Rwandan Women Paddle Into the Male World of Fishing
“Now a woman can say: ‘I can build a house by myself. I can look after my family properly. And even if my husband dies, we can live a better life.’”
LAKE KIVU, RWANDA — In the evening, the green leaves of the verdant hills of Lake Kivu turned black against the orange sky, and a calm settled across the water. And then, out of the silence, came a call: “Here we go! May God watch over us!” It’s a refrain that is a tradition here on Lake Kivu, where for generations men have cast out at sunset on small wooden boats to fish through the night. But that night, it was chanted by women.
Zawadi Karikumutima, 32, readied her boat for a night on the water. She was not alone. Several other women loaded wooden rafts with supplies, while their children watched them from the muddy banks, and prepared themselves for the long night ahead.
“I am very tired when I come back,” said Ms. Karikumutima as she pushed the boat around in the muddy shore. Sometimes she comes back with enough fish to sell to support her family for weeks at a time. “But sometimes I return with pretty much nothing,” she said.
Some fishermen and women on Lake Kivu cast their nets at sunset and return before dawn to collect their trappings. But that method can be risky: the nets can be tampered with, or the catch scooped up by interlopers in the midnight hours while everyone else is asleep. So instead, many of the fisherwomen choose to spend their nights on the water.
Today, women form an essential part of the national market for Lake Kivu fish. Besides fishing on the lake at night, women also gather along the shores in the early morning to buy the fish the fisherwomen deliver. They then haul those fish home to their small villages, or sell the fish to cooperatives. At the cooperatives, other women manage drying stations, where the fish are turned into a more compact, shriveled-up product that’s easier to transport. Women transport the fish across the country, in buckets and sacks, and they also sell the fish in urban markets all around the country, to landlocked Rwandans. The fish economy has created opportunities for women to form collectives and income.
Bonifrida Mukabideri often fishes with Ms. Karikumutima and is a founding member of Projet Pêche, a fishing cooperative in Kibuye, a resort town along the banks of Lake Kivu, made up of 87 women. “A lot of women have used the cooperatives to fight poverty. Here in Rwanda we now have the idea that women and men can do every job,” said Ms. Mukabideri, who supports 10 children, and has found a confidence boost by being a part of the cooperative. “I am very proud to be a part of the cooperative. Now a woman can say: ‘I can build a house by myself. I can look after my family properly. And even if my husband dies, we can live a better life.’”
On a recent early morning at the collective, the sambaza had just been delivered from the night fisherwomen. Dozens of women at the cooperative meticulously arranged them so that no fish overlapped with another; the idea was to allow the sun to dry all the fish evenly, which happens after about 48 sunny hours. Sold dry sambaza go for a higher price than they do fresh. And in Eastern Rwanda, they form a central part of the edible economy; almost every dish in the restaurants along the lush banks of Lake Kivu incorporates sambaza, but perhaps most tastily as the crispy fried accompaniment to a sunset beer.
Rachel Nyirarvshisha, 43, had spent the night fishing, and that morning, she was busy cutting deals on her sambaza at the Projet Pêche fishing cooperative in Kibuye.
“Don’t argue with me! It’s 2,000 francs. Dried is 6,000. Cash in person,” Ms. Nyirarvshisha said. She hung up the phone with a humph, and a satisfied smile.
Five years ago, Ms. Nyirarvshisha’s life was very different. She’s from the Rwandan capital of Kigali, about a four-hour bus ride away, and took on odd jobs to support her two children. But in just the past few years, women like Ms. Nyirarvshisha have broken into the world of fishing, with a focus on the business side. Though not even five feet tall, Ms. Nyirarvshisha stands out for her bullheaded business style; she’s the top seller among the women in the cooperative.
Part of the reason women have entered the world of fishing in recent years has to do — as so many things do in Rwanda — with the country’s history.
In 1994, Lake Kivu was a bloody place; the lush hills hid nightmarish scenes. The communities around the lake were ravaged by the chaos of the genocide, and Kibuye in particular was the site of some of the most gruesome incidents.
In the church on the road into Kibuye, thousands of Tutsi were murdered; survivors hid beneath the bodies for days. Just a five-minute walk up the hill from the fishing cooperative where Ms. Nyirarvshisha now dries her fish, the remaining Tutsis gathered at the soccer stadium for protection a few days after the church massacre. But Hutus climbed the walls around the field and fired down into the people, killing another several thousand people. Some tried to escape by lurching toward the lake in a bid to swim across the waters at night; an unknown number drowned. In the Kibuye area, 90 percent of the Tutsi population was killed in the genocide. The vibrant hills around Lake Kivu served as the backdrop for one of the darkest chapters in modern human history.
In rebuilding the country, the new government insisted on policies underpinned by the concept of equality, and the slogan “We are all Rwandans.” That included women.
The genocide left Rwanda with a population that was 70 percent female; many women started fishing out of necessity, with so many primary breadwinner killed. But women in Rwanda have also started fishing thanks to changing concepts of gender; post-genocide, Rwandan society suddenly opened to the idea of female labor equality.
There is a male leader at the top of Projet Pêche — the only man involved: Robert Ngendahayo. Mr. Ngendahayo, 36, said the reason women were only now entering the fishing marketplace is because for many years, no one fished. “It was not safe to be out on the boat for many years after 1994. Someone would come and attack you and stab you,” he said. The dark water of the lake at night became a kind of secondary war zone, where the new government controls being installed hadn’t yet reached, and where you could still be killed on the basis of your perceived ethnicity. Mr. Ngendahayo estimates that night activity on the water started up again about seven years after the genocide, and then, only minimally and with caution for another decade, he said.
Plus, spending the night on the boat with men was just not considered suitable for women. “Women farmed instead, and fishing was for men,” said Albert Ngeze. Mr. Ngeze, 57, is a boat builder who bends the wood by hand to make the boats used on Lake Kivu. A former fisherman himself and now one of the oldest boat builders in the area, he has seen firsthand the way that things here have changed.
“When I was young, and before the genocide, it was impossible to see women fishing,” he said. “But today we are happy for women to join us on the water. I think only a small percentage of men do not understand that. I think this century, everyone must understand that.”