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Field Focus: Aquaculture in Senegal

By Jori Lewis
August 2013

To get to the village of Gniling Mbao, you have to leave the main road—the one headed for Saint Louis, an island in the middle of the Senegal River—and take another road heading almost but not quite in the opposite direction. That road is generally empty except for donkey carts and large trucks filled with sand. The trucks create little sandstorms in their wake as sand flies off the beds and swirls onto the road.

After the road that is after the main road there’s a turn and you’ll hit an “almost” road, a lane really, that runs parallel to a series of mangroves. You’ll see small mounds where people are drying salt. On this road you’ll bounce up down with the potholes. Your head will hit the roof of the car many times and your body will start to ache. And then there will be another turn to something that could never be called a road through some sand dunes, only attemptable in a 4x4—and even then, only with a spirit of adventure.

And then you’re there. Small houses. Children with runny noses. Smoking fires. Meat drying on shrubs in the sun because there’s no electricity to preserve it any other way. You will look out and think you’re seeing the ocean. Shimmering water. Sandy beaches. But the body of water isn’t the ocean; it’s the river.

Or, at least, it was the river.

Across the way from Gniling Mbao is the Langue de Barbarie, a long sandy peninsula that runs for miles down the coast and separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Senegal River. In 2003, to alleviate catastrophic flooding in Saint Louis, engineers dug a canal of about four meters in width through the Langue de Barbarie. In just a few years, that small canal widened to 800 meters because of erosion. The river started to flow through this widening canal opening, and so the mouth of the river changed location.

As a consequence, the water south of the canal became more and more salty. The freshwater fish that used to live in that part of the river couldn’t live there anymore. The birds that used to frequent the former delta couldn’t survive because they had no food. And the people wondered if they could live in this place where even the fish and the birds had failed.

Gniling Mbao housewife Kouna Wade said that since the river no longer has any fish, everything has changed.

“Now all the fishermen have gone to the Gambia,” said Wade. “Me, I have two children who have gone there.” Wade wore a T-shirt that promoted bed nets for malaria prevention, and she chewed on a tooth cleaning stick while she talked.

She told me that her sons are 18 and 19 years old now and that they left six years ago. They return to Gniling Mbao only once a year during the Tabaski (Eid al-Adha) holiday. I asked her if they planned on ever coming back for good. She shook her head.

“When there’s fish again, they will come back,” she said.

But that was just the point of my trip to Gniling Mbao. I’d traveled there because this out-of-the-way village had an aquaculture project called Yarum Jën, which means, “raising fish” in Wolof. A former Peace Corps volunteer in the area named C. Sara Minard and Mamina Daffe, a professor from the Institute of Aquaculture and Fishing, have started a small-scale aquaculture project in Gniling Mbao.

Minard said they made sure the village got training from Tostan, an organization that supports sustainable development through lengthy multiyear health, human rights, and democracy education modules. She hoped that Tostan training would help the people of Gniling Mbao integrate the project into their own governance systems and give them more ownership over the project. They also got some initial funding from the Clinton Global Initiative.

Yarum Jën sits on the banks of the river and partially in the river with a cluster of floating cages. The part on land is split into two sections—a series of rectangular cement basins full of green water and fed by a generator-run pump stand on one side. On the other a solar motor pump circulates water into basins and out through canals that move the water into a filtration system before moving it back into the basins.

In the beginning, Minard and Daffe tried a local species of tilapia, one that fishermen used to find in the river. But there were problems. “Its growth was too slow and its reproduction wasn’t robust enough,” said Maoudo Diallo, a technician with the National Aquaculture Agency (ANA) who has been at the site since 2008. Diallo said that the new solar-powered system was for a new species of tilapia imported from Mozambique and known for faster growth.

The villagers all work together to support Yarum Jën. Wade sweeps the site every day. Neighbor Ibrahima Gueye has been working here for three years helping out with the feeding and cleaning. He was a river fisherman here before, just like his father and grandfather. He moved away to Casamance to fish, but soon came back because he said he wanted to be closer to his parents. With a little more prodding, he admitted that it wasn’t just that he missed his family.

“I couldn’t save any money over there,” he confided. In Casamance, he didn’t have his own pirogue or motor and so had to work for others.

It’s no easier to save money here, not really. The aquaculture project is set up so that for a period of time all of the revenue is reinvested into the project. The money goes into a bank account for the group. Fortunately, group members can use that account to apply for credit for other activities. Gueye has been able to get loans that helped him expand his vegetable gardening. But it would be great if he could get a paycheck for the fish, too. “I still have hope that it will work,” he told me.

In addition to a little bit of money and a little bit of equity, the community now has fish to eat where before it was scarce in the area. That helps meets the protein needs of this community—which is now largely composed of women and children since most of the men went away to fish elsewhere.

Back at the ANA office in Saint Louis, Mamadou Camara, the coordinator in the north, told me Gniling Mbao had better work, because they want to expand its model to 10 other villages in the zone with similar problems.

Africa is aquaculture’s last frontier. The continent still lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to the development of this industry. This lag is even more apparent in places like Senegal where fishermen have always been able to make a living.

In Gniling Mbao, as I was talking with Gueye, a crowd of out-of-work men sat around and chatted in the background. They were all fishermen and sons of fishermen and would-be fishermen. Gueye told me that if he had the means, he would fish again, too. It was better money than the gardening and better money than all the alternatives including this aquaculture project.

But there’s no telling when fish will return to the river.

Jori Lewis is a freelance Field Focus contributor.

Photo: Ibrahima Gueye at the aquaculture project in Gniling Mbao. Photo courtesy Jori Lewis.

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