The fishermen of Watamu

Everybody knows that Watamu is an old fishing village, but the information ends here. Are these fishermen “real”? What are their origins, how are they organized and how do they live?

To get detailed information, my reference is Rambo, a Bajuni boy who speaks 7 languages, he will be my guide. So I find out that the entire Watamu community has been here for three generations. Rambo tells me about his great-grandfather, who arrived in Watamu from the island of Lamu or, better, from a well-defined tribe of Lamu, which is called Bajuni.

“I am a Bajuni” says Rambo “and my great-grandfather, with a few others, founded Watamu. He came from Lamu and used to dry fish on the beach for two or three months, then returning to Lamu after selling his catch at the large dry fish market in Mombasa.
Then, over the years, these fishermen had to bring their wives to Watamu because there was no one helping them a hand on the beach: they had to cut the fish and put it in the sun to dry. This job was usually done by the wives: they scraped the salt and put it on top of the fish, since it was the only way to preserve it.
They used typical sailboats, which they had learned to build from the Arabs. These boats had the base in Mwule, a hardwood, while above it was used of light wood to make sure that the boat did not sink when it overturned. Otherwise it could drown and not come up anymore. while with their way of building the boat always remained afloat and was very resistant.

Iroko and Mwule are two names for the same species of hard wood. It is also called African Teak, due the many similarities between the two species of wood.

So slowly, Watamu has expanded around these fishermen’s huts. At the time of my great-grandfather, all these houses were not there: there were only two or three houses 500 meters from the beach. See that house? he asks me, pointing to a simple masonry house covered by a tin roof. There he lives the family that founded Watamu. The great-grandfather was the captain of the boat and built the first house here. At that time it was right down near the beach.”

“These fishermen fish in bolentino, do you see how they do?” he tells me, pointing to a spool of nylon thread. “At 5-6 in the morning they go out, following the tide because in the Watamu bay there is always water, but sometimes in the exit channel it is not enough, and then come back around 16-16.30. It takes three hours to get there, three to fish and three to return.”

From November to April, when the sea calms down, and the monsoons arrive, the fishing season begins.

“In that period many boats arrive from Zanzibar. They are even better than us to fish, they too have learned from the Arabs. Once, as well as bolentino, they also fished with pots: the fish came in and did not go out. But this technique is now used very little.
You see, we do not need the barrel: we hold this thread in our hands and the thread goes deep because there is this big lead attached. They fish 25 meters deep down: they need a lot of weight because the current is very strong.”

What are the fishermen doing between April and November?

“They set up their wooden boats, waiting for the right time to go fishing. In this period they fish just the fish they need to survive. Since they can not go offshore, they go to the net at low tide and fish just to eat and sell a little. But when the monsoon comes, the wind changes and from the ground it blows towards the sea: that’s the great moment to start fishing.
The wind is very important for us: when it changes direction the sea becomes calm and the wind takes away all these algae, which are deposited on the beach.”

“Look”, he tells me pointing to a boat covered by a makeshift roof made of woods and palm leaves, “they are repairing a boat. There are fewer and fewer people capable of repairing boats. Some remain here, but a small group goes to Zanzibar because we make the boats beautiful, while they make simpler boats.
They are good at digging the trunk of the mango and making the boats in one piece, to which they add some barbels to give stability, while we are better at making them big, putting together the various pieces of wood one at a time.
We lived together with the Arabs from Somalia to Mombasa and the Arabs went to Zanzibar only to sell slaves. So we, living together with the Arabs, we learned to make boats, to fish and make pots.”

“Our tribe (bajuni) was formed when the Arabs who came here for long periods, even two or three years, began to marry with local women, so our tribe was born. We bajuni, as you can see, we are different: we have elephant ears, some have long noses, blue eyes and some are also very light-colored.
We changed the way we spoke and we became Muslims. Once here there were no Muslims, now we are here but we live peacefully with everyone because we have a peaceful character.”

“Look at that old man, his name is Zelali. He used to make big boats, but now he is old and he is sitting there to make small boats to sell to tourists. The size you want, even a meter and a half.”

“Now the sailboats are less and less, now there are more and more resin boats with the engine, but these can not compete with the dhows and we use them more for towing.

Look at this kid, he’s painting the face of the boat. The blue decorations in front are for beauty, but these are important, these are the eyes, one on each side. From the Arabs we have also learned to make wood engravings.
These are the young people who have inherited the art of sailing boats. With the help of the boys the old ones still manage to work. They tell him what to do: remove this nail, move that wood. So I can keep the boats at sea.
The boats are now assembled with wooden nails and between one wood and the other there is the kapok to fill the spaces and not to pass the water. But once, with this thread, they literally sewed the wooden planks between them, like a dress.”

Kapok. The cotton wool is gray to yellowish white, with silky luster, light, soft, elastic, waterproof and is made up of single-celled lignified fibers, 0.5 to 3 cm long, with a circular cross-section, thin walls with a very wide filling channel of air. The so-called “Bambagia” obtained from the fruits of various colonial plants belonging to the Bombacee family, which are mainly found in the East Indies, in Malaysia, and also in Central America, Antilles, South America and Africa.

This boat seems ready to be used to light the fire, what do you do with these boats?

“We settle them” he answers me in amazement “we buy the wood and go to the forest to cut the hardwoods that are missing. Of these pieces, which are the skeleton of the boat, some are reused, but some are changed. It is recovered as much as possible because they are wood dried in the sun and will always be lighter than new ones. So the boat weighs less. When the wood is new it is easier for the boat to sink. See, this must be changed because it is rusted by iron nails and the wood has broken. Instead, look at that” and he points to a resin boat “but that is plastic and is to be thrown away.”

How is the fish you catch divided among fishermen?

“The boat always has an owner and when the boat returns there is always the owner waiting for it. The boat owner also provides the fishermen with the necessary lures and anticipates money to the fishermen to live.
The fish is weighed and sold and the proceeds divided. I’ll give you an example: yesterday they went out and did not catch anything, so the owner of the boat gave him 500 or 1000 Ksh to eat.
Today they went out and they did a good fishing. The owner of the boat takes first the money that he anticipated yesterday and the cost of the baits while the rest is divided into three: one part for the fishermen, one for the owner and one for the boat.”

But who is the fish sold to?

“The fish is also sold in Mombasa and Nairobi, but only after the village of Watamu has the necessary fish. If you want to see the boats return with the fish you must be at the beach at 4 pm.
Fishermen are also gathered in a cooperative. The cooperative is from the government, which takes 10 shillings per kilo. In this way they always have a figure that they set aside to spend in the months they can not fish, like May June and July, because the sea is very rough. With this money they manage to stay: pay the school for the children, eat, fix the houses damaged by rain, etc.
Some fishermen, during the bad season, go to Zanzibar to work, but someone stays here with his family: he takes something from the cooperative and goes fishing small fish like sardines and snappers near the barrier.”

Watamu Beach Management Unit, this is the cooperative.

How many people are in the co-op?

“Now they are less, but they are about 200 people. The old man standing up there at the pier is one of the Zanzibaris who came here and has been here for a long time. As a young man he moved here to Watamu and stayed here. He had been here since I was a child. He is not from Kenya, but he is from Tanzania.” I ask Rambo: “but .. those small fish, which are so good, why doesn’t anyone sell them?”
He answers me, laughing: “they are always eaten by local people, we give you the big ones.”

I suspect it’s not really kindness 🙂 .


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