Fishing in Sierra Leone
During my first fishing trip in West Africa, I realized a childhood dream by fighting and landing a twenty-five pound Nile perch. That happened at the end of my second year as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and it changed the rest of my time in Sierra Leone.
My main project was building a well. 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.
I caught over 125 pounds of Nile perch a month. My interest in fishing changed as my diet, and that of thirty plus Contehs, greatly improved with the fresh fish. I soon realized the Conteh brothers had similar enthusiasm for fishing, but the necessity of providing food for their families took precedence over "sport."
I was uncomfortable about using Western fishing lures, commonly referred to by Sierra Leoneans as "English baits," which worked better than the traditional methods of fishing. I was often troubled when I saw Sierra Leoneans embracing Western ways over their own culture and traditions. However, I could not deny the Contehs their attraction for Western things they had seen since their childhood.
The Conteh brothers had received such lures as presents and used them with hand lines. Most were eventually lost to large perch or the rocky bottom of the Rokel. That was a major loss, since the value of one imported lure was equal to a local teacher's monthly salary.
I lost many myself, and I replaced them from a shop 120 miles from the village. But they were expensive for me too. Several Peace Corps friends recommended that I make my own. I had never tied a fishing fly, let alone carved a stick into a fish-like lure that could dive and dance in the water. The Contehs had similar doubts, reinforced by a lack of faith in their ability to design and make a fancy "white man's" gadget.
Finally, I set for the Contehs and myself a straightforward goal: to create locally made lures that caught Nile perch and that the Conteh brothers could continue making without me. We set to work together. Within two months, Bokarie caught several Nile perch -- a fish that looks like a large-mouth bass -- with a lure he made himself.
Over the next twelve months:
the Contehs became self-sufficient in making lures that attracted Nile perch; they began to sell their excess catch for profit; they successfully made their own western-style fishing reels; Sanpha caught 101 pounds of Nile perch in a single night; the Contehs served as trainers in four successful workshops; working together, we also developed lures that caught barracudas and worked well for salt-water fishing; and the Contehs started a small business, selling seventy-two lures in three months. The plan was to use only local materials that were readily available. I did not know the local trees and their characteristics, but the Contehs knew the qualities of every tree in the bush and which tree would provide wood with the perfect buoyancy. They 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.
The process was slow and early attempts failed miserably. Whenever we hit a problem, we would take a few days off until someone came up with an idea of how to use a local material to overcome our obstacle. This process of sharing ideas with one another was called "hanging heads," a Krio expression for group consultation.
The Conteh brothers were slow to develop pride in their work. I was more impressed with the first successful lures than they were. They said the lures were wo-wo (ugly). I thought they were beautiful. My Peace Corps friends shared my opinion.
One Volunteer arranged for the Conteh brothers and me to give a workshop for National Park employees. I asked the Contehs to serve as instructors. I hoped that they would gain additional skill at making lures by teaching and that they would serve as an example of Sierra Leoneans being able to make English baits. They were also better at it then I was.
After the workshop, outside interest in the Conteh brothers' work grew. The workshop stirred more discussion within the Peace Corps and the government ministry. The Contehs were still dissatisfied with their own lures and continued to ask me if I would leave them mine when I returned 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 really too busy with farming to think about lures, and just before the next fishing season.
It was attended by Volunteers and Sierra Leonean development workers from around the country, twenty-one 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 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 just as the dry season fishing began. 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.
After ten months of making lures, Sanpha was suddenly telling me that he had caught bigger fish than I had, and 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 set to work carving my first lure.
Some while later, during my last fishing trip to the Rokel river, I came across a farmer fishing with a Conteh lure. I quietly sat back and watched as he pulled a Nile perch from the water and headed back to his village. An impossible feat had now become routine, almost casual. It was time to go home.
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