Zanele Hartmann and Rose Boswell

In Undersea, Rachel Carson once said: Who has known the sea, neither you nor I with our earth bound senses ( To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water (Rachel Carson’s undersea, republished in the 1937 September issue of the Atlantic). 

African coastal communities have a deeply personal connection with the ocean. They believe that the ocean is sentient and holds healing powers. Anthropological fieldwork conducted in the Western Cape, South Africa, revealed, for example that the communities we encountered in Paternoster, who are mostly fishers, consider the sea to be sentient and do not perceive themselves separate from it. They have an intimate spiritual relationship with the ocean that has spanned generations. As women of both African descent and African scholars, we have grown up with an inherent knowledge that the sea is humane and possesses healing properties. Below, we share some quotes from some participants we interviewed in Paternoster, who humanise the sea, thus illustrating the need for a different narrative regarding the relationship between the sea and people.


“I’m part of the ocean and the ocean is a part of me.”


“Like a human being who gets sick from all the toxic things we put in our mouths the ocean too gets sick, and like the body, when it’s deprived from certain things, it compensates for the deprivation by shielding vital organs. The toxic environment humans create, like throwing plastic into the ocean, it becomes sick and needs recuperation to function optimally.”


However, the above shared aspect of human-sea relations is most often omitted in oceanic narratives, as the ocean is frequently portrayed as a non-human and uninhabitable place. Smith and Mentz (2020) have suggested that the application of approaches that link humans to the sea, such as, “blue humanities,” faces a persistent danger of appropriation by imperial narratives of maritime history, racial biases, and capitalistic pursuits. We are of the view that Africa’s wide range ways of knowing and traditional practices which have been applied on the continent for centuries are not explored and thus should be. As Elizabeth Deloughrey states,  “human histories can only be understood in the active engagement—to “melt” and dissolve in spaces of nonhuman alterity”(2016:5)


If we hope to address the current environmental challenges related to the ocean, we also need to understand the relationships people have with the sea and their interpretations of what the sea represents. The ocean should be considered from both a natural and cultural perspective. Furthermore, there should be more engagement with oceanic cultural knowledge. When this recognition occurs, perhaps a path forward can be created in which both the ocean and humans thrive.



DeLoughrey, E., 2017. Submarine futures of the Anthropocene. Comparative Literature69(1), pp.32-44.

Smith, J.L. and Mentz, S., 2020. Learning an inclusive blue humanities: Oceania and academia through the Lens of Cinema. Humanities9(3), p.67.

Posted on 25 March 2024 15:24:00

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