Preserving the Maritime Cultural Heritage on Pemba Island, Tanzania – Women’s work
East Pemba Maritime Heritage Project Team:
Mark Horton, Royal Agricultural University
Eréndira Quintana Morales, Northern Illinois University
Shadia Taha, University of Cambridge
Abdallah Khamis Ali, Zanzibar Heritage Foundation.
Abdallah Mkumbukwa, State University of Zanzibar
Laura Basell, University of Leicester
The role of women in this economy is particularly interesting. In the past, with the men taking all the fish and selling it, the women and their families had to rely on their own food supply. This mostly involved agriculture, rice paddy, where the terrain supported this, or millets in the drier coral lands, together with bananas, citrus fruit and coconuts. Zebu cattle grazed on the harvested rice fields. An important source of protein was shell fish, with large groups of women going out at low spring tides (every two weeks) to collect them.
A typical rural scene behind the fishing towns. The rice is being harvested by women, while cattle graze on the stalks left behind.
This familiarity with the inter-tidal zone was useful for the women to exploit another cash rich resource – seaweed. Seaweed (Swahili: mwani) farming is a relatively recent phenomenon in East Africa, dating from 1988. Processed for lotions, cosmetics and even toothpaste, it is a major export for Zanzibar and around 80% comes from Pemba island, especially in the north east where the shallow lagoon environment is ideal. The seaweed (Eucheuma denticulatum and Kappaphycus alvaresii) is planted in small plots and is harvested 6 weeks later, where it is then carried ashore and dried. The dried seaweed is then sold for cash per kilo, to an agent. The women benefit and can be financially independent of their husbands. With the success of seaweed farming it seems that shellfish collection has declined – or has become more a social event. There have been reports that the price the women get has declined, and that the seaweed has to be planted at greater depths, as a result of the warming of the ocean. One result has been the use of light weight plastic boats to provide access to deeper water.
Seaweed being laid out to dry on the beach at Tumbe. In the foreground can be seen a light plastic boat, supplied by the agents, to help facilitate harvesting in deeper waters.
So where do all the fish go? It seems that the maritime societies of Pemba island both in the past and the present are successful entrepreneurs, who realised that fish are more valuable as cash resource to be sold, in the past to the Arab plantations, and in the present to the beach hotels; meat and shell fish were the preferred everyday protein source. This is a hypothesis at least, that we are now testing at the household level and by future excavations on some of the ‘living’ towns.