Coastal and island heritage offers a rich resource for the world

Women in colourful traditional dress in Nosy Be, Madagascar. Rosabelle Boswell

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 well-heeled 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 contributions to the stories of humanity, musical history, livelihood practices, culinary traditions and creative genius.

Islands and coastal areas are also valuable from a natural science perspective. They are home to a bewildering diversity of endemic species. Governments and universities that want measurable results have seduced by the allure of digitised natural sciences in a world where technology is “the in thing”. They’ve have been quick to fund and so further position natural sciences 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 displacement of a population.

The islands of the southwest 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 historically cultivated spice and floral plantations, also offer scent-scapes.

This shows how island societies can offer points of departure for the decolonisation of knowledge. Understanding the relevance of all the human senses to identity can help us to create new spaces of learning. We no longer prioritise the visual above other ways of accessing and engaging with knowledge.

Island philosophies, environmental 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 diaspora 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 coastal communities.

Some experiments have been more successful than others. The call and response technique used in Tanzania’s indigenous music is deeply useful. It is also found in the Sega of the Mascarene archipelago and articulates the musical prowess of the islanders. It serves as a powerful reminder that these places are not isolated: a web of historical and global relationships are maintained 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 central 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 history (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 political situation, family circumstance or moral lesson to be learned. In these, there are meaningful references to environmental conservation and social justice or rejections of dominant beliefs and ideas.

Preserving heritage

Social scientists have a key role to play in studying coastal and island communities. They assist us to reach a deeper understanding of the interface 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 perspectives in the ocean sciences and heritage. But these have largely focused on physical artefacts. This may be because social scientists don’t foreground their work enough; or that intangible heritage is difficult to preserve. After all, human memory is transient 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 holistic business of living in a complex and thoroughly diverse world.