From across the water, a breeze licks my sweating brow, stirs the rags of the patched sail, and rouses the crew from their improbable slumbers. With the grace of acrobats, the crew prepare the boat for the rising wind. The sail ripples, fills and drags the canoe into life.
I am in a fishing village that lies at the midpoint of the Vezo’s migratory stretch — between Tulear and Mahajanga. I am here to meet the tribe of sea gypsies. The Vezo’s, which literally means the people who fish or struggle with the sea. The trade lives in coastal villages of southwest Madagascar. These nomadic fishermen have spent the last few centuries navigating the lonely beaches and desert islands of Madagascar’s west coast in outrigger canoes. The outrigger canoe “lakana” has become the iconic image of the Vezo tribe who take them offshore and sometimes even very far from their villages of origin during the dry season. Lakanas are constructed from a single tree trunk with a mast, sail and outrigger. The sails are often made with sacks of rice and they become tents for a stop.
These coastal dwellers sought subsistence in the seas, following shoals of fish hundreds of miles as they migrated through the relatively calm waters between Madagascar and mainland Africa. Over generations, the practices of these nautical nomads developed into an identity. And their mastery of the Western waves allowed them to carve out a living in fish and trade.