Sainte Luce in South East Madagascar, with its backdrop of rainforest–covered mountains and edged by sweeping golden beaches, is a beautiful and enchanting place.
It’s also a hard place to make a living, with most households reliant on fishing – an increasingly risky profession in dangerous ocean waters.
For one small community made up of three villages, positive change and new opportunities came about with the Stitch Sainte Luce project, set up in 2012 and managed by SEED Madagascar. The local women who take part are taught craft skills, such as sewing and embroidery, as well as English and business skills in maths and sales.
In the rural region of Anosy where Sainte Luce is situated, women are prevented from accessing paid work as a result of domestic responsibilities, cultural expectations, and a lack of earning opportunities.
Diversifying Earning Opportunities
In rural fishing communities such as Sainte Luce, employment is largely focused on the male-dominated fishing industry. Families are therefore often reliant on the sole income of a husband or father, leaving unmarried and widowed women particularly vulnerable.
As a result, women in Madagascar often suffer the most from the effects of extreme poverty. As fishing opportunities are becoming less reliable and increasingly dangerous, there is an obvious need to diversify earning opportunities.
Esterline Vola, who worked her way up to become the cooperative’s president in charge of operations, said that being a part of the project has led to great changes in her life. She is a skilled embroiderer and through her work tells stories from her life and the island on which she lives.
Despite the hardships she has faced, her work portrays the positivity she finds around her and takes inspiration from the vibrant people and wildlife of Madagascar, such as lemurs bounding through treetops or the unique culture, which is influenced by both the African and Asian continents.
Esterline specialises in storyboard wall-hangings which are intricately hand-stitched panels that translate traditional myths and legends into vibrant visual portrayals of local legends.
“The money I make from selling my embroidery with Stitch has not only helped afford school and hospital fees, but small luxuries like new clothes for church and celebrations,” she said.
Another embroiderer, Antastasy Kazy, echoes the sentiment. “Since I have been doing the embroidery training, my mind has been opened. Before, I had to borrow money to buy food. Now I have found another way. My life is getting easier and better already!”
But Stitch Sainte Luce has brought much more than an income to the women involved. Project assistant Paula Amour explains that the women are encouraged to develop their own style, rather than being pushed towards Western designs.
“This helps to build their self-confidence and allow them to progress as artists. Many of the women are exceptionally creative and through collaborative pieces, where several women work on the same article, the cooperative produces highly detailed and delicate pieces of artwork. Customers – from interior designers, schools, and African collectors, to fellow embroiderers and artists – love these pieces.”
The result is that women like Esterline not only create one–of–a–kind artworks, they have built a closer women’s community, have closed the gender income gap within their households, and have established lifelong skills that ensure financial stability.
“The studio is a place where we can be together as friends. We work together, we talk together, and we laugh together. We need that in our lives,” Esterline says.
Humble Beginnings and Mega Milestones
Stitch Sainte Luce has grown quite a bit since its humble beginnings and now has over 100 members.
When they started out, women produced small embroidered items for sale to charity volunteers who passed through the village.
The project has since slowly developed its own small brand, and now sells fashion accessories and home décor products internationally via Etsy. Customers can even commission a unique piece on their website.
In October 2019 the project marked a milestone moment when the cooperative became independent, run totally by the local women who have been learning and progressing over the years.
It is a business that is now wholly owned by the local community of Sainte Luce and not only boosts the local economy, it also showcases the Madagascan talents and creativity to the world.
Fort Dauphin is located in the far southeast of Madagascar, and you can get there with a two-hour flight from the capital, Antananarivo. The southeast of Madagascar is all beautiful landscapes and is home to much of Madagascar’s unique wildlife and plants.
There are plenty of things to do and see within reach of Fort Dauphin. At Andohahela National Park, around two hours south, you can visit the magical transitional and spiny forest.
A bit further along, you will find Berenty Reserve, where you can see incredible ring-tailed lemurs alongside a whole host of other wildlife.
Whilst travelling around you will get a real feel for the welcoming and kind culture of the Malagasy people and meet many local people who are happy to share their experiences and traditions.
Sainte Luce is 40 km north of Fort Dauphin and is accessible via 4×4 or local taxi brousse. It’s close enough for a one-night trip.
Once there, schedule in some time for a forest walk to see three different species of lemur and, nearby, a colony of flying fox bats.
Closer to the water’s edge, mangroves stretch for 50 km, and are teeming with bird life. During migration season, you’ll see Humpback whales off the coast.
When To Go
The rainy season in Madagascar is between January and March. When visiting the south, which is often arid, the best time to visit is June to September.
Although this is Madagascar’s autumn and winter seasons it often has the more bearable temperatures and the least rain.
SAA flies to Entebbe daily from Johannesburg. Book your tickets today!
Words by Daniel Reeds