Stewards of the forest: the collective of pioneering women harvesting Gambia’s oysters | Global development

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In the cool air of an April dawn, Marie Sambou, an oyster farmer, carves the brown waters of the Tanbi wetland on the Gambia River in her long wooden canoe. The size of Manhattan, Tanbi teems with life. Mangroves are an important habitat for many birds and fish, which nest, breed and spawn in a protective environment rich in nutrients. Snow-white egrets stalk schools of needle-like fish weaving through the shallow waters as curlews and hornbills whirl overhead, and higher still, vultures circle lazily.

For the next six hours or so, while the tide remains low enough to work, Sambou will paddle along the forests on the bank, hitting rock-like West African mangrove oysters hard (Tulip Crassostrea) exposed mangrove roots. It is tedious, physical and painful work. Sambou only has thin gloves and socks to protect himself; his hands and feet are marked by the sharp oyster shells.

Canoes on the river with dominant forest
Marie Sambou, and another Oyster Woman, in their canoes on the Gambia River.
  • Members of the TRY Oyster Women’s Association, based in the Gambian village of Lamin. Bottom left, fishermen head to Lamin Bolong, a tributary of the Gambia River, to harvest oysters from the mangroves. On the right, Marie Sambou and another member of the association in their canoes

Once the tide rises and submerges the mangrove roots, the rest of the day is spent preparing the raw oysters on land – first steaming them in large steel drums, then removing the green-gray flesh, which is thrown into wicker baskets. At the end of the day, the baskets of prepared oysters are taken to the roadsides and markets of Banjul, the country’s capital, where they can be exposed to the heat for hours or days, and must be sold before the hard work picking them. is messed up.

For consumers, this work is the hidden background to a tasty treat used in a variety of traditional West African dishes, such as oyster stew and oysters with lime. But for fishermen like Sambou, making a living sustainably has been a matter of balancing environmental and financial responsibilities.

A woman wearing a headscarf and gloves uses a thick-bladed knife to chop oysters amidst a tangle of mangrove roots
A woman wearing a headscarf and gloves uses a thick-bladed knife to cut oysters from mangrove roots in more open waters
The woman balances on the end of her canoe as she takes an oyster from a mangrove root
The woman pours a bucket of oysters into her canoe
  • Marie Sambou harvesting oysters in the mangroves of a creek and on the Gambia River. It can be dangerous work, wielding a heavy-bladed knife with only rubber gloves for protection. As high tides prevent women from collecting oysters, they must collect as many as possible when they have the opportunity.

Unlike other fisheries in The Gambia, the oyster trade is run entirely by women, who harvest, process, cook and sell them. Like most Gambian harvesters, Sambou, 33, is from the Jola people, an ethnic group known across Senegal and The Gambia for their hardworking agricultural roots.

Along with around 500 other women in the Tanbi region, she is a member of the TRY Oyster Women’s Association, a collective founded by social worker, Fatou Janha Mboob, in 2007. A non-profit community organization, TRY aims to improve the lives of fishermen through environmental and social initiatives and training in financial management, food hygiene and water safety.

Mboob wanted to make fishermen a cohesive part of the ecosystem, rather than a force working against it. In 2012, she successfully lobbied the Gambian government to make Tanbi a “special management area,” within which TRY members have exclusive harvesting rights.

A woman paddles her canoe along a mangrove stream

Prior to the TRY, fishermen worked the Tanbi mangroves very differently, cutting off the roots entirely and collecting even small, unsaleable oysters. Through educational initiatives organized by Mboob and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), TRY members have been encouraged to see themselves as guardians of the mangroves; the roots are now intact and the gatherers prevent others from cutting them down for firewood.

TRY is also involved in reforestation; under a UNDP-funded project, members planted more than 50,000 mangrove seedlings. In 2011, they voted in favor of closing the harvesting season, from March to June, and setting a minimum harvest size for oysters. To increase the market value of the oysters, TRY members agreed to charge 50 standard dalasis (75 pence) for a cup, a fivefold increase from previous average prices, which were decided by each woman.

The women moor their canoes in the harbor

On a good day, Sambou can harvest, steam and shell enough oysters to make 2,000 dalasis (£30). But other days the low tide is at night or too late in the afternoon to make it worth going on the river. And with the TRY harvester season only lasting four months, money remains their main concern. Most supplement their income with subsistence farming.

During the off-season, Sambou travels south to the Casamance region of Senegal to buy cockles and oysters to sell in Banjul. To cope with this unregulated harvest, TRY is working to extend its reach to the Allahein River, which forms the southern border of The Gambia.

Three women sort the catch of the day in the port
A woman balances a large jar of oysters on her head as she transports them from the harbor
A woman walks with the tray of oysters balanced on her head along an unpaved road with huts on either side
A woman tips her jar of oysters in a basket with a huge pile of oyster shells behind her
  • Top left, the “oyster women” sort their catches in the harbour. Top right and bottom left, Marie Sambou carries a tank of shellfish through the village of Lamin. Bottom right, Marie prepares to steam and shuck oysters for sale

Climate change also affects work; floods are becoming more frequent and can cause sewage to leak into the mangroves, spoiling the filter-feeding oysters.

Although TRY has made progress ecologically, for Sambou and Mboob the focus is now on improving the living standards of the pickers by improving the facilities. Mboob envisions a designated market area for shellfish fishermen in Banjul, so that fishermen do not have to sell at the roadside and their wares can be kept in salable condition.

“Unless we have a processing area, we can’t sell the oysters properly,” she says. “We want to vacuum pack the oysters and sell them to local supermarkets, hotels and restaurants. You cannot take the oysters sold by the roadside and take them to the supermarket.

Women sit around a pile of oysters, removing them from their shells
A woman holds open an oyster shell, showing the mollusk
Two women stand above a large coal pit with oyster shells
Lots of women in colorful dresses in a market.  A woman at a stall in rubber gloves measures oysters from a basket
  • Top left, family and friends shucking oysters together. Top right, an oyster after it has been smoked. Below left, two women stand over a large charcoal pit while oysters are smoked – a crude way of preserving food. Below right, selling oysters at the Serekunda market in Banjul. A cup of oysters costs 35 dalasis

Sambou would like refrigeration, allowing the women to store their catches and avoiding having to take the oysters directly to market, thus spreading their income over the year. But many women live without electricity, and setting up this infrastructure on the banks of the Lamin Bolong, a tributary of the Gambia River, would be complicated and expensive.

These goals may be distant, but the work of the duo has not gone unnoticed. In 2012, Mboob received the 2012 Equator Prize from the UNDP Equator Initiative. And in 2019, Sambou’s leadership among harvesters was recognized with the Global Youth Innovation Network Gambia’s Startup Innovation of the Year award.

Such recognition is overdue, says Mboob. “We want people to know that anglers matter. They are the ones who protect the environment, who protect Tanbi and the mangroves. The pickers take care of each other. Because of this, and because of their hard work, they are empowered.

13 women and a child pose for the camera near the Gambia River amid mounds of oyster shells
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