What is poverty? A brief encounter with a multinational fishing community

Suffering is an integral part of what it means to be poor. Yesterday I visited a fishing encampment where Rémy was chief for two years. The people, almost entirely men, live in shabby lean-to’s sunk into the mud of the mangroves. The name of the village, Kahemba, is also a small island; it’s impossible to dig a well so they’re forced to row dug out canoes over to the mainland, draw water from the well, fill numerous, huge containers of water, load them back into the canoe, and row home. Not only do the people need water for drinking, washing, and bathing, in that order of importance, but also enough to give to their animals: pigs and chickens.

There’s few women on the island, but those who have come here from other afar have come with their families but they remain in the regional capitol city Ziguinchor. The women who live on Kahemba are obviously tough as nails.

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I came to Kahemba because of my interest in their linguistic practices, but found myself equally interested in their culture and economics. I interviewed one of the settlements’ first residents; we spoke in Bamana as he’s from Mali. He’s lived in the village for nearly forty years, yet his Bamana seems barely tainted by Senegalese Mandinka nor Guinean Susu, despite being in constant contact with speakers of both, related, languages. He tells me how the fishing encampment as such began because of fishermen from Guinea who taught local Jóola residents methods for smoking and thus preserving the fish so that they could be transported to countries without the bountiful harvest as it were.

I ask him as well as a Toucoulor speaker how their life is here, is it worth it to endure these conditions, the mud must be mad in the rainy season, in order to make a living for themselves and their families? They explain how, at one time, they made a lot of money and had few expenses, so yes, it was worth it. But now, they tell me, due to greedy fishing practices, they don’t gain as much profit and they have to go further and farther to find good fish. Plus, they’re heavily monitored by the nearest village so that their profits don’t go too far outside the region’s borders, which is of course the reason why most of the fishermen are here, to send back to their countries of origin.

Which brings me back to the original question, what is poverty? Because in a way, the fishermen at Kahemba have money, but is what they have to go through in order to get it that is beyond difficult. And that’s a huge issue in places like West Africa, the issue of not having enough paid jobs to sustain the population. There’s not an even distribution between work and money. Even if it’s not poverty in the strictest sense of the word, it’s still undue suffering.

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