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 🙂


Secmol friends :)
                                            Secmol friends 🙂 Tea in the morning

Leaving. It has been very difficult to leave Ladakh. When I arrived in Ladakh, I cried for the beauty of the endless snow capped mountains. As a left Ladakh, I cried for the heart broken feeling of leaving a place which made me feel so happy, peaceful and cared for. For the beauty of the hearts of an entire community. A place which has taught me so much about being human and about the potential that we have to live as good people.

Om mane padme hum
                                            Om mane padme hum

Who would have thought that a one hour flight is equivalent to three days of travel by land. As the sun set, we drove away – me crammed into a jeep with 8 other people set off on a 24 hour straight drive west to Shrinigar and then Jammu. As we drove I saw the effects of the rains and reason the road had been closed for the previous few days. The rain had washed away parts of it and rocks had fallen. But the weather was good today. No rain. I was awoken several times in the night to prove my identity to the army checkposts as we drove further towards the disputed area of Kashmir. I was also awoken several times by the bumpy road and the windy mountain passes. It was an intense drive. By morning we had crossed over into green. The mountains were blanketed in mist and covered in trees. I breathed in the humid air and smelled the moisture. We had moved into a new world. A world of shades of green in the place of the shades of brown. Armed soldiers banked the roads. We had also moved into an area where the army has more say. I’m not sure if it is because of the proximity to Pakistan or because of terrorism or maybe a combination of the two. Jammu and Kashmir have to deal with the border issues here more heavily than Ladakh does. But this feels like a different story, for perhaps another journey.

As we continued driving further south into the plains, the population seemed to boom. Suddenly there were people everywhere. A long, hot and painful drive on the mountain roads down to Jammu followed for the rest of the day. We transitioned to dense population, heat, humidity and noise on a background of tall green mountains, decorated with waterfalls. I struggled to breath in the dense air after the thin air of high altitude Ladakh. Finally we reached Jammu from where I had to figure out how to get to Delhi, some 600km away. A working elephant walked past. I was drenched with sweat. I eventually found my way onto a crowded overnight train to Delhi (but with AC). It was all too much for me. The peace and safety of Ladakh which I had gotten to know so well, where I could happily communicate in ladakhi and where I knew that people were trustworthy was left behind and replaced by a semi-scary new world of the rest of India, who speak another thousand different languages and have perhaps an equal amount of different cultural practices. Wow, India is diverse and complicated. There is a lot to learn from here. I feel like I have discovered a fascinating country which I had not thought much of before. I miss the simplicity of Ladakh. I hope to carry the peace and wisdom I learnt there with me as I head home 🙂

Jing las mangpo yot, hala? (there is lots of work in the fields, isn’t it?)

The people of Ladakh have something in the water. Something that makes them happy. Happier than most people you might meet. So happy that they sing and laugh more than what is normal in the communities we might know, especially when they are doing really hard work in the fields.

giving mustard seed flowers to the calves in Kharu

Abi in Miru

The short summer seasons means that lots of work needs to be done in a short space of time to ready the fields and plant crops that will be harvested around august/september before the winter frost once again returns. First manure that is collected from the toilets and farm animals is spread on the fields as fertiliser, then water is given and then the long process of ploughing is begun. I joined Miru, Gya village during the ploughing season. We woke early and to the sounds of the men singing to the horses as they ploughed, our job as women was to pull out all the grass that was uprooted by the plough. All day until nightfall. The other job during this time was digging work – digging out patterns of canals from the mountain stream that would guide water into the fields once the seeds were sown, for the rest of summer.

ploughing in Miru

A few weeks later I spent time in Sumoor village in Nubra Valley, also called ldumra or place of flowers. Here, I joined Niki and her mother weeding potato and wheat fields. The hours were long and the work very tiring. But breaks of tea and chatter make the work fun. By the time I joined another friend, Stanzin in her village – Kharu, I was an expert weeder. And the weeding work continued, working steadily block by block of field. These summer months are spent weeding and giving water to the fields – caring for them without falter and with happy enthusiasm. As Ache niki says, working in the field is good for you. You get tired, but its a happy tired. It is good for your mind.


The people of ladakh rely heavily on farming as a main source of food. Ladakh is difficult to reach. For many years it was closed to outsiders. Now it is open to thousands of tourists every year and trucks bring in food from the plains of India. But there is another factor playing a role more and more visibly. This is the changing climate. It now rains in ladakh. When it rains, the rivers flow fast. Experiencing heavy rain has never made me feel so scared. Not because it was heavy, but because I knew that this rain is not normal, and the effects of the rain up high in the himalayas are quickly experienced, washing out fields that people have worked hard on, flooding houses and causing landslides. The future of himalayan communities is in a very precarious phase, responding quickly to small changes in the climate – after so many years of studying climate change, it has suddenly really become real to me.

Walking in the Mountains

The graceful snow leopard

A few weeks ago I decided to walk into the mountains. From SECMOL campus, a swim across the Indus River gets you into the Hemis National Park and a famous trekking route. The park covers a section of the Ladakh mountain range.

The region is scattered with villages and animals, the main animal being the Blue Sheep – an agile mountaineer. The open space, emptiness and largeness of the surroundings was awe inspiring but peaceful. It is very good for the heart and soul, and mind, to walk for days on end.

Blue sheep, incredible mountaineers..

Despite its altitude and being in the Himalaya, the Ladakh region itself, is a mountain desert. The vast mountain range of the Himalayas to the east in Tibet blocks the rain clouds from visiting this special land. The mountains would not grace any life except for the fact that they are high and so glaciers on the peaks slowly  melt  and water which trickles down into the valleys below, providing enough for those who will use it. People that live here have developed an ingenious irrigation method by channelling this glacier water into their fields – creating a stark contrast between the brown of the desert mountains and the lush green of the fields and trees that are so lovingly cared for. But this environment does not support a large population, of any life form. 

Sunset at a place called Nimaling

On my third day of walking we reached a village called Markha. This village is only accessible by foot. During the winter – when the mountain passes are blocked by snow the villages in this region become completely isolated.

As the sun was setting and the villagers were finishing off their ploughing, I heard a noise. For a moment I thought the dzos (yak cross bull) which they use for ploughing were fighting with each other, but then I realised a snow leopard was in the village. All the villagers ran out to see. Snow leopards are rare but a rather large population of them live in Lakakh (about 10% of the total population). These animals are elusive and incredibly well adapted to the desert mountains of Ladakh. This particular cat was beautiful and scared. An old leopard in trouble with the villagers for eating their goats. 

Cairns along the snowy mountain path
Cairns along the snowy mountain path

Here, in this harsh environment, respect for every life that manages to live is given. And this is epitomised by the teachings of Buddhism where not even a little bug should be harmed. 


In Search for Greener Pastures

In search for greener pastures
In search for greener pastures

Within the bosom of the red tinted mountains in the high eastern part of Ladakh, there is a village of about thirty houses. Here, the climate is colder and harsher than that of the western part – which is at a lower altitude. At these high altitudes there is not enough greenery to sustain the villager’s livestock throughout the year. In search of sufficient foliage for the goats, two noble men live with the entire village’s goats, of up to three hundred goats, high in the mountain valleys where there is more shrubbery for the goats to graze on. A few times a year, the village women trek up into the mountains to provide provisions for the men and help move the goats to new grazing grounds. I went along with one such expedition.

Miru women taking provisions for the shepherds
Miru women taking provisions for the shepherds

As the sun was making its way over the mountains of Miru village, we were readying the donkeys and preparing to leave. Just as we were about to depart, a few baby goats were brought and tied onto the back of a donkey as they cried for their mothers. Off we went, donkeys, horses and goats. We hiked up, and deeper into the mountain desert valley for some two hours, or so, reaching the current grazing ground where the shepherds were with their precious herd of the goats. There were so many goats. After a short tea break, everyone helped taking down the camp and repacking the horses, ponies and more baby goats for the move to higher grounds. I stood around a little aimlessly, doing menial jobs that the women could give me to do without need to do much explaining in Ladakhi. All the while, they chattered away, jolly and laughing busily with various jobs. I realized later they were teasing my friend Gyasto and I about being married and thought I was grumpy about it because I didn’t react – actually I didn’t understand any of the Ladakhi language at the time.

Once the horses were ready, I was sent off to guide one of them along the edge of the mountain cliff. We set off at a fast pace. As the gradient increased my body complained. For a seafarer, I was certainly not fit for the high altitudes of the Himalayas. I struggled my way up, falling behind a little. I was glad to reach the new destination…I’m not sure how long it took us. I was then given the job of running back down in search for a stray horse. Merely managing to understand the instruction made me happy, but the thought of another ascent did make me a little sad. We made our way back slowly.

Donkeys packed and heading to higher grounds
Donkeys packed and heading to higher grounds

Once we reached higher grazing grounds, one of the village women went even further up and up into the mountains with the goats, happy to explore their new home. The rest of us stayed behind, rebuilding the stone walls around the goat pen, and then picking at the ground with hoes collecting all the last year’s goat manure. The valuable manure was bagged to take back to the village as fertilizer. We spent the rest of the day doing this back-breaking work, but no one seemed to tire, or even stop for more than ten minutes. I got a few breaks every time I was sent off to find the stray donkeys, or to collect water, or make tea on the fire. As evening fell, so the snow also began to fall. Within minutes the mountains had turned from browns to white. We were all covered in snow, and cold to the bone. The horses were loaded with the bags of goat manure, and I was thankfully sent with the first group back down the mountain. It was a long and arduous walk, and at times running, in freezing conditions. We reached the village by dark, completed soaked and exhausted, I couldn’t feel my hands any more. I went to sleep in deep awe and admiration of the people around me.

Lynx lynx isabellina