After being hit by the COVID-19 crisis, the fishing season offers hope to Senegalese women
Since its birth on the Senegalese coast, the ocean has always given life to Ndeye Yacine Dieng. His grandfather was a fisherman and his grandmother and mother processed fish. Like generations of women, she now helps provide for her family in the small community of Bargny by drying, smoking, salting and fermenting the catches brought back by the male villagers. They were baptized with fish, these women say.
But when the pandemic struck, the boats that took up to 50 men to sea carried only a few. Many residents were too terrified to leave their homes, let alone fish, for fear of catching the virus. When local women managed to get their hands on the fish for processing, they did not have the usual buyers, as markets closed and neighboring landlocked countries closed their borders. Without savings, many families have gone from three meals a day to one or two.
Dieng is one of more than a thousand women in Bargny, and many others in other villages dotted around Senegal’s sandy coast, who process fish – the crucial link in a chain that is one of the largest exports of the country and employs hundreds of thousands of its people.
Smoked and processed fish are placed in a basket after being cleaned and separated by workers at a processing site on Bargny beach, some 35 kilometers east of Dakar, Senegal.
“It was catastrophic – all of our lives have changed,” Dieng said. But, she noted, “Our community is a community of solidarity.”
This spirit resonates throughout Senegal with the motto “Teranga”, a word in Wolof for hospitality, community and solidarity. Across the country, people are saying to themselves: “we are together”, a French expression meaning “we are together in the same boat”.
Last month, the first real fishing season since the pandemic devastated the industry, brought hope to processors, their families and the village. Vast, brightly colored wooden fishing boats called pirogues each carry dozens of men out to sea, and people crowd the beach to help fishermen carry their loads to buy them.
Men wade through the water as they transport the cargo of fish from the canoes to the shore of Bargny Beach
But the challenges of the coronavirus – and much more – remain. Rising seas and climate change threaten the livelihoods and homes of those along the coast, and many cannot afford to build new homes or relocate inland. A steel processing plant rising near Bargny Beach raises pollution fears and will join a cement plant that is also nearby, although advocates say it is needed to replace resources depleted by overfishing.
“Since there is COVID, we live in fear,” said Dieng, 64, who has seven adult children. “Most of the people here and women transformers have had difficult lives. … We are exhausted. But now, little by little, things are getting better.
Ndeye Yacine Dieng chats with her 3-year-old grandson Babacar as she arrives at her home in Bargny
Dieng and his fellow transformers overcame the pandemic by building on each other. They are used to being the breadwinners – one expert estimated that each working woman in Senegal feeds seven or eight family members. Before the pandemic, a good season could bring in 500,000 FCFA for Dieng ($ 1,000). Last year, she said, she did little or nothing.
Dieng’s husband teaches the Koran at the mosque next to their home, and the couple pooled his money with their children, with a son finding work fixing televisions. Other women got help from a family abroad or rented parts of their refrigerators to store them.
They survived, but they missed their job, which isn’t just a job – it’s their legacy. “The processing is a pride,” said Dieng.
Most fishing activities in Senegal are small-scale and practiced using traditional methods, several generations old, as old as the way Dieng and other villagers process fish. They call it artisanal fishing. Once processed, the fish is sold to local and international buyers, and its preservation means it lasts longer than fresh fish and is cheaper for everyone who buys it. In Senegal alone, fish represents more than half of the protein consumed by its 16 million inhabitants, which is essential for the food security of this West African country.
A mosque in Bargny
Industrial fishing is also practiced in Senegalese waters, via motor boats and trawlers instead of traditional canoes, and more than twenty companies also specialize in industrial processing in the country alongside factories of fish meal and canneries. Fishmeal factories rate women like Dieng by paying more for fish and depleting resources – five kilograms of fish are needed for one kilogram of fishmeal, an inferior powder-type product used for animals from farm and pets.
The Senegalese government also has agreements with other countries allowing them to fish off the coast of the country and placing limits on what they can carry, but monitor what these big boats from Europe, China and Russia harvest turned out to be difficult. Villages say foreigners are devastating local supplies.
Dieng has become a local leader and mentor whose neighbors increasingly ask her for advice on everything from money issues to their marriages, and she and others are now part of a rising collective voice of women in the Senegal working for change along the coast and beyond.
Senegal has designated land near Bargny as an economic zone in its redevelopment investment efforts. Dieng’s neighbor, Fatou Samba, is a city councilor and president of the Association of Women Processors of Fishery Products, and she testified on the challenges of artisanal fishing. She hopes to stop much of the big industry’s expansion as fishmeal companies collect fish and ship the product to Europe and Asia.
“If we get left behind, in two or three years women will be out of work,” Samba said. “We are not against the creation of a project that will develop Senegal. But we are against projects which should make women lose the right to work. “
Samba also warns of the effects of climate change, with rising tides eroding the Senegalese coast and forcing fishermen to seek their catch further out to sea. Samba and Dieng have each lost at least half of their seaside homes while the rooms were emptied of water during the rainy season of the past decade.
In addition to their laborious fish processing work, Samba and other women do most of the work at home.
A woman works at a fish processing site on Bargny beach
A woman gestures as a man unloads his horse-drawn cart of catches brought by fishermen to Bargny beach
Ndeye Yacine Dieng, left, spreads the fish on the ground before processing it on Bargny beach
“Especially in Africa, women are fighters. Women are workers. Women are heads of households, ”Samba said. “Therefore, women must be empowered.”
Dieng, Samba and other women want to be heard – by the government and by the companies building projects near them. They want better funding, protection of their fish and processing sites, and improved health regulations.
These women are opening their doors to family, friends, neighbors and even strangers who can’t wait to hear about the work they are so proud of and want to preserve – to help put food on the table for their families and pay school fees. their children so that they can have a future that may not involve fish. But if they are happy to talk about work, they hesitate to focus on themselves. Community is what they are most comfortable with.
At the end of last month, when the message spread that the fishermen were finally returning to Bargny with catches, Dieng and others rushed to meet the canoes, tied by ropes to the beach. It was the longest Dieng had been away from the hold. She bought enough to have her transport hauled in a horse-drawn cart to the patch of land she and her friends claimed along acres of black sand. Then she started the job she has known for decades.
After the fish were stacked on the ground, the women smoothed them with a small, flat piece of wood. They covered them with light brown peanut shells, bought by the bag, then lit embers in a bowl and placed them on the shells, which began to burn. Smoke was flying everywhere, a sign of progress. But it also made the attempt to breathe as brutal as working in the scorching sun – even more difficult during Ramadan, when women were fasting.
Siny Gueye, center left, is joined by other women fish processors to sing a song of blessing and thanksgiving
Ndeye Yacine Dieng breaks fast with family during holy month of Ramadan at home in Bargny
Man walks past dugout canoes used as fishing boats as the full moon rises over Bargny
The women stoked the fire and, after feeling convinced that he would smoke for hours, walked away. After a day or two, they came back to turn the fish over and let it dry in the sun. Another day passed and the women returned to clean it up. Finally, the fish were packed in large nets, sold and taken away in trucks.
The pandemic has taught villagers a crucial lesson: the fish money may not always be there, so it is important to try and save some of their income.
The pandemic isn’t over either, so Dieng and other women are going door-to-door to raise awareness and encourage people to get vaccinated. Like many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Senegal imposed strict measures at the start of the pandemic. The government has been widely praised for its overall handling of the pandemic, and curfews have been lifted and restrictions largely relaxed. But the country has recorded more than 40,000 cases, and volunteer and government campaigns aim to keep another wave at bay.
At the end of a long day at work and before heading home to break the Ramadan fast with her family, Dieng stands in front of her smoking fish and records a video that she hopes will motivate working women. in industry.
“It’s our gold. This site is everything, this site is everything to us, ”said Dieng of the coast and its vital importance to Bargny. “All women have to stand up. … We must work, always work and work again for our tomorrow, for our future.
– Featured image: A woman working at a fish processing site walks through the thick smoke from burning peanut shells used to cure fish on Bargny beach
– All photos by AP / Leo Correa