Seashell Harvesting

Posted on Jun 12, 2012

Seashell Harvesting

Text & photo by Sofie Olsen

The Moken People have traditionally lived a nomadic life as hunters and gatherers. Today, many of their traditions are rapidly disappearing due to strong influence from the mainland, permanent settlement, and dependency on the financial system. For years, the Moken were denied to fish and gather seafood in the area, due to the national park status. Today, they are allowed to hunt in the near-lying waters, but only for their own consumption. Therefore, many of the people living in a village on the Surin Islands are forced to work in the National Park during the high season to receive a salary, as their only option for economic income.

During my visit to the Surin Islands in April 2012, I went out in a Longtail boat together with many of the women from the village to gather seashells, an ancient tradition. They brought with them small homemade baskets, which some had exchanged for modern plastic buckets, and simple knives as their only necessary tools. We drove for an hour or so before we arrived at a stretch on one of the eastern islands, where they clearly had a good spot for seashells. We arrived when the tide was low, and the shells were above the waterline. All the women stood up simultaneously in the boat and started jumping into the water to swim ashore. I noticed one elderly woman waiting behind. She stood up from her seat only when the others had started swimming; she put her leg on the side of the boat and jumped out into the air in such an elegant maneuver. Compared to the younger girls, who sat on the side of the boat and splashed into the water, the old woman was so energetic, smooth and athletic. Can this tell us something about their cultural change in terms of natural movement in the water, as part of their native environment?

From the moment the women gathered at the beach prior to departure, to the moment they jumped back into the water to walk the last meters back to the village, they were enthusiastically talking, laughing, young and old, together. It seemed as such collectiveness in the act of going out together. While collecting the shells, the elder women were singing old traditional songs, the younger ones listening in silence. The time spent with elders is something we are losing in our culture, where the knowledge and wisdom from life experience are quickly outdated, as our society is moving fast forward.

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