Yahya spoke with authority when he ordered his crew to draw in the boat in preparation for departure. “leta boti twende tuwatege dagaa!!” (Bring the boat, lets go trap the Sardines) His sentences were delivered succinctly with a cadence much like the natives of the northern town of Tanga. Every so often, he rubbed his droopy, bloodshot eyes: Wrought with exhaustion. He staggered barefooted in the ankle high waters of the receding shoreline, wavering in obedience. There was a certain permanence to the grin on his face. And it exuded a blended air of optimism and worry when I asked him what he thought the odds were of bringing in a big catch the next morning. With his gaze still fixated on the dead fish market on the opposite side of the channel, he simply said, ” Twende tuwatege Dagaa” -Let us go catch some sardines.
The open Indian ocean welcomed the dusk in a heightened dance of waves as the sun sunk behind a pair of towering silhouetted Dar es Salaam skyscrapers. Yahya’s crew of six fisherman strolled in. They saluted each and rolled up their pants to avoid getting wet as they climbed into the boat. For them, it was business as usual. Every day, right before dusk, they gather by the boat before heading out to fish from whence they return at sunrise to sell their luck at the fish market that comes alive bustling with schools of fishermen, swarms of fishmongers and fleets of fishing boats that crush into each other in a rush hour’s frenzy. That morning, I visited Mzizima fish market and shores at Kigamboni all the while reminiscing on a time that has long gone when I gifted a friend the dread of rocking small boat and the smell of a thousand sardines for her birthday. As I skipped along the shores dodging dead fish and ducking anchor lines I felt a mystic exhortation to check into one of these boats for the night.
A couple of handshakes later I had reserved my spot as an extra free hand and guest on Yahya’s boat without having personally met the man. No currency changed hands, but I gave my assurance that my strength can prevail the night. I rushed across town to my hotel room in Manzese on Shekilango Rd to check out. Rona the caretaker was kind enough to safeguard my belongings on the guarantee that I would check in for one more night once I returned.
The boat rammed the waves as it cut through the water heading for deeper waters. On deck, eight men (including myself) swayed as violently as the boat did. Yahya sat at the back of the boat steering with right hand and tapping a rhythm on the transom with his left hand. His eyes were glued into the disappearing horizon as darkness crept in.
I thoroughly enjoyed the rocking of the boat albeit it being hair raising. I saw it as a welcomed difference from the bouncing on the back seats of worn down buses with aging shock absorbers on bumpy roads. The boat rocked violently but smoothly. It was the kind of rocking that was however, not for the wish-washy kind of person. Ali, one of the crew members had crawled to an empty spot in front of me holding a black plastic bag. He proceeded to warn me that at any moment, a big wave could clean out the insides of the boat. Smiling, he bent his torso over the side of the boat, reached out his right hand into the ocean and emerged a moment later gesturing that he had clean hands. ” Do you want some ukoko? ” ” Do you want some dagaa?” I reached over the boat to wash my hands in the salty water. It was pitch black. The night had fallen.
Sardine fishing is apparently not rocket science. As Yahya explained, all the fishermen come out to sea armed with floodlights and generators. Once they find a suitable and favorable spot, they drop their anchors and turn on the floodlights directing their beams downwards into the water. From our boat, one could count tens and tens of these floodlights scattered like low lying stars on the water. They, the fishermen, then wait until around two in the morning to cast their nets. A couple of hours later they repeat the same process again.
It was about eight o’clock when we dropped our anchor and turned on the generator to power the floodlights. Conversations marred by raucous blaring of the generator ensued. We talked about everything under the stars. From politics, to the state of the rivalry of Tanzania’s premier league teams. Most notably the rivalry between Simba FC and Yanga FC. When the chattering drowned to the lulling of the wavy sea, we took turns sleeping on the gigantic net that was piled up. I have never known a sleep so deep.
At two o’clock, it was time to cast the net. Like clockwork, the fishermen went to work and I availed myself. When nets needed hauling, I was there. When a rope needed tagging, I was surely there as well. The fishermen worked with uninhibited grace.