What is lost; what is gained?
C’est une nouvelle époque chéri, les choses ont changé. Mellie ended her story with this, quoting her dad in translated French. She was sharing with us, by candlelight, the story of the sacred giant fish, the reni rano.
I listened, imagining table-sized fish scales and of a length so great that the head was only a dot on the horizon. Mellie described the mythic fish that—to Vezo (an ethnic group along these coasts) traditions—used to surface annually to drink water from the river north of Beheloke. It too, like the people that fish these shores, came in search of a scarce resource: fresh water.
There was the chance, when travelling between Toliara, the closest city, and Beheloke, of being on the water on the day when the reni rano returned to the surface. And if one was caught—like Mellie and her dad—they would have to wait up to 12 hours on the back of the giant fish. There was no moving if your boat beached on her back. No fishing, no travelling.
It was 18 years ago the last time Mellie looked over the side of the canoe to see reni rano. She and her dad had planned wisely on the trip to Toliara, bringing a silver cast-iron pot full of fish; a plastic thermos of tea, and, as it turned out, enough bokoboko (the local donut of fried dough—sugar, flour, water, baking soda—that we fill our breakfasts with) to share as they waited in their narrow dugout canoe. Sometimes they would throw bokoboko to other stranded fishermen, being careful not to talk during this special event. Instead, yes and no could be communicated to other fishermen using one’s paddle: two turns for yes, three for no. C’était une tradition d’une façon—It was a tradition of sorts. It was a time to reflect, to connect with ancestors, to wait.
C’est une nouvelle époque chéri, les choses ont changé. North American military submarines and Asian ocean harvest companies have set up at the sacred river mouth. Reni rano is now a story to be told: it has been a long time since the giant fish has come back up for a drink. For Mellie, the absence of the reino rano has to do with how the area is viewed and treated: peut-être le plus qu’on parle de quelque chose, le plus qu’on le perdre.
Vazaha (foreigners, like me) scientists describe events like what Mellie describes as associated with water mixing periods. Marine and fresh water mix with certain tides to cause a large-scale, colored water disturbance that can last a tide cycle. Whose story do we choose? Do we have to pick one?
The hope is to bring tourism to Beheloke: to this place where the sand lines of lakas (dugout canoes) being dragged to the ocean look like ski tracks in the snow, tracing the beach each morning. To the place where you can wake to the beating rhythm of women grinding corn grits - the sound of a deep hide drum. To where beautiful straw houses are lit by fires in the starry night; young boys run home with snorkel outlines on their faces, carrying 100m harpoon guns; where women wear striking Star Trek hairdos and vibrant colored mineral masks. To a place too, where being vazaha still means being very alien, where young kids might run crying when approached by a foreigner to help them drag a boat up the beach.
Twice a week we host evening foreign language classes in the community hall, we are helping to train guides and we are expected to leave Beheloke with booklets and strategies in place. Tourism, like so many other places in the world, is being turned to as the solution to the deep complexities faced by the local area. But a deep part of my stomach tugs when I think about what could be lost—what beliefs and ways of living, like that which Mellie described—with trying to bring the world to Beheloke.
Yesterday we sat with Vavy, Mellie’s younger sister, in a one-roomed, sand-bottomed, straw house. She had given birth to her 4th daughter, at home without a doctor or nurse. By candlelight. She is 25. She will stay in the room for a little less than three months, to recover after the complicated birth and to avoid likely infection.
I cannot describe the sense of trust and hope for the future I felt when Vavy passed me her newborn Gabriella. I thought of other kids in the community with bloating bellies, growths, visible sternums, showing ribs: could this be Gabriella in only a few years? I thought of the small mesh nets, the thumb sized octopus I had seen that day collected by a fishermen to feed his family: could this be her father? What does the future hold for Gabriella? Will she know ‘traditions’ of her community—know the feeling of sitting with her father on the back of the giant fish?
C’est une nouvelle époque chéri, les choses ont changé. Maybe tourism will bring enough revenue to give kids like Gabrielle health, opportunities, food security. The question is though, in choosing it, what will continue to change?