Standing in the ocean to fight for the planet

Friday November 15 2019

Sarah Sunde at San Francisco Bay, US. PHOTO | COURTESY | SARAH SUNDE


It is 8.10 am. The tide is low in Bodo village nestled in a bay on the shores of the Indian Ocean in Kwale County on Kenya’s South Coast.

Artisanal fishermen are busy fixing their nets and cleaning and repairing their dhows in preparation for another night out in the ocean. The tide is out so the beach is clear far out into the ocean.

A lone woman at the beach catches the attention of the local community. She is standing at the edge, just below the mangrove forests, and she is facing the sun, which is already shining bright on this clear day.

The water is lapping lightly at her feet. For the next 12 hours, she will stand at the same point. She is 42-year-old Sarah Cameron Sunde, a New York-based interdisciplinary artist, who is documenting the effects of climate change on this beach for a complete tidal cycle of 12 hours.

She has to brave the hot sun and sometimes cold water, especially at midday when the tide is at its highest.

Her experience is being recorded by a film crew. They are shooting a series of films titled 36.5/A Durational Performance with the Sea. Kenya is her seventh destination and the only one on the continent.


Sunde hopes that the film will create more awareness on climate change and the rising sea levels due to global warming.

Choice of location

Her choice of where to film came about after a discussion with a Kenyan academic.

“I met Martin Marani, a Kenyan professor of Environmental Studies from the University of Nairobi, in New York. When I shared about my project, he said Kenya would be a good destination because of its great features. I had initially been scouting for a location in Africa. I am glad I made that choice,” said Sunde.

The film project began in 2013, after a hurricane that hit New York in 2012. News reports said at least 53 people died and property worth billions was lost.

“It destroyed so much. I imagined the danger we were in as human beings. We had been so relaxed about our city despite scientists warning about climate change and how destructive it can be in future,” she recalls, adding that her fear was that no one would survive if another hurricane hit.

Her thoughts then birthed her idea, and being a theatre director she thought of getting a performer who would stand in water for the 12 hours of a complete tidal cycle.

Unfortunately, no one agreed and she decided she would be the subject. Her first time in Maine, seven years ago, it was difficult standing for so long. However, it was during that experience that she resolved to stand in each continent in the world over seven years.

So far Sunde has been all over the world, except Antarctica. She says standing in the ocean for 12 hours is about raising awareness on climate change in a way people can relate with.

“There are activists talking about it in their way and as an artist I am talking about it in a subtle way. I believe there are people who will not listen to an activist, but if they experience our work they could be changed,” she said.

A major challenge is that each continent has its own characteristics in terms of weather and temperatures, and sometimes she thinks of giving up and just getting out of the water. “But I remember my mission and this is what gives me strength,” she says.

Shooting the film in Africa was not a random decision. Countries like Tanzania and Kenya are at risk of rising ocean levels.

She believes her work has had an impact. “More people now know what is happening and scientists say it is going to get worse.”

She says more artists, especially from East Africa, should come together and find ways to raise awareness on the rising sea levels and provoke and inspire the community to take action on environmental challenges affecting them.


Sarah Sunde (third left) with Bodo villagers who joined her in standing in the bay at Bodo inlet in Kwale, on the Kenyan south coast . They stood for 12 hours to create awareness on rising sea levels as effects of climate change. PHOTO | COURTESY | SARAH SUNDE

Too hot

Her experience in Kenya was not as simple as it may have looked. Ms Sunde explains that during her performance, the heat in the second hour made her panic.

“It was extremely hot. I heard my heart beat fast because the heat was too much. I had to bend and take some water in my hand and pour it on my head and chest to cool down,” she said.

She also said the water went higher than she expected at midday, when it covered most of her body and she had to tilt her head upwards to breathe.

Ms Sunde also involved the local community in her work—the Kwale arts group, a lecturer from the University of Nairobi and Mara Moja Productions, a local filming company whose team shot the whole performance at the bay.

Her engagement with the community at Bodo, she says, gave her more motivation. People from the community had been singing traditional songs, and reciting poetry and speeches on climate change. Every hour, they beat the drum to notify Sunde.

“I think this performance resonated with them and they understood environmental awareness,” she said.

At 8.17pm, when her performance was over, the community joined in ululations, song and dance.

Sunde said she will help in the construction of a social hall in the village, which locals had requested. She also helped plant mangroves, which are key plants in fighting climate change.
The film premiers at the iconic Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa, Kenya on November 16.

Her final performance of the series will be in New York in 2020.