The first true fishing season since the pandemic devastated the industry has brought renewed hope for a fish-processing industry that employs hundreds of thousands.
BARGNY, Senegal — Since her birth on Senegal’s coast, the ocean has always given Ndeye Yacine Dieng life.
Her grandfather was a fisherman, and her grandmother and mother processed fish. Like generations of women, she now helps support her family in the small community of Bargny by drying, smoking, salting and fermenting the catch brought home by male villagers.
They were baptized by fish, these women say.
But when the coronavirus pandemic struck, boats that once took as many as 50 men out to sea carried only a few. Many people here were too terrified to leave their houses, let alone fish, for fear of catching the virus.
When the local women did manage to get their hands on fish to process, they lacked the usual buyers, as markets shut down and landlocked neighboring countries closed their borders. Without savings, many families went from three meals a day to one or two.
Dieng is among more than 1,000 women in Bargny and many more in the other villages dotting Senegal’s sandy coast who process fish — a crucial link in a chain that constitutes one of the country’s largest exports and employs hundreds of thousands of people.
“It was catastrophic — all of our lives changed,” Dieng says. But, she says, “Our community is a community of solidarity.”
That spirit sounds throughout Senegal with the motto “Teranga,” a word in the Wolof language for hospitality, community and solidarity. Across the country, people tell each other: “On est ensemble,” French meaning, “We are in this together.”
Last month, the first true fishing season since the pandemic devastated the industry kicked off, bringing renewed hope to the processors, their families and the village. The brightly painted vast wooden fishing boats called pirogues once again are each carrying dozens of men to sea, and people swarm the beach to help the fishermen carry in their loads.
But the challenges from the coronavirus — and much more — remain. Rising seas and climate change threaten the livelihoods and homes of those along the coast. Many can’t afford to build new homes or move inland.
A steel-processing plant rising near Bargny’s beach raises fears about pollution. It will join a cement factory that’s also nearby, though advocates argue they’re needed to replace resources depleted by overfishing.
“Since there is COVID, we live in fear,” says Dieng, 64, who has seven adult children. “Most of the people here and women processors have lived a difficult life.
“We are exhausted. But now, little by little, it’s getting better.”
Dieng and her fellow processors weathered the pandemic by relying on each other. They’re accustomed to being breadwinners — one expert estimated that each working woman in Senegal feeds seven or eight family members. Before the pandemic, a good season could bring Dieng the equivalent of $1,000. Last year, though, she says she made little to nothing.
Dieng’s husband teaches the Quran at the mosque next door to their home. The couple pooled their money with their children, with one son finding work repairing TVs. Other women got help from family members abroad or rented out parts of their refrigerators for storage.
But they missed their work. For them, it isn’t just a job. It is their heritage.
“Processing is a pride,” Dieng says.
Most fishing in Senegal is small-scale, carried out in traditional, generations-old methods as old as the ways Dieng and other villagers process the fish.
Once processed, the fish is sold to local and international buyers. Preserving it means it lasts longer than fresh and is cheaper to buy.
In Senegal alone, the fish accounts for more than half of all protein eaten by the 16 million residents of the West African nation.
Industrial fishing is carried out in Senegal’s waters as well, though via motorized vessels and trawlers instead of the traditional pirogues. More than two dozen companies also specialize in industrial processing in the country alongside fishmeal factories and canning plants. The fishmeal factories price women like Dieng out by paying more for the fish and depleting resources — to produce five kilograms of fishmeal, a lower-grade powder-like product that’s used to feed farm animals and pets, they need five times as much fish.
Senegal’s government also has agreements to allow other countries to fish off its coast, imposing limits on what they can haul in. But monitoring what these large boats from Europe, China and Russia harvest has proven difficult. Villagers say the outsiders are devastating the supply.
Dieng has become a leader and mentor whose neighbors increasingly come to her for advice on everything from money to their marriages. She’s part of a rising collective voice of women in Senegal working for change along the coast and beyond.
Senegal has designated land near Bargny as an economic zone in its efforts to invest in redevelopment. Dieng’s neighbor Fatou Samba is a town councilor and president of the Association of Women Processors of Fish Products. She has testified about the challenges of such artisanal fishing and hopes to stop much of the expansion of big industry as fishmeal companies scoop up fish and send the product to Europe and Asia.
“If we let ourselves be outdone, within two or three years, women will not have work anymore,” Samba says. “We are not against the creation of a project that will develop Senegal. But we are against projects that must make women lose the right to work.”
Samba also warns of the effects of climate change, with rising tides eroding Senegal’s coast and forcing fisherman to seek their catch further out to sea. Samba and Dieng have each lost at least half of their seaside homes as water gutted rooms during the rainy seasons of the past decade.
Besides their laborious work processing fish, Samba and other women handle the bulk of the work at home.
“Especially in Africa, women are fighters. Women are workers. Women are family leaders,” Samba says. “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 financing, protection of their fish and processing sites and improved health regulations.
Late last month, when word spread that fishermen were finally coming back to Bargny with catches, Dieng and others hurried to meet the pirogues, tethered by ropes to the beach.
It was the longest Dieng had been away from the catch. She bought enough to have her haul carried by horse-drawn cart to the plot of land that she and friends claimed along acres of black sand. Then, she started the work she’s done for decades.
Once the fish were piled onto the ground, the women smoothed them out with a small, flat piece of wood. They covered them in light brown peanut shells, bought by the sack, then lit embers in a bowl and placed those on the shells, which started to burn. Smoke billowed everywhere, a sign of progress. But it also made trying to breathe as brutal as toiling under the hot sun.
The women stoked the fire, and, once confident it would smoke for hours, stepped away. After a day or so, they returned to turn the fish and let it dry in the sun.
Another day passed, and the women returned to clean it.
Finally, the fish was packaged in vast nets, sold and taken away in trucks.
The pandemic has taught the people of Bargny a crucial lesson: Money from fish might not always be there. So it’s important to try to save some of what they make.
The pandemic also is not over. So Dieng and other women go door to door to raise awareness and urge people to get vaccinated.
Like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Senegal imposed strict measures at the start of the pandemic. The government was widely commended for its overall handling of the pandemic. Curfews have been lifted and restrictions largely eased. But the country has had more than 40,000 cases, and volunteer and government campaigns aim to keep another wave at bay.
After a long day of work and before going home to break fast of Ramadan with her family, Dieng stands in front of her smoking fish and records a video she hopes will to motivate the women working in the industry.
“It’s our gold,” Dieng says of the coast and its vital importance to Bargny. “This site is everything for us. All the women must rise up.
“We must work to always work and work again for our tomorrows, for our future.“