Tovoke: “working the sea”

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Tovoke: “working the sea”

Tovoke is a 44-year-old man living in Tanandava, in Androy, southern Madagascar. He is a father of four children but poverty has prevented him from officially marrying the mother of his children, who currently live with their grandparents. "The years have been hard and I don't have the possessions [to meet traditional marriage customs]." He describes his life as having been "from childhood, only the sea and the spade". Both sources of livelihood are extremely precarious.

Tovoke has attempted to grow various crops but drought has become a key constraint. "…The land will not yield as there is no rain," he says. He is further disadvantaged by owning no land of his own. "I am truly rarake (extremely poor)," he says."First of all I have no field, secondly I have no family and no father, and I have no mother."

"Working the sea" – fishing, diving for lobster, and collecting shells to sell to tourists – has been Tovoke's main occupation for more than 20 years, but this too is fraught with problems. Fish stocks have become depleted. "When I first started fishing in the sea," Tovoke says, "certainly it did produce a better harvest... [now it's] an intense search to find anything, and we're lucky to find fish for us to eat today." He believes overfishing is to blame, more people having turned to fishing as a result of declining agricultural production. And while the reduced catch from the sea pushes up the market price of fish and lobsters, as demand outstrips supply, this benefits the middlemen rather than the fishermen themselves.

He talks about the dangers to fishermen of extreme weather conditions. "We fishermen don't really know when a cyclone is coming…" he explains. "That is what killed many people last year…that cyclone, in the area west of here, because they did not own a radio.

Recently, the community's situation has become even more critical because a ship ran aground off their shore and the ensuing pollution of the sea has led to a ban on fishing.

Like many other men in the community, Tovoke has had to resort to migrating to other locations in search of employment. But being away from home and community brings its own hardship and suffering. "If one gets into trouble there is no one to save you in that land of no family," he says. He spent one year as a rickshaw-puller, saving just enough "to purchase that net... that mask…and…the fare home."

Tovoke describes the difficulties people have in accessing health services. The poor rely on loans from other community members to pay for treatment. Tovoke himself tries to avoid going to health centres and sees borrowing money as a last resort. "If I'm sick… I seek [medicinal plants to] boil and drink against that disease," he explains. "If the disease is severe, and I'm able, I'll go and borrow, and when I'm healed I'll go to find work, a daily job, to pay off my debt".

Despite all the challenges he faces, Tovoke is determined that his children should continue with their schooling so that when they grow up "[they] will not be lost because they can read…and use…[that skill] to support themselves". In this case, "they will also support their parents through their education", he adds.