John P. Cooper, University of Exeter
Elgidius Ichumbaki, University of Dar Es Salaam
Lucy Blue, University of Southampton
The first field season of the Bahari Yetu, Urithi Wetu project is under way. Academics from the University of Dar Es Salaam, the University of Exeter, and the University of Southampton are working with fishing and boatbuilding communities around Bagamoyo to examine the stresses this heritage faces, while documenting its material and intangible manifestations. As the project progresses, the team will hold community events to celebrate this heritage and develop pathways to heritage sustainability.
Figure 1: Fishers haul a fishing ngalawa onto the beach at Bagamoyo before the tide ebbs (Image: L.K. Blue).
The Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha has a fleeting, but transformative effect on the seascape off the Tanzanian coastal town of Bagamoyo. On any other day, a glance out to sea would reveal an industrious scene of fishers setting nets and traps, mostly in locally made wooden boats powered by sail our outboard motor, or otherwise heading out to more distant fishing grounds. On the town beach, teams of stevedores and crew would normally be noisily loading timber, vegetables or livestock bound for Zanzibar, or unloading bright yellow plastic containers of cooking oil coming from there. But on Eid morning, the scene is unusually empty, as the community prepares to celebrate with feasting and family time in community with the global Islamic ummah.
The gradual appearance of a handful of fishing boats on the water as the day progresses, however, is a sign that not all is well among the Bagamoyo fishing community. A smattering of fishing lamps on the sea after dark shows that some are working even into the night. “In the past, no one would have gone fishing on Eid,” on elder fisher tells us. “But these days, some people cannot afford to lose a single day”.
The inshore waters of Bagamoyo, as elsewhere along the Tanzanian coast, are increasing overfished, with even immature stocks being depleted. Meanwhile the human population is rising, with more fishers active, and demand for fish on the up.
Fishing in Bagamoyo is arranged around small crews operating small, privately owned, wooden boats. The large majority of craft are striking sailing dugouts fitted with outriggers, called ngalawa, used for line and net fishing, with a smaller number of stout mtumbwi dugouts powered by outboard engines for setting traps and nets. A smaller fleet of larger plank-built vessels, up to 11m long, are also powered by outboard engine: recent innovations, they pursue sein netting by day or night. Other similar-sized plank-built daw still use sail.
Figure 2: A range of fishing vessels—mtumbwe (front), ngwanda (rear left) and mtando (rear right)—moored on the waterfront at Mlingotini (Image: J.P. Cooper).
“You won’t find a single person in this town who would prefer to keep the sail if he was offered an engine,” says one fisher. With coastal waters overfished, the need of communities dependent on fishing to go further and faster in pursuit of fish trumps any sentimental attachment to sailing craft as ‘heritage’ objects. This does not mean that people are not aware of the historic importance of their craft. “I would like to see research conducted into the origins of the ngalawa and its connections across the Indian Ocean,” one fisher tells us. Yet owners of the sailing ngalawa struggle to make a living for their families, and builders of larger plank vessels complain of the soaring cost of timber.
Bagamoyo is a historic town. Its role as entrepôt of the East African slave trade and capital of the short-lived German East Africa has left a series of historic buildings. Tourists come from near and far to see these—but few miss the beach and its maritime bustle, and most rate it as a highlight of their visit. Polling by University of Dar Es Salaam heritage management undergraduate students as part of the Bahari Yetu, Urithi Wetu project is beginning to reveal the prominent role that traditional boats, especially those with sails, play in the tourist experience of the Bagamoyo. Yet the relationship between tourists—especially those pointing cameras uninvited—and porters, fishers and boatbuilders on the beach is not always a comfortable one. Work clearly needs to be done to improve mutual understanding and beach etiquette.
Figure 3: Members of the Bahari Yetu, Urithi Wetu project team, together with fishers, boat-builders and spiritual practitioners, at a project co-creation event aimed at identifying the key issues faced by the community (Image: unknown photographer).
The more fundamental issue, however, is the disconnect between the ailing economic health of traditional maritime activities for the Bagamoyo community, and its value to that community, and its visitors, as a globally important cultural and heritage asset. The wooden sailing boats and their attendant cultural practices have to weather an economic storm of overfishing and rising material costs: if not, they could disappear at a rapid rate as technological alternatives come to market and accelerate a fishing-technology ‘arms race’. If that happens, they would take with them a wealth of material, spiritual, cognitive and linguistic heritage. Preventing that loss cannot entail forbidding fishers and sailors from seeking prosperity through changing practices. But the solution might be through finding new ways to deploy and valorise this heritage—even on a smaller scale.