.
These visits made me think (yet again) how incredibly lucky we are to have all our basic needs provided for: we never worry about what we will eat the next day, we have good quality health care and education system, good governance and so on. I kept thinking about the Maslow pyramid: we have our basic needs taken care of (food, shelter, security) and we spend soooo much time with mental chatter and intellectualising the meaning of life… The Vezo are definitely in the here and now. I don’t intend to over-idealise any of this, but I wish we could magically give them some of our existential security and ask for some spirit of being-in-the-present-moment. We could all benefit.
I also made a decision as a result of this field trip: I will explore the possibility of volunteering for the project in Hungary we supported with the donations from our wedding (dedicated to supporting roma children with learning difficulties). They don’t have a decade long experience with volunteers, or a turquoise lagoon in their backyard, but I am certain that the roma children are equally friendly, curious and easy to engage with as their Malagasy counterparts and I would have plenty of skills to bring to their benefit as well.