Fisherman on boat in madagascar


The older I get, the more respect I have for African farmers, and now fishermen.  Sometimes – maybe most of the time – we in the west may look down on those who use the old ways of fishing as “backward”.  But really, they are 10 times the mariners we are now with our fuel driven motors, our GPS navigation, our auto pilot, and mechanically driven machines for retrieving our fishing gear.

Malagasy fishermen practice the mariner skills lost generations ago in the north.  Not out of some folksy reflection on the past, but as their way of life.  They live much of their lives 6 inches below the surface with 12 inches of freeboard in their canoes, some that are not 2 feet wide.  They put their sails up each day to get where they are going, then may anchor and fish over the side with a hook and line hand line, or set a small gillnet and haul it by hand.  All out on the big ocean.

Watching them paddle is also a joy.  They know how to paddle on just one side of their canoe, using a sort of J stroke at the end of each sweep to keep the boat steering straight- something I’ve never mastered.  Lots of purely innate courage and skills these fishermen still have.  When the fuel runs out or we kill ourselves fighting over it, it’s somehow a comfort to me to know these people will continue on as they have, and maybe get their turn at running the world for awhile.

fishing boat on ocean fishing boat on beach in madagascar Fisherman on boat in madagascar

Salt and Seaweed Day

Today, we bought 6 kilos of fish just caught in the morning, and 6 kilos of salt. The salt was big grain, so we used a mortar and pestle to make smaller grains.

I helped one of the wives clean the fish, then showed them how to salt the fish in layers.

Everyone else was out working, so we were done for the day. When the boat didn’t come for awhile, we wandered down to the beach to check out the red seaweed farm.

Ladies were planting new lines by taking larger pieces of seaweed off lines, separating them, and then replanting the smaller pieces on new lines.

The same wife I helped clean and salt fish was there, and Andry and I helped her plant a line. We sat in the sand in the water, and the Indian Ocean was warm. I chatted through Andry about how we plant Alaska kelp, and soon we had our line planted. The lady said before we started, and just in passing, that she paid 400 ariary to plant a line, and when I asked for our money, she said she had to dock me 100 ariary for eating some of the seaweed. Tough boss.

We went back to the landing and watched beautiful sailboat after sailboat sail in, on their way, apparently, to the salt mine at the head of the “inland sea” to haul salt.  When our boat arrived, two others asked to go to town. An old, somewhat feeble Pa with a tattered bucket hat, and a middle age man in good health. I put the Pa in the padded middle seat in front of the steering console – the most comfortable seat on the boat – out of respect.

When we got back to Ecolodge, 3 Frenchmen came in at the same time in a guided canoe with outrigger with a PILE of fish. The biggest was about 50 lbs. A couple were bright red.

Then, the French husband owner of the Ecolodge showed up in their side by side ATV. I thought to pick up the fish. But no – they had a man who needed medical attention. Four men carried him to the boat I just got off, and away they went. To Morondava I assume, but not sure. I later found out it looked like the man had an appendicitis.

I helped the Pa off the boat, and went up to look at the fish. Then the Pa comes with his his hands out. First I thought it was to thank me. Then I realized he wanted money. As always, I never know what to do in this situation as in all the crowd of people, I stand out as the big white guy. I thanked the Pa, took a photo of the fish, and walked up to my room to get out of the situation.

They covered the fish on the beach, at least. But the fish weren’t bled and not cleaned. And had been in the sun. The red ones were bloating.  I was the only one who cared, of course. Apparently they will send the fish on ice to Morondava to sell.

Mark and women on beach cleaning seaweed
Mark and women and kids salting fish in Madagascar

Tuesday’s question of the day

Another great session with fishermen in Mekany today. The ladies were selling little fish they’d dried by the gobs to a buyer who had arrived, so it was just us men for the most part. We talked about the fishing business – avenues for sale, different fish products, planning for the big catches when prices would plummet by salting their fish to smoke them later and sell them at higher prices. We also showed them a weather app, windguru, and a chartplotter app, Navionics.

Then came a question that really got me tongue tied:  are you rich from selling all the fish?  I would always say I’m rich – because I have everything I need, I’m healthy, and all the money all need for the rest of my life. About anyone who knows me would never say I’m rich. I have a little crappy house, drive a crappy car, heat with wood, drive an old truck and about everything I have I bought used. To anyone sitting in our meeting under the shade of a tree, who make less in a month than they pay me in per diem for a day, and who were selling their dried fish for 30 cents a pound today, I’m a gazillionaire.

So, I uhmed and aaahed and didn’t really have a good answer for them. And that, I think, is how it should be. Because maybe there is no good answer.

Monday, and back to the grind in Belo sur Mer

We went to Mekany today. A little town an hours walk by beach from Belo sur Mer, or 20 minutes or so by boat.

A small group of fishermen and their wives who sell the fish, and in this town, grow seaweed, with a few kids, were our audience.  Although this community is more remote than others I’ve worked in, these guys seem like they have it together.

After I talked about caring for fish on their boats, as fish are sold in the round here, usually with no refrigeration, they seemed to immediately agree the fish WOULD be better quality if they cleaned them on board, kept them in a clean container, and kept them as cool as they could with ice, ice frozen in water bottles, or if they can’t find anything else, a wet burlap bag or wet piece of old sail. But, they said: let us check with our customers first. WOW. These guys get it. I’m excited now.

Then after talking about sea cucumber farming here, we went to look at a site where they had a test plot once. They got some cukes from the nursery in Tolear, the center of cuke farming here, to see how it would work. It worked great…….until someone stole the sea cucumbers. They are worth a fortune, relatively speaking, here, and the farms in Tolear now employ a guard in a tower in the center of the farm who watches over the place 24 hours a day to guard against thievery.

The best part of it looking at the site was that they sent a kid with us who smokes fish!  That’s what he does. He buys fish fresh, smokes them, and then sells them.

We’re cooking with gas, now.

So, I talk to him about asking around to the lodges about smoking their clients fish. Then tell him how vital that service is to us in Juneau for my customers and the whole town. He likes the idea.

Today I somehow see the seaweed farm in a new light. It’s impressive. About a mile long, with float lines about 15 feet wide made of empty water bottles about every 15 feet. I can’t exactly tell if the seaweed lines run parallel to the beach or perpendicular to the beach, but no matter. It’s a serious kelp farm in my book, and they are able to work it by “hand” at lower tides, where I’m guessing the water is up to their waist or chest, so don’t need a boat to tend it. And, you won’t get cold in this water. It’s warmer than any pool I’ve been in.

fishing canoe with large sail off the coast of Madagascar's bluegreen waters

Sunday in Paradise

Belo Sur Me

We traveled to Belo Sur Mer by boat from Morondava. About a 1.5 hour ride in relatively calm waters. We’re staying at Ecolodge, owned by a French couple. Nice thatch bungalos at the entrance to the cove. The husband was a realtor and the wife a social worker from what I could understand. They had visited Madagascar once or twice, found this place online for sale, and jumped in. The bungalos are nice. Beds with mosquito nets, shower and sink and toilet and running water. They run on solar power. There are lights in the rooms, but no outlets. If you need to charge something, you take it to the bar, where there are power strips for this purpose. The couple are wonderful hosts. There’s a restaurant in the middle of the compound. The food is very good. Seafood from the nearby sea. Fish and crab.  It would be a perfect place if it weren’t for the mosquitoes that come out at night. One little crack in the mosquito net fortress and one gets in and invites all their friends.

If you’re up at 5 am, you’ve already missed a lot. Dozens of boats are already in the distance fishing from their canoes with their sails up. The entrance to the cove is right in front of my bungalo, and about 50 yards wide  at low tide; I have a front row seat as the fishermen paddle by. .   I saw a group of people coming along the beach. When I heard the singing, then a cross, I figured it was church. When I saw the little casket carried on men’s shoulders, I understood it was a funeral procession. I sat on my porch unnoticed. The women sang a song in Malagasy. Maybe the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard. The women wore bright formal lapas around their waists like the one presented to me in Betania.

When the group got around the corner, they were now on the beach outside of the cove. I then saw a large canoe and several smaller ones emerge from around the bend. Perhaps they are taking the deceased to a distant island where there is a graveyard. Not long after, many of the procession returned down the path to town. Almost all women. Smiling and in lively conversation.  Mostly they past by age. The younger, faster walking women first, and the grannies bringing up the rear. Maybe it is the men’s work to take care of the ceremony in the canoes from here. A person wants to ask the passersby about the ceremony and what just happened, but some questions are more appropriately left unasked.. And glad I did not. I found out from the others later a young boy with some sort of limb deformity drowned yesterday while washing his clothes in the cove. The size of the casket fits the story. So sad. With no way to preserve the body, the casket must have been made yesterday and today the burial.

As I watch the fishermen leave for the sea, I think about their lives, sitting below the sea surface in their canoes, and living much of their lives with 20 inches of free board. Their craft are perfect. The canoe with a single outrigger, almost always on the starbard side of the canoe. The outrigger stabilizes the canoe, with the weight of the outrigger bending the canoe towards it, and the flotation of the outrigger pushing back against the canoe. Physics in action. I’ve only been out in the craft once in any sort of a chop – just 1 to 2 foot seas – but the craft didn’t wobble or tip in the least. A 20 hp outboard pushed our craft loaded with 5 of us with ease. The fishermen use sails.

They certainly live every day, with no two days at sea the same. They see changes to their environment that man’s invented instruments can measure, but only in numbers. Climate change and foreign trawlers vacuuming up their fish before they get nearshore where they can catch it is their reality. They receive all the impacts of the outside forces, but receive little of the benefits the industrialized society created. Perhaps a little improved health care and a cell phone. But no power grid. No mass transit system. Not even a dock for their village. Retirement isn’t a concept. Never did it make sense to save money, if you had any to save, because the inflation on this paper you exchange for goods is so high that what a dollar will buy this year, it will take a dollar fifty to buy it next year. You work til you can’t work anymore. Then maybe someone will take care of you.  You hope your good deeds in your lifetime now provide some level of care from your family. But of course, they have to work, too. Elders with skin that still shines – the men still with well defined biceps and grannies who can squat to sit with their heels against their bottoms – still limber as a teenager from a lifetime of physical work outside. “Development” agencies are now offering them programs like aquaculture and mariculture and tourism to give them livelihoods which they can’t make from the sea anymore. My guess is the fishermen would rather have the pittance back from the sea that they used to take with their primitive craft and simple fishing methods, rather than have their fish caught offshore by foreigners and now have to find a new job. Like climate change, it seems no one in the world has the strength to stop trawling as a fishing method. Anywhere in the world. Even when we see the evidence of its impacts.

More fishermen continue to leave the cove in their boats, chit chatting to each other as they paddle. Maybe these two grew up together. Perhaps both will have their own boat someday, and fish side by side for a lifetime.

It’s been great to have another Peace Corps volunteer on this assignment. 30 years my junior, but we both get the inequities of the world having had the mutual Western privilege of our government sending us to live in rural Africa for two years.  All expenses paid.

Several of the others went out on a boat to an island today to snorkel and have a picnic. I couldn’t bear the notion of more sunburning on my pasty white vitamin-D deprived body from all the years in Alaska under long sleeve shirt and pants. I’m already burned trying to keep covered, and with so many more little workshops still ahead of me, I thought it best to sit tight in the shade. I don’t feel like I’m missing out. There’s so much to see here in a day. A canoe with what I assume is a husband and wife, laden with heavy bags of perhaps trade goods like salt or rice or beans, either just bought or taking in to sell. People on the distant beach across the cove digging up sand and putting it in a mosquito net and sifting through it, looking for what I do not know.

fishing canoe with large sail off the coast of Madagascar's bluegreen waters

Wednesday in Betania

I wrapped my foot in plastic we bought at the store, and luckily it kept my foot dry after walking through the water to get to the transport canoe.

We talked about onboard handling today to a dwindled crowd. I hope I’m not boring them to death.

On the way over, we saw a swordfish on the ground.  I was sad to see this once beautiful fish covered with sand. But I’m guess the sand washed right off as of course it wasn’t cleaned.

A woman bought the fish, then two people help hoist it up onto her head and away she went.

woman on beach carrying large swordfish on her head