Fisherman's Blues: A West African Community at Sea

Fisherman's Blues: A West African Community at Sea

by Anna Badkhen


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Fisherman's Blues: A West African Community at Sea by Anna Badkhen

An intimate account of life in a West African fishing village, tugged by currents ancient and modern, and dependent on an ocean that is being radically transformed.

The sea is broken, fishermen say. The sea is empty. The genii have taken the fish elsewhere.

For centuries, fishermen have launched their pirogues from the Senegalese port of Joal, where the fish used to be so plentiful a man could dip his hand into the grey-green ocean and pull one out as big as his thigh. But in an Atlantic decimated by overfishing and climate change, the fish are harder and harder to find.

Here, Badkhen discovers, all boundaries are permeable--between land and sea, between myth and truth, even between storyteller and story. Fisherman's Blues immerses us in a community navigating a time of unprecedented environmental, economic, and cultural upheaval with resilience, ingenuity, and wonder.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594634864
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/13/2018
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 545,800
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Anna Badkhen has spent much of her life in the Global South. Her immersive investigations of the world's iniquities have yielded six books of nonfiction, most recently The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village and Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah. Badkhen contributes to The New York Times, Granta, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy.

Read an Excerpt


End of the rainy season, high tide, a viscous black predawn. The Milky Way bulges, drips stars. Mahogany keels of fishing pirogues grate against the sucking purl. In the wrack before the moored thirty-footer the Sakhari Souaré her groggy crew stand barefoot in silence. It is not time yet.

A light approaches along the tideline, winks, grows. A fishwife. Her pace is measured, her slack arms swing lightly with her step, her back is very straight. She is wearing a mermaid dress. On her head flames a colossal brazier. She does not slow down when she reaches the fishers, and she passes them without greeting and walks away until she flickers out into the sweaty black.

Dawn spills astern: lavender, violet, golden. Capillary waves gently scale the ocean all the way to the horizon. Wind clots low fog. The Sakhari Souaré glides at full throttle west-southwest, rolls over lazy six-foot swells. The shore’s low skyline of baobab and eucalyptus and doum palms flashes in the light, sinks into the sea. Its bruised cumulus vanishes, too. Black against the banded east a seabird, an early riser, falls out of the fog and scoops something out of the water and banks away. The pirogue’s six crew balance spreadlegged on the thwarts and on the foredeck, dig their bare soles into the slippery wood, lean into one another, watch the sea for fish.

A school of fish is an indentation in the surface, an irregularity in the wave pattern, a boil of bubbles you can see even in the blowing water of a gale. When a school rises, a patch of the sea stirs, jiggles, churns. Or it can be a hue: a denser ovoid sea, a shifting silver nebula. A kind of anticipatory shimmering, like something about to be born. You hold your breath for it.

When you spot a school of fish you signal with your hand. This is for the helmsman, usually the captain, who cannot hear over the droning outboard motor from his place in the stern. Right arm flies up: fish to starboard. Left arm: fish to port. An outstretched hand, loose wrist, fingers wave: bubbles. An outstretched hand, a jerking upturned palm, fingertips kiss and open, kiss and open: fish are jumping. The sign language is -contagious. Come aboard and within hours your arms rise and your fingers wiggle as if by reflex. Maybe it is a reflex, one land--dwellers have learned to suppress.

When you see no fish you keep your hands occupied or tucked away, lest you confuse the helmsman. He watches the dance of hands, adjusts the pirogue’s course to the flutter of the crew’s fingers. Adjusts his expectations. Thumb to the forefinger’s first knuckle: fish too small, don’t bother.

Genii herd the fish. Before coming aboard you try to divert their attention. This takes magic because genii remember backward: never the past, always the future. So you utter a prayer. You score kabbalistic shapes into the sand where it meets the sea. You pay a marabout or a sorcerer to pacify the genii on your behalf, to ask the sea for specific fish that sell well at the harbor: white grouper, say, or shadefish. The pricier the fish, the more elaborate the ritual to distract the genii that herd it. But in recent years, even fishers who go to sea for ordinary sardinella have been offering sacrifices to the genii, and even their sacrifices more often than not fail to secure a catch. Entire trips go by during which the captain stares at the limp arms of his crew. The sea is broken, fishermen say. The sea is empty. The genii have taken the fish elsewhere.

There is another explanation for the diminishing catch. It holds that man has meddled with the ocean’s temperature, that increased salinity and chaotic weather patterns disrupt habitats, scare schools away. It holds, too, that man has decimated the fish stocks: along the three hundred and thirty miles of Senegal’s coastline, twenty thousand pirogues like the Sakhari Souaré and dozens of foreign mechanized trawlers are wasting the fishery recklessly and daily.

Fishermen also say that they heard from their grandfathers who heard from their own grandfathers that the sea and the fish in it move through cycles that are far longer than the lunar months that chart the annual patterns of wind and waves and underwater migration—and, because the scope of their periodicity exceeds the memory of any man alive at any given time, are unknowable.

All these explanations are true, fishermen say, because the ocean has not one surface but multitudes, and each contains myriad realities that change all the time, delivering silver heaps of fish or combing the nets empty, recasting its own liminality infinitely, in an infinity of limitless iterations.

The Sakhari Souaré pilots these shifting tides. She is thirty feet long with a three-foot beam, very narrow at the hip. She has seven holds, six thwarts, no belowdecks, no deck. She is six years old and runs on a fifteen-horsepower twostroke outboard Yamaha motor that one of her crew hoists over his shoulder to take home each time she returns to port. She is flagged to Joal, Senegal’s largest artisanal fishing port, a four-mile-long dune spit at the southern tip of the Petite Côte, just north of the fourteenth parallel. Her lifesaver is a car tire. She is a plank boat made shell-first on a keel of a single, scooped redwood trunk. That keel is a -proto-pirogue, an echo of the Paleolithic canoes man the world over once gouged out of whole trees to go to sea.

Her hull below the waterline is brown, her gunwales are a scuffed red, her thwarts and ceiling once were white. Her topside is a psychedelic peacock’s tail of green and yellow and red on a white field. Her nylon gillnet is half a mile long. Its sloppy accordion folds overflow the net hold, hover above it like froth. One end of the net lolls out, a gauzy pale green tongue that drapes the length of the boat just inside the port gunwale: this end will go in the water first. The net quivers in the westerly wind. Yellow styrofoam floats dangle from the swags. When you haul net hand over hand, you grab just below the floats and watch for fish in the mesh.

Now the pirogue stitches away from shore, a tiny wooden needle, her wake a fine embroidery on a surface that the morning sun has smoothed bluegreen and placid like blown glass. But the surface is depthless, an enormity of unknowns. It reflects the sky, just as enormous. It betrays nothing.

By eight in the morning the westerlies pick up, chop the sea into a field of shards. The sky darkens and gains volume, billows, stretches. The pirogue takes the waves broadside, lolls, steadies, lolls again. The captain steers into the wind, into the swollen cloud.

The captain’s name is Ndongo Souaré. He is thirty-seven years old, goateed, muscled, not tall. He sits in the stern, his knees wide apart, his left hand on the throttle. He is wearing a pair of newish secondhand bluejeans and a white nylon tee shirt with the neon logo of the national football team, the Lions of Teranga, and a baseball cap with the logo of a German trade union. The hat is frayed and faded to pink. He has draped his sweatshirt and a dark green fishing slicker across his chest diagonally, like a bandolier. All fishermen here do that. They follow an old fashion: in the creased sepia photographs the fishermen’s grandfathers drape handwoven shawls or animal skins over their bare shoulders this way. The grandfathers never smile in the photographs. They level at the camera the same stare Captain Ndongo levels at the sea.

The Sakhari Souaré belongs to Ndongo’s fisherman father, Amadou Souaré. She bears the name of his fisherman grandfather. Today her crew are all family: Ndongo, his sixteen-year-old nephew, two younger halfbrothers, and three sons.

The youngest on board is Ndongo’s third-born, Maguette. He is an oupa: a decky, a tea boy, a fetcher of things, a roustabout. Every fishing pirogue has an oupa, sometimes two or three. An oupa is always the newest on the crew. Typically, the oupas are children. Watch them swim out to the boat to get the mooring line, then swim back pulling the vessel behind them closer to shore so that the older fishermen can wade aboard. Watch them strip naked and jump into the sea ten fathoms deep to scare fish into the net with their splashing. Watch them skip from thwart to gunwale to thwart—almost weightless, almost aflight, from stern to bow and back on fearless feet—balancing in their hands a cup of water or a po’boy with murex sauce or a lit cigarette for this mate or that, a hammer, a knife, a brazier with fuel--soaked coals for tea. The oupa is paid an equal share of the pirogue’s catch, same as the first mate, same as the captain. As he grows he learns the ancient art of fishing. Ndongo was once an oupa.

Maguette on the forward thwart draws a chestful of air and holds his breath behind puffed cheeks. Maybe he is waiting for fish. Maybe it’s a game. A lot of what Maguette does is a game. He is twelve years old.

The boy holds and holds his breath until at last he loses his balance and nearly falls overboard. Ousmane, his eldest halfbrother, catches him by the elbow, sucks his teeth in reprimand. Their father rebukes Maguette from the stern:

Eh! Stop acting like a kid.

The boy pulls a serious face, stretches, locks his hands at the nape of his neck. A faint low cloud draws over the sky, dull gray fog thickens, the sea calms, silvers in the shrouded sun, the texture of chinked glass.

A green sea turtle periscopes its head out of the water to starboard. The captain points, slows down the pirogue. Reconsiders, speeds up. It is illegal to catch turtles anymore, though men do.

Full throttle ahead again. Air flows past the pirogue in cold and warm layers. Farther to starboard terns drop into the water. A bumpy surface that way, a shiver. All aboard lift their right arms at once, fingers atwitch, and someone reaches for the net, but another gillnetter wheels across the bows, unfurling her own net behind her in a broad halo: she was here first. Ndongo stands up at the helm, raises his eyebrows, cups an upturned palm, shakes it side to side: What kind of fish?

Over the drone of the two outboards, a shouted response:


Okay, good luck!

Okay, God bless!

The Sakhari Souaré bears up. The other pirogue continues to circle, uncoils her net. For a time the two boats rotate away from each other on a tangent like cogs, helix the sea with the pearl strings of their dissolving wake. Below the surface the trapped fish are a fluid silver disc whirring in frenzied tapering loops. And above the fish and the sea and the boats the gray fogbank swirls upward to high cirrus smears, and for a moment the prey and the hunters and the sky form a vortex, a centripetal gyre of our becoming and undoing, a navel of the world.

Nine-forty a.m., ten miles south of Joal, six nautical miles offshore. High chop. The sea rocks the boat. Up and down, side to side: this is the rocking of the womb, the gentle swaying weightlessness that precedes our being, that our mothers prolong when they strap us to their backs in our first months, when they cradle us to sleep. But the rocking goes back further still, to that crepuscular beginning when we were microorganisms swished and tossed this way and that by the tide, a tide that has changed very little since, yet never stays the same.

Twelve million artisanal fishermen around the globe extend into adulthood this primal swaying, pass it on generation after generation. More than ten thousand of them call Joal their home port. For a season—a blink of the ocean’s eye—I join this primordial sloshing. I go to sea aboard the Sakhari Souaré, aboard a handful of other pirogues flagged to Joal. Gillnetters, purse seiners, trapsetters, jiggers.

After I come ashore the world continues to swing; it takes hours to stop. Mal de débarquement, the disembarking sickness, a neurological syndrome, a snag in the readaptation of the brain. Typical symptoms: difficulty maintaining balance, persistent sensation of swaying as the brain’s response to the sudden physical cessation of the waves’ motion, to the sudden redundancy of sea legs. The syndrome is little understood, may persist for years, and lacks an effective treatment. I read somewhere that occurrence is highest among women in their forties. I think it is a form of nostalgia. Most of us should be suffering from mal de débarquement. Our land legs are brand-new.

To steady myself I look for something fixed, dependable. A boundary of sorts. A line. But at sea the lines are multiple and untrustworthy.

The impassive and unattainable horizon line, always receding, asymptotic. Also besmirched: the line toward and beyond which, for centuries, millions of men and women along this coast were shackled and forced into slave ships.

The tideline, now receding to trap fishing boats in goop, now advancing to lick entire villages off the shore, chronicling millennia of fluctuations: a dividing line, a line of fortification, a line of defeat. “It is mainly the sea that gives the earth its outline and its shape,” wrote the ancient Greek historian Strabo. In truth, the outline reshapes and reshapes. In the last twenty thousand years, since the coldest part of the Ice Age, the shoreline has retreated more than four hundred feet—and now is rising again, running along villages and towns like a tongue probing teeth.

The wrackline, ever revised, sketching out the littoral reaches and leavings of the ocean that gives so much yet withholds even more.

The fragile line between life and death at sea.

I look to my crewmates. They cross daily the inconstant boundary that divides our lives into the solid, the known, the terra firma—and the underexplored, the ephemeral, the everchanging. They are used to shaping a life on the elusive frontier between land and sea. But they know: this frontier is not binary; no boundary truly is. There is no real juxtaposition of the unfathomable and the solid. They stay afloat by keeping expectations fluid.

The ocean is the best opportunity God gave man. You can have fresh air and you can have fish.

Sometimes—sometimes—you can have fish. Today you get a lot of fish and tomorrow there is nothing. Impossible to predict.

It’s a matter of chance.

In the sea, not knowing is part of being.

Life is so.

Six or seven nautical miles offshore I bail the leaking Sakhari Souaré with a yellow plastic can that once held cooking oil. Her draft is four feet; to bail her you squat in the bilges and scoop and throw the rank water up and over, up and over, pause to watch the airborne spouts catch the sun. Above my head her gillnet sags into the holds, foams in the wind.

What People are Saying About This

This book is a peek at a side of West Africa few of us have seen or will ever see. It’s about much more than the depletion of the waters, or how the habits of powerful nations hamstring other ways of life. This is the story of a community full of love and strife and humor, teenagers who die too young, women who understand life, men who tell bad jokes and believe in superstitions that come true, who pray to a kind God many of us don’t believe in or know. Their way of life is an ode to humanity, and I’m so glad Anna Badkhen, one of the most creative and important non-fiction writers in our era, has allowed us to know them. -James McBride

Ben Fountain

A masterpiece. I don't think I've ever seen the natural world captured so authentically. Badkhen makes it immediate, vivid, vital--sacred, actually. She is digging down into the truth of human experience on the planet at this time, and the book resonates with all our time on the planet. –Ben Fountain

James McBride

This book is a peek at a side of West Africa few of us have seen or will ever see. It’s about much more than the depletion of the waters, or how the habits of powerful nations hamstring other ways of life. This is the story of a community full of love and strife and humor, teenagers who die too young, women who understand life, men who tell bad jokes and believe in superstitions that come true, who pray to a kind God many of us don’t believe in or know. Their way of life is an ode to humanity, and I’m so glad Anna Badkhen, one of the most creative and important non-fiction writers in our era, has allowed us to know them. -James McBride

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