He lives in the remote village of Andavadoaka in southwest Madagascar, and his family are Vezo, the traditional fishers of the area, distinguished by their intimate knowledge of, and reliance on, the sea.
He usually leaves for his fishing ground as the the sun is coming up, and is out on the water until it goes down, or until the next afternoon if there’s no wind to blow him home.
Thankfully for me, today was planned to be a shorter trip. “Your skin is not good for being on a boat all day” Avy explained, and it was already looking like a scorcher.
There was no wind, so it took a couple of hours of hard paddling under an increasingly hot sun to reach our destination, but Avy never seemed to tire.
“I was 12 years old when I started fishing” he told me as his paddle beat a steady rhythm against the side of the pirogue.
“My father would migrate north for months to fish in the Barren Isles, so I started fishing to support my four younger siblings. I tried to keep going to school, but by the time I was 15 my mother couldn’t feed the family unless I went fishing every day.”
Once we reached the reef flats, Avy gleefully dived into the water to cool off, and Onely (Avy’s uncle) put on his mask and snorkel and swam off in search of octopus. Climbing back aboard, Avy, and Onely’s son Kolenke, began fishing for squid by casting and reeling in shrimp-shaped lures.
This is how their fishing always begins. If they catch four or five kilos of squid in a couple of hours then they head back and sell it, if they catch less than that they use it as bait to catch fish in deeper water.
Before too long, Onely signals to the boat that he’s found something. By the time we get there he’s already attempted to remove the octopus from its hole in the rock but to no avail. Onely gets back in the boat as Avy puts on his mask and snorkel.
Time for the master to have a go.
“It’s not usually that difficult” he tells me as we climb back into the boat with his prize. “The hole was really narrow, so squeezing the octopus out was a struggle!”
Now that the bait was caught, Avy began to paddle out to deeper waters, passing by several other pirogues full of fishers.
“There are a lot more people these days” he says, gesturing at the pirogues, “the fishers we see out here fishing now, they were little kids a few years ago, but now they’re not little anymore so they go out fishing. There hasn’t been enough rain for farming, and there’s no other work to do.”
“We know where there are fish” he continues as we leave the other pirogues behind, “and we have buoys there to mark where we’ve left our longlines.”
I ask him whether he’s afraid that someone else could have taken fish from his longlines.
“Other people know they’re there” he replied, “but we’re Vezo. If you were caught taking fish from another’s line it would be very embarrassing for you!”
There is nothing on either of the two longlines when we reach them, and Avy is disappointed.
“We often catch ambitry [emperor], lagnora [trevally], lovo [grouper], vahoho [bream], and akio [sharks] on these” he tells me sadly.
The three fishers get out their hand lines and start cutting up squid.
“There’s always variation in how much we catch” Avy continues as he casts his line, “Last year was a bad year. We usually try and catch larger fish in deep water, but last dry season we had to fish in shallower water for smaller fish.”
“Since the rainy season things have been getting a bit better. The fish are laying their eggs, so they don’t hesitate to take the bait. My family can catch fish even when things are bad, because we know where the fish go during the different seasons. Only my family has this knowledge in the village.”
All three handlines had now been cast, and the waiting began. The fishers relaxed against the mast, as the waves lapped ceaselessly against the pirogue, gently rocking it from side to side.
All of a sudden Avy straightened and began reeling in his line before sighing deeply and leaning back against the mast again.
“It really makes me sad when I have a fish on the line but it gets away” he said, “all of a sudden it’s gone, and it’s pretty discouraging, but you just have to get right back to it with the thought that you’ll have another chance soon.”
Sure enough, Avy got his next chance almost immediately, and this one ended in success.
Hours later the wind started to really pick up, causing waves to splash into the boat, and the fishers decided that now was the time to head back.
Onely attached the octopus and one of the fish they’d caught to the longlines, and we watched as they slowly sunk into the blue.
Hopefully they’ll find something on the lines when they return.
“When there’s no wind like this morning, you wish you could be sailing instead of paddling” Avy said as he put up the sail, “when there’s a good wind, sailing is like playing in a way.”
I soon saw what he meant. Our pirogue practically flew across the water, with Avy whooping and grinning at the tiller and Kolenke skillfully balancing on the outrigger.
The journey back took a fraction of the time it had taken on the way out, and it wasn’t long before Andavadoaka appeared on the horizon.
I met Avy again the next day to talk some more over coffee and fish samosas.
“My dream is to have a little shop one day where I can sell things like rice for a profit” he told me, “but at this point I can’t see how this can happen. I can’t make enough money in this livelihood for my wife and I to save. I can sell my catch for 2200 ariary [about 52 pence] per kilo, but I need to pay for my younger sister’s education and all of her food, and then I have the rest of my family. There are too many things that require money.”
“I still have hope though, because I know that you can’t start off thinking you can do everything, you have to start slowly and build things up.
I love fishing because it is what I know, but I think I would stop going out fishing if there was another livelihood that could better support me and my family.”