Local Night Net Fishing in Zanzibar
I was tired, but I got up in time for the guesthouse breakfast in Nungwi, Zanzibar. It is a free meal, and I need to think about money more than sleep. As I was eating, James, my Tanzanian friend, came to find me to tell me that he had been at the fish-market this morning and he talked with one of his friends who said that they would take me out on the fishing boat to work with them tonight. They have a sail boat, but they wanted a ‘donation’ for petrol, just in case then need to take me back in and have to use fuel. I did not know what kind of finances a donation would be, so James took into the village to meet his friend. After some debating with James translating Swahili, we agreed that the donation for petrol and for my food for the night could be $20. I hummed and hawed on it and eventually then agreed to their terms.
At 14:30, I headed to the fish market for our meeting point. 14:30 turned into 15:30, African time, and I was concerned that I had been cheated. I stood in three different places at the fish market, hoping someone would find me as it is hard for me to recognize anyone with the people coming and going so quickly. Plus, as a Caucasian, I looked extremely out of place and figured I would be easy to pick out. Eventually, I heard someone make a squeak sound. I turned and a local man carrying supplies waved for me to follow him. He stayed about 5 paces ahead of me as we walked across the beach. When we stopped and I stood beside him, I pointed at the boats in the water just off the shore. He nodded his head. He took me to sit with a group of five other local Zanzibar fishermen. I introduced myself with a smile but the only guy who tried to respond asked me, “Swahili?” I shook my head in shame. He made a funny face and said, “No English…” James had told me earlier that one of the guys on the boat could speak English. I knew that at worst that I would be am to interpret enough gestures and body language to be able to get through the journey.
Suddenly James showed up and pointed to two guys who would be part of my crew. On a dhow-boat in the water just off the beach was a man that everyone was watching. He was alone and was navigating the small wooden boat through the 60+ others just like it that dotted the water like people making their way through a shopping center on a Saturday afternoon. James told me that the boat we were watching was my boat and to be ready when get got close to the shore. Someone put my camera in a bag full of rice that they tied tight so that I would not get it wet as we were getting onto the boat. The guy beside me took off his shorts, planning to run through the water in just his underwear to get on the boat. It seemed like a logical idea, so I took off my shorts and put them in my hand as well. When the other two guys went running for the boat I raced after them. The turquoise water was above my waist when I grabbed the side of the dhow and climbed on. The other two guys were in just as quickly and all of a sudden the four of us were 10 meters from the shore and moving away. It was happening that fast…
The two men I raced on the boat with, Abdel and Sindu, were friendly but they could not speak any English. The captain was a Zanzibar local named Simon, and he came to greet me with a very friendly smile. Simon could speak English. He told me to grab the rope to help Sindu raise the sail. Well, I make it sound like the instruction was easy, but it was not. When I say Simon spoke English, I should clarify that he spoke about 5% English, so all instructions though out the journey needed gestures and to be repeated a couple of times. I would head in the direction he was pointing towards and try to figure out what I was supposed to do. That was how I figured out that Sindu and I were to raise the sail. Ropes opened the primitive cloth sail tied to our dhow boat that was completely hand-made. The wind caught us and we were off.
I sat down next to the steering and Smiley Simon told me, “Be captain.” Cool. The rudder that had removable wooden post stuck through it. Simon said, “No rightie. No leftie. Straightie! One way!” A boat was about a kilometer ahead of us that I just aimed for and followed, assuming that was the ideal angle to catch as much wind as possible in our sail. The horizon from the island of Zanzibar was covered with dhows just like ours every direction on the water. Our boat was about 7 meters long by 2 meters at the widest part in the middle and I am certain dhows have not changed in much at least 300 years.
Everyone was sitting close to me on the small wooden deck near the rudder. Two heavy sandbags sat on each side of the deck to try to ease the boats rocking. My new friends had what Simon called “Mar-ih-jooo-wanna” and asked me if I wanted to smoke with them. While trying not to sound square, I declined the offer. I would have liked to have just for the experience with them, but the last thing I needed was to be over-thinking the situation I was in… They chatted in Swahili, and told me I was, “Good Captain.” I kept the boat aimed at the same one ahead of us on the horizon for an hour and a half, exchanging my arms as they got very tired of hanging onto the rudder until we were at least 15 km from the shores of Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Africa.
Simon pointed to some birds circling just above the water a couple of hundred meters away from us and said to me, “Bird…tuna.” This would be our spot. Isolated with no other boats near us where we were no longer to see the Zanzibar mainland, we stopped to take down our sails at about 17:00. Sindu began bailing out water from the bottom of the boat with a small plastic bucket. Great…, a leaky boat… That made me made me pretty uncomfortable. Many pails full of the water went back into the ocean where they belonged.
The waves were not huge, but they were bobbing and rolling us around as the Simon, Abdel and Sindu began to get their net ready. In the direction with the current was moving away from us, Simon and Abdel sat on each side of the net that was between them and began to let it out of the boat and into the ocean. Sindu’s job was to organize the net from the giant pile of string in the middle to make sure it was untangled when it arrived into the hands of Simon and Abdel. Simon told me that the net was one kilometer long. One kilometer! We would be letting all of it out into the water. On Simon’s side of the net were Styrofoam floaters to hold it up; on Abdel’s side were pieces of coral tied to the bottom to make the net sink. The net was about 2 meters wide and the string would change from a section of blue to a section of purple, to gray, to black and then blue again. A wave came over the boat and splashed onto us. Simon laughed and said, “Haha. Is jumpie jump ocean!” I liked the way he talked. It took about an hour and a half to get all of the net down-current into the water and our boat was rope-tied to its end. We were set up.
Seasickness began finding me from the moment we stopped moving and it kept worsening. It was becoming an issue and I had to lie down and get myself flat. I am not a sailor. I know that. I get really freaking seasick. I learned that the hard way three years ago… I am not sure why I thought today would be any different. It is clear that people do not just grow out of things when they are in their 30’s…
At 19:00, I was laying down in the center of the deck at the back, right where the rudder handle had been before it was removed to become a back-rest instead. Simon and Sindu were cutting up small sticks with a very sharp knife and they were putting them into an old 20 liter metal pail that they were building a fire in. A fire on a boat is pretty scary because if it gets out of control there is nowhere to go and it is not like we were carrying life-jacks with us… Judging by the condition of the pail they had done this hundreds of times, and I assumed that they did not want to swim either. But, there were holes burned though the metal in the middle of the pail that the flames would poke out of. As a precautionary measure, the pail had been set on a makeshift carpet that had first been soaked in the ocean. On the fire, Simon cooked the crew a meal of rice with tomatoes on top. They invited me to eat, but I declined as I could barely even get up to take a photo. They thought it was pretty funny how seasick I was and they would laugh like crazy every time I would groan when I tried to move…
When it got dark at 19:30, they dumped out a bag full of old clothes and thin blankets onto the deck. I slid over to the very back of the deck so that I was horizontal and sideways across it with a blanket covering me. Simon slept next to me, and Abdel slept next to him. There was not enough room for Sindu who slept under our deck on a tarp to keep dry in the dampness underneath. Shortly after, a big wave came and soaked only me at the back of the boat. Simon said, “Is bad luck. It not so much time big ocean comes to back of boat!” A flashing blue-white-red light had been hung on a line in the middle of the boat to indicate our whereabouts to the other vessels net fishing, likely so that they would know to not get tangled up in ours.
It was a very restless sleep that I got very little of as the boat was rocked sometimes violently through the night. At 02:00, the four of us got up in the warm darkness to start bringing in the net. Simon and Abdel began pulling on the sides of it as Sindu stacked it neatly in a pile. My stomach was better, so I was the ‘Torchee’-guy who held the flashlight and turned it on when the men pulling would find a net-tangled tuna. Abdel would wiggle the dead fish free, throw it in the bottom of the boat at our feet and they would continue pulling in the 1 kilometer of net again. Fish really do travel in schools; any time we would get one fish, there would be at least one or two more at a very short distance from the first, and then it might be another 50 or 100 meters of net before another seam of fish swam along in the night to get tangled up in the darkness of the ocean. I was surprised at the tangled fish being dead when the net was pulled in. I asked Simon if they were actually just sleeping. He laughed and said, “Yes, tuna very much tired!” The longest of the fish was about the length of my arm. There are a lot of cans in one tuna. On occasions, as they were pulling in the net, a fish would fall back into the ocean and Simon would gasp, “Ah! Bad luck! Upside down!” Aligning the net was luminous and glowing phosphorous algae that remained attached to the fabric that came into the boat with us. It looks beautiful in the darkness of the night.
Between jobs of being torchee-guy, I was also bailing water back out of boat that kept on seeping in an attempt to destroy us. At 03:40, all of the net back in the boat in a pile. Out booty… 14 fish… One kilometer of net, 2 meters wide for five and a half hours, only catches 14 fish. I asked Simon if it is was a normal night, a good night, or a bad night? He said, “Yeah! Is good night!” Wow, all of that work for 14 fish.
From bobbing in the water for so long, I had terrible seasickness again when we were ready to head inland towards Zanzibar. I did what I could to help launch our sails and then I spent the rest of the ride laying down on the deck next to the rudder as we travelled for two hours back to Nungwi. It was 06:00 and the sun was rising when we arrived. Many of the boats were back and people aligned the beach, ready for the fish marketing of the morning. My friends picked out three fish for themselves and offered me one, but I told them to sell it. We pulled up alongside of another boat that had come in empty, so Simon and Abdel cut one of their tuna in half to give to the guys on the boat so they would have dinner. We navigated the dhow towards the beach where Sindu, Abdel and I jumped off into waist deep water and rushed for the shore.
Many people on the Nungwi beach were staring and grinning at me, happy to see a white man out fishing with the locals for the night. I was greeted by smiling faces and people who wanted to meet me and chat with me. James was also there and he and I eventually made our way from the fish market towards my bungalow. He told me that he had been worried all night about me and had not slept well, thinking if something happened the police would have many questions. As we got to my bungalow I knew he was going to ask, and when he did, I gave him a $10 bill for his organizing fee. That will pay 2/3 of the share of his rent for the month. All in all, $30 total was a pretty great deal for such a wonderful local experience…