Usually when one thinks of Tanzania one thinks of the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro, the Maasai, and/or Zanzibar Archipelago–the natural and dramatic beauties that provide Tanzania with its place in the world and draw thousands of people to witness them each year. Tourism is one of the primary sources of income for Tanzanians, with many people dreaming of the chance to participate in this economy. But tourism only reaches so far. Beyond these highlights there is a whole other country, the real Tanzania. Here, the villages are often forgotten about, both by locals and foreigners alike. Tucked so far into the backcountry, with poor road access, limited infrastructure, and incomplete electricity coverage, these villages exist in their own world, isolated to an extent where they are non-existent on Google Maps. But there they are, coexisting and surviving, beyond the reach of the common traveler. So how do these villages survive? This is what I sought to understand, and I embarked on a journey into the forgotten areas of Tanzania.

Armed with a backpack, 80 questionnaires, and my local friend who kindly agreed to accompany me as an interpreter, I set out from Dar es Salaam, heading south to Kibiti District, a three-hour drive from the outskirts of town. From Kibiti we boarded another bus to Bungu. There we left the main track and caught a van heading east. Leaving the pavement and cell service behind, we bounced along the dirt road all the way to Nyamisati, known for its ferry to Mafia Island, and the first of our four villages. Due to the lack of accommodation and electricity in the other three villages, we set up base in Nyamisati, staying at the local guesthouse and eating at the “mama’s” place nearby. (In Tanzanian culture, a “mama” refers to a woman.) The other three villages, Mchungu, Msindaje, and Kivinja, were consequently visited only as day trips.

Chakula cha asubuhi na wamama” (breakfast with the mamas) each morning we showed up bright and early for our breakfast, and each morning we were greeted with big smiles and enthusiastic “hi’s”. Picture taken in Nyamisati, Kibiti District.

As Nyamisati is not a tourist place, my presence was immediately noticed, and I was greeted with many enthusiastic “Hi”s, the only English word these villagers knew. I quickly made friends with the mamas who served us food, and each day they greeted us with a big smile and friendly laugh as I fumbled my way through the Swahili language. Using Nyamisati as our base enabled us to grow our relationship with the villagers, more so than in the three other villages where we had parachuted in, in a sense, for the day. Staying in the village, eating and sleeping there, and engaging in friendly conversation, enabled us to enter the life of that community however briefly and create a sense of mutual trust and respect.

Olais dutifully transcribing the stories told by the Nyamisati fishermen.

Nyamisati marks the end of the main bus route, and while busses drive by the access points to the other villages, they do not drive down into each village. Consequently, Mchungu, Msindaje, and Kivinja are only accessible via bodaboda (motorcycle) or by foot. I would later learn that this inaccessibility was one of the most consistent challenges experienced by the villagers. Each morning we had our bodaboda driver bring us to the villages, where we would spend the day interviewing the villagers and listening to their stories. Despite variations between the villages, there was one thing that connected them: fish.

Fishing drives the economy of these villages. In an area where money is scarce, and infrastructure is limited, the fish connect them all. From the trap makers, to the fishermen, to the traders, to the mamas who fry and sell the fish, to the bodaboda and bus drivers who transport the goods and/or sellers, to the consumers, they are all connected to the fate of ocean and marine fauna populations.

It takes the trap makers an entire month to weave together a wando (stationary trap) and it sells for 300,000 TZS (170 CAD), a considerable sum both for the buyer and the seller. This type of net, despite being expensive, allows the fishermen to catch not only finfish, but prawns and crabs as well, making it a desirable purchase. The finfish will usually only sell for around 500 TZS/KG, but crabs will fetch 5000 TZS/KG, making this investment more than worth it. The wandos are all natural; however, comprised of coconut fronds tightly woven together, making them environmentally friendly but with a short lifespan. Once in the water, the net lasts only 5-6 months before its structural integrity is compromised and a new wando is required. As a result, the trap makers are consistently in demand.

Every day the fishermen climb into their dhows, canoes made from hollowed-out trees, and paddle down the river into the ocean. Three men are required to push the heavy boats into the water, and one to two men to paddle them to the fishing grounds. Regardless of the fact that each fisherman is fishing for himself, there is a sense of collectivity and community. A single person cannot move the boats by themselves, and help automatically comes, no questions asked or complaints.

In an effort to reduce the weight of the dhow, the boats undergo controlled burning. Picture taken in Mchungu, Kibiti District.

As soon as the fishermen return, the beach becomes alive with activity. The mamas and other middlemen engage in bidding wars as each hope to secure the daily meal for their families. The sons are enlisted to haul the boats out of the water, sort the catch, and prepare the net for the next trip. If repairs need to be done, now is the time. Most repairs can be done themselves, but repairs to cracks in the dhows must be done by the boat repairman. Young children run around, happily playing in and around the boats, collecting any discarded fish.

Only a small portion of the fish bought will be sold in their own village; the remainder will be transported to larger markets such as Mwarusembe and Jaribu in Coastal Region, and Mbagala in Dar es Salaam Region. Journeying to such a market is often a multi-day expedition. First, they must get out of the village, a challenge in itself. Some who are better off financially will hire a bodaboda to take them to the main road where they will catch the bus; others, however, are not that lucky and must walk the 5-10 km to reach the bus stop. Once at the desired market, the mamas must remain until all of their fish is sold, to avoid spoilage and economic loss. They rent big frying pans because cooked fish can last up to 3 days, reducing spoilage. If fish remain on the third day, it is sold at a loss to them, as it is better to be rid of the fish than to throw it out. The fish mamas help drive the guesthouse economy as well, as accommodation is required during their market stay. When all fish is sold, they return to their village where they repeat the process.

The small portion of fish that remains in the village will be sold to the chef mamas, who make dishes such as fish and rice. It is common, especially in Nyamisati, where you will combine products from different mamas and sellers. For example, when we wanted fish instead of beans we would sit and order rice and vegetables from our regular mama, but obtain the fish from the lady beside us. Coordination like this is common, and only when the villagers all work together can everyone thrive.

Downtown Nyamisati, the only village which had electricity.

Fish drives the economy and their livelihoods. It brings them together and causes cascading impacts on many people, even those who are unaware of such a connection. Everything comes back to the ocean and the need to sustainably harvest the fish and other resources. Without the marine fauna these villages would not be able to survive, and even if they could, they would become isolated within themselves, having no reason to venture into the outside world. Areas such as Kibiti District have no other harvestable resources, with the exception of the mangroves, but these are now illegal to commercially harvest. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the majority of people not only supported the ban, but as a result of seminars and workshops, they have understood the benefit of conserving the mangroves, specifically the role they play in fish and coastal conservation. The mangroves have long played a cultural role in coastal villages, providing the structural support for their homes, so this acceptance marks a big step forward. As such, fisheries remain to be the sole economic support for these communities. The fish bring both smiles from the small children, and stress from the adults as they realize the daily catch is insufficient to sustain themselves.

All interviewees voiced concerns over depleting fish stocks; however, most were optimistic that current fishing strategies and legislation would allow the fish stocks to be maintained, if not thrive. We can hope that this is true, and that the fish will continue to be the basis of lasting relationships and guarantee the survival of our villager friends, tucked far away among the mangroves.

Tess Forbes