Days and Nights of Freetown – The villagers join us on the beach

An impromptu market spring up on the shore as several of the big mammas who were catching the fish in their bowls were passing them on to others on the shore lines.  It was not clear but it looked like several of these women were managing the sales of the fishermen and ensuring that they got their cut even though many were still out in their boats.  But there was the odd opportunistic guy who dipped a single bucket into the water to get enough food for his week.

The concentration of fish in this little area had caught the attention of much of the bird life in the environs and they were swooping in on the catch, or  stealing the odd fish from the periphery of the market place.  Some of the fish were being cleaned right on the beach there and the entrails were picked up by birds and by the lucky crabs who lived just where we were standing.

We watched for a while as the final stragglers of the catch were brought up and the remaining net tidied up into one huge pile ready to be loaded on to a cart and taken back to the village to be repaired and prepared for the next haul.

We bade our farewells to this village, privileged to have been included in a huge community ritual and started to walk back to our resort.  At this point I realised just how far we had travelled and it took over 30 minutes to get back.  We’d been away a couple of hours but it did not seem to bother the rest of the group who had been reading, drinking and doing a bit of pottering of their own.

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The tide was completely out now and only a trickle came from the lagoons and the river.  Laziness had taken over the whole world, whether it was the sun, the beer or the palm wine.  Kids who had been playing now leant on a nearby wall and said a seldom word to each other.  Dogs had half buried themselves in the sand to cool down and probably relieve the tics or fleas.  The sun was setting over the ocean and turned the bay a distinct purple grey hue.  Reluctantly we packed up our belongings and headed back to Freetown and work.

Days and Nights of Freetown – Helping the fishers

I am rarely able to sit still for very long and within an hour of lunch I wanted to explore.  Jan said he would join me; he could do with a walk.  We waded across the river which was now hardly more than the trickle of water and we walked across a mass expanse of flat sand to reach the dunes.  We could see they sat atop a long spit of land, and from where our little river broke into the Atlantic, there spread about 5 kilometres of flat hard beach sand.  We were up for exercise following our long lazy lunch and we set off at a pace.  We passed plenty of other tourists from Franco’s for a while doing something similar but he further we walked the more we met just locals; some kids playing away from the village, the odd fisherman who was checking a boat moored up on the beach.  Off in the distance we saw a huge amount of activity both on the beach and in the water.  It became obvious as we came closer that a whole village had come out in the late afternoon and the fishermen had let out a massive net in a semi circle from the beach.  Several boats were out in the deep keeping an eye on the net which was kept in position by a number of floats.  One boat was holding the far end of the net in position close to the edge of the beach.  A second boat that was  letting out the net was drawing close in to the beach about a 100 m from the first and several men from the beach dashed into the water and grabbed hold of the net.  At this point they arranged themselves on the beach in a line and started to haul the net in.  About thirty people pulled like in a tug of war and dragged the net about half way up the beach.  The man pulling at the back would release his grip on the net, and while some people behind him were folding the net neatly on the beach, the man ran to the water again and took up a new position at the front.  Jan and I watched for a while until people realised we were standing there and smiled.  Jan was a keen photographer and started to take some snaps.  I was invited to help haul in the net so I took my position up near the front and started to pull.  It was horribly hard work.  The net was already heavy but it was loaded down with sea water and some bric a brac – even the occasional fish caught in the string.  But the net, called a seine, was gradually tightening – the semi circle growing smaller and the boats out in the water were checking that it was not losing its grip on the bottom and letting fish escape.  Such a clever simple system – floats on the top to keep the fish from escaping over it, weights on the bottom to stop them from scrabbling underneath, and all the time we pulled the net hand over hand the net tightens and the fish herded closer and closer together.

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On the beach

A tale of two swamps – Roadside sellers

We drove south a way after our visit to the village. Pausing briefly to take another look at the herd of lechwe, we got back on the main road and headed Lusakawards along this raised causeway.  In the distance we could see a white tower on a small hill; our guides told us this was a guard post at one end of a long bridge across the Luapula River.  In between us and it was a group of people standing around in a lay-by.  We drove past them and halted on the roadside.  Immediately we were surrounded by people; hawkers selling…you guessed it … fish.

We realised these hawkers had crossed the swamp from villages we could just make out on the horizon – the route of their canoes marked by breaks in the grass.  Some had set up small shady stores at the foot of the causeway and they were bringing up a few buckets or handfuls of fish strung together at a time. As well as the sellers, mostly women and teenage boys, there were other hangers on, men with bicycles, babies strapped to backs, young kids playing in the vergeside grass.

Ian examined the fish; it was very similar to that being dried in the village we had just left behind.  He went around scientifically looking at it all and it did not take long before the women realised they were not going to get many sales from us.  But Mainza had spotted some nice fresh tilapia and bought it up.

A bright white, long-distance coach appeared on the horizon and a couple of minutes later pulled into the lay-by behind us.  The sellers saw much more of a market from it than from us and sped off along the tarmac.

We got back in our vehicle and continued along towards the white tower.  On the road below two police officers were manning a check point and we had to stop for a moment to show passports and explain our business.  We told them we were not going much further along the river, just to view the river and come back.  They seemed indifferent to this idea and waved us on.

A tale of two swamps – The wrong road and a final detour

Our work done for the day we wanted to head back to Monza as soon as possible.  One of the fisheries officers advised us that if we followed the tarmac road out of Namwala all the way to the main Livingstone to Lusaka road, we would be faster than tackling the graded road we had come along that morning.  Without thinking we trusted his judgement and drove fast and straight along this main route.  We certainly made fast progress but after an hour of driving along this road we realised that we were heading a long way south and still had not reached the main road that would take us back to Monza.  When we finally turned we were at a town called Choma – still almost 100 km from our hotel.  The sky was a glowing red when we reached back to the hotel – second night in a row we were late for dinner.

We packed up from the hotel the next morning ready to head back to Lusaka, but we still had one more meeting with fisherfolk to go.  Just west of the town of Kafue, we headed off the main road past the large aluminium smelting plant.  Although their office was only a few kilometres away in Chilanga, the Fisheries officers had trouble locating the road down to the village we were to meet, and I had visions of another small cluster of buildings like the ferry from the previous day.  I could not have been more wrong.

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A different sort of fishery – Ian Cowx photo

A tale of two swamps – The meeting concludes

Of course it did not help us that we had the Fisheries Department staff there.  However good they might have been at their jobs or how lovely their personalities might have been as individuals, to most fisherfolk they were the enemy.  They were the authority; the ones that regulated net sizes, stopped fishing all together at certain times of year or in particular places.  They were the ones that taxed them, or turned up as you were trying to earn an honest crust to say the species caught is protected.

Ian (and to a lesser extent Alphart and myself) were the go-betweens.  We understood the reasons why Fisheries Department might impose all these restrictions and enforce them with harsh fines.  Nets with a large size mesh allow juvenile fish to escape and grow and breed; whereas some of the small mesh nets (and we saw mosquito nets often being used) catch all before them and gradually eat away at the breeding population.  Closed seasons are necessary to allow that breeding to take place undisturbed, and closed areas are carefully chosen as the most likely locations for that breeding and habitats for the nursery stock.  Ian had to show these reasons through a combination of science (being seen as the expert), being empathetic with the fishermen (telling them tales of good and bad practice) and nudging compromise that will give the space to allow them to learn for themselves the benefits of good fishery management.  It was a tough line to tread without sounding patronising, authoritarian or a complete waste of space.

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Minutes being taken – Alphart looks on

I did a little participatory mapping with the guys trying to find out key nursery areas, but realised how this was only one of over 100 villages across the swamp and that to have a comprehensive map of this type would be well beyond the scope of the project.  I concentrated instead on where to draw the lines for the Management Area.  To me the natural boundary of the swamp was the ideal area; it was demarcated on maps, was a visible boundary on satellite imagery and out on the ground you could usually see where the vegetation changed and there was a definite step change in elevation.  The only real problem with this was that pouring in to the swamp from every angle were a series of rivers.  For much of the year they did not carry any water and were open rocky scars in amongst the bush, but for a few months during and immediately after the rains, they would drain large areas and gush vigorously; full of silt, detritus and fish.  Fishing became a big activity then on these rivers and obviously impacted heavily on the swamp itself; question was, how far up the river did I draw the line for the Management Area.  I would have to think more about this but most of the people in this village were not the ones to ask – they lived in the permanent swamp.

A tale of two swamps – Fisherfolk and their secrets

Ian has vast experience of talking to fisherfolk, and back in UK is a keen fisherman himself, so he can relate easily to their experiences, despite the different cultures and locations.  And that is so necessary.  Fisherfolk I have met have similar traits; they are suspicious of people who ask them too many questions, especially if it is about what they catch and where they catch it.  I found it extensively when I lived in the Virgin Islands.  With a junior fisheries officer there we devised a method of capturing information about what fish were being caught in the inshore waters.  No fisherman would tell you exactly where his nets and traps were, but they would begrudgingly tell us within a four kilometre square.  Of course I, personally, could never ask them directly; even after two years in BVI I was still an outsider, but my colleague from the west end of Tortola was connected enough to the big extended families of BVI to be trusted with the information. He would head off no his own every morning to the one big Fisheries Complex just outside the capital Road Town with a map showing these two kilometre grids, and would ask them to point.

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The British Virgin Islands – would you tell where you put your nets for the best fishing?

Why fishermen are like this puzzled me for years, and my answer is still an untested theory, but I think it because the resource being taken is not static and where no-one truly has ownership of areas of an extended fishery it is much more competitive than agriculture where land is owned or rented and what is produced on that land is your responsibility to do what you want.  In the sea or in lakes, people lay out equipment and leave it, and they don’t really want to let others know what is happening, but of course there is little cover out in the lagoons or sea, and so you are constantly being observed by your fellow fishers and others passing by.  It tends to produce a lot more reticence to share experience.

A tale of two swamps – Meeting in the swamp

We were transferred by boat across to the main island, to a bustling little harbour almost completely surrounded by huts.  We sloshed ashore trying not to get too muddy, and worked our way around some carts (that obviously were high enough to traverse the shallows to transport goods out to the cattle and other fields), along heavily compacted soil pathways between houses to a larger hut. Various people stared at us, or said “Hello”, the children giggled at us like they do almost anywhere in Africa.

The meeting house was a poorly maintained house close to the main channel – during the meeting I kept hearing the noise of outboard motors or punt poles sloshing in the water.  The visitors were introduced to the village headman – the most senior person in the village and representative of the chief for the whole community.  Then several other senior men were introduced to us, mainly the headman’s secretary and seniors from the fisherfolk association.  Gradually the room filled up with men of various states of dress; some in dishevelled t-shirts, torn trousers and sandals, others in overalls and wellingtons.  Our party of eight shook hands with every one of them as they came in,  the left supporting your elbow as you extended the right hand.

The meeting was slow, as many large community meetings had to be; a word of prayer, a welcome by the headman, a lengthy explanation from the Chief Fisheries Officer and Ian about the project.  This was made longer, of course, as every word had to be translated back and forth and Alphart fulfilled most of this role in a quiet respectful manner.   It always takes time for people to get used to translation; either saying far too much and then the translator having to try to remember things, or talking over the translator, or there being long pregnant pauses as people wait for the next element to be said.  Gradually a flow comes together; a dialogue, conversation and finally debate.  As Ian started to ask questions about the fishery and look for people’s opinions, the responses were a little staid to start with, half an eye on how both the headman and their peers react to their opinions.  When they saw some support for what they were saying they grew in confidence and moved on to new topics.  When someone disagreed, the whole room started to get animated.  From the quiet shady room we had walked into there was now a lively discussion.