By Alex Sanderson
In the last few days, we have been visiting the fishermen in the Ambalahonko village. The village lies on the edge of Maintirano, but is a very different world. Maintirano’s streets are lined with a mix of governmental buildings, shops and ‘cafes’. The city is vibrant and busy during the day, with bustling markets and pous-pous (tuk-tuks) speeding through the streets. There is also an extensive collection of motorbikes amongst the locals, and the riders like to race through town.
In contrast, Ambalahonko has a much calmer and simpler feel. The village lies on the sea shore, with makeshift huts constructed from palm branch forming a small community on the beach. The population is approximately 350 people. Their village is shaded by tall palm trees, which provide them with fresh coconut. The sound of crashing waves forms an ambient background noise. Within the village, pigs and ducks wonder about amongst the playing children. The women, wearing only lambas wrapped over their bodies, undertake household chores. There are few people about, and life seems slower.
We began by speaking to both the president and vice-president of the village.
The President is Vincent, and he is 61 years old. Vincent has been president for 10 years, and is paid 20,000 ariary (£8) a month for this role, but he often doesn't receive this. Malama is the Vice President of the village. He has been Vice President for 2 years. Both are fishermen, and continue to fish alongside their presidential duties.
They tell us that their role is largely about educating the village away from crime and preventing wrong-doing. This seems particularly important as it is not unusual for poor, disgruntled young men from villages in western Madagascar to run away and join the Dahalo – a group of lawless bandits who wonder through the countryside murdering, stealing and burning whatever is in their path, often causing whole villages to flee in fear.
Young men in the village have few opportunities. Most will eventually become fishermen and can often start from the age of 12.
Both Vincent and Malama consider fishing to be very dangerous. The wind of the coast line is strong, causing boats to capsize. Whilst many fishermen can swim here, the boats often capsize far from land. If this is the case, the fishermen try to swim to shore. However, sometimes they get exhausted before reaching land, and drown. The latest death was last month, when two young boys did not return from their fishing trip.
What is most dangerous, for Vincent and Malama, is that fishermen are forced to fish in bad weather. The men need to provide for their families, and cannot earn a living in another way. However, when the weather is especially bad, the fishermen do not go out. In general, the fishermen only manage to make 3 trips a week. The winds are particularly strong in this season. Making only 3, rather than 6, trips a week effectively halves their potential income.
From one days fishing a fishermen can expect to make between 10,000 and 40,000 ariary (roughly £2.50-£10). With only 3 trips a week, they are living below the poverty line.
We asked Vincent and Malama what fishermen could do to decrease the risk. They had no solution, only God – they believe their lives are in gods hands and it is he who decides their fate on the ocean. Life jackets are not available here, and buying one from Majunga (a coastal city 400m north of Maintirano) is too expensive. Both say they would wear a life jacket, if they were available and affordable. Even style would not matter, fashion is less important than safety.
N.B. They often do look very fashionable, a result of branded clothing making its way from charity shops in the West to second hand clothes markets throughout Africa. We've spotted Lacoste, Nike, Abercrombie and Levis items sported throughout town.
The women in the village do not fish. Their only occupation, other than household tasks and child rearing, is selling fish at market. It is common for women to be married very young here, even from as young as 8. They have a low level of education, and this restricts them from gaining employment.
The president introduced us to some of the fishermen in the village. For example, Vernon. Vernon is 33 years old, and has a wife and three children. Fishing is his only job. He went to school, but only until 4th grade. He tries to fish everyday, apart from Sunday's and when the weather is bad. He can swim, and goes fishing alone. However, when the weather is bad, he takes someone with him. Vernon gets roughly 20,000 ariary (£5) per days’ fishing.
Vernon thinks fishing is dangerous here. Often, fishermen have to take many risks in order to earn an income. Now that he has a family, he is less willing to venture out in bad weather. However, he often goes in order to provide for his family. His church had given him a life jacket, but it is now broken. For Vernon, a life jacket is essential. He describes that the fishermen often sleep overnight in the boats out at sea. During the night the boats are often hit by bigger fishing trawlers, knocking the fishermen out of their canoe and into darkness. He would like to buy another life jacket, but he can’t afford one from Majunga.
Another fishermen we spoke to was Bonina. Bonina is 50, has a wife, 3 children and 4 grandchildren. Bonina is a fisherman, but he also provides tours to the Barren Isles, which are about 20km off shore. Bonina says that he can earn between 2,500 to 10,000 ariary (roughly 70p - £2.50) for a days fishing. He is paid about 20,000 ariary (£5) for the boat trips, but these are irregular.
Bonina can swim, but considers fishing to be dangerous. His boat capsizes regularly. However, he explains that he must continue to fish, even in bad weather, in order to feed his family. He would prefer to raise livestock. Bonina would like a life jacket to decrease the danger, however he cannot access one. He would be willing to spend 40,000 ariary (4x his income) to buy a life jacket.
What is most evident from these interviews is the braveness of the fishermen. Everyday they have to decide whether to put their own lives in danger to scrape enough income to feed their families. They place their lives in God’s hands, and pray for success. Even more impressive, is that the fishermen are content. They do not complain about their situation, or show envy towards the wealthy living in Maintirano.
The interviews have been very successful. The fishermen are all extremely welcoming, inviting us into their homes to meet their families. They are also very welcoming towards our project, and invite us to return whenever. As a result, we are even more determined to make the project a success.