I arrived in Belo in early July to pursue my MSc thesis research on the ecosystem services that mangrove forests provide to neighbouring communities with the help of my research assistant Jean-Luc. My work has involved planning and organizational time in Belo-sur-Mer and visits to the villages of Antanamanimbo and Marofihitsy to determine the contrasting uses of the mangroves by the Vezo and Masikoro people.
Surveying households in the Vezo of Antanamanimbo is a very pleasant experience as the village itself is located on a long sandbar on the seaward side of an mangrove shrouded estuary. This picturesque setting is not only a feast for the eyes, but also allows you to eat big, fresh crabs from the mangrove or fish from the sea on the other side of the village. Most of the people are very happy to spend a few minutes talking about their lives and the relations that they have with the mangroves. Knowing that Jean-Luc and I were students the village president was more than willing to accept us into his community as his children while we were there.
There is no electricity in Marofihitsy, so you don’t have the throbbing music of the epi-bars of other towns or any lights besides that of cooking fires, the odd lamp or flashlight and the stars. Under these peaceful conditions we could hear chanting, singing and cheering off in the dry forest to the south and in the company of the local MNP agent we followed these sounds to investigate.
A few hundred metres from the village we found the funeral celebration in full swing in a clearing under a large tamarind tree. Around the clearing there were scattered fires and here nearly all of the village’s population was gathered to take part in the event. At the base of the tree there was a zebu cart on which the body of the deceased was shrouded in a mosquito net to keep away the insects. Around the tree and the body a group of dancers sang and stomped as they circled the tree. The song and dance was guided by two men who sang out instructions to the dancers who followed this lead and sang in response. With no speakers or instruments, the only sounds were those of the singers, clapping hands, stomping feet and the background murmur of conversation occurring around the fires.
This went on for some time until one man stood up and started to shout at the crowd and in our general direction. Not having a great understanding of Malagasy I took this to be a bad thing, as it usually isn’t very good to have someone shouting in your direction and under the circumstances I would have understood if I was unwelcome. However, what he was saying had nothing to do with me and when it was translated I was very surprised to learn that he was announcing that a ringa (wrestling) competition was about to occur. Now this is not something that has happened at any of the other funerals I have been present for in my lifetime, not even in Belo-sur-Mer just a few kilometres away. That said, it would add a great deal of excitement to otherwise sombre occasions and could be good opportunity to express life and vitality in the face of death and loss.
After this announcement the atmosphere in the clearing changed instantly. More wood was thrown onto the largest of the fires, flooding the clearing with its glow and warming those close to it. Most of the young women that were dancing or standing around the other fires moved to sit under the tree next to the fire. The rest of the crowd clear the space under the tamarind tree and the women by the fire began to clap and sing.
At first, boys and young men would dash out into the middle of the in ones or twos holding their arms in the air and celebrating like they had just won Olympic medals. Some would smack their blankets against the ground (Masikoro men all carry blankets, usually plaid, with them wherever they go) or mock threaten the women to sing louder whenever the music had dropped off. At one point a group of young men ran across the open space to join the women by the fire and show them how to sing with more energy, much to the entertainment of everyone present.
With one nahoda standing in bow calling the pull, the teams grab the cables and everyone strains in time. The first few pulls have no effect and more people are called to move from the audience and join in, squeezing in to find places near to the boutry where they are less likely to have to pull in the mud or water once the boutry moves down the beach. Great excitement and relief come with the first feeling of movement from the massive blue and white painted hull begin to creep forward and somewhat depressing to have to let its bulk stop and to give time for rollers to be moved from stern to bow in order to aid its progress. However, once its motion has been started and the boutry’s steep prow begins to peek out over the slope of the sand you know that the force required to continue its first voyage over dry land is nowhere near as much as it took to start its journey.
So, studying the services provided by mangroves in the area of Belo-sur-Mer is not only sinking up to your knees in mangrove mud there are also a great many other things to enjoy. To work here is to be part of a celebration, whether it is the daily enjoyment of watching the lakas return in the sunset, honouring the life of a respected memory of the community or taking part in the birth of a new ship that will take Belo with it by wind and wave up and down the coast.