Fishing in Sierra Leone
BY PHIL BOB HELLMICH
During my first fishing trip in West Africa, my childhood dreams were realized as I successfully fought and landed a 25-pound Nile perch. That catch came at the end of my second year as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It marked the beginning of my wildest outdoors fantasies and of a medium for me to explore my ethical quandaries of being a Westerner living and working in Sierra Leone. What slowly emerged over the next two years was an appropriate technology project where the process far outweighed the end results.
To unwind from my primary work (an appropriate technology water well project) during the dry season, I spent the evenings fishing Sierra Leone's Rokel River with my host-country friends, the Conteh brothers - Moses, Bokarie, and Sanpha.
As I averaged over 125 pounds of Nile perch a month, my feelings for fishing began to shift. My diet, and that of 30-plus Contehs, greatly improved with the fresh fish. I discovered the Conteh brothers had similar enthusiasm for catching large fish, but the realities of providing food for their families took precedence over the "sport."
I debated my use of Western fishing lures, commonly referred to by Sierra Leoneans as "English baits." The imported lures were more effective in catching the elusive Nile perch than were the traditional methods of fishing, but I was confronted with my role as a Westerner introducing foreign gadgets, technologies, and values by my mere presence.
As a Volunteer I was often saddened when I perceived Sierra Leoneans openly embracing Western ways over their own culture and traditions. However, I could not deny the Contehs their attraction for Western ways that they had seen since their childhood. For example, the Conteh brothers had long known of English baits since Volunteers, missionaries, and expatriates had fished the area for decades.
The Conteh brothers had received such lures as presents and adapted to using them as hand lines, therefore not needing a rod and reel. English baits left to the Contehs were eventually lost to large perch or the rocky bottom of the Rokel. The cost of one imported lure was equivalent to a local teacher's monthly salary. Even though I intended to leave all of my fishing gear with the Contehs, I was saddened by my perpetuation of their desire for a Western method of fishing that they could not sustain.
My ethical struggle intensified as I replaced my own lost lures with imported ones available in a shop 120 miles from the village. My living allowance was not sufficient for me to keep fishing. Several PCV friends recommended that I make my own lures. I had never tied a fishing fly let alone carved a stick into a fishlike lure that could dive and dance in the water. The Contehs had similar self-doubts, but theirs were expressed as a reflection on Sierra Leoneans in general not being able to make the fancy "white man's" gadget. I became even more frustrated as my presence reinforced these beliefs.
Finally, I decided to address my own self-doubts and ethical quandaries by setting a simple goal: to create locally made lures that caught Nile perch and that could be sustained by the Conteh brothers. What followed was a project that went beyond our imaginations. Within two months, Bokarie caught several Nile perch - a fish that looks much like a large-mouth bass - with a lure he made himself.
Over the next 12 months:
• the Contehs became self-sufficient in making lures that caught nile perch;
These are impressive "milestones" of the project, yet they were not my original intentions nor those of the Conteh brothers. If we had envisioned these benchmarks as goals from the start, we probably would never have reached them because of the temptation to circumvent the process with non-sustainable materials and/or technologies. The process was what made the milestones possible. The process had simple premises and was extremely challenging.
One of these premises was to (1) use only local materials that were readily available to the Conteh brothers. Another premise was to (2) engage the Conteh brothers actively from the beginning by drawing on their strengths.
The sustainability of the project depended on adhering to these premises. There were many times it would have been easy to look to expensive imported materials to overcome a technical hurdle. By adhering to these two premises, the Conteh brothers were an integral part of the entire process. For example, I did not know the local trees and their characteristics. The Contehs knew the qualities of every tree in the bush and which tree would provide wood with the perfect buoyancy. The Contehs relied on their own carving skills to produce their everyday tools. They did not trust me with a knife for fear I would hurt myself.
When I first suggested to the Conteh brothers that we try to make our own lures, they laughed. They identified lures as something they wanted. However, the Contehs thought they would be wasting their time to even try making lures. They were also afraid of being labeled as foolish by their peers for spending time making toys instead of working on their farms.
To start the process, I asked one of the brothers to bring me a good stick for carving. When he saw what I was doing, he took it from my hand to help me. He worked on the stick when not working on his farm. This was the start of a project that would allow the Conteh brothers to continue their farming while improving their fishing capacity.
The process was slow for the eight months. The early attempts failed miserably. When meeting a technical wall we would all go our own ways for a few days before discussing what to try next. I would debate whether it was worth trying to continue and the Contehs later admitted to hiding from me a few times. Eventually, one of us would come up with an idea of how to use a local material to overcome our obstacle. This process of sharing our ideas with one another became known as "hanging heads," a Krio expression for group consultation.
The Conteh brothers' development of pride in their work was the most challenging part of the process. I was more impressed with the first successful lures than were the Contehs.
They said the lures were "wo-wo" (Krio for ugly) while I thought the lures were profound and beautiful. My Peace Corps peers shared my opinion.
One PCV arranged for two of the Conteh brothers and me to give a workshop for National Park employees. At this point I decided to invite the Contehs to serve as instructors. I hoped that they would gain mastery on how to make lures by teaching and that they would serve as an example of Sierra Leoneans being able to make English baits. They were also technically more skilled than I.
After the workshop, outside interest in the Conteh brothers' work grew. The workshop stirred more discussion within Peace Corps and the government ministry. The Contehs themselves continued to frown on their lures. They still did not believe their work was valuable and continued to ask me if I would leave them my fishing lures before returning to the United States.
It was during the next workshop four months later that the Contehs finally gained a sense of pride.
The workshop came after the rainy season, a period when the Contehs were too busy with farming to think about lures, and just before the next fishing season.
The workshop was attended by PCVs and Sierra Leonean development workers from throughout the country, 21 people in all. After the workshop, Moses said, "I did not believe you, Phil Bob, when you said people liked our lures . . . but when I saw all of those important people listening to my every word, my head became bigger than my body."
The Contehs emerged from the workshop with both a sense of pride and a demand for their lures. They returned to their village with the dry season fishing just beginning. The hanging heads sessions became more frequent as the Contehs began to market lures and to fish. This was when Sanpha returned from the river one night with four Nile perch weighing 101 pounds.
It was at this time that I was most challenged by an important part of the entire process: not to allow my ego to come before the Contehs' opportunity to feel empowered. Keeping my ego in check was challenging for me as I was seen by some host-nationals as the "wonderful Piskoh" (Krio for Peace Corps) helping others. Keeping my ego out of fishing was particularly difficult.
After 10 months of making lures, Sanpha was suddenly telling me that he had caught bigger fish than I with lures that he had made himself. He also pointed out that I had never made a single lure from start to finish. We all laughed as I began carving my first lure.
Reflecting on the process, the old cliche "give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime" has new meaning. I do not feel that I taught the Contehs how to make lures. I believe that together we created an environment for all of us to experience our own creative potential.
During my last fishing trip to the Rokel river, I came across a farmer fishing with a Conteh brother lure. I quietly sat back and watched as he pulled a Nile perch from the water and headed back to his village. It was a truly meaningful moment.
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