In few months I will leave forever the sacred age of 20. I am therefore living the last months in this very special number, 20. Maybe it is a women's thing that we care much about age, and maybe it is a youth thing, and maybe neither.
I value for my youthful years so much that I feel enormous guilt about every day I spend without having been productive or having witnessed/made something particularly special. Every day before sleep I scold myself: “there you are, another day of your precious youth wasted doing nothing but futility, while others would kill for your youth. Such an ungrateful person you are”. And it goes like that.
To be fair towards myself, I do try to make my days something to be remembered. I join some community activities which mostly turn out to be vain and disappointing for reasons too long to be explained. I do read. I am proud to be one of the few youngsters in my country who actually read. But I am not quite happy with my reading choices which tend to be mediocre sometimes: I keep clinging to fiction which is lovely for a youngster's mind but far from enough.
I turn determinedly to the much more dense and classic books, only to discover that I don't quite assimilate their depth. Sometimes I find myself searching for the meaning behind metaphors, which should come naturally without such effort. This is discouraging and frustrating.
I have been reflecting lately upon all the special things that occurred to me during my 20 years. In my first days of being 20 I had my first “official” job. I had worked before that, jobs that mostly lasted a week and that didn’t require much responsibility or serious effort. But this time it was different. I worked in textile sales for a very popular national shop that makes a fortune every day.
I endured this job for the full tiring month of August (it was the peak of sales). I had to remain standing for 10 hours a day in the workplace, dealing with grumpy, stressed clients that were often impolite and mannerless. I hated that job, only worked for the financial outcome. Now I realize that taught me enormous things and gave me priceless observation opportunities. It gave me an insight into the cruelty of capitalism, especially how it literally abuses its human resources in order to achieve and mostly, exceed the desired outcomes.
I worked during summer sales when prices are lowered by specific percentages. Being inside the wheel of sales, I got to observe how the owners would play the customers into believing that they’d get a better deal. I have seen these customers going mad over a baby outfit. The amount of energy they’d invest into trying to benefit themselves and have a moment of luxury at the expense of the owner is incredible.
Little did these frenetic poor customers know how many brain cells they were exhausting in vain for the sake of a piece the same machine would tell them it is old-fashioned 2 months later.
In my dear 20s, I volunteered in a huge international event. This event made me discover one thing about myself: it’s how much I wanted to feel useful. My job consisted of solely giving directions (which was an unpleasant surprise given that I was told my job would also entail interpreting, documenting, mentoring guests.
Nonetheless I do feel like I have made a difference because directions were quite important at that event, given the vast place in which it was held. In this event I saw humans from all corners of the planet marching in the streets of my country, supporting it against terrorism.
I was honored to volunteer with hundreds of Tunisian youth who never failed to inspire me with their passion for life and change. What amazed about them was how varied they were. Given that I come from a conservative community, I saw in these volunteers everything I haven’t seen in my city’s youth. They embraced different styles of thinking, dressing, expressing… I had conversations with some of them on themes I have never dreamt of discussing.
Their distinguished styles left me rethinking everything: why should one manifest themselves as ordinary, standardized and go with the flow of norms when the essence of our existence is to find out and show the pride of our special, distinct and absolutely unique selves?
However, I left the event with doubt. I doubted whether or not my contribution to this event that had a great cause had made a significant difference. What added value have I brought?
Several volunteers along with participants noticed that something was going totally wrong, especially logistically speaking. It was very hard for me, as a clueless volunteer, to tell a bunch of excited musicians that they have to perform in a hall without the logistical resources they needed, because the auditorium they booked doesn’t exist (I salute these youngsters for not letting go and literally performing opera in a hall).
Being 20, I had a delightful surprise: being selected to take part in an international meeting that took place in my country and that gathered youth from the Euro-Arab region. I found the concept of the meeting captivating, the theme a bit intriguing but I still went for it. It was a thrill to meet people from such various backgrounds. They were fun, open-minded and mostly accepting. The place that held the meeting was quite aesthetic, with an architecture special to the city, green grass (something I rarely come across!) and a location 3 minutes to the beach.
Some wouldn’t relate to how much I find this place peculiar: I come from a highly polluted region with weak aesthetic care from the authorities. A clean area with a small garden and some animals hanging out is more unfamiliar to me than the eclipse.
I felt overwhelming happiness being in perfect harmony with nature. So far so good, isn't it? Well I must bring up my great disappointment with the theme of the meeting. It was a weak theme, I tried to see it as valuable but I failed. The whole time I felt like the meeting had no cause, nothing serious and meaningful enough to fight for. Realizing this was a sad moment to me.
I felt like lack of a mighty issue to debate made the sessions futile and the only interesting time was spent outside sessions, which is not what we came for to be truthful. The Meeting allowed me to observe a more serious issue than its official theme: the obsession of youth with smart phones. There were more than 25 nationalities present, and it was alarming and eye-opening for me to discover that no matter the background, the individuals are in a relationship with their smart phones.
The venue of the event had a very weak Wi-Fi signal. There was a scene that is still stuck in my mind and that I wish I photographed: a group of 12 participants who, after discovering a spot from which the internet service was better, sat on the ground for an hour or more “connecting”.
Not a word was spoken, I even jokingly threw a remark about their investments into their smart phones, but few seemed to even hear me. I understand the need to respond to emails, “socialize” on social media, post updates… But if you were in such a beautiful place, with the most stunning views, around youth from peculiar cultures, in a city you’ve never been to, I picture that internet should not be on the top of your priorities.
It was challenging for me to make friendships when basically everyone around me checks their phones every 5 minutes. The attachment to smart phones was a phenomenon that I have witnessed among Tunisian youth, and that I see people denouncing on social media (the irony) but in this event its presence around me made me understand one thing: it is universal.
Moving on to my next adventure, I took part in a 7-day arts camp. The camp was aimed at defending minorities’ rights through theatre, dance and slam (street poetry). I was in the slam workshop. Writing slam was challenging in every way possible. On one hand, I struggled to find a quiet place in the camp in vain. At some point I remember almost crying because of constantly failing to write in noisy places.
On the other hand, at some point we were asked to learn by heart and perform texts that were written by other people. This, I do not exaggerate, was torture to me. I failed terribly and I do not blame myself because I tried for hours and I couldn’t genuinely perform what I do not feel deeply or relate to (and I believe that if I tried more, I would have had a mental breakdown).
But when it came to dealing with my own texts, I can say I am so damn proud of my performance. I entered the camp not knowing what slam was and I left after having my texts involved in the ultimate show text (the show that the camp is mainly working on).
I wasn’t selected to perform in the show, though. It definitely hurt me. The whole time I was looking for answers as to why I wasn't selected though many had praised my discipline and hard work. But I am not angry, at all (especially not at myself). I am just incomplete. And I am gloomily wondering what I will be missing. The camp was the kind of experiences that left me with bitterness for being prevented from carrying on the adventure, but with no guilt whatsoever because I gave it all of me and more.
And my greatest personal achievement so far is leaving the studies I disliked, that were the idea of some insisting relatives. I know, it was my choice and I should hold full responsibility for it. But I am trying to forgive the 18-year old girl for surrendering to the pressure of family and society, and choosing something “practical” (I hate that word).
Now I am 20 and I do not believe in practical anymore, I believe in passion. This is why I am planning to study English as a major and later involve sociology as a minor. I am content with my “unpractical” field of studies, if “practical” means suffering while studying something you never liked in order to get a well-paid, highly-recruiting position you never wanted.
Now, I make it my mission to convince newly-graduated students to study something they simply love, no matter how society might dread it. I somehow feel like a prophet who has a very important message to convey, a crucial life changing one. To be completely honest, I don’t have a clear idea on what I want to do later in life. Do I want to be a teacher? Possible. Do I want to become an interpreter? Why not. Do I sometimes madly think of my odds of becoming a successful writer? Yes I do.
All these events and more have happened when I am 20. And I am sitting here thinking they are far from enough! None of the events mentioned I can consider as life changing.
None of the people I have met this year turned my world upside down (yes, I aspire to meet people with such effect). None of the books I read made me change my view about life, or look at it from a completely different perspective.
At no point have I felt that I was making a significant change in my country. As it might be noticed, I yearn for extreme, strong deep feelings. But I guess that in order to have these, one should do extreme actions as well. So I guess I know what to do! Change my actions, I believe. That is the only way, I think, will honor my youth.
I am a woman. A Rwandan woman. I was born in the eighties so I am young enough to be called a youth but old enough to counsel youth.
I finished primary school but never started secondary school. Not because I didn’t want to but because I couldn’t. My father and mother had wanted me together with my four brothers and two sisters to finish secondary school and study up to university. They did their best but there is only so much that you can do with a small scale farmer’s revenue.
My mother sold beans in the Rukira market. But she didn’t earn much because everyone planted beans and thus didn’t have to buy them. Sometimes I wondered why she even bothered to walk five kilometers to the market with twenty kilos of beans balanced on her head. But hope kept her going. Hope that maybe, somehow, she would be able to sell the beans and earn some money for her family.
My father sold bananas at the same Rukira market. He fared better because people came from as far as Kigali to buy bananas from this market. The little he earned always ended up on or in one of his seven children as clothes, medicine and food.
But when it was time for me to go to secondary school, they simply couldn’t raise the money that was needed for school fees. My father left it to my mother to give me the tragic news. She looked at me directly in the eye and said simply that, ‘am sorry we are unable to raise your school fees.’ That’s all she said. Nothing more, nothing less. Then she disappeared from the kitchen, where I was cooking porridge to the refuge of nearby banana plants. I knew she had gone to cry.
I didn’t cry that day but I cried three years later when at the age of seventeen, I got married.
I wasn’t forced into the marriage because I loved him. Pierre was three years older than me and worked as a messenger in the local district offices. He was tall and slender, like those giraffes I used to see in Geography books in primary school. And he had a smile so big and warm that there was no way I could have said no to his proposal.
Deep into the night, my first night at his place, I cried. I cried because I should have been in my final year of secondary school, studying for my final exams, on the verge of joining university. But there, I was, a teenage wife on the verge of parenthood.
I cried when my first child was born. They were tears of joy and tears of sorrow, trickling from my red, puffed-up eyes. It was a daughter. And as I held her in my arms, watching her fragile beautiful body, nestled in my quivering arms, I cried, wondering if she would also end up like me. I wanted her to study all the way to university and become the mayor of Ngoma District. I wanted her to buy one of those big black cars that I saw in Kigali. But I knew that if my circumstances remained the same, the she too would be a teenage wife and mother. So I cried.
I cried on the days that my three other children were born. Always for the same reason – joyous at their births, but worried about the lives that awaited them.
I cried the day that my husband slapped me. I don’t even remember why he did it. He apologized profusely after that but I didn’t feel like forgiving him. I didn’t feel like sleeping in the same bed with him. But I had to.
I cried the day that my husband came back home drunk and staggering with bloodshot eyes that looked at me menacingly in the darkness of our bedroom. He demanded for his conjugal rights and although I wasn’t in the mood, I feared another beating so I gave in. I cried when this became a routine occurrence and not an isolated incident. He had fallen into the arms of alcohol and I had fallen into the arms of my four children, seeking from them the same comfort that they were seeking from me.
I am still living with my husband. Where would I go if I left him? He still has that big, warm smile but I no longer see it much because he doesn’t smile much when he is with me. I also don’t smile much. What is there to smile about? I am almost certain that my two daughters will turn out like me because we can’t afford to ensure that they get quality education.
But I cry more for my two sons, because I think that they will turn out like their father. How can they turn out differently when all they know about being a father and being a husband has been learnt by observing their father?
But every day, I pray for a miracle. I pray that somehow, my four children will make it to College and find good jobs. I pray that they will find loving husbands and wives and that their marriages will be happier than mine.
But even as I pray, I continue doing what my mother did. I hope and do the best I can. I sell beans, vegetables and whatever extra products that I can get my hands on. I even sold the three wrappers that my mother gave to me when I got married. I do all this with the hope that I will be able to save enough money for at least one of my children to go to proceed with secondary education.
Every morning, my hopes rise with the sun. I see the faces of my four children reflected in the river as I scoop water into my bucket. I hear their laughter as I till the land and drop in it brand new bean seedlings. I feel their heartbeat as I wash their clothes and cook for them. It is for them that I keep going. For them that I cry. For them that I smile. For them that I am still married. Hoping. And praying.
Rusumo Waterfalls thunder their presence with majestic dignity. Although a mere stone throw away from the bridge that joins Tanzania and Rwanda, these waterfalls are in a world of their own. A beautiful world full of the white watery spray and swoosh of the falls, which are perched at a meeting point of the Akagera and Ruvubu rivers.
The Akagera River journeys through Burundi, Rwanda and part of Uganda. It is the single largest river flowing into Lake Victoria, contributing about 7 per cent of the total inflow. Just a few hundred metres away from this mighty river, within the Akagera river basin, is the Kagasa Water Reservoir, a small water body with a long history and big impact. It is the size of five football pitches even though back in the mid 90s, it was five times as small.
Kagasa’s size ballooned after the 1998 El Nino rains caused the nearby Akagera River to flood. Within less than a year, Kagasa had grown from 2 hectares into ten hectares. This growth led to increased agricultural practices as more and more farmers planted crops in the fertile lands by the reservoir. Due to ensuing long, dry spells, the wetland around the reservoir was the only place that local farmers could plant their crops with a measure of certainty that these crops would make it to maturity.
Because of the increased agricultural activity around Kagasa, soil erosion increased even as an increasing amount of debris found its way into the reservoir. In addition, water weeds that included water hyacinth found their way into the reservoir, partly as a result of the El Nino flooding. As if that was not enough, the reservoir reduced in size from 10 hectares in 1998 to six hectares in 2006.
As it reduced in size, the reservoir remained under heavy attack from alien species like water hyacinths and concentrated human activity. In 2003, the Rwandan government provided the surrounding community with agricultural plots so that they could stop cultivating in the reservoir’s immediate vicinity and hence conserve it plus the entire wetland.
Four years later in 2007, ARAMA came on the scene and found a reservoir that had become an eyesore, having been overrun with weeds. ARAMA immediately formed a working partnership with a local fish farming cooperative known as Coopérative des Pisciculteurs de Rusumo (COOPIRU). It had been formed in 2002 with the goal of ensuring local ownership of Kagasa conservation efforts and local benefits from these conservation efforts.
ARAMA held a series of meetings with the local community and unearthed a litany of problems. Unsustainable agricultural practices were still rampant and the water hyacinths had already covered a third of the reservoir. Due to this alien species invasion, fish had all but disappeared from the reservoir, leaving it with seemingly no use for the local community besides basic provision of water that wasn’t even potable.
The challenge that stood before ARAMA was both mental and physical. Physically, the pervasive water weeds had to be cleared from the reservoir not just for aesthetic reasons, but also for fish farming to be possible. Mentally, the community’s perception of the reservoir had to be appreciative of the fact that it was a highly beneficial natural resource.
According to the United Nations Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, ‘wetlands constitute a resource of great economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value, the loss of which would be irreparable.’
Wetlands in all the four corners of the globe are like earth kidneys due to the role they play in conserving and filtering water resources. They filter pollutants from water that flows through them. In coastal areas, they also provide buffers to storms and extreme wave events.
Humans too, are major recipients of profound wetland benefits that include food, tourism, recreation and health. Crucially, wetland soils can be quite fertile thus contributing greatly to food security. Even as they confer these benefits, wetlands also ensure groundwater recharge.
As part of the Akagera River wetland, Kagasa Water reservoir has been of immense value to the local community over the years. However, its reduced size, the alien species invasion and over-exploitation of adjacent land threatened to seriously undermine the livelihoods that depended on it.
How can we restore this reservoir to its former glory and ensure that local livelihoods are enhanced through this restored glory? This is the question that ARAMA researched on in the many meetings that they had with the community.
It became evident in these meetings that the community needed a lot of institutional and organisational support to enable them be better organized, to have more skills on environmental protection, integrated fish farming techniques, technical and management abilities to run and sustain the project.
Armed with funding from the Dutch Embassy in Rwanda, ARAMA rolled out a project whose overall objective was to protect Kagasa water reservoir ecosystem and develop intensive fish farming, together with pig farming.
By 2009, ARAMA had mobilized the local community to clear silt and water weeds away from the reservoir. Community members were paid for their labour and this helped in shaping their perceptions of the reservoir as a natural resource that could vastly enhance their livelihoods. After hundreds of hours of intensive labour, an official from the Ministry of Agriculture certified that the reservoir was finally ready for optimal fish farming.
All through this manual labour ARAMA partnered with the government to provide training to the local community on integrated fish farming techniques, bamboo cultivation and river banks ecosystem protection. Through this training, the community has been duly equipped to earn decent livelihoods through conservation of Kagasa water reservoir ecosystem.
These environmental livelihoods have potentially huge economic benefits. The fish price being approximately 1 US dollar per kilogramme, it is expected that after one year, the production will be 2000 kilogramme of fish per hectare per year. Consequently, Kagasa’s 10 hectares will translate to 20,000kg of fish per year, which will mean a potential revenue of 20,000 US Dollars per year.
Indeed, the restored Kagasa Water reservoir is now ready to create new and sustainable environmental livelihoods for the local community.
I couldn't believe it when I heard the news. I had been selected to be a crew member of a big boat that was leaving for Msumbiji, Mozambique in a week’s time.
‘Alhamdulillah!’ Thanks to God!
I said several times in between mouthfuls of miraa, the green leaf that keeps me fully alert. How could it be possible that I, Magoma, a poor young man from Faza Island, would now be traveling all the way to Msumbiji in a brand new boat!
‘Ni kwa uwezo wa mwenyezi Mungu,’ It’s because of God’s help, I told my wife Mariamu later that night. She was my seventh wife and was pregnant with my third child. I was really hoping that this unborn baby would be a daughter. I planned to name her Zeinab, after my late mum.
My other two children were from my immediate ex-wife. The previous five marriages had all been short lived and childless. At first, I was left with serious questions about my potency but I later realized that all those women had birth control injections embedded in their arms. It's as if they trusted me to be their husband but not father to their children.
Msumbiji! My friend Ali said the word over and over, shaking his head, his red eyes shining with excitement. At twenty seven, he was two years younger than me but looked a lot older. He was a seasoned hamali, luggage carrier. Years of ferrying luggage to all corners of the island had left his him with the reddest eyes you will ever see and more wrinkles than his years. When I sometimes joked with strangers that he was my father, they would believe me.
Like me, Ali was also amongst the eight crew men selected. Unlike me, he had been married for ten years to the same woman and had five children with her.
‘Inshallah mwaka hunu Ramadhan ikisikilia, nitawanunulia zijana zangu nguo nzuri kabisa!’
God willing this year when the Holy Month of Ramadhan arrives, I will buy for my kids the best clothes ever! Ali said in our kiamu dialect of Swahili.
He had been born on the island and had the fair complexion and soft hair of most Arabs. Fair-skinned islanders like him were known locally as vijoho. Their ancestors were Arab traders who arrived in Lamu in the medieval era, settled there and married local Pokomo women. In that regard, people often joke, truthfully some would say, that Pokomos are the real owners of Lamu.
The departure day was finally upon us. All my fellow jack-of-all-trades young men were looking at me enviously, wishing that they were in my shoes. When all the eight of us plus the captain and white manager had finally stepped into that big boat and we were ready to set sail, I whispered a dua, prayer to God.
The captain was a gentle, bearded man known as Bakari. He rarely spoke but when he did, we all paid attention and did exactly as he wanted. He had been sailing along the western Indian Ocean route since 1980 and was highly experienced. His friends often said of him that apart from his blood, the salty waters of the Indian Ocean also flowed in his veins.
The luxury boat could sit 150 people and had been made in Lamu by Fundi Bakari, a well known boat technician whose late father had also been a renowned boat technician. We were delivering the boat to its new owner in Mozambique. Due to its sheer size, it could only use an eight cylinder engine that we would be purchasing in Malindi then fitting it into the boat. Between Lamu and Malindi, we would be using the sail just like our ancestors had done for millennia.
After mounting the sail, we set sail. Apart from the ten humans on board, the other living organisms on board were thirteen goats. These goats were of course for feeding ten hungry men. But they also had another purpose.
The ocean has invisible doors. These doors can either usher you into calm waters or lock you away from these calm waters. We encountered the first door at the Shella area of Lamu. The key of unlocking the door of calmness is sacrifice.
I uttered a Muslim prayer as I sliced open the goat’s throat. Blood gushed out as if I had just opened a tap of blood. The ocean calmed down. Oral tradition teaches us that the ocean thirsts for blood and if you don't quench its thirst through animal sacrifice, it will find its own way of quenching the thirst and might just go for human blood.
The same goat slaughtering ritual was repeated several times along the month-long journey.
We spent almost a week in Malindi fitting the massive eight-cylinder engine and testing the boat. If you are going to sail for thousands of miles in the waters of three different countries, you had better be sure that your boat and engine are in the best possible shape.
‘Ng’oa nanga!’ Unhook the anchor! The captain shouted at me from the deck.
Ali and I started pulling the anchor from the sea bed where it was firmly hooked. Less than ten minutes later, the boat was free to finally commence it's epic journey to Mozambique.
I remained perched at the front of the boat so that I could scan the vast ocean and inhale fresh air as the breeze caressed my face. Malindi’s receding shoreline soon disappeared from my view. Before long, the palm tree-thatched local houses and fancy looking tourist hotels also disappeared from view. The only sight all around us was the ocean’s shimmering blue.
It seemed to me that at some point in the far away distance, the ocean and sky became one. A giant blue space that made our boat appear like a brown speck of sand in the beach.
Our boat was about fifteen meters long and fifteen meters tall in its highest mid section. It was made almost entirely from mvule (African Teak) hardwood. It was extremely sturdy and durable.
‘Lunch tayari!’ Lunch is ready! Omar, one of the two chefs called from below.
I wasn’t hungry. Although I am an islander born on Pate Island, I had never travelled this far by boat and was relishing every moment. The sights and sounds of the ocean had filled my stomach. You would feel satisfied too if any upward glance would leave your eyes feasting on those White Sea birds that are better fishers than islanders like myself.
But I couldn't turn down fresh roast goat, so I descended down to the inviting aroma. There is something about roast meat that mellows men completely. For the fifteen minutes that we were eating, all the ten men had the serene looks of someone who has just arrived in heaven.
A loud shrill sound awoke me from my afternoon siesta.
I bolted to my feet and ran to the upper deck. A blue boat was hurtling towards us with the siren blaring. I instantly knew that it was the navy. Ever since al shabaab ventured into Lamu’s Manda Island in 2010 and kidnapped a handicapped French lady, the Kenya navy had heightened patrols in the ocean.
‘Who are you, where are you from and where are you going!’ A gruff voice demanded.
Several navy officers climbed into our boat and commenced a thorough search. They had a tiny black gadget the size of a TV remote that they hovered over every item in the boat.
We all produced our identification as Bruce the white manager showed them the approved list that contained our names. After ascertaining that everyone on the boat was on that list, they disembarked and sped off.
At about eight PM, the captain commanded us to anchor at Mombasa’s Nyali area. I threw the heavy anchor into the raging waters and waited for my hands to feel the firm tug that would tell me the anchors hooks were firmly embedded in the sea bed. The tug came and I thanked God, ‘Alhamdulillah!’
Sleeping in a boat that is being rocked by the restless waves of nighttime is like sleeping in a giant rocking chair. I fell asleep within moments of lying down in one of the soft mattresses that lined a section of the boat’s lower section.
I dreamt that my wife had given birth to Zeinab right there in the boat. Just as the baby was starting to let loose that virgin cry, I woke up with a start. I always wake up suddenly as if someone is chasing me in my sleep.
After jolting awake, I realized that Zeinab’s cry was in reality the wake-up bell. Since the boat could only start after I did my job, I raced up the stairs as if my very life depended on it.
‘Ng’oa nanga!’ Unhook the anchor! The captain’s rare voice followed hot on my heels.
Barely moments later, I was pulling the thick rope with all my might, happy that at that precise moment, I was more important than Captain Bakari and Manager Bruce. Soon enough, the anchor was free from the embrace of the sea bed and the boat was on its way.
I didn't notice when we passed South Coast’s famous Ukunda Beach because we were cruising in the deep waters and could only see ocean waters all around us. But I noticed when we cruised by Wasini Island since the strait was narrow and both the island plus Shimoni on the mainland were clearly visible.
Within an hour, we passed Vanga then shortly crossed into Tanzania. The ocean is however one singular massive mass of water that doesn't care about all these boundaries. I didn't even realize that we were in Tanzania until the Captain pointed out Zanzibar in the distance. From the deep sea where we were, Zanzibar was just a few palm trees that appeared like ants.
I took my position at the head of the boat and readied myself to anchor it. We would be spending the night about half a kilometer from Zanzibar’s shoreline. Because of the boat’s sheer size, docking too near the shore would present mobility challenges once the tide receded.
I needed a bath. It was late at night, maybe midnight or 2AM. I had no watch and my phone had fallen into the ocean months earlier during a fishing trip. But I didn't miss the white man’s time. My grandfather always told me to internalize time.
‘If you can’t tell the time by looking at the sun, just sniff the air,’ he would say every time I asked him what time it was.
Despite the ocean’s cold wind, I was sweating so I arose from my comfortable mattress and walked to the boat’s lone bathroom. Although it didn't have those smooth white bathtubs that I had seen in some of Lamu’s luxury hotels, it had a beautiful shower and an ocean painting that stared at you silently as you took your shower.
Five minutes later, I stepped out of the shower feeling refreshed and full of energy. Instead of going back to sleep, I ascended to the foremost part of the boat, where I normally stood as I anchored it. I just stood there listening to the mysterious whispers of the ocean.
From that moment onwards, I would steal as many moments as possible at night when most people were asleep to stand at that spot and listen to the whispered voice of the ocean. I even stopped chewing miraa because this peaceful yet rapturous voice of the ocean filled me with so much peace that I felt sad when the boat finally arrived at its destination in the north coast of Mozambique.
Days later, it was payday. The biggest payday of my life.
Thick white envelopes were wordlessly handed to each of us. There was silent ecstasy in the air. For me, the moment just before I clasped the envelope in my hand was like that split heavenly second just before I make love to my wife.
As I grasped the envelope, I felt its soft, smooth texture and smiled.
‘Alhamdulillah!’ I said loudly, unashamed of my total joy.
I scratched my flourishing beard as I paced the carpeted floor. The other seven deck men ceased to exist as did the white Englishman who had purchased the boat. He is the one who was personally paying us, muttering a muffled, ‘thanks’ every time he dished out the blessed envelope.
In those few moments after I had been handed my envelope, I was in dreamland.
I saw Zeinab, my unborn baby, in a cute green dress that had a blue ribbon at the front. I am the one who had bought for her that dress using the contents of the white envelope. Her mother was wearing a brand new stylish buibui like the one that Lamu’s First Lady usually wore during important functions. We had shifted from the makuti (palm tree leaves) structure that we were currently living in and had moved into a two bedroom house just near Lamu main street.
As I boarded a Dar es Salaam bound bus, I knew that these dreams could not come true, thanks to the blessed envelope in the back pocket of my black jeans. Thanks to the Indian Ocean, without which I would not have earned this money. Thanks to my boat skills that had earned me a place in the brand new boat.
But most of all, ‘Alhamdulillah.’ Thanks to God.
P/S Magoma is a qualified and certified coxswain who however often works as a hamali (luggage carrier) due to lack of opportunities. He can be reached through the email below, upon which his mobile phone number will be availed.
Love, what a feeling! Olive had known it when she met Patrick. She was happier and felt to have a great weight off her mind. She could find herself smiling without a reason. Patrick was the love of her life, there was no doubt. Since he told her that she was beautiful and intelligent; she felt beautiful and intelligent.
Love, that feeling had stolen most of her habits because of the sensation of well-being it procured. Things that mattered to her became less essential, almost futile. Her appetite had reduced, smelting at the same time some grease that had hid the natural shape that God had graciously presented to her.
Olive was now more careful about her look; ironing her clothes twice, polishing her shoes with the popular Kiwi shoe shining cream. With a smooth sponge, she put on a thin layer of Exofene powder that made her skin rarefied.
Sensing Patrick’s appreciative regard falling on her gave her the feeling the she got wings and could fly. The first time when this man’s hand touched her tender and delicate cheek, she trembled with pleasure.
Olive had been raised by her two big sisters who meticulously taught her good manners. She was an exemplary girl in her community so that people referred to her as a nun. She freely advised her friends and her sisters were proud of their youngest sibling.
She had freshly graduated from secondary school with a good grade and her glowing beauty gave rise to lots of flattering comments….. till the absence of her period.
She was bearing Patrick’s child. Patrick, the love of her life. She was terrified by her sisters’ reaction. The three siblings were orphans, their parents had died of AIDS twelve years earlier. Fortunately, both of her sisters got married without any premarital pregnancy. It was a silent victory as no one in their entourage had got an opportunity to gossip behind their back.
But on the other side, the love that Patrick, as a man, had for Olive put her mind at rest about her pregnancy.
As she has always done, she sought advice from Solène, a good friend that she considered as another elder sister, who had recently married Joe. Solène told her to entrust her secret to her sisters. She was only three weeks pregnant.
At the beginning, her sisters supported her and she felt automatically soothed.
- “It happens; we are all behind you”. Had said Thérèse, the eldest.
Back in 1991, Anne-Emmanuèle Calves, the author of “Marginalization of African single mothers in the marriage market: Evidence form Cameroon” clearly stated that because young African women and men postpone first marriage but do not wait for marriage to become sexually active; premarital pregnancies and births are on the rise, especially in urban areas and among educated youth.
Olive had dreaded her sisters’ reaction that she was so much relieved and light-hearted she went to see Patrick. His reaction left her flabbergasted when he said:
- I can’t believe it! What tells me that you only slept with me??
Heaven knows that Olive had heard so many pregnancy stories, including Solène’s and she had heard the saying “the wall came tumbling down”. Was it even conceivable that Patrick had a heart of stone? Patrick, the love of her life, could he possibly say those words? Was it him speaking or someone else was operating inside him?
Curiously, Patrick’s reaction irritated her sisters. Thérèse who was hosting Olive was constantly wondering what they would do now that Patrick, his brother-in-low to be, had disowned his child. They were about to experience shame. From there, she started resenting her sister for bearing that baby. What had Olive missed to dishonor them despite the good education they gave to her? That resentment slowly grew into deep anger. How could she?
On her side, Olive could feel that she had lost the sympathy of her sisters. One day, a market day, Thérèse told her:
- Bintera isoni kugendana nawe. I feel ashamed to walk with you. People are judging us.
As days passed, their relationship deteriorated. Thérèse asked her to stay inside the house most of the time, to calm down the gossip. At home, motivated with guilty, Olive was killing herself with domestic tasks to avoid pregnancy or laziness accusations. But unfortunately, her sisters were not that much satisfied.
- Nta bagore babiri mu nzu! There can’t be more than one lady of the house!
While her sisters were manhandling Olive, Patrick had promised to support her as he was afraid that Olive would ask local authorities to intervene. He was also obliged to accompany her to the prenatal consultations because the health center insisted on the fact that pregnant women should come with their partners.
But what Olive needed the most was the emotional and moral support and Patrick had cruelly deprived her of that. In a kinder clime, she was his chérie but now Olive was nobody’s Dulcinea.
At the hospital, she delivered with the help of a midwife, her sisters and Solène. Patrick forgot to show up or even call. Olive’s phone remained stubbornly silent that whole day.
Solène tried to console her young friend but she knew that it was not easy and the worst was ahead. Her own marriage with Joe had its own challenges but she was sure of one thing: the warm smile of their baby consoled her from everything. And Solène was hoping that the new-born baby would bring the same joy to the fresh mother, Olive. She prayed that the innocent angel would dissipate the after-effects of Patrick’s rejection. But Solène was also very certain that no matter what happened, Olive’s life would never be the same.
Once the baby reached three months, Olive decided to leave her sister’s house. She was tired of the daily tensions that she faced. Solène helped her to find a small job as a cashier in a cyber café.
She had named her daughter Umulisa, avoiding all those names that parents give to illegitimate children: Iranzi(God knows me), Irankunda (God loves me), Rukundo (love), Mugisha (Blessing) or Keza (the beautiful). Since the birth of Umulisa, Patrick has just came to see her once and the rest of the time, he was irregularly sending money to Olive via MTN Mobile Money, a money transfer service provided by the telecommunication company MTN.
From the time when Olive moved out her sister’s house, she learnt the true meaning of being responsible. She was at the same time the man and woman, taking all the decisions. The most difficult was that there was no one to tell her whether she was right or not. Whenever she felt tired, she could recall Thérèse saying:
- No one sent you to be pregnant.
Managing her low salary was also a life lesson. She experienced what it meant to lack money to buy sugar for the baby’s porridge or soap to wash clothes. She didn’t realize that she was maturing at an extremely high speed. But she did realize that she was no longer at the same wave length as her close friends.
They didn’t know what it was to spend a sleepless night because the baby was sick, to save a 100 Frw coin because it will buy soap or tomatoes the next day. They ignored what it was to pay for mutuelle de santé, community health insurance, to start thinking about your baby’s school fees while you too have to go to university.
Her age mate friends did not know all of that because they were still spoon fed by their parents. Their discussions were still around the handsome stars of different TV shows like Dereck Morgan, John, Patrick Jane or Will Gardner playing in Criminal minds, Person of Interest, The mentalist and The Good Wife respectively.
The only show that Olive was watching was her life completely disrupted by the arrival of Umulisa. While Umulisa lived with her mother, the Doha International Family Institute shows that in certain parts of Africa, at least half of children live with adults besides their parents (Democratic Republic of Congo (58%), Ghana (53%), Nigeria (57%), South Africa (70%) and Tanzania (60%).
At the Cyber café, Olive was working so hard that she couldn’t count the number of days thatshe has worked overtime. Fortunately, her boss Yves, noticed her efforts and promoted her to be the logistics manager. Her salary almost doubled and she took draconian measures of spending after saving.
As she was no longer at the front desk, she had to share the office with Yves. Olive could surprise herself staring at her boss. She was gripped by the warmth of a man’s presence.
Between Yves and Olive, it started with sharing an office, then a cup of Rwandan tea, a dinner and finally a kiss. Olive who had thought that all of her senses were in extinction, found herself alive again. She momentarily forgot all the pain that she had locked inside her heart as Yves offered her tenderness. She was afraid of skimming the love sentiment once more; because she knew how sweet it could be but also how devastating it had been to her.
As usual, Olive sought advice from Solène who asked her to be careful. Now that Olive had a higher salary, she has started saving money because perhaps in few years, she would be able to send her daughter to Kigali Parents School, one of the best private schools in Kigali. Somehow, she was dreaming that Yves would be around to support her. On the othe hand, she was worried that, one day, Yves or Patrick will easily propose her for marriage. Olive’s situation was not an isolated case as in 1991, the Cameroon Demographic and Health Survey proved that premarital childbearing has a strong and negative effect on a young woman’s chances of first marriage.
When Solène heard about and met Yves, her sixth sense told her to learn more about this charming guy. It didn’t take her more than a week to learn that Yves had a fiancée and he was just playing Olive, taking advantage of her emotional vulnerability.
It was around a glass of a cold Primus that Solène told Olive about Yves’s deception. The two friends cried together. For a moment, Olive felt upset to have been so weak, to have opened up to Patrick and then Yves, she felt humiliated, both physically and emotionally.She felt dirty, ugly and small.
While websites like ‘Single mothers by choice’, a platform founded in 1981 by Jane Mattes (a psychotherapist and single mother by choice), provide support and information to single women in the USA, Canada, Europe and Beyond; most of African women like Olive don’t have access to mental health facilities where they can seek support related to the challenges of single motherhood.
She was not even able to pray as she was convinced that her attitudes disgusted God.
It took her around six months to recover from Yves’ lying games. At that time, Umulisa was two years old. She got another job. The average income that she was earning allowed her to enroll in one of universities of Kigali, INILAK. She also got an additional job translating for a lawyers’ firm.
She had the feeling that she had four full-time employments: her formal job, translation, studies and raising her daughter. As her financial situation was rising, her sisters came back in her life and Patrick dared to show up.
He apologized but Olive was not sure if she would be able to love him again, and if yes, she didn’t know how much time it would take her to heal and trust him again. Mean, there was one lesson that she learnt: In life, you first have to count on yourself to solve your own problems. And if you are a woman, always make sure that you will be able to raise every single child that you make before counting on a man. Patrick could or could not come in her life but either way, she knew that she alone would always make sure that Umulisa had everything she needed.
Olive and her daughter had been through so much together that the young mother felt her daughter was the only soul mate that she would ever have.
To celebrate her new job, Solène took Olive to Muhazi beach and the two women played radio from one of their phones. Whitney Houston was singing Exhale:
“Everyone falls in love sometimes, sometimes it’s wrong, and sometimes it’s right. For every win, someone must fail,….”
While they were joyfully uniting their voices and dominating Whitney’s, Olive raised her eyes to God and confessed that the only sin she has committed was to love.
When she wakes up, she first makes up; before doing anything else even before praising her God or cursing her parents for giving her such an ugly and old-fashioned name, Marguerite. The oval mirror on the nightstand table is a regular companion because it’s the first thing that her mind thinks about; it is the first object that her dark-skinned hand touches.
Marguerite came to Kigali seven years ago; she flew from a rural life that was not challenging the highbrow she was meant to be. She ran away from a life that would have surely brought her to be a rural primary school teacher’s wife. That was not Marguerite. She needed to shine like the street lamps decorating the streets of Kigali. She wanted to be …. Her heart burnt when she thinks about all that she wanted to be. The list was so long. She was sure that she wanted to be someone no matter how. She dreamt to be like other girls. Those born in the city, whose skins were normally soft and whose graceful fingers could elegantly wear any nail polish.
She has given up looking at herself in the mirror; it always reflects her shapeless body, her scaly fingers. Those fingers that, back in her native village, have dug the soil before Kigali took her away.
‘I have to be beautiful’ whatever it took, she would defy that image in the mirror.
Men in Kigali love fair complexion; not all but most of them. She has always wondered why as she wanted to catch their eyes’ attention. Neither her fashionable clothes, the provocative make-up nor her expensive hair style gave her the feeling that she was admired enough whenever she passed in the streets of Kigali. Some people would look at her before their gaze shifted to others.
While some women like Marguerite bleach their skin as result of low-self esteem, the dominant explanation for skin brightening is the self-hate linked to black identity. For instance women in Togo practice this to appear important, to look attractive or as a means of job-hunting; these women don’t apply bleaching products as an act of denying the African culture.
According to the 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) report, 77%, 59% 35%, 27% and 27% of women in Nigeria, Togo, South Africa, Mali and Senegal, respectively use skin whitening products on a regular basis.
A research ‘ Buying Racial capital: Skin bleaching and cosmetic surgery in a Globalized World’ done by Mills College proved that urban, educated women in Nigeria, Jamaica, South Africa and other countries bleached their skins for global job competition in order to compete with other naturally light women.
On the other side, Christopher A.D. Charles in his paper, Skin bleaching, Self-Hate and Black Identity in Jamaica, said that Jamaican women bleach their skin because they suffer from self-hate as a result of lingering psychological scars of slavery. Black Jamaican women believe that white and brown people are better than them.
Marguerite’s soul shouts heart-rending cries; it’s a piercing scream that exhibits her thirst for recognition, a desire to quench.
A friend, Anita, good connoisseur of Kigali, once told her that if she wanted to be at the top of the league in the capital, she had to invest in her beauty. She added that it’s expensive to be beautiful. So Marguerite has poured her salary in the cosmetics and fashion although the seeping roof of her parents’ house needs urgent fixing. She has even adjusted her walk; spicing it up with more confidence and a swinging of her hips.
With all the progress that she made, when Anita saw her again, she let out a loud, wounding laughter and asked her:
“Where can you pass in this clean city with such a dark and black skin? Dear, you need to grow up, we are in Kigali!”
This is how Anita brought her to a friend of her friend. She was a cosmetic expert!
She was a tenant of a small cosmetics shop downtown on the quartier commercial street. She looked like an Indian woman with scary green eyes. Marguerite had never seen a black woman with such eyes before. She told them that her soft bright skin used to be dark as the charcoal. Marguerite wanted to be that light because the cosmetic woman was so white! She was “Classy”.
The most commonly used products are mercury, hydroquinone, corticosteroids, soil and other home made solutions.
She explained to Marguerite that she had two choices; the first that would cost her 15,000 Rwandan francs ($21.4) if she just wanted to clean her skin but if it was lightening it; she would spend only $50. She promised to mix a cocktail of chemical products where she would add a “serum” to make them more effective. She showed her a sample of the final result; it looked like a greenish decomposed mayonnaise or a hair relaxer.
The decision was made in Marguerite’s mind. Quickly…
She decided to transform Marguerite, the rural girl, into an urban woman “Maggy”. She chose to change her appearance to cope with the city standards. Using the $ 50 products, it took her less than a month to see the good effect. And she was always visiting Bellesa Africa, the facebook page for impeccable make-up for dark skins.
This issue of skin lightening has profound causes and early studies have shown that even in the first-half of the 20th century women in their early stage of life had a negative image of their skin color.
Back in 1947, the doll study that revolutionized the Self-Hate Thesis was carried out by the Clarks (an African American couple who were psychologists) on black and white school children who were given black and white dolls and asked to choose. The majority of black kids selected white dolls and these researchers assumed that it was because they rejected their black group.
As weeks passed her friends got used to call her Maggy, replacing the undesirable Marguerite. More people looked at her, which encouraged her to use more and more containers of the skin-lightening cream. This had replaced Carolight, the hydroquinone rich body lotion that she had used for the past few years.
Hydroquinone is one of the most effective inhibitors of the formation of melanin by living cells. Which means that hydroquinone destroys this substance that provides pigmentation to human beings’ skins and that protects them from the cancer-causing ultraviolet sun rays.
A study conducted by the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in UK showed that the adverse side-effects associated with the use of hydroquinone include allergic skin inflammation, skin irritation and malignant cancerous tumors.
Only four months later, Maggy had become who she was meant to be: Umukobwa w’i Kigali ukeye! - A true Kigali girl! She felt the desire in men’s looks and women’s regards were full of envy. She got a well paid job at the reception of a telecommunication company and she has even changed her church. She used to be catholic but it was not a youth church, it was for the elders, those who had plenty of time to lose reciting dozens of chaplet.
She joined a new church where only good-looking people came to attend the Sunday service. The majority of them parked luxurious cars outside and they never offered coins to God, they only gave Him notes. This was the world meant for her; the world where her entourage referred to her as a Muzungu- a White.
She felt that she had conquered Kigali, she was shining. Men fought to offer her presents and this flattered her. This was the emotion that she had always searched for: Having men begging her on their knees. She had touched the sky.
Despites this, she couldn’t explain the reason why, she walked with constant anxiety. She kept checking her image in the mirror every morning because she was afraid that side-effects of her cream, black spots or green veins, would appear one day or another. She heard that the worst consequences of hydroquinone included cancer.
Skin bleaching is a relatively cheaper to way to get a light skin in Africa while cosmetic surgery is more common in Western countries. In Africa, brightening started three to four decades ago when naturally black women who considered their blackness as a low status wanted to be socially accepted by the white. For several years, blackness was associated with ugliness. Winthrop D. Jordan in his book ‘ White over Black’ shows that White is connoted with purity, virginity, virtue, beauty, beneficence, God while black is seen as filthiness, sin, baseness, ugliness, evil and devil.
Again research suggests that social status is greater for black women with lighter complexion.
Now that Maggy has tasted the fruitful savor of being someone, she wanted to go back to her village for a three day period. She wanted her mother to be proud of the woman she became.
Once there, she passed by aunt Yvonne’s house; the middle-aged woman didn’t recognize Maggy. She thought that her niece was someone else, perhaps a demon because of her new skin color. She pushed away the expensive clothes Maggy bought for her. The aunt hugged her as if she was a monster that would swallow her if she got any closer.
Maggy consoled herself treating her aunt Yvonne to be a poor uncivilized peasant. The most painful part of her return was to see the desperation in her beloved mother’s eyes and disgust on her father’s face. Her siblings were just curious, wondering how the city could transform Marguerite in such a ‘surprising’ being.
They were not impressed as Maggy expected. Some sensed pity, others just didn’t understand her. She felt hurt, insulted and rejected.
If at least they could know how much she paid to get the confidence she was displaying now. How much effort she had spent on her skin to chase away the low-esteem and self-hate feelings that Kigali had engendered in her heart.
They didn’t allow her to take pictures with her nice smart touch-screen Samsung.
- You have denied us. You became another person; you are no longer my daughter. I can’t recognize you.
Those were the harsh words from Maggy’s father’s mouth. They were wrapped with a good dose of disdain.
Her mother too, was deeply troubled, prompting Maggy to calmly tell her, ‘Mum, don’t worry for me, I am alright. I have everything in my life. I even have a rich fiancé in Kigali.’
Tears dropped down her old cheeks. Maggy knew that it was not due to the smoke from the fire but the pain of seeing the new Marguerite. The bowed woman gave her Saint Marguerite’s life brochure. She reminded her of Saint’s humility. Maggy wanted to explain to her mother that she no longer believed in the catholic preaching.
Instead of three days, she slept in her parents’ house for a night. Back at Kigali, she was wondering what all of this meant to her. Why did she feel beautiful but not joyful? Why this new skin did lead her parents to cry?
The beauty industry in South Africa has made some progress to restore the place black beauty. Some stores, where black people are the majority of clients, are trying to use black or brown mannequins to expose clothes for sale. The power of colorism in the global society is not only affecting black women because the same WHO report clearly shows that a good number of women in China, Malaysia, Philippines, The Republic of Korea, India and more other country do also apply skin lighteners.
Among countries affected by this problem, Gambia, South Africa and recently Ivory Coast has banned the use of these products. But despite severe laws, these products are still sold in some markets.
More efforts are being made for instance a South African doll maker Molemo Kgomo is creating a brand of black dolls, called Ntomb’entle, for African young girls to play and identify with when they grow up.
But more efforts are needed especially from the media to bring people to truly believe that black is beauty. The saddest part of the story is that black people who live in this Barbie World don’t always see the beauty in their beauty. Most of them have unconsciously accepted that thin, light long-haired women are necessary the most attractive. There is still a long way to go to change this mentality.
In Kigali, Maggy heard a high school student screaming to her in a bad joke:
- Look at the Michael Jackson of Kigali.
That night she cried while looking at herself on the mirror. The mirror only showed her the beauty that she had purchased in the expensive creams, the mask that covered her natural complexion.
She cried for making her parents cry and ashamed of the Kigali product she became.
She cried because she understood that she got all the material life she dreamed of but lost her spirituality.
She lost the feeling that God loved her more than anything, she lost His presence. She hitched up paltry search of beauty instead of allowing the mirror to reflect the real beauty, the image that God clothed her in at her birth. She understood that by bleaching her skin, she bleached her dignity, her identity, her family.
When she wakes up, she no longer starts her day with make-up. When she wakes up, she first takes time to hear the birds singing near her window.
Don. His name wasn’t typically Burundian. His father named him after Don King the renowned American boxing promoter. When Don King brought the great Mohamed Ali to Congo in 1974, Don’s father was in his mid teens. After Ali won the rumble in the jungle, Don’s father fell in love with boxing hopelessly So when his first son was born nearly ten years later, he remembered to call him Don.
Don is now thirty and working as a fisherman in Lake Tanganyika. This was his father’s trade and it is now his. Tragically, his father was one of the approximately 300,000 people who were killed during Burundi’s 1993 to 2005 civil war. After this tragic event, Lake Tanganyika became like Don’s father – it gave him the security of a livelihood.
Burundi’s share of the lake is only eight percent, which is more than Zambia’s share of 6 percent but a far cry from DRC’s 45 percent and Tanzania’s 41 percent. However, that eight percent constitutes at least 2,600 square kilometres in surface area, a size that is five times the size of Seychelles.
In 1971, this ‘fish garden’ gave Burundi 15,400 tonnes of fish. The following year in 1972, fish production plummeted to 6,400 tonnes because of the genocide. It is estimated that 80,000 – 200,000 Burundians lost their lives in the genocide.
The increased conflict was accompanied by decreased fish production and less money.
Don’s father lived through that particular conflict and passed on the fishing trade to his son. During the years that they fished together, Don’s father always told him that, ‘fish can give you two very important things – good money and great peace.’
Like thousands of other Burundian fishers, Don’s father specialized in ndagala, the small sardine like fish that are popular with locals. Don later decided to cast his net wider by becoming a jack-of-all-fishes. He took whatever fish the lake gave him but prayed for the much beloved mukeke. If ever there was a fish that gave him good money, it was this one. But it was also very good in the hide and seek game and could be rather difficult to catch. When mukeke went missing, Don would still be happy with sangala, another fish common in Lake Tanganyika, the second deepest lake in the world.
The lake has also become like a surrogate husband to many war widows or ex combatants who now derive their livelihoods from fish. In order to further build on this phenomena, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) supported ex-combatants in conserving and commercializing fish from Lake Tanganyika. Many of the people who received FAO’s support had already been using activities like collective drying of fish to enhance reconciliation and unity. The support gave them further impetus to earn more from fish.
FAO later partnered with the Burundian Ministry for Agriculture and Livestock in a project known as ‘Support to post-harvest fisheries technology.’
As fishermen like Don can attest, getting fish out of the water is just one part of the job. The other equally important part is selling this fish when it is still fresh or increasing its shelf life by conserving it. In 2004, nearly 15 percent of harvested fish was lost not to robbers but to post harvest challenges. As Burundi was losing 15 percent of its hard earned fish, $4.3 billion was earned from fish exports by other African countries.
According to FAO, whose first fishery project in Burundi was in 1970, post-harvest poor handling practices include, ‘using dirty canoes, equipment, fish boxes and baskets; not washing fish; washing fish in dirty water; placing fish on dirty surfaces; and physically damaging fish by throwing or standing on them.’ Such are the practices that handlers no longer engage in after receiving training and equipment like raised metallic racks for frying their fish and freezers. Apart from increasing fish revenues, this whole process solidifies the gains made by ex-combatants in rehabilitation, which is more of a marathon than a sprint.
Some people consider spending a night in the middle of the lake to be extremely unsafe. But that is where Don feels most secure. The fact that he is literally harvesting from his ‘fish garden’ gives him hope that he can make money, take care of his young family and keep going.
However, his fish catch has been dwindling, leaving him deeply worried. There were times in the past when he would return in the morning with more than fifty kilos of fish. Now he would be lucky to get even thirty kilos.
In 1995, Burundi produced 21,000 tonnes of fish. Fifteen years later in 2010, the yield had dropped to 20,000 tonnes before dropping even further to 15,000 tonnes in 2013.
In 2010, fisheries contributed US$10 billion to African economies. Unfortunately, Burundi’s share of this scoop was negligible.
If Burundi gains a foothold in the fish export sector, fishers like Don will benefit even more as will the ex-combatants. Every morning when he docks in one of Lake Tanganyika’s 700 landing sites, Don needs reassurance that the fishery future is bright, not bleak. Longer shelf life of his fish has already given him a measure of reassurance. A wider market for this fish would translate to more competitive prices and give fishermen like him even much more reassurance.
Back in 1974 when Mohamed Ali was rumbling in the boxing jungle, fishery contributed less than 1 percent to GDP. More than forty years later, the situation hasn’t changed drastically.
As far back as 1976, FAO/UNDP research estimated that, ‘a sustainable level of production of at least 25,000 tons per annum for Burundi is possible.’ Unfortunately, this estimated projection has remained largely unfulfilled. Many years of civil war definitely have something to do with this as it is impossible to realize sustainable productivity in a climate of conflict.
Although the civil war bullets and machetes didn’t kill fish, they killed people who were either consumers or fishers.
Back to the words of Don’s father, ‘fish will give you good money and great peace.’
It’s time to heed his advice.
Note: Don is a composite character reflecting the experiences of different real-life fishermen.