Over the course of the next couple of days we spent training the guys in the techniques and discussing the issues around land ownership in this part of Sierra Leone. We would start early in the morning and we tried out different types of plot. After the initial trial in the small open clearing opposite the house, we ramped up the difficulty. I realised there were different types of land use in many Sierra Leone villages and Fintonia was a classic model. In the centre of the village were most of the buildings. The immediate surrounds, particularly at the back of the houses, were store houses, latrines and a hard pan of land used for most domestic activities – cooking, washing, laundry, fixing bits and pieces. In the plots behind this there was usually a kitchen garden where high value and small crops were grown. I’d seen maps the previous year of villages in Guinea where the word “Peppiniere” was used. I was a little confused at first but comparing that to where I was in Sierra Leone I now saw it was the same kitchen gardens, predominantly where higher value chillies and other peppers, herbs or spices were grown. The big cereal crops were grown much further away; I suppose since land was at such a premium close to the housing. Two types of this agriculture existed. Sierra Leone was riddled with little river valleys; the humpy bumpy nature of the terrain here meant you were likely to cross one of these every kilometre or two. While some dried out on the surface every season, they still contained a high water table of wet, organic soil that was vital for good yields. Irrigated rice cropping occurred here but also vegetables and some fruits would be grown. On surrounding hillsides land was much poorer quality and drier. Here other cereal crops such as maize and dryland rice could be grown. The scrub was being extensively slashed and burnt to make new fields for this kind of cropping. In between the dryland and the wetland Fintonia had conserved a wedge of high value forest. Yes some agroforestry went on here, but the forest was also used for beekeeping and the clay extraction, and other activities; there were pools for bathing – women in one area, men in another.
Fintonia – with thanks to Google Earth
Instead the fisheries officers had set up another meeting at a community further down the Luapula River. To reach it we had to retrace our steps from Samfya a few miles back towards Mansa, but then turned left down a well made tarmacced road; later we discovered it had been rebuilt with Chinese money only recently. We zipped along a watershed, the ridge between two river systems, one of them our Luapula catchment from where the Bangweulu Swamp lay, past many dry land farms before dropping back down a long hill into the wetlands. The road was built on a high embankment and apart from the odd track descending into the swamp, often only a few metres before it came to open water where a canoe might be moored, there was little else to see but tall grass and waterweeds. Even the Fisheries officers had trouble identifying the turning to the village we were due to visit. We passed it once before one of them remembered that it was close to a military outpost – a small rock outcrop in the middle of the wetland to guard this strategic road across the Luapula River. We turned off onto a one lane track, which deteriorated into two tyre tracks in amongst lush grass, and occasionally became covered in several inches of water. There was one small farmstead in this area that we passed; otherwise we were travelling through a sea of grass.
To my left I spotted the antlers of a stag. It was a lechwe; not the same subspecies as in Lochinvar to the south, but the Black Lechwe. The male seemed to be keeping about twenty females, although it was difficult to count as we could only see heads above the tall grass and their might also have been many fauns hidden away.
The grass eventually gave way to a line of trees, the track broadened out once more and we found ourselves on hard ground in amongst farmers’ fields. A long thin village lined what appeared to be an ancient sandbank in amongst the swamp, meandering as much as the nearby Luapula River. We passed a school and several farmsteads and again the Fisheries Officers seemed to be struggling to locate the people we were to meet. We stopped the vehicles at a denser part of the village; several huts close by the dusty track. As with the previous day we did some reconnaissance of the local area and dropping down from the sandbank beyond the village gardens we saw this incredible expanse of blue and green patches – well defined pools and channels amongst equally well defined grassy stands. There appeared to be a number of landing sites all along by the village and a less defined central place where the women would wait for the laden boats. We wandered back into the village proper, where our arrival had now caused a lot of interest and we were being followed carefully by an entourage of children and women. The Fisheries Officers were still having problems locating our hosts, but the women around us were keen to show us what they were doing with the fish. They led us from the sunshine into a smoky hut and we were shown a hearth in one corner where a fire was gently glowing – enough to produce copious fragrant smoke that was permeating through grills into the fish above. Fragrant it might be but the smoke was also irritating to the eyes and throat and I had to speed out gasping for fresh air. We were also shown high wooden platforms lined with bamboo poles on which fish were drying in the sun. Once the villagers realised Ian was a fish specialist, they were so proud to show him every type of fish they had been catching, coming up with plastic buckets and bowls, a few fish tied together with a wire or string.
Entrance of the village
Under the shade
Sampling the dried fish
We finally met up with the elders and fisherfolk and held a brief meeting. Ian found there was very little different from the other locations we had seen. These were permanent villages; quite sizeable settlements predominantly relying on the fishery for their protein and earning incomes. Being permanent they had a good sense of the need to protect the fisheries as a long term investment.
The clump of trees had resolved itself into a cluster of houses. Well I say houses. From this distance they looked more like Mongolian Yurts. Our boatman cut his speed as we approached the first of these and we chugged past these as the channel extended deep into the village centre. After seeing a few isolated huts; probably store rooms, I realised the village itself was on a raised muddy island in the middle of the flooded grasslands. Perched on slightly higher grasses, but still with their feet in the water, hefty cattle obviously content in water ambled in front of the boat and peered at us with dull eyes. While the majority of the village was in one large island and densely packed, we made our way to a second smaller island with just a small cluster of buildings, and I clocked there were several of these smaller “suburbs” dotted around the plain.
The main village to one side
Cattle on the little islands
A pile of fish – on a pile of clothes
Just like any other village – but wet
How to get around
Still fish drying
Here we were to meet out main contact in the village – a guy who works as the local liaison for the Fisheries Department and is secretary of the local fisherfolk association. We had to cut the boat’s motor to reduce our wash, but there were eager people nearby who were willing to tow us in. Unfortunately the one that reached us first was the town drunk; at least he was amiable but he both had a problem keeping upright waist high in water, and also wanted to talk extensively. This might have been OK but his English was very limited and the conversation kept heading towards money and alcohol. Eventually the other visitors prised his hands off our boat and we were safely delivered at the secretary’s house. We were immediately invited in to his house – a long substantial reed walled house with tarpaulin roof. Inside was one large room, subdivided with low walls into a sleeping area. On top of all the clothes that the family owned – piled high as if ready for a jumble sale, was a reed mat covered in very small fish. The smell in the house was also piscine; I supposed it mattered little that the odour must work its way into their garments as these villagers ate, caught, dealt with, sold, and of course excreted fishy products. The smell of fish must be as normal as pot pourri in other houses.
As well as the fish stacked on the clothes, above the cooking hearth at the back of the hut were trays of more fish being smoked and cured. They shrivel up so much as they dried that they look most unappetising, but in the absence of ice boxes and fridges in many villages this is often the only way to keep fish edible for more than a day. The ice that ends up in the village is expensive and is preserved for use in selling valuable fresh fish to distant urban markets; where opinions about what food should look like are more sensitive than in rural Zambia.