Weather information and livelihoods in Mafia Island

Fasco Chengula (University of Roehampton PhD Student)

Fasco Chengula (PhD research student, University of Roehampton) in the Field in Mafia Island, Tanzania

Having completed all the administrative logistics and research clearance from relevant authorities, I finally arrived in Mafia archipelago, one of the most important Indian Ocean ancient trading networks, scattered over the Indian Ocean 21 km off the Rufiji River Delta in central Tanzania, home to whale sharks, ancient Swahili city ruins of Kua, Chole and Kisimani Mafia as well as a world class scuba and snorkeling diving center.  I had an opportunity to introduce myself and the research I am doing to the Mafia District Commissioner (DC), District Administrative Secretary (DAS), and District Executive Director (DED) and met a number of stakeholders relevant to my research: heads of Department at Mafia District Council (e.g. Fisheries officer, Community Development officer, Land officer, Natural resource and environment officer, Tourism officer and Agricultural officers); Mafia Marine Park;  Kua Ancient Swahili town conservation society; Mafia Airport Meteorological section; Mafia Island Lodge Diving centre (great users of weather data for diving excursion) ; Fishing  groups in Kilindoni town and Jibondo Island and women fishing groups.

Plate 2: A view of Kilindoni Port, Mafia Island as you Land down at the Mafia Airport. Photo by Fasco Chengula

Plate 3: Whale sharks are a popular tourist attraction in Mafia, and a contributor to local economy and, revenue for Mafia District Council. To see this incredible marine mammal, you must consult local fishermen who possess enormous local ecological knowledge of the ocean and its bio-physical resources. Photo by Fasco Chengula

Plate 4: King of Kua remains of a double storied palace at the Ancient Kua Swahili city ruins in Juani Island, Mafia. Photos: Fasco Chengula

Small-scale rustic fisheries activities are a strong component of the local livelihoods and economy in the Island. Small scale farming (food and cash crops such as rice and coconuts respectively), tourism, small business activities and livestock keeping are also practiced. Mafia islands are also known for boat building which is justly famous throughout East Africa, with hand tools and hand-forged nails to create the jahazis, dhows, mashuas and ngalawas you will see in Mafia.

Mafia’s weather and oceanic conditions exhibit certain features that are unique to Coastal Tanzania and East Africa. Being highly influenced by trade wind systems (Northeast monsoon December to April, and southeast monsoon June to October) and pronounced moisture convergence in Indian Ocean sea breezes, Mafia Archipelago is the highest receiver of rainfall in coastal Tanzania

The lunar cycle, not only controls fishing schedules, but also influences most of the tourist activities (diving excursions to experience marine life such as swimming along with whale shark/ school of whale sharks, shoals of fish, turtles  and coral life). Weather information not only helps tour guides (boatmen) to truck marine organisms that are of interests to tourists and obtain the best visibility for their guests but also to avoid strong currents and ensure safety.

Plate 5: Top, Fishermen preparing fishing nets and boats for night fishing; Bottom, fishermen offloading fish/landing from day fishing.

Movements from one island to another in Mafia can only be done using rustic boats, and dhows whose operations and schedules is depend on weather and tides. Swahili phrases such as “Bahari/ pwani ikiwa shwari, in shaa Allah” (in case the ocean is calm, God willing) are common phrases you can hear when people conclude a plan/agreement of activity schedule for the next day. The Kua Ruins in Juani Island extending over more than 40 acres with a large double storied palace is an archaeological site from the 12th Century, established by settlers from Kilwa can be accessed by boat across the Bay from Utende only during the high tides.  The Kua Ancient town preservation Society formed by residents of Juani Island are the only certified local tour guides who stays at the entrance gate close to the boat landing site to receive guests only when its high tide. “We do not expect visitors during low tide, since the tides are not predictable; we depend on information from experienced fishers’ fishing around the area” said the Kua Ancient town preservation Society chair when I visited the site.

At the far south-western tip of Mafia, is the Kisimani Mafia, a submerged old town. Most of its ruins are highly susceptible to ocean wave erosion whose strength, magnitude and frequency is believed to have increased over the recent years due to rising sea level.

Plate 6: Still Standing (top) and almost gone (bottom) water well ruins along the beach of Kisimani Mafia ancient town whose part is said to have been submerged.

Plate 7: Water well built in the times of yore of the Kisimani Mafia ancient town which Still in use today by the local community.

The focus of this study is to explore and document ethnography of the intangible marine local and indigenous knowledge heritage of weather forecasting (LIKS) among fishing communities in Mafia Island, and to investigate their role in strengthening coastal rural livelihoods amidst changing climate in Tanzania. This research is being conducted at a time when LIKS in weather and climate is lacking in the scientific literature, and highly needed to inform international policy processes. This study is also at the core of the intangible marine cultural heritage for which the UNESCO’s Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems Programme (LINKS) was established in 2002. Coming blogs will feature how local fishers in Mafia Island predict weather using knowledge acquired through years of experience in interacting with the ocean.

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