an octopus

An octopus has the intelligence likened to that of a parrot and dolphin. It is beautiful and mysterious.

Myself and fellow island companions took a rare Sunday to explore the open ocean side of the island as tourists (me being the only non-local). It was raining but we all trekked off, from the camp where I was staying, through the village and onwards. We entered the marshland and came across a pile of flipflops. The flipflops of my companions wives – who were out on their Sunday activity of collecting wood for fuel. And so we took off our flipflops, following in their footstep. We squelched our way through one-foot deep marsh waters to the dunes, eyes alert for crocodiles and turtles. The wives were already returning from the mornings foraging, making their way carefully down the dunes, loaded with piles of wood. We all met briefly, and then we carried on along our way. Helder running ahead to collect Masalas (a wild fruit, that tastes like stewed pears) for me to take home back to South Africa.


The open ocean side of the island smells different. It is wild. There was a lone fishing boat rocking in the waves. We walked along the vast beach.


And eventually came across some rock pools. It was the most beautiful display I had yet seen. The rock in the middle lit up and spread its wings to fill the entire rock pool, exhibiting a kaleidoscope of colours. And then, before I knew it. The octopus was dead. I had to question my emotions. How can I be so upset? The rain hid my tears. This is food for my friends. How can I judge? Why do we judge our food choices on intelligence and beauty? Don’t eat an octopus because it’s intelligent? Life is raw on the beautiful island of Bazaruto.




We went to test out the effectiveness of Baited Remote Underwater Video (baited gopros) as a monitoring tool of the fish for the marine protected area of Bazaruto. It was six days of hard work. There were unexpected challenges. Like forgetting the tripods at the airport. Watching a camera float away – which we found after a bit of snorkeling (phew). Free-diving repeatedly I quickly realised was more tiring than I previously assumed. Setting the camera and seeing a shark, and thinking, oops, I am holding a box of freshly chopped sardines. Trying to dive after a dugong. I was left watching a tail whip away and a puff of sand. And finally, not getting fantastic output. We learnt a lot, which we will be improving on when we repeat the process in November. The idea is to make this a viable methodology for the marine parks across Mozambique. Here is a short clip.

Trying to understand,

the role of me and the NGO I represent

As you gaze upon the waters of Bazaruto Archipelago, you wonder about the almost mythical Dugong, referred to by some as the mermaids of the ocean. Once you move beyond this, you may then appreciate the abundance of sea life – schools of fish swimming in the clear waters, tuna fish jumping as they are being predated upon, or predating, dolphins gliding past, an occasional turtle pops up his head surreptitiously, and seabirds follow the life beneath the water with a keen eye. You may also spy the traditional fishers going about their business – standing at their sails looking forward, or rowing together towards some distant location. Colourful. A brief wave, and you, too, continue on your business.

Who are the fishers of Bazaruto? The 36km island of one’s imagination, a biodiversity hotspot, the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean. I have spent almost the last year and a half on this question.


There are four families on Bazaruto island – which make up a community of roughly 3500 people. The Madivatches, the Motundos, the Nhadaves and the Zivanes. These families originate from the Ndau’s in central Mozambique and subsequently, their language and traditions are not the same as the mainlanders in the adjacent districts of Inhassoro and Vilankulos. The people of Bazaruto sustain themselves primarily through the fishing business, where the primary gear in use are seine-nets. As of June 2017, I was informed that there were 72 seine-net owners. The seine-nets are generally of 160-500m in length, with mesh sizes of 0.5-1.5 inches. Other forms of fishing are also partaken in: hand and line, spear fishing and traditional trap nets. All fishermen use traditional dhows as their main form of transport to the fishing sites. There are three carpenters on the island who have built the dhows of all the fishermen. Some are man powered (row-boats), some wind-powered (sailboats) and some diesel powered. Most fishing takes place on the landfacing (west) side of the island. Some fishermen hand line on the open ocean side of the island. There are the managers (or net-owners), the boat captains, the labourers who row the boats, pull the nets and process the fish (mostly women), and the traders who buy fish from the fishermen, dry or freeze the fish and then sell them forward along the value chain. It is not uncommon for one family to divide these roles amongst themselves.

The islanders are facing rapid change. Until the end of the civil war, almost no-one owned a diesel engine dhow. It would take two days to a week to reach the mainland on wind-powered boats. There was no clinic. There were no schools. There were 10 net owners. Today, there are subsidized community transport boats (it now takes four to seven hours to reach the mainland depending where you are). There was one clinic, and now two, since April 2017. There are plans to upgrade the central clinic substantially. Pregnant women are now given mosquito nets. There are three schools which teach to grade 7, one which, since January 2017, teaches to grade 8. There are promises of electricity. There are 72 net owners.


I recently interviewed 18 fishers between the ages of 21-83. I wanted to figure out what their perspective on life was, on the fishery and on the future. I am generalising their responses, but this was the gist of it. Happiness is found through fishing and supporting ones family. When questioned on sadness, mostly the responses were, “I don’t get sad”. But with a bit of pressing for an answer, sadness is felt when going fishing and not catching anything, when a family member falls sick. A fishers dream is to expand his fishing business and build a concrete block house. Fishers see their futures looking bleak. Each year there are less fish, each year the fishing season is less predictable, there are more fishers, more boats. I didn’t mention that the climate was changing globally, that the sea levels were rising. I couldn’t bring myself to ask, and so you know that there are less and less fish, an unpredictable ocean, more fishermen – what are you going to do about it?


It is easier to talk about these things when there are tangible solutions, but when you are a fishermen on a remote island with no capital, how do you even start. People are content and the pressing issue is focused on how are we going to eat tomorrow.



an unsuspecting dancer

i caught the outgoing current
delighted by its strength and effortlessness
and the colours that passed me by
and the fish that glistened
and the strange imaginations of the under the sea creatures
like long sea cucumbers
fire fish watching
and grumpy crabs

as the tide turned, we together flowed back to the shore
me and the ocean
the ocean and I

and a dancer


Through the dunes

Today, two fishers accompanied me across the island and over the dunes to the ocean side, or as people refer to it here – to the high seas. It was a clear day. From the top of the dunes we gazed across the island as the light dunes merged into green of the plains and then blue of the ocean. I asked how their family came to live on the island.

Looking out from the dunes

Before the colonial time, we lived in Sofala, in central Mozambique. That was before the time that they demarcated countries. There was just land, and each people defended their place. There was a war for land between our people and another. Our great-grandfather (or great-great?) ran away for safety. He carved a simple wooden boat out of a tree and found his way to this island. Here he came across other people – the Vahoka people. But their languages were similar and they could understand each other. The people of the island gave him some land, he married and had seven sons. Four died, which left three sons. One was the father of my father. Now this is our home. We arrived so long ago that even our grandparents don’t remember that first great-grandfather that arrived here.

In the dunes

Our conversation meandered and as they pointed out places that they used to live or farm on – that they moved away from when the island became a park, we chatted a bit about the National Park of Bazaruto. The fishers feel like the park (and the government) is corrupt and never considers the community. They called the Park Administrator racist – where racist means a person who does not have a heart. They said that most of the rangers don’t know how to swim, they don’t know about the nature that exists in the park. But then we chatted about the ecologist, Paul Dutton who spent many years on Bazaruto before the park became a park and was the first warden of the park in 1989, following an agreement between EWT and Mozambican government. They spoke about him with reverence and spoke about how he enters their world passively, and included the community in everything he did. I have heard bits about Paul Dalton. But I don’t know his full story. It’s nice though to hear that someone did something right, and that his legacy remains.

Watching the fish in the waves on the open ocean side of the island


Bom dia, tudo bem? Bwedza. Uvukile? Nzivukile, hati wena? Eyhhoooooo. Greetings. Portuguese, Xihoka, Xitswa. 

I have been on Bazaruto island for about four weeks give or take. It feels like longer. Where am I and what really is my place here? In a previous post I confidently summarised my role in this new place. Easy to write or say but rather difficult to live. So let me take a few steps back.

The Bazaruto Archipelago has been populated since 200-300AD (Christina Roque and Brandt, 2010). Evidence suggests that the archipelago was one of the earliest commercial centres in the region and throughout recent history the archipelago has acted as an important site for trade, having traded in seed pearls, amber, tortoise shell, turtle carapaces and dugong teeth. The current population on the island is made up of the Mahoca tribe who immigrated to the islands from the north in the 19th century and as well as other families from the mainland who immigrated during the civil war. Most fisher families on the island are of the Mahoca ethnic group and there are strong traditional customs associated with fishing and the sea (Van der Elst, 2010). Os pescadores. Everyone in a fisher family is somehow involved in fishing, with women and children sometimes crewing boats and women being involved in sand oyster (mapalo) collection and pulling in seine nets from the beach.

I wanted to get  first hand description of life on the islands for the fisher families. I spent these past weeks meeting with the three communities that live on Bazaruto Island, the largest island of the archipelago and the island on which I am based. Myself, Lionel (the national parks community liaison officer) and for some parts, Ula (my colleague from Blue Ventures; traveled across the island, by foot, by boat, by quad bike. What did we find? The most important thing across the board, was the ocean.

“We love the ocean (Ibimbi). It helps us. It gives us food. We work with the ocean” – fisher woman from Maxulane



 When I asked people, what they wanted to improve in their community, beyond the usual that any rural community may tell you as an outsider working for an organisation (better education, hospital, more work), they wanted  ways to get more fish, more oysters, more octopus, safer boats, fishing gear, motors for the boats and a more efficient way of preserving fish. Is this something that is possible? Is it possible to get more fish? Or have they all gone already?. And why are there less fish now? Is it too late for the fish of the oceans? What is the cause? Is it because of artisanal seine-netting off the beach? Or is it the large commercial fishers off shore? The warming of the ocean?

seine netting
What really are the effects of artisanal seine-netting?


I proclaim myself ignorant. Has such information been qualified in the literature? There are reels of papers on small-scale fisheries and how to manage them. There is no straight answer. Might one say it is as simple as following Loyd’s tragedy of the commons? Or providing jobs for fishermen so that they don’t have to fish like Mackenzie alludes to in his quote?“The fisher is not poor because he is fishing; he is fishing because he is poor” (MacKenzie 1979, footnote 5 on p. 816).  I dare to say – not so.



The day was calm and the fishers were prepared


It is June 16. Youth Day in South Africa. We commemorate the Soweto uprising. We give thanks to the education we are privileged enough to receive. In our language of choice. Supposedly. We thank the youth that stood up for their rights. The rights of the youth of the future.

My dad read us an excerpt from a book at dinner. Published in 1977. I read further and found this paragraph. It touches on a point that I strongly believe in. Communication and language. And the showing of respect for another person through language. I’ll leave it to speak for itself.

The October  section reminded me about a Thursday night last December in Zithulele, in the former Transkei. I went with a friend and a woman I respect to a tented evangelical church. My friend and I were the only white people. The preacher organized translators to preach each and every word in English so that we could understand. And the translators did not just translate the words, but also the emotion. The translators swapped out as they tired, dripping with sweat and emotion. I have yet to experience the opposite of this situation in South Africa.

It brings me back to language. When you take the time to learn the language of another person, you show respect and immediately break a barrier between you and that person. Once at the train station in Muizenberg, I was chatting to someone in isiXhosa. First, he was surprised. Then he asked me if white people think black people are stupid. And then told me it was just because of the language. He couldn’t speak English very well, and so came across stupid. I knew what he was talking about, and the frustration of not being able to articulate your thoughts in the language that you are speaking. Anyone who speaks more than one language will understand this.

Since 1976, it is no longer compulsory to learn in Afrikaans. In fact, each school can choose an official language in which they want to teach. Most schools choose English. But our failure is such, that even kids living in big cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, get to Grade 12 and write Grade 12 exams in an English medium school, but still do not speak English. It works in the reverse as well, where schools succeed in teaching English to all its students, there are students who do not leave able to communicate in any other of the official languages. In a country with eleven official languages, this does not make sense.

Education should empower people, give us confidence and the skills that we need to navigate life and support ourselves and our families. I’d say the majority of schools in South Africa are not achieving this. They are not even empowering people with the basic skill of language.




Lwandle. No, Ibimbi (the sea in Xistwa). The sea in the Inhambane province of Mozambique.

The sun set over the continent of Africa. There is a colourful, wooden transport boat, barely bobbing in the still waters, anchored at Sitone bay, Bazaruto Island, Bazaruto Archipelago National Park, Mozambique. This diesel motored boat travels three times a week from the island to the town of Inhassoro – some 30 km and about a 3 hour ride away, the only link for people from this island to the mainland. Fishers from the island will be heading to Inhassoro tomorrow to sell their recent catch.


Yesterday, a school of sardines swam by, and there are sardines drying all along the coast – fishers caught many in their nets. But today begins the closed season for netting. Seine netting in the main form of fishing for the majority of the population on the islands and on the mainland. Three months of tight stomachs and hunger are upon the people of this area, especially if they didn’t manage to store enough fish from during the open netting season.


The Bazaruto Archipelgao National Park is a terrestrial reserve and the surrounds form a Marine Protected Area (MPA). This MPA is habitat to, amongst others, dugongs, mantas, turtles, whale sharks and a huge diversity of tropical fish. The idea of an MPA, is to provide a refuge for fish populations to recuperate, making fishing sustainable, with the vision that spill-over beyond the boundaries from the MPA will sustain and perhaps even increase fish catches. The islands are populated by the Vahoka and Matswa people – artisanal fishers, who have the right to fish in certain areas, as well as seven high-end lodges and their clients.

This is the world that I have entered as a conservationist, working for the Endangered Wildlife Trust. What brought me here is a charismatic flagship species, the last viable population of Dugongs in East Africa. Dugong mortalities occur through bycatch in this area due to netting.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust has the mandate to ensure the survival of the endangered Dugong and conservation of seagrass, and has been successfully maintaining the population of dugongs through providing support in park management and law enforcement for the past five years. I am here to continue the project, however, using my access to resources and university education to work with the local fisher communities where there is need. Perhaps in building capacity for local resource monitoring and management, alternative livelihoods and increased access to health services. In this remote location, the situation is anything but simple.

I invite you to join me and everyone here on the ground at Sitone Village as I dive into the diverse complexity of the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park.

To be African is to Move

‘To be African is to move’

I don’t know where I got this quote from. I found it written in a journal entry of mine with no explanation. Perhaps it is linked to the idea of Wanderlust. That feeling we sometimes get of itchy feet; the need to explore; migrate with the seasons.  A feeling we experience that is perhaps left over from our nomadic ancestors. Why do we feel so good hiking in the mountains with our soles in the sand?

me and wizard

Wizard and I, tranquility cracks, Table Mountain National Park – photo: Nahanda Magan


Pick up a handful of sand, rub it through your fingers, feel the grains, smell the earth. Earth. Our home. When you are feeling lost, pick up some sand, sink your toes into mud. There you go – you are home. With this soil, we can build a house. With this soil we can grow food. In this soil, the cycle of life is continued.

The building team
The building team (Photo: Avantika Agarwal)

While I was in Ladakh I learnt about the capacity that humans have for survival amidst a community that manages to share the earth with the earth and is not tempted to take it all for themselves. When we become disconnected from the land I think we forget that we are sharing and that it does not belong to us, no matter how much we paid for it.

I never really thought too much before about the consequences of building a house with fired bricks, concrete and cement. Once the house is abandoned, or an earthquake or a flood destroys the house, debris is left behind: soil that has been transformed into something that is not reuseable for a long time. But if this house is made purely of soil, when it returns to the earth it is immediately reusable. It is once again part of lifes cycle.

The house in construction
The house in construction (Photo: Avantika Agarwal)

I am inspired with the knowledge that we can build houses that can melt back into the earth. More than that, they can be energy efficient and designed to be comfortable without the use of heaters or air conditioners. Then… materials are cheap – you can build with the earth on the land that you are builidng on, and invite your friends to a building party to cover your labour costs. And the best part is that they can be fluid works of art.

Babajee...The guru of soil and earth building
Saurabh…The guru of soil and earth building (Photo: Avantika Agarwal)

I am privileged to have been lifted from my ignorance about building. In July, after two weeks of hard work we almost completed a little house. Made completely from the sand and rocks located around the site, mixed with varying amounts of water. It felt easy and doable and it made me feel happy. So maybe think about building in a different way next time you want to change something in your home or add something to your garden. Check out for more inspiration from Sourabh, who finds lifes lessons in earth and is the earth builder who taught me to build to a house 🙂