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Becoming Veso

We set off at 5 am the next morning, pilling our kit into a fiberglass hulled boat. Maintirano’s port (and lifeblood) is tidal and we are soon stuck in the mangrove. We slowly push the boat beside the still lipped mangrove trees.

The tide finally cooperates, we jump back in, Captain Malimbi starts the engine and steers expertly through the red-brown surf in the rivermouth, pointing a perfect line west towards Nosy Marify. Within one hour we leave the bloody waters of the coastline. There is now an inky blueness to the ocean, and – all surfers know the feeling – a ‘sharkiness’. Fish dart and dive, chased by something bigger.

Wild west Madagascar and the Barren Islands

The free-flowing didn’t last long and before long our boat is entrenched in the mangrove

It takes three hours to get to Nosy Andrano, where we will stay. Most of the Veso live on neighbouring Nosy Lava. About forty people live on Andrano, perhaps just four or five families in about eight thatched huts.

It is low lying and barely 500 metres wide. The shore is lined with pirogues and lakanas, the water now a clear green, inviting, the sand powdery. We greet a few families. They are frizzy haired, barefoot, with open friendly faces, and white teeth from a low sugar diet. They appear immediately comfortable around vazaha (foreigners).

Hery explains that when entering a community it is custom to present to the president of the fokontany

Sound-man Hery explains that when entering a community it is custom to present to the president of the fokontany, the local committee, in this case Chief Jean-Baptiste. He emerges from his thatched hut just as we approach and leads us across the shoreline, behind six family huts and their wooden racks to dry fish, to a slender grey-green casuarina tree. We clear the spiky cones and needles and carefully pitch our tents.

The Veso are not defined as an ethnic group, but the term means rather a way of life. Yet the culture is rich. Many Veso believe that they descend from mermaids. They are convinced of the existence of many spirits and marine gods that can sink or save a pirogue caught in a storm. However, anyone can become Veso, which simply means ‘the one who paddles’ – or ‘the paddler’.

“We are happy to see you,” concludes Chief Jean-Baptiste. “We are both nomads of the sea – nomad de la mer. We have never seen surfers here.”

We set to work inspecting various reef passes that bend the swell into snappy rights and lefts. There are wide deepwater channels and gorgeous coral heads poking through. We settle for a right, skipping across head high sets until sunset.

Wild west Madagascar and the Barren Islands

We talk and laugh nervously between sets. Outback, every change in sea colour seems to reveal the fin of a shark, but it is just colour – blues, blue-blacks, inky, turning to green lips on the reef at takeoff. Knowing that Madagascar has one of the highest densities of sharks in the world, you cannot get sharks out of your mind.

The best wave is a shallow arcing right on Nosy Abohazo where the reef affords a clear run and turtles rule, popping up right next to you. Emi pops up on the set of the session, riding his Mini-Simmons with trademark style: silky, smooth-flowing, hips loose, the wide-tail seeming to defy physics by maneuvering in the tightest of pockets with radical angles. Erwan is catlike, agile, slicing across the sucky sections. The early noseride platform becomes my alter for the session, where I play my own musique evangilique, a saltwater anthem that no one else can hear.

Wild west Madagascar and the Barren Islands

I cannot contrast the welcoming Veso more with the apparently unwelcoming Dahalo. The Veso are modest and clever, valuing perseverance, integrity and friendship.

The kids don’t go to school, but learn through doing, through teamwork, through entire families pulling together, everyone chipping in, doing what they can. But there is little mystery to their trademark pedagogy: learning through doing.

The kids sail toy pirogues. They make them entirely by hand only using wood and string, modelled exactly on the life-sized boats that have no metal fastenings. They care for their toy boats like pet animals, and sail them in the shorebreak also learning how to swim as they dive and chase after them. Again, learning by immersion.

We maximize every ounce of two small Antarctic swells in teasing cross-offshore winds

We maximize every ounce of two small Antarctic swells in teasing cross-offshore winds. Callahan, who has a penchant for bringing the understated moment to life through powerful photo’s, shoots off his ammunition, expertly balanced in the boat in the channel, Captain Malimbi savvy to the needs of the crew. The camera seems to click in harmony with the light changes that dance in perfect geometry through these empty wavescapes.

On our final day we say a reluctant veloma – goodbye – to the Veso community.

Hery explains that when entering a community it is custom to present to the president of the fokontany

“You can find everything in Madagascar,” says sound-man Hery in celebration of the trip. It’s true. This is a spiritually rich, puzzling, enormous island where cattle thieves are hunted down and shot; where tribes have killed foreigners believed to be ‘heart-takers’; where you can eat the finest Malagasy cuisine in ghostly Antananarivo; where you can dodge the Dahalo bandits on the road to Maintirano and surf deserted waves in the Barren Islands (if you make it), foam whipped off the backs by strong winds to make honeyed ice-cream.

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