Fishing in Burundi: taboo for women?

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In some communities around the world, tradition and myths dictate what a woman can and what she cannot.

In Burundi, for example, a woman cannot practice fishing, despite the program on gender equality undertaken by the government since long ago.

We visited different locations known for the fishing activities, such as Lake Tanganyika (western Burundi), the Malagarazi River (eastern Burundi), the northern lakes (Kirundo) and Lake Dogodogo (northwestern Burundi). Not a single woman was among the fishers, nor had they ever worked there in the past.

In addition, women we met in all these fishing locations wouldn’t dare speak out on this issue in the presence of men. Secretly though, they don’t hide their anger, denouncing what they refer to as « unfounded codes and prohibitions » in the Burundian society.

Our intent here is to examine the phenomenon in its different parts and then try to understand the reason for it as well as implications.

But first and foremost, let’s go through testimonies to examine how the situation looks like.

Evelyne and Cécile

It is eleven o’clock along the Migera beach, commune of Kabezi, province of Bujumbura (about twenty kilometers south of the capital city). The weather is nice, and the sun shining. A light wind mixed with the smell of fresh fish is blowing from the west.

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A few years ago, a woman could not even approach a canoe

Evelyne Nzeyimana, 43 years old, and Cécile Nyandwi, 33, both vendors of ndagala, are anxiously awaiting the arrival of fishermen from the lake, to buy fresh ndagala. Each carries her baby on their back. They stand aside and silently observe men repair their canoes or grill the « imbiya« , a kind of small fish.

Our reporter gets closer to them. On seeing him coming, the women pretend to flee but he reassures them: « I am a journalist and would like to talk with you. You have nothing to fear”.

Reassured, Evelyne and Cecile calm down. Actually, the goal of the reporter is to understand the place of women in the fishing industry in Burundi.

«A woman fishing?»

The reporter’s first question is, « Why aren’t you fishing like men? » They are stunned. « A woman fishing?” they are surprised. « We do not have the strength to carry out the task. This is for men who can even work at night. It’s not easy for us”, they reply timidly, in the presence of four men who stand nearby to listen to the conversation.

After they leave, the conversation changes completely. « Actually, » Cécile begins in a low voice, « the reason why we don’t practice this profession is not because we do not have that capability, but rather because men do not allow us to do so », she confides, the look directed towards the four men who are moving away.

Her colleague, Evelyne, adds: « They do not even allow us to put our feet in the dugout canoes when collecting the ndagala. They accuse us of being a source of curse. It is a shame for a society that claims to be civilized. We should be allowed to freely practice a profession of our choice. »

Evelyne’s husband, who also was a fisherman, died 8 years ago. She is angry at a number of traditional rules and prohibitions:« My husband had a lot of canoes. I wanted to take over after his death but I haven’t been allowed to. Where are the woman’s rights we sing every day?”

«We do not want women here!»

While the reporter is talking with the two women, he hears Emmanuel*, one of the fishermen, shouting angrily: « Those women are the cause of our misfortune. The lake does not give us as much fish as before. It’s because of them. I want them to go away! »

Interested, the reporter approaches the 54-year-old man to try to understand the reason why he is that angry. But, this crew chief struggles to explain. « A woman can not practice fishing or approach canoes. It is very dangerous because this makes the fish run away. It is even worse when she is menstruating, » he says. « But why? » asked the reporter. « Our grandparents always advised us to exclude women to avoid misfortune. In addition, since I started this profession almost 40 years ago, I have never seen a woman fishing, » he replies as he is moving away.

Although less convincing, Emmanuel’s argument is shared by his colleagues. « Never a woman can practice this profession. It is even unthinkable in our society. We cannot let them get us into trouble, » says Jean Nyandwi, 52-year-old. « What trouble are you talking about?, » the journalist insists. « Apart from the fish that goes away, there can also be accidents or shipwrecks in the lake during a fishing activity, » the old man who had been fishing for 27 years underscores. « Have you ever witnessed an unfortunate scene due to the presence of women on the lake? » the journalist followed on. « Honestly no, » he replies before adding: « I got this instruction when I started the job. The word was spread by my predecessors and my parents.”

Some fishermen, especially the younger ones, do not understand anything about it. They say they are forced to follow the rules of the game and habits dictated to them by their elders. For example, Diomède Kabura, 34 years old, does not see why women are underestimated to such an extent that they are prevented from doing a job of their choice. He argues that currently women are even in the army and police, areas where candidates are required to be physically strong. « I suggested integrating them into our crews as well, but my superiors refused. When I insisted they threatened of expelling me, » he says.

After Lake Tanganyika, our reporter continued his investigation in other fishing areas.

Towards the Malagarazi River

The Malagarazi River is located about 200 km east of the capital Bujumbura. It serves as a border between Burundi and neighboring Tanzania.

Our reporter leaves Bujumbura at 6 am. Around noon, he arrives in Butezi, one of the areas crossed by this river in Giharo commune in the province of Rutana. He met Marcienne, who has been a widow for a year, cultivating in a field not far from the river. This 40-year-old woman is one of the few women in the region who know something about fishing. Her husband taught her the basics a few years ago. But she never had the chance to put them into practice. Fishermen, her husband’s former colleagues, do not give her this opportunity.

« My husband had taught me how to maneuver the paddle of a canoe, how to arrange and throw the net to catch fish. After his death, I tried to join his team but was rejected. The fishermen explained to me that it never existed, » she indicates. « Actually, in trying to join the group, I was being courageous, because I had never seen a woman fishing here in my neighborhood since I was born, » she adds and then reveals: « I kept my husband’s material at home. During the fishing period, I give the equipment to a man who uses it and then we share the caught fish. You understand that I have been suffering a big loss. »

Some women in Marcienne’s neighborhood consider it as a waste of time or energy to talk about the subject. For example, Dorothea, mother of five children: « We have been excluded from many things for years. We are tired of always asking for things endlessly. Nothing can be done about it, » she said, visibly hopeless. « Our husbands often treat us as children or good for nothing. We have to keep quiet to avoid struggle and unnecessary conflict, » she added.

Like those we met at the Lake Tanganyika, Malagarazi fishermen fail to consistently explain why they exclude women from fishing activities. Beliefs have been passed on through word of mouth for hundreds of years without any logical explanation. Ntagoheka, 60 years old, is one of the experienced fishermen in the Butezi area. His father, who was a renowned fisherman, never explained the phenomenon to him. « When my dad taught me how to swim, paddle and fish, 40 years ago, he always kept my mother and sisters away. He never explained why. Yet a boy could approach his equipment with no worries even if he was 5 years, »he says.

How about the Northern lakes?

Our reporter met fishermen and people living on the shore of Lake Rweru in Mugongo neighborhood in Busoni commune and Kirundo province, bordering Rwanda. Kirundo has eight lakes including the Lake Rweru, where fishing activities are the most intense.

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The fishing activities begin at the sunset

It is 3:10 pm. The fishermen are grilling fish 200 meters far from the lake. A whitish smoke spreads covering everyone, to the point that it is difficult to identify those who are there. Some, unable to breathe freely, cough and others have eyes filled with tears. Nevertheless, a dozen women and some customers remain close to the oven, waiting for the product to be ready for sale.

Our reporter launches the debate, the first question being: « I want to talk to fisherwomen. Where can I find them? » Domitille Mbayahaga, one of the women who are there, is deeply surprised. « I have never seen a woman fishing here in Kirundo. I’m 52 years old, » she reacts. « Is it forbidden? » the reporter asks. The woman nods « no »« Fishing is just the job of men, » she says with a smile, as if she does not believe in what she is saying.

Paradoxically, the fishermen in Lake Rweru are less aggressive than those in Tanganyika and Malagarazi. Most of them say they are in favor of women being able to work alongside men. Thomas, one of the leaders, considers that the women are not interested though. « We had agreed to let them join our teams but they were reluctant to join us, » he says. What is the actual problem? In this locality, it is rather the neighborhood that seems to be against the initiative. *Juliette, 49, has two girls and two boys. She cannot bear her daughters being on a pirogue alongside men. « Fishermen are said to be undisciplined people, just as shepherds. If our daughters worked with them, people would say we did not take care of the education of our children appropriately, which would be a shame for the family, » she says.

Some women and girls had tried to learn the craft. Of course they faced their families’ opposition. We can give an example of Antoinette, 25 years old. « I boarded the pirogue several times. The men showed me how I could do it. But each time, arriving in my village, I was asked many questions. People did not understand me and would boo me every time. I was embarrassed to continue and had to stop, » she regrets. « In any case, the situation should change, » she adds.

From the North to the West, on Lake Dogodogo

Dogodogo is a small lake located about 70 kilometers northwest of Bujumbura.

This lake has nothing particular compared the other places visited by our reporter with regard to fishing. It’s the same language from fishermen: « A woman can never do the job. It’s dangerous ». But still no explanation.

IMG_20181212_134206There is something that our reporter still doesn’t understand. Some local women know how to maneuver a boat. Farmers, for example, can often paddle across the lake to reach their fields on the other side. Paradoxically, they are never allowed to catch fish. Dorothée * Niyonsaba, 41, has already paddled many times. « I know how to paddle. I do it without any problem. But when it comes to fishing, men exclude me under the pretext that I am not strong enough. This is unfounded. It is maybe ignorance and egoism that push them to keep us away, » she says.

Her neighbor Immaculée * has enough of it. « Men must stop marginalizing us. I do not understand why we are booed when we try to do this job, which would allow us to make a living. We also have a role to play in the development of our society, » she deplores.

The lack of logical explanations of the causes of the phenomenon, despite investigations in different locations, just increased the curiosity of our reporter. Dissatisfied, he decided to do more research and deepen the analysis.

WHAT ARE THE ACTUAL CAUSES OF THE PHENOMENON?

Our reporter meets retired fishermen and they talk at length about the issue. By combining their stories with his personal probe, he comes up with some explanations. Some seem to be well-grounded, others are related to ignorance or obscure beliefs.

A reason connected with ignorance

Menstrual periods are a natural flow of blood. But traditionally, in the minds of Burundians as of most peoples, the blood of a human being is a « source of curse » for the earth (with all that it contains) or the lakes and rivers (with all the animals that live there). So, they thought that once affected by this blood, they could be cursed. As there was no remedy for the problem, Burundians had a solution of sorts: to force any woman having her periods to dig a hole in the ground, sit over it and let the blood flow.

According to 81-year-old Jean Barafatanya, whom we met in Nyabihanga commune in Mwaro province (center of the country), the strategy was aimed at preventing the fertile land from being touched by the blood which, according to him, could make it sterile. « Pouring one’s blood in the hole was synonymous with burying it or keeping it away from vital resources, » says the octogenarian. « Since we did not know exactly when a woman would have her periods, the easiest for men was to simply exclude them from all men’s professions, » he adds.

The argument is shared by Jean Ndikumana, 78, whom we met in the commune of Muhuta, in Bujumbura province. « It was because of this fear of being cursed that men felt obliged to do all they could to keep women away. You know that fear is the enemy of humanity. If a human is afraid, they don’t think anymore, » he explains.

A way to avoid unfortunate experiences

Seeking to reduce accidents and avoid other unfortunate adventures is another reason for the exclusion of women from fishing. It is logical, but unknown to many fishermen. According to the retired people we met, we have to make all efforts to avoid trouble. « Trouble? How? » the reporter asks. “You know my son,” says Antoine Bararugurika, 76 years old and from the commune of Kabezi, not far from Lake Tanganyika, “this lake is very dangerous. If you see it calm during the day,” he continues, “this is not the case at night.” « What happens at night? » the reporter seeks to know. The old man looks in the direction of the lake and replies, « In the deep waters, more than 15 km from the shores, especially at night, there is a lot of fog and waves that can go up to two meters high. Each time, the canoe goes up and down abruptly. It’s a complex fight to which we cannot associate women, » the old man says.

But, according to André Nyandwi, 74, there is another more interesting explanation. « When the waves begin virulently, all fishermen aboard the canoe undress to prepare for the fight. They stay in underwear. Imagine if it happened between men and women while it’s night! The risk of being distracted would be very high. We could all perish. So, no room for error, » he reveals.

The same explanation is given by former fishermen from the center of the country. These exercised the profession in rivers. Mathieu* Kabagenza, 70 years old, is one of them from the province of Mwaro. He says they used to catch fish with the « ubutobero », a poisonous product that was made from the roots of wild trees and thrown into the river. « While transporting the ubutobero, we made all our way naked. We only kept our underpants. We learned from our parents that wearing clothes could kill the effect of the product. You understand that it would be very shameful to see an almost naked woman in the street. It’s unthinkable in our society, » he explains.

Our reporter went to Mutwana neighborhood in Giharo commune. He met Mizungo, one of the experienced fishermen in the area. This 56-year-old man evoked the problem of complexity of the profession in his region. « The fishing activities become intense from January. We leave our families to settle in forests near the Malagarazi river. We build huts and stay there for at least a month. We store the caught fish until the day we return to our families, » he says. « I do not see how a woman could leave the household, abandon the children and spend all this time in the forest, with men. In any case it would be socially dangerous, » he adds.

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Use of amulets

According to our reporter’s investigation, there is yet another reason for fishermen to exclude women. It is related to obscure beliefs and the use of gris-gris. These are objects supposed to protect them by magic against spells and misfortunes during their work.

Most fishermen across the country are convinced that if a woman touches their fishing equipment, the chance of catching fish is significantly reduced. For example, on Lake Tanganyika, before their activities the fishermen begin with particular rituals, as noted by our reporter.

It is 4pm on the fishing port of Gitaza in the commune of Muhuta (about thirty kilometers south of Bujumbura). Fishermen are getting ready. But, before casting off, one of the heads takes a container full of water. Using a branch that he dips first in the container, he begins to spray canoes just as what priests do during religious ceremonies. At the same time, he murmurs some invocations. As he continues his ritual, a group of women approach. Suddenly, the old man stops everything. A member of the crew prevents them from getting closer. The fishermen, apparently angry, takes their boats 400 meters away and resumes their ceremonial.

One of the fishermen who had stayed behind whispers in our reporter’s ear: « We cannot let women get any close because their presence here reverses the effect of our amulet. If we let them, we might come home empty-handed ». He adds: « the day before a fishing activity, we cannot even dare to sleep with our wives. It would have a serious impact on our work. »

Mizungo from Giharo shares the same understanding. His wife and daughters are not allowed to approach his equipment. « If I go to the Malagarazi to fish and spend several days without any catch, I immediately understand that they have touched my equipment. I have to spray my material with water mixed with amulets, » he explains.

The use of grigri and amulets during fishing activities worries the FDP (Burundian Federation of Fisheries and Protection of the Aquatic Environment). Its president, Kassim Nsengiyumva, says that in the past, they had trouble managing fishermen with their obscure beliefs. « They are convinced that they do not catch any fish if they sleep with their wives the day before fishing. But this is not true, » he says.

Kassim indicates that in collaboration with the administration, they had to make up rules to try to discipline fishermen who had almost abandoned their wives for the benefit of the profession. For example, since the year 2000, fishing activities are suspended for seven days on Lake Tanganyika each month. Here is the explanation that the administration gives to the fishermen: if the fishing activities take place uninterrupted for the whole month, this will result in the shortage of the fish in the lake. Therefore, activities must be suspended for at least 7 days per month to allow the fish to reproduce.

Actually, this decision is not very logical. The fish does not reproduce in seven days. According to Kassim, the decision was made on purpose. « We had realized that fishermen were developing an attitude of family abandonment. Some from upcountry could spend several months on the lake without ever returning home, » says the president of the FDP. « The situation had become serious. We could not sit idly by. We then invented false reasons to force them to leave the lake and go see their families at least a few days a month. The 7-day period that has been set allows them to go and provide various essential family needs, including marital needs, »he reveals.

Conclusion

Whatever one says, whatever one explains, it is astonishing to see, in the 21st century, women being excluded from a profession they have the capacity to practice. The Burundian government has advocated a policy on gender equality for years. This policy is to ensure that men and women are equally treated and that no one can be the victim of any discrimination on the grounds of their sex. But the policy has not been put into practice. In any case, our country has a lot to gain if women and girls realize their potential by contributing to its development.

*Names have been changed

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