Since her birth on Senegal’s coast, the ocean has always given Ndeye Yacine Dieng life. Her grandfather was a fisherman, and her grandmother and mother processed fish. Like generations of women, she now helps support her family in the small community of Bargny by drying, smoking, salting and fermenting the catch brought home by male villagers. They were baptized by fish, these women say.
But when the pandemic struck, boats that once took as many as 50 men out to sea carried only a few. Many residents were too terrified to leave their houses, let alone fish, for fear of catching the virus. When the local women did manage to get their hands on fish to process, they lacked the usual buyers, as markets shut down and neighboring landlocked countries closed their borders. Without savings, many families went from three meals a day to one or two.
Dieng is among more than a thousand women in Bargny, and many more in the other villages dotting Senegal’s sandy coast, who process fish — the crucial link in a chain that constitutes one of the country’s largest exports and employs hundreds of thousands of its residents.
“It was catastrophic — all of our lives changed,” Dieng said. But, she noted, “Our community is a community of solidarity.”
That spirit sounds throughout Senegal with the motto “Teranga,” a word in the Wolof language for hospitality, community and solidarity. Across the country, people tell each other: “on es ensemble,” a French phrase meaning “we are in this together.”
This story is part of a yearlong series on how the pandemic is impacting women in Africa, most acutely in the least developed countries. AP’s series is funded by the European Journalism Centre’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AP is responsible for all content.
Last month, the first true fishing season since the pandemic devastated the industry kicked off, bringing renewed hope to the processors, their families and the village. The brightly painted vast wooden fishing boats called pirogues once again are each carrying dozens of men to sea, and people swarm the beach to help the fishermen carry in their loads for purchase.
But the challenges from the coronavirus — and so much more — remain. Rising seas and climate change threaten the livelihoods and homes of those along the coast, and many can’t afford to build new homes or move inland. A steel processing plant rising near Bargny’s beach raises fears about pollution and will join a cement factory that also is nearby, though advocates argue they are needed to replace resources depleted by overfishing.
“Since there is COVID, we live in fear,” said Dieng, 64, who has seven adult children. “Most of the people here and women processors have lived a difficult life. … We are exhausted. But now, little by little, it’s getting better.”
Dieng and her fellow processors weathered the pandemic by relying on each other. They’re accustomed to being breadwinners — one expert estimated that each working woman in Senegal feeds seven or eight family members. Before the pandemic, a good season could bring Dieng 500,000 FCFA ($1,000). Last year, she said, she made little to nothing.
Dieng’s husband teaches the Quran at the mosque next door to their home, and the couple pooled their money with their children, with one son finding work repairing TVs. Other women got help from family abroad or rented out parts of their refrigerators for storage.
They survived, but they missed their work, which isn’t just a job — it is their heritage. “Processing is a pride,” Dieng said.
Most fishing in Senegal is small-scale, and carried out in traditional, generations-old methods, as old as the ways Dieng and other villagers process the fish. They refer to it as artisanal fishing. Once processed, the fish is sold to local and international buyers, and preserving it means it lasts longer than fresh and is cheaper for all who purchase it. In Senegal alone, the fish accounts for more than half of protein eaten by its 16 million residents — key for food security in this West African country.
Industrial fishing is carried out in Senegal’s waters as well, via motorized vessels and trawlers instead of the traditional pirogues, and more than two dozen companies also specialize in industrial processing in the country alongside fishmeal factories and canning plants. The fishmeal factories price women like Dieng out by paying more for the fish and depleting resources — 5 kilos of fish are needed for 1 kilo of fishmeal, a lower-grade powder-like product used for farm animals and pets.
Senegal’s government also has agreements with other countries allowing them to fish off the country’s coast and imposing limits on what they can haul in, but monitoring what these large boats from Europe, China and Russia harvest has proven difficult. The villages say the outsiders are devastating the local supply.