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Women of the Sea

by Kathy O’Hare

The fishermen in Msasani Beach, Dar es Salaam are visible. They are visible because they use dhows, traditional boats usually with one or two lanteen sails. They also work in teams, laying out seine nets to catch fish and hauling large nets of catch into their dhows. The fishermen on the dhows shout and direct the divers in the water that lay their seine nets out. They use large stick poles to push and pull the dhows in the direction they want to go whilst guiding the divers. You can see fishermen sitting under the shade of trees crocheting new nets and repair old nets. 

The fish markets are thronged with men standing around tables selling fish, crabs, octopus, barracuda, lobster, prawns and sardines. Bidders throw money next to the fish they want to buy and auctioneers sing and shout to encourage customers to spend money. It is a frenzied atmosphere as boats line up along the beach to land their catches and sell them in the markets. Men are visible.

Kivukoni Ferry Market, Dar es Salaam

There is, however, a more elusive group of people that can only be seen if you look hard. When the tide is out in Msasani Beach, you can see a scattering of women walking slowly through the greasy mud that is the exposed seabed. Women play an interesting role in the fishing industries that can sometimes be overlooked and under-reported. The role of women in the Tanzanian fisheries is focused in the post-catch aspects of the fishing industry: they process the fish and prepare it for selling for domestic and international markets.

Women searching for Mapanga Shellfish along Msasani Beach, Dar es Salaam

I approach some women on the beach as they walk through the water, with their brightly coloured long skirts soaking up the salty sea water and their headscarves blowing in a light wind. The sun is beating down and they tell me that they are too busy to talk to me, that they must continue their work. I explain to them that I do not want to interfere with their work. They laugh and smile and welcome me. They tell me to put on shoes as I could cut my feet in the water. I spent some time with the three women whilst they search for Mapanga shellfish. The women scan the exposed seabed through the lush green seaweed, they carry buckets and knives and hack the razor-sharp Mapanga shells open to retrieve the small white fleshy fish inside. They throw the shells back into the seabed and continue on their search.

Fisherwoman searching for Mapanga Shellfish in Dar es Salaam

They discuss the challenges of their work. Back and knee pain are common among the women but they do not have any alternative sources of income: they must send their children to school. They explain that they can only work when the tide is fully out and they comb the ocean floor meticulously looking for shellfish. Working in groups of three to 15, they search the shores in 0.5 metre water depth. Their aim is to find 1kg of shellfish. This will take two to three hours and they can sell for 20,000 Tanzanian schillings, which is approximately €8.30. The women I spoke with only went fishing once a week and this was their total income earnings for the week. They tell me that they sell their catches to “rich people” so they can buy traditional food. They say their biggest challenge is not having a small boat to work from. It is their dream and plan to start a co-op to fund a small boat that they can share, so they can have access to bigger catches of fish.

2016 Student Scheme recipient Kathy O’Hare, who recently completed an MA in Digital Cultures at UCC, travelled to Tanzania to examine the impact coral blasting has on the environment, tourism and employment in the country. She was mentored by Newstalk producer, Susan Cahill and her reports will feature on Newstalk’s ‘Global Village’ programme in the coming months.