Globally, more than a billion human beings live in coastal and island communities. These exotic, exquisite locations are lucrative: they attract real estate developers and wellheeled buyers looking for their slice of seaside “paradise”. But beyond the sandy beaches and glitzy resorts there is a rich cultural heritage that benefits both
its custodians and global society. Islanders and coastal inhabitants produce a wealth of philosophies and cultural practices. They have made and continue to make huge contri- butions to the stories of humanity, musical history, livelihood practic- es, culinary traditions and creative genius.
Islands and coastal areas are also valuable from a natural sci- ence perspective. They are home to a bewildering diversity of endemic species. Governments and univer- sities that want measurable results have seduced by the allure of digi- tised natural sciences in a world where technology is “the in thing”.
They’ve have been quick to fund and so further position natural sci- ences as the dominant player in ocean sciences.
The social sciences, humanities and art are differently positioned in this disciplinary hierarchy.They have different but equally meaningful contributions to make to the ocean sciences. This includes, for example, a better understanding of historical connections via ocean “highways”, knowledge of the human impact of intemperate weather and insight into social justice matters in the displace- ment of a population.
The islands of the south- west Indian Ocean – Mauritius, Madagascar, Reunion, Rodrigues, Seychelles and Zanzibar – and the coastal towns and cities of east Africa offer excellent examples of valuable coastal and island heritages.
Island and coastal cultures
Take the Arab inspired Ravanne. This instrument is used by both the Segatier (sega musicians) in Mauritius and Reunion and in Zanzibar’s Taarab. These musicians provide what social scientists call a soundscape of knowledge that speaks back to our largely visually oriented world.
The islands of the southwest Indian Ocean, which have historical- ly cultivated spice and floral plan- tations, also offer scent-scapes. This shows how island societies can offer points of departure for the decoloni- sation of knowledge. Understanding the relevance of all the human senses to identity can help us to create new spaces of learning. We no lon- ger prioritise the visual above other ways of accessing and engaging with knowledge.
Island philosophies, environmen- tal ethos and integrated knowledge systems can be used to decolonise university courses and teaching. They can also advance sustainable development models and, ultimately, achieve responsible tourism.
Innovation and experimentation
Resilience and cosmopolitanism openness to diversity – are other attributes of coastal cultures. Not only have the African diaspo- ra in the Indian Ocean and along the East African coast experienced slavery and colonisation; they have also experienced multiple waves of human contact. These encounters have encouraged tolerance as well as innovation and experimentation.
Although many of these features exist in other societies, they haven’t been given as much attention as they should have in island and coast- al communities. Some experiments have been more successful than oth- ers. The call and response technique used in Tanzania’s indigenous music is deeply useful. It is also found in the Sega of the Mascarene archipela- go and articulates the musical prow- ess of the islanders. It serves as a powerful reminder that these places are not isolated: a web of historical and global relationships are main- tained to this day, advancing social cohesion and creative diversity.
There is also a long tradition of storytelling, orality and linguistic sophistication in island societies. In Madagascar, especially in the cen- tral highlands, speech making and verbal play remains highly prized. These long speeches, known as kabary, are also performed in the call and response style. They honour the audience, recount family histo- ry (and ancestry) and reconstitute community.
In Seychelles one finds paroles; sayings embedded in riddle or cast in a tale. From such sayings and tales, knowledge is passed from one generation to the next, altered here and there to reflect the current polit- ical situation, family circumstance or moral lesson to be learned. In these, there are meaningful referenc- es to environmental conservation and social justice or rejections of dominant beliefs and ideas.
Social scientists have a key role to play in studying coastal and island communities.They assist us to reach a deeper understanding of the inter- face between human beings and nature. The data available about these communities is increasing. And social scientists are involved in the debate around the management of culture in these societies.
Recently there have been efforts to include social science perspec- tives in the ocean sciences and heri- tage. But these have largely focused on physical artefacts. This may be because social scientists don’t fore- ground their work enough; or that intangible heritage is difficult to preserve.
After all, human memory is tran- sient and selective, culture dynamic and communities ever-changing.
The social studies of islands (and coasts) have already produced some knowledge that can be used to solve the world’s most pressing problems.
But the world needs more than this. It needs knowledge that enriches and broadens perspective. Knowledge that addresses the holis- tic business of living in a complex and thoroughly diverse world.
The writer is a Researcher/Lecturer at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University