Beating off the waves – The tapestry of the harbour

I walked the whole north coast that evening.  From the bustle of the ferry terminals with shuttles heading out to other islands every couple of minutes, I passed the relative calm of the Male coastguard boats, and close to the most ceremonial of locations in the city.  Under a huge Maldivian flag was  a series of small squares and gardens.  Children were playing amongst the pigeons while parents looked on adoring their every move.  I saw several grand buildings behind the trees including the Islamic Centre with its massive gold dome.  I wandered through the area, the Republic Square, for several minutes and then rejoined the harbour wall and headed west once more.  The scenery changed almost immediately as I was aware of a massive street market selling all the fresh fruit and vegetables for Male.  Where this produce came from I did not ask, but assume it came from far and wide through the North and South Male Atolls to feed these hungry citizens.  There must be few places to grow fresh produce in Male – the odd rooftop garden, a windowbox here and there maybe.  Maybe a corner of a few of the wealthiest people’s garden plots, but what was on display in front of me was on a massive scale.  Orange coconuts, bananas, root crops, vegetables.  On the other side of the harbour wall here the water was crammed with an array of fishing craft, small to large with different gears to harvest the myriad of environments around the Maldives from the shallowest coral shelf to the deepest ocean trench.


One of the many fishing and cargo boats

I sat for a while on the breakwater and watched the activity.  Not only were the boats used for fishing, but many served as small cargo vessels.  I saw several packed with crates and bags of all shapes and sizes, often with several people perched on top to give the impression it would sink if someone aboard sneezed.  Again I was seeing how the average Maldivian never saw the coastline as the limit of their realm; they accessed and used the sea without batting an eyelid.  But it made these harbours essential nodes in everyone’s lives.  Whether commuting, migrating, travelling to sell your produce or wares or just enjoying yourself, the coast was a vital location, and attracted others to catch the ever passing trade.

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.


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.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – On the Streets of Port Au Prince

It gave me a chance to see the melee around me.  The streets were full of both pedestrians and hawkers.  Everything was for sale along the narrow strips of pavement or sidewalk, shoes piled high, clothes of all sorts jumbled on any surface  – maybe just a sheet of cloth or tarpaulin on the ground.  A pot pourri of  skirts, shorts, shirts, dresses, blouses, knickers, bras, briefs, socks, caps, jackets, suits, wraps, children’s school uniforms, t-shirts, vests, trousers, swimwear, beach shorts, Hawaiian shirts.

There were small stools with old women or young boys selling a couple of peppers, pineapple, bananas.  There were traders of other goods; maybe just a couple of plastic buckets, utensils, pills, dope, phone cards.

But then I saw a mismatch.  Hundreds of pedestrians walking up and down past these stalls, and hundreds of stalls and people trying to sell their wares.  But rarely did I see any transactions.  Amongst the ordinary people of Haiti there was not enough money in circulation to make markets thrive.  And yet people were also desperate to earn whatever they could that they would spend all day trying to sell their meagre crops on the streets of Port Au Prince, or work for peanuts to sell the usual mix of wholesale goods from richer middle men.


Hawkers line the roadside

Through a lot of nerve on the part of my driver, we inched out a taxi to join the main thoroughfare and crawled up and up the main road.  It was near straight and the scene hardly changed along its length.  A complex mix of cafes, shops and small businesses fronted by rows of market stalls and people, bikes, animals, cars, and belching buses and trucks crammed together going up or down the hill.  At one point a broken down lorry stopped our progress for ten minutes, and my driver found a gap between the buildings to head round one block – for a second or two we reached about 30kmh-1 but then we had the joy of trying to rejoin the traffic once more.

As we got up into Petionville itself (there was no gap between the capital city and the ville), the houses were more substantial.  In the central square (which took ten minutes to navigate round) there were some trees, the first public greenery I had seen since leaving the airport.  We continued on upwards in a much more suburban, well constructed and greener environment.  High walls concealed the high status housing .  Up some steep cobbled roads off the main route south out of Petionville, we veered off down a red dirt driveway and stopped next to a high white wall with a heavy metal gate blocking an entrance.  I walked over to the gate, where a small shutter was scraped open and I made my introductions.  I had to hand over my passport and wait a few moments in the blistering heat.  Two heavily armed security guards were ambling around on the driveway.  Eventually I was let in to a  narrow courtyard packed with diplomatic cars and through a glass lobby into an amazing house.  The back was converted to administrative offices, the front was a huge open plan area fronted by three storeys of glass looking out over the city.  This was the European Union’s offices in Haiti, our funders for the project, and my two colleagues were already deep in a meeting here.

A tale of two swamps -At the fish market

We were due to have a cruise across the lake and into the swamps to meet villagers that lived amongst the reeds, but the previous night’s wind had left current wave action too strong for the shallow bottomed aluminium boat fisheries planned to use.  So instead we got in a couple of vehicles and drove round the southern part of the lake to a market village called Chikuwela near the start of the Luapula River.  The road, a well graded dirt track, skirted the thin marshland area next to the lake, riding on a low ridge that separated the wetlands from the dryland cropping to the south.  Almost the whole length was populated with farmsteads, the occasional store or school – living close to the lake was an obvious advantage.  At one point we crossed a canal that had been dug by the Dutch to link Bangweulu and a second lake ; Kampolombo.  Chikuwela was on a dry peninsula between this second lake and the Luapula River.  Still with farmsteads running along the roadside, only the increased activity and larger number of stores indicated we had reached some sort of village centre.

It was a hive of activity.  Several bars were already in full swing, dishing out the beer bottles and playing music powered from solar generated electricity. Other stores were retailing essentials like clothes and plastic household goods, and as usual here fish were being sold everywhere.  We parked up and while we waited for the Fisheries Officers to find the headsman, we ambled down between some houses and to the riverbank.  On a firm but muddy beach, there were a few canoes and a number of bags, and several people were sitting in little groups close to the water.   Some appeared to have baggage and were awaiting a lift to one of the more remote villages deep in the swamp; others looked like they were waiting for laden boats to arrive so they could take the pick for selling in markets.  From this landing site, a thin blue channel cut into the reeds to reach the main river in the distance.  Every so often we would get a glimpse of boats passing up or downstream.  We wandered back up to the village and spied some bundles on the road next to a large truck.  Behind the truck was a low flat building which had once been painted blue but so many flakes had come off it was now more two tone.  We were invited inside and met with a pile of similar bundles – thick canvas bags pulled tight in a trellis of bamboo and rope.  We were told that inside would be packed with fish and ice – and the weighty wrapping was meant to keep the fish fresh.  While we were talking a fully loaded lorry headed out of the village.  Where were they going?  Mainly the Copperbelt and central towns; a considerable journey for such perishable goods.  Iced fresh fish were being preferred to dried fish these days though and the processing chain was having to become more sophisticated to respond.

The lagoon also supplied more local needs and we wandered round the back of the main street to find a busy market place.  Outside there were the usual tomato sellers and clothes bundles spread on sheets on the ground.  But in one building were two parallel stone slabs piled high with dried fish of many types and sizes.  Ian was shocked that there were hardly any large fish being sold – few were more than 10cm long.  The smell was a little overpowering and I was glad to head back outside again.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Back at the landing site

Undeterred, the following day we had another meeting scheduled not far from Lochinvar.  We headed back down the same route, swiftly collected the local fisheries officers and went on to the same wooded island.  The guys were there, but so were about 100 other people.  The hard gravelly area next to the lake that had been so deserted on the Sunday was now thronging with activity.  As we approached from the road side, we saw many women in their multicoloured wraps dealing with bags tightly packed and sealed.  Four trucks were fully loaded, and there was also a small minibus waiting at the site.  While we were there more trucks arrived.  They came filled with items such as washing up bowls, clothes, utensils, gear for fishing.  These were offloaded and transported to a wide array of boats, small dugout canoes, larger pirogues and other craft to be sold and carried off to the villages in the middle of the swamp inaccessible by road.  In turn those boats had carried a wide array of fish, some already packed up in the huge bags we had seen the women haggling over, others still in open bags and some just grouped together and held with wire or string.

The fish bags came in two sorts, one was filled to the brim with sundried fish, but tightly packed to prevent flies getting in and some of the smell getting out!  The others were crates that were even more substantial.  Ice had been carried down from the towns on the trucks and fresh fish were packed in to the ice crates.  They were often surrounded by insulating cardboard and pressed between wooden grills lashed together by ropes.  It gave the impression more of cotton bales than fish, but the quantities were immense.