(University of Roehampton)
The ‘Festival of the Sea’, Sainte Luce, Madagascar, is an example of cultural translation, of conservation and cultural politics practice relocated from the Caribbean to East Africa. A festival, whether international, national or local, is the ideal capacity builder in the community – a concept that can be applied just as effectively in the countryside as it is in the city (cf. Frost 2016). It is where both tangible and intangible cultural heritage can be realised, developed, and celebrated and agency and ownership of cultural practices established (Ohri 2016). This blog examines an innovation project using the model of the festival event as an opportunity to build capacity, as well as develop critical policy and UN SDGs, and highlight urgent sustainability issues in a region targeted for social development. Specifically, with AHRC/Global Challenges Research Fund funding (2018-2020) we established a Festival of the Sea to “reharbour heritage” and highlight sustainable development goals in one of Madagascar’s poorest conservation zones. The Festival took place in lobster fishing community Sainte Luce, June 2019, and used the participatory arts to research, test, challenge and apply marine cultural heritage as an intangible resource and vehicle for developing sustainable livelihoods with vulnerable Antanosy coastal people in the south east Anosy region of Madagascar.
This was a collaboration between the University of Roehampton and local NGO SEED Madagascar, and a team endeavour involving local community workers, a governance group, and dedicated festival co-ordinator at SEED Madagascar developing planning from the end of 2018 to June 2019. The inspiration for this project came from work in the Caribbean (Skinner 2001, 2015) on the islands of Montserrat and Anguilla where carnival festivals are themed and celebrate the community and tackle important local themes such as sustainability and conservation practice such as sea turtle conservation around Anguilla. ‘Festivals of the sea’ are used on the island of Anguilla to engage promote sea turtle conservation and to assist local fishermen in their work with tourists. This innovation project has been to translate and travel this festival model from the Caribbean to Madagascar, specifically to the Sainte Luce conservation reserve in southern Madagascar where SEED Madagascar have a history of long term community and conservation development work. Theoretically, this is an illustration of transculturation: of cultural practices in one destination being applied in another, of ‘culture on tour’ to invoke anthropologist of tourism Ed Bruner (2004). Though the concept travelled, the nature of the specific Sainte Luce festival was co-produced. Social anthropologist Nicola Frost (2016: 573) makes the point that without such local involvement the festival becomes devoid of social meaning.
Though a rich biodiverse environment with key marine, mining and rainforest resources, the approximately 300,000 Antanosy people in this Anosy region live in extreme poverty: literacy is under 20%; income from fishing is approximately $1.50/day; only 1 in 10 residents have access to sanitation; hunger is a regional problem; malaria is rife; 80% of coastal community households – such as those in Sainte Luce – rely on fishing for their primary income, managing a dwindling lobster stock. This region – for all its beauty – has become the epicentre of escalating tensions between traditional and modern fishing practices. Sainte Luce has strong community governance, a fishermen’s community group and local agreed regulations of animal husbandry (dina) – principally lobster fishing in restricted ancestral places, only during open season and not with the use of harpoons or snorkels. One of the consequences of the festival here has been to showcase this village practice to neighbouring communities so that they buy into it.
This project draws attention to the ‘habits of heritage’, to heritage as intangible as well as tangible, to the idea of heritage as a human capacity – as a resourcefulness and means of resilience during difficult times. It is heritage embodied as skills, with the people having living ‘social capital’ (Arcodia and Whitford 2006) that they can harness to weather hardships from food supply to education to earning an income based upon their fishing skills, their ability to weave and braid, to sing and dance, “to make” stitch and song of adversity – quite literally. The suggestion is that carnival and festival is the unique mechanism by which to draw attention to these community strengths, to the marine cultural heritage of these Anosy people. Through focussing on the reharbouring of heritage we were able to share and disseminate best ‘traditional’ lobster fisheries management practices.
These are the three core objectives for the project.
- establish an international partnership of artists between the UK and Madagascar working creatively together on a living MCH with Antanosy coastal fishing communities to fulfil UN social development goals
- creatively engaged in the community on the subject of community resilience, and MCH as a resource for sustainable livelihood
- research, test and disseminate best practice of innovative practice-based arts research methods
We spent 4 months preparing the teams, risk and ethics. Dr Skinner visited in April for a week to negotiate access into the community with local chiefs, hold auditions for the bands (Skinner 2019), a link with SEED and a team of Community Liaison Officers. We returned in June 2019 to work as a team of festival organisers and artists: Bronagh Corr-McNicholl (Arts Care artist), Paul Antick (photographer and film maker), Jonathan Skinner (project and Roehampton coordinator and dance instructor) and Tom Gammage (SEED Madagascar festival coordinator).
We held a free two-day festival in Sainte Luce lobster fishing community and put on events that had been co-decided with the community. We filmed the lobster fishermen at work and played footage at night alongside band performances on the stage. We held dance classes and art classes with the school children. We held tie-dying workshops with the local women’s group. We filmed and documented the festival bands as they performed, and we swapped dance moves with the local dancers. We held speed weaving competitions with mahampny reeds that are used to make hats, baskets, mats as well as lobster pots. During the two days, community events used the stage for community education in environmental awareness, best fishing practice, and a puppet show on boat safety that then went onto domestic violence, HIV and sexual health issues. At night 53 local and regional dancers and musicians performed traditional songs and dances and specially commissioned material encouraging conservation and sustainable practice in the marine environment. They played for hours to an audience of over 2000 spectators.
The highlight of the festival was a parade through the villages to the sea on the second day. The bands, women’s groups and children danced their way down to the sea and the Festival of the Sea stage. The Festival area we built by the sea held weaving competitions, bands, public fishermen community meetings, tales and stories from elderly fishermen. This oral tradition is strong in Madagascar (Bloch 1989, Astuti 1995) and illustrates how the festival was internal, inward-looking for the community and not for exogenous visitors. It was not a commoditisation of culture and, though taking place on a stage, did not constitute what MacCannell (1989) considers to be a variant of ‘staged authenticity’.
We were fortunate to have Bronagh liaise with the local Project STITCH embroidery group before visiting for the Festival. She was able to gauge needs and abilities and put on a series of tie-dye workshops with the women making lamba wraps to wear in keeping with local tradition; and wildlife paintings with the children and lots of paper windsocks for the procession down to the beach. Predictably the local wildlife predominated in the images – lobsters but also dolphins, fish and octopus. The children also had a best lobster painting competition.
In conclusion, the Festival of the Sea was an outstanding success. The local community became festival stakeholders (cf. Crespi-Vallbona and Greg Richards 2007), established ownership of the event and expressed a desire to develop the conservation zone adding new villages to the regional partnership on marine resource management. Small businesses benefited from the festival, and entrepreneurs sold their weaving and wares. Local awareness of the work of the agreed laws and customs – the dina – was consolidated and spread through all sectors of the community form the very young to the very old. The singers, dancers and musicians gained regional exposure performing on a stage to an audience of several thousand. For some of the local bands, this was their first large scale performance. Each group tried out their new Festival of the Sea material (a sample of these can be heard here with translations of the lyrics). Some of the bands subsequently recorded their songs in a recording studio in Sainte Luce to create a compilation CD from the Festival. This was the first time some of the groups had had their material recorded and is giving them key music industry experience, and the opportunity to market and promote their bands regionally – to tourists and local tourist industry organisations (hotels, restaurants, clubs). This exposure adds an important income stream to the musicians’ small scale entrepreneurship. The community have recently been ravaged by the affects and implications of COVID-19 with illness and family suffering but also a loss of lobster trade and restricted travel to regional markets. This festival currently plays a small part in the community resilience to this on-going adversity.
Credit to Daniel Wood for the Festival of the Sea film which we have used for stills. The film can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ni06OL76SVs&t=16s.
Arcordia, C. and M. Whitford (2006) ‘Festival Attendance and the Development of Social Capital’, Journal of Convention & Event Tourism 8(2): 1-18.
Astuti, R. (1995) People of the Sea: Identity and Descent among the Vezo of Madagascar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bloch, M. (1989) Ritual, history, and power: Selected papers in anthropology. London: Athlone.
Bruner, E. (2004) Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Crespi‐Vallbona, M. and G. Richards (2007) ‘The Meaning of Cultural Festivals’, International Journal of Cultural Policy 13(1): 103-122.
Frost, N. (2016) ‘Anthropology and Festivals: Festival Ecologies’, Ethnos 81(4): 569-583.
Ohri, L. (2016) ‘Political Yields from Cultural Fields: Agency and Ownership in a Heritage Festival in India’, Ethnos 81(4): 667-682.
Skinner, J. (2019) ‘“Scoping” Maritime Cultural Heritage: A visit to SEED Madagascar and Sainte Luce to prepare for June’s Festival of the Sea’, AHRC Rising from the Depths Webpages, 25 July 2019, https://risingfromthedepths.com/blog/innovation-projects/scoping-maritime-cultural-heritage-a-visit-to-seed-madagascar-and-sainte-luce-to-prepare-for-junes-festival-of-the-sea/.
Skinner, J. (2015) ‘The Ambivalent Consumption of St. Patrick’s Day amongst the Black Irish of Montserrat’ in J. Skinner and D. Bryan (eds) Consuming St. Patrick’s Day. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp.186-208.
Skinner, J. (2001) ‘Licence revoked: when calypso goes too far’ in, B. Watson and J. Hendry (eds) An Anthropology of Indirect Communication. London: Routledge, pp.181-200.