Saturday, June 4, 2011

Boating and Fishing in West Africa

Pirogue Fishing Boats, Cape Coast, Ghana

The earliest written records of lake and river fishing in West Africa are about 500 years old.  However, we know that pirogue canoes have been manufactured there for at least 8,000 years and in all likelihood, for thousands of years before that.  In 1987, a 7,700 year old canoe was discovered in northeast Nigeria, on the Yobe River.  Carved from a single mahony tree, a wood that is highly durable, the bow and stern of the boat are finely worked points.  It is 8.4 meters long and 0.5 meters wide. In other words, a perfect river and lake pirogue for two or three people.  The proximity of the find to Lake Chad, a lake with abundant fish, suggests that similar canoes were used in the area to fish 8000 years ago, and likely well before that.  It is notable that at that time, Lake Chad was much larger than today.  The workmanship indicates that its maker was a craftsman in wood, much as West Africans are known today.  In fact, the canoe closely resembles lake and river fishing canoes used in the area today. The canoe also indicates that the people of West Africa of the time were not stationary dwellers, but had developed a means to navigate their waterways.

The principal freshwater fishing rivers in West Africa are the Senegal and the Bani, in the west; the great Niger, connecting Senegal and Mali with Nigeria in the west, north and east; and the Volta in the center, which flows southward through modern Ghana.  There is remarkable continuity of West African languages according to groupings centered on these rivers, as shown in the following Niger-Congo language classification map:

The greatest diversity of Niger-Congo languages exists on these rivers, which is suggestive that they originated in West Africa.  In Ghana alone, there are approximately 35 Niger-Congo languages spoken.  These languages also tend to group according to river watersheds, indicating that Niger-Congo life has been historically centered about rivers. Pirogue boats have historically been the only means of long distance communication on these rivers.  Fishing, by way of pirogues, has provided a key source of protein in West Africa for millenia.  (Niger history:  link ; Volta Estuary showing pirogue manufacture:  link; Pirogue racing on the Niger: link)

The ubiquity of these boats stems from the abundant rivers and fish, as well as the rain forest, with its huge mahogany trees.  Even in northern areas of the Niger where the Sahara dominates, pirogue boats floated from upstream are easily obtained.

Approximately three hundred years ago, the Fante of Ghana began to adapt their river fishing boats to ocean going fishing.  They also began to increase the size and length of their nets to permit ocean and beach seining techniques.  Other tribes along the coast of Ghana, including the Ga and the Anlo-Ewe, adopted fishing techiques from the Fante. (1, 2, 3)

It is notable that both beach and ocean seining techniques of the Ghanaian coast require highly coordinated teams with specialized tasks including tree falling, boat building, paddling, swimming, drumming, steering, net pulling, net mending, fish sorting, cleaning and preserving, and accounting, in order to be successful. (2)

This short video of Fante fisherman shows beach seining and paddling prior to the age of outboard motors (4).  As shown in the video, singing and percussion music are central to the role of net pulling and coordinated paddling required to overcome the heavy surf of Ghana's ocean beaches.  Beach seining is still very common, but wealthier fishing companies have fitted their boats with outboard motors and increasingly use ocean seining to secure their catches. (5)  This is driven by declining fish stocks due partly to European fishing vessels fishing off the coast of West Africa.

Fishing and boating in West Africa have a long history.  The methods of boat manufacture, boating and seining are locally developed and have made use of local innovations.  Techniques often employ highly coordinated teams in a way that is unique to the region.

Further Reading:

Akyeampong, E.,  Indigenous Knowledge and Maratime Fishing in West Africa:  The case of Ghana (link)

Atta-Mills et al, The decline of a regional fishing nation:  The case of Ghana and West Africa (link)

Kraan, M., 'One Man, No Chop':  Beach Seine Fishing in Ghana (West Africa) (link)

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