Oyster Women's Sustainable Harvests
- Africa, The Gambia
Travel to The Gambia with Peace Corps Volunteer Adrian Croke, who collaborated with groups of female oyster harvesters to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of their work. Learn how the oyster women worked together to create a promising future for their families and their communities.
Hi, I’m Adrian. I am currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the West African nation of The Gambia. Most of the land here is dry and sparsely forested. I live on the coast, however, where the River Gambia meets the ocean, creating a unique habitat and beautiful, green scenery. Family, food, religion, and dancing are the most important parts of Gambian living. Most people live off the land, either farming or fishing. Traditionally, men are fisherman and farmers. Women are gardeners and gatherers, collecting things like snails, oysters, and clams to eat or sell.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I work with female oyster harvesters through an organization called the TRY Oyster Women’s Association. The Wolof-language equivalent to "try" literally means the exhaustion one feels after working extremely hard at any job, hoping, one day, for some kind of reprieve or benefit.
TRY has brought together over 500 oyster harvesters from fifteen communities, most of which harvest in Tanbi National Park, one of The Gambia’s few national parks.
Oysters are harvested from the root systems of the mangroves, a highly threatened habitat. To a mangrove, over-harvesting of oysters is like going off the trail in a national park despite the "Please Stay on the Trail" signs. The more one decimates the mangroves, the smaller the oyster habitat will be, and the fewer oysters there will be to harvest. Here you can see the oysters attached to the roots of the mangrove trees.
In addition to the environmental risks, oyster harvesting can a hazardous job for the gatherer. Oyster beds are extremely sharp and a risky place for any person who lacks proper shoes and gloves. Many of the women cannot swim and do not own boats or lifejackets, gloves or boots.
Harvesting oysters offers only a few months of work and fewer if you are harvesting responsibly. Particularly for single mothers, this can result in extreme financial hardship. Saving money is hard, even if you have money to save and a safe place to keep it. For women who have neither, saving is impossible. Add eight children to the equation—their clothes, food, and medical bills—and paying for their schooling, uniforms, books, and transportation becomes unheard of.
Now, with TRY’s help, the oyster women are gaining skills in business and money management. Over 300 women received locked money-saving boxes and training to start their own small enterprises. The program has been extremely successful. Women have saved thousands of Dalasi (equivalent to hundreds of U.S. dollars) and are no longer exclusively dependent on oyster harvesting. They are confident in themselves and their ability to provide for their families. Our hope is that the women will stay debt-free AND send their children to school.
TRY also offers classes for the daughters of the oyster harvesters who were forced to drop out of school because their mothers couldn’t afford the fees. They learn profitable skills like cooking, sewing, and computer literacy, so that they may start their own small businesses in the future. The girls create crafts and soaps to sell, as well as develop the oyster product for a wider market.
Previously, oysters sold by the cup on the side of the road only reached a very small population: wealthier Gambians with cars driving by a certain area who didn’t mind an unprocessed, unpackaged product. Now, we are processing the oysters, cleaning and packaging them safely, and selling to a much wider audience. By the next tourist season, we hope to provide the hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets with our clean, safe, packaged oysters.
Our research shows that the water quality of our wetlands is clean enough to eventually ship raw oysters to the United States and Europe. This would be a huge economic success for both TRY women and The Gambia as a whole, considering the country currently imports much more than it exports. It would also be an environmental success. Only oysters that are large enough and responsibly harvested are desirable on the world market.
During the rainy season, the off-season for oyster harvesting, we will be focusing on mangrove restoration, replenishing the habitat with new seedlings and protecting the natural beauty of The Gambia.
I have great faith in the future of TRY, and I feel fortunate to have the chance to be a part of its growth. These are incredible women who believe, more than anything, in their own self-empowerment through a strong, community effort. Despite all the challenges they face, together, they are on their way to a better future.