How I became a machete fisherman

How I became a machete fisherman
By Emily Johnson
June 9, 2015

There’s an old Jaxanke saying that I learned pretty early on in my service from one of my good friends, who really enjoyed saying it and laughing at my look of confusion: "Baadaalaa sigi, a me moxo kee somono tii." 

Literally translated, this means “sitting by the river does not make someone a fisherman,” but its true meaning is usually more metaphorical, as when it’s trotted out to tell me that no matter how much I work in the field or pound corn, my hands will never be “guaranteed” like Senegalese hands, because I’ll always be a toubab.

It’s true that I am not able to do a lot of things that born-and-bred Jaxankes can, no matter how hard I try; even after living here for a year, I’m still woefully inadequate at pounding anything in the big tuguloos (mortar and pestles), I perpetually spill the ataaya when I try to pour it, Senegalese-style, from one tea glass to the other, and I’m basically useless when it comes to harvesting millet. My villagers are endlessly amused and sometimes exasperated by the fact that I can’t do what they view as the simplest and most natural tasks in the world – no matter how hard I try to prove them wrong, I always end up being shooed away and told to "taxa i sigi, i tofoño dondin" (go sit down and rest a little). I’ve mostly given up even trying to help out with various village tasks at this point because I seem to be more of a hindrance than any real help.

There is one area, though, in which the proverb actually does not hold true. In sitting by the river, I have actually learned to become a fisherman – and in my village, being a fisherman means learning how to wield a machete.

The machete fishing season comes around once a year, around the beginning of the rainy season, when the rivers have just started to swell a bit with rain and the fish are plentiful. In lieu of having a few younger boys going to catch fish with a stick, hook and string, the entire village preps for one solid day of xa yeego muuta, capturing fish. The event can even sometimes include the village next to mine, making for a massive fishing party.

For a few days before the designated fishing day, the boys and women gather up netoo, a seedpod found growing on many trees around the village. According to my counterpart, this pod, when thrown into the river water, secretes a kind of gas or chemical that effectively drugs the fish, rendering them sluggish and a little blind. The boys and men who are to participate ready their equipment – bows and arrows and, of course, machetes. Word travels quickly in my tiny village, and pretty soon everyone is getting hyped up, anticipating the imminent influx of fish and excitedly asking each other, “I se taxa yeego muuta dula (are you going to the fish catching place)?”

Lucky new Volunteer that I was, I had the opportunity to experience this phenomenon during my first couple of weeks at site. Obviously, once my counterpart explained to me what was going to happen, I jumped at the chance to go along for the ride.

“Okay, but you have to wake up early, or else all the fish will be gone!” There was no need to tell me twice. I was up and ready even before Mbemba was. After grabbing me an extra machete, we headed off into the bush towards the river.

There were already a good number of people waiting on the shore by the time we got to the river. The netoo seedpods were floating lazily in the current, slowly leaching out their gases into the water. Already, some of the smaller guppies were feeling the effects – I could see flashes of their silvery bellies as they flipped over and over, discombobulated by the chemicals. Some of the men and boys had entered into the river, perching on rocks or standing ankle-to-shin-deep in the shallows, readying their bows and arrows and machetes. Mbemba handed me the machete he had brought along.

“Here, take this. You stay here. I’ll be over there. Have fun!” He waved, then trooped off to another part of the river, bow and arrows in hand. I fingered the machete in my hand, feeling its heft and imagining how badass I’d look in just a few minutes when I sliced the huge fish that was, no doubt, on its way to my part of the river at that very instant, over the head on my first try. Confidently, then, I struck out into the shallows.

As the minutes wore on, though, I began to notice that, though the kids around me were pulling in a pretty decent catch, no fish of any decent size were coming even remotely near me. Irked, I ventured a little farther into the shallows. Still no luck. The kids around me were wading in to stand on rocks in the middle of the river, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go in that deep. How frustrating! I wanted to hack at somethinganything at this point… I hadn’t even swung my machete yet! Suddenly, I saw a small, silver fish swimming lazily in the shallows right next to me. It couldn’t have been any bigger than five inches or so but, encouraged by the kids around me, I decided to go for it.

Splash! Whoopsies, I thought, spotting the completely decapitated body of the small fish as the water settled. Perhaps a little lighter with the machete next time?

That turned out to be the only fish I caught that day, but it was an auspicious beginning – I have since been machete fishing three other times since then, all of which have resulted in extremely fruitful harvests (can one say “harvest” when referring to fish? I just liked the way that sounded…). Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to be able to show two of my fellow Volunteers the best of what my village has to offer: a machete fishing excursion. I looked on proudly as my little novices dipped their toes and machetes into the river for the first time, and applauded as they made their first kills. As the morning wore on, though, they tired of the sport and elected to sit on the bank, chatting and taking pictures. Well, we can’t all be machete fishermen, I thought as I soldiered on, ensuring that we’d bring home a solid catch that afternoon.

Turns out, Jaxanke proverbs can be wrong. In sitting by the river, I have become a fisherman.

Emily Johnson