From sea to table: Bringing in the fish at Kokrobite beach, Ghana
I arrived at Milly’s Backyard beach, one of the numerous beaches in Kokrobite to have a swim and to hangout a bit with friends. However, my attention was completely captured by the fascinating work of the local fishermen. As I walked on to the beach a head fisherman, Paaku, was busy busy digging a hole with his bare hands on the beach.
The hole, he told me was the start of the process to bring in nets that were cast a couple of hours before. I watched as Paaku, with the help of Atu Bambam, an 80 year old inserted a five feet metal pole into the hole.
Atu Bambam then sat next to the pole to wrap the end of the nets to the pole as others congregated to start the pulling process. As the ropes were pulled in, the metal pole served as a hook to which the nets were secured to prevent the nets from being dragged back into the sea by the waves. This also served as a friction bollard which captures the slack and prevents slippage.
Every inch that was pulled in was accompanied by unadulterated burst of pure human power and energy. To make this tedious, repetitive and energy sapping work enjoyable or perhaps more accurately bearable, the fishermen sang folk songs as they playfully berated those who were not pulling as hard. The camaraderie was great as was the sense of community.
As I watched and photographed, I couldn’t help but dwell on how much fish this incredibly enormous effort would bring. Twenty minutes had passed and it seemed the nets were still too far off to yield their wares.
I chatted to Paaku and asked if foreign trawlers with more modern and far more efficient methods of fishing were a threat to his livelihood. The answer was a no. That was a relief. He, however, explained to me that the catch was often based on luck. He could never predict with any accuracy how much fish came in.
Ten more minutes passed as I noticed a palpable lift in spirits. The effort to get the nets in seemed to go up a gear or two as others, including tourists joined in to help pull the nets in. I could clearly see the blue nets starting to emerge from the sea with a handful of isolated fish caught.
My heart began to beat faster as I wondered if all this was going to be worth the effort. The fishmongers, all of whom were women, began to move from their perches a few metres away from the sea to the vicinity of the nets. Some joined in the pulling whilst others readied their large silver bowls to buy the fish from the fishermen.
I heard Paaku call my name from his position in the line and beckoned me to rush nearer the water to get ready to shoot. I sensed the hawl was close but, had no idea what the size of the catch would be.
As I began to work my DSLR hard, I began to see the emergence of the end of the net. Fish galore, I thought, and as I looked around the feeling was not excitement per say but, there were lots of smiling faces.
We seem to move on to another phase. Paaku had explained to me earlier that the price of the fish was determined by the type and size. Most of what was caught looked small to me. He explained that for those a small white bucket (a recycled margarine bucket) was used in determining the price – 30GH cedis (10 dollars) per bucket load was the going price. This seemed cheap to me but, do bear in mind it was at wholesale price and that when the margin off the fishmongers was added this could be considerably more for the end consumer.
There was, however, some serious haggling going on with some of the larger fish. It seemed like a conference was conveyed just to decide on the price of the fish below. It did eventually go for 25 GH cedis (6-8 dollars).
The activities on the beach had now hit a crescendo at this point. Water was brought in to be poured on the catch in the net to wash away the sand and other debris whilst some of those who had helped pull in the nets were rewarded with a handful or two of fish.
Once the fish had all been sold, which took all of about 15 minutes, my attention switched to the owner of the boat Noah Otchie or “Teiko Tse” as he was affectionately called by his workers and his son William Akia Ansah Akrofi.
William was kind enough to grant me an interview. He explained that 8 crew was needed to paddle the canoe into the waters whilst 3 specialised in casting the net. This three also dived into the waters to get any stones that might cause obstructions to the nets out of the way. Once the fishermen were satisfied that enough fish had swam into the net area, which on the fishing expedition I witnessed took 2 hours, a signal is given to the men on the shore, to start pulling the nets in.
William also stated that the proceeds of the catch was distributed in a particular way. This I suppose was a system that was centuries-old and had stood the test of time and seemed to have equity at its core.
The proceeds were proportioned in three ways. The owner of the canoe got a third, the owner of the net another third and the remaining third went to the workers. Teiko Tse owned both the nets and the canoe so his share was two thirds.
I watched as Teiko Tse supervised his workers in getting the nets away from the beach for storage.
Maintenance work would no doubt be carried out on mending any tears before the nets were used again.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative experience for which I was grateful to capture. The total hawl I was told yielded about 1000 GH cedis (200 dollars). In a country where the average utility bill costs about 200 GH cedis a month and where rent (in a low income neighbourhood) costs 100 to 300 GH cedis, the yield seemed reasonable. However, nothing quite beats the efficiency of a trawler and perhaps the fishermen could make a lot more from processing their catch to add value. This notwithstanding, it was great to know that such a traditional way of life still existed. I was told that the next day, a Tuesday, was a no fishing day – as determined by the gods. I suspect this was a fantastically efficient way of promoting fish conservation.
The day of course had not quite ended. My friend James had bought 15 GH cedis worth of the fish he had helped to pull in.
His haggling skills must have been impressive as the fish bought was more than enough to feed a small family.
It took almost two hours to get back to Nmai Dzorn near Adjiringanor in East Legon. At one point the supercool and mild mannered Mr Mensah our taxi driver briefly stood out of his taxi in pure frustration wondering why the traffic was stagnant.
Anyway, eventually we made it home.
James gutted and scaled the fish with the expertise of the most adept English fishmonger as Matthew sliced and chopped plantain and yam.
I got the charcoal grill going. In no time the fish were being grilled as the plantain was transformed into the sort of high flavoured kelewele we had had at the Osu night market the night before. My Dad, Daniel joined us for dinner to conclude an unforgettable experience.