Fill My Nets, Row Me Home: The Fleeting Fortunes Of Lake Kivu Fishermen
Rwandan fishers dive into the silent waters of one of Africa's largest lakes. The rhythms are relatively calm, but a lifetime of hard work rarely adds up to much where earning even a euro a day is a long shot.
GISENYI— At first glance, the life of the fishermen in the villages surrounding Lake Kivu seems easy enough.
They don't have to face the dangers of the sea that threaten their saltwater counterparts, nor do their boats suffer the pounding waves. Every evening, they go out to fish, secure in the knowledge that they will not end up shattered against foam-camouflaged reefs.
Here, in northwest Rwanda, few widows mourn lost fishermen, unless their husband was particularly clumsy. They wait for the sun to swell and glow, as if to plunge into the earth's depths. Late in the afternoon, they load their colorful boats with the ease of routine: they throw freshly mended nets and gas lamps onto the deck, and the 11 members of each crew jump aboard. They don't need complex radios or navigation systems to steer their way around the simple geography of the lake.
Each day repeats itself, with remarkable precision; so much so that a month scarcely seems like a very long day, a year seems like a lengthy month, a decade like a prolonged year, and a life is but a long sigh that must necessarily come to an end. The fishermen sink their wooden oars into the water and begin moving away from the shore to the rhythm set by the captain's right hand’s song.
While he sings, the captain occasionally strikes the rim of his boat with an oar, whistles, and flexes muscles sculpted by decades of working the immense mass of water. He sings: "Row, row, I keep rowing, row, row, I never stop rowing, row, row, I keep rowing!" They continue like this until they stop paddling and cast their nets.
This emphasis on rowing is actually the ultimate prayer to ancestors who rowed with the same patience long ago, an adoration based on the continuity of their struggle, a generational pursuit of the fortune plunged in the depths of the lake. The tradition of this seemingly simple chant is fundamental to the smooth operation of the boats which set sail at dusk to fish on Lake Kivu.
Each team of fishermen consists of three rafts joined together by long logs (with the central boat, the largest, carrying the captain and his second-in-command), and the slightest loss of coordination would be enough for one of the rafts to drift too far ahead, creating a disarray that would cost them a whole night's fishing.
Days with less moonlight are the best for fishing; the fishers don't even bother setting out on full moon. The captain jokes, half-seriously, that "On full moon nights, it seems like the mosquitoes are more concerned with flying to the moon than hitting our lights."
At Kimironko market in Kigali, Rwanda.
When they reach their fishing spot, the singing stops. The second-in-command begins a series of agile maneuvers, worthy of the finest tightrope walker. Using his feet like hands, he moves from one boat to another across the logs, giving orders and helping to set the net so that it is always positioned below the three boats. Once the net is securely in place, the captain lights the gas lamps along the sides of the central raft, and they sit down to wait.
When the mosquitoes begin to notice the fishermen’s trap, it's too late.
Ten minutes. Fifteen, 20 minutes. By the time the lamps have been lit for about 30 minutes, mosquitoes cloud the air, and the silence of the lake is broken by the occasional swat to chase away those buzzing their way towards human flesh. One hour.
The cloud of mosquitoes grows, if the moon doesn't distract them. An hour and a half: the mosquitoes begin to notice the fishermen’s trap, but too late. They no longer have the strength or will to return to the safety of solid ground. Soon, their fluttering succumbs to exhaustion and they fall helplessly onto the water's surface, drowning without resistance. All movement stops, and silence returns to Lake Kivu.
A meager haul
At this point of the fishing, absolute silence is required. It is now that the little fish rise to the surface to nibble at the mosquitoes — a delicacy — and they too fall for the braided ambush that the fishermen pull slowly back to the boats.
Slowly. Very slowly. Without making a sound. Only at the last moment, and with a dry shout from the second-in-command, do the fishermen pull hard on the remaining stretch of the net and throw the less nimble fish onto the battered deck of the rafts. Here, like drops of slimy rain, fall tiny fish similar to anchovies, Raiamas moorii and Barbus apleurogramma, although if they are lucky the occasional tilapia may also be caught.
They repeat this process four or five times a night before the sun comes up again and it's time to head home. The fishermen's haul is meager, which makes their life difficult: on the best of days, they catch no more than five kilos of these puny fish, sold per kilo at 4,000 Rwandan francs. In other words, on the best of days, the crew earn €17 between them. One euro per person per day, considering that the captain is paid more than the rest. A euro each on their best days, or €365 per year, if every day were like Christmas and the moon never shone brightly.
Subtract the €5,200 they spend on rafts, fishing equipment, and nets, plus all the time when, according to the captain, the police waste hours of the night extorting money from them: Then what are they left with?
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