As the dry season approaches, you can hear the sound of axes at work as people make dugout canoes here and there throughout the village. They are preparing to go fishing in the dry season. The wet season in tropical rainforests is long, cold and gloomy. Once it rains, people enter the forest less for fear of falling trees. Meat and fish are sparse during this season, and meals tend to be dull. As this difficult period comes to a close, there is a growing restlessness among the Bakwele people living in the villages along the Dja River, which flows at the border of southeastern Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. Each year, the fathers in the villages - who enjoy fishing and spending time with their families – engage in rivalry as they rebuild their boats (Photo1).
Photo 1: Making a dugout canoe
The Bakwele people live along the Dja River (also known as the Ngoko River) running along the border of southeastern Cameroon and the Republic of Congo (a Congo River tributary) and the Ivindo River along the border of the Gabonese Republic and the Republic of Congo (an Ogooué River tributary). They practice swidden cultivation, but are also known for being good at river fishery. There’s a reason why they spend several weeks to a month making large dugout canoes and going on long fishing trips. The boats carry a full load, with all members of the household - including newborns and expectant mothers - as well as large quantities of farm produce such as plantain bananas and cassava flour, household goods such as pots and pans and bedding, and even chickens and goats (Photo 2). It is a distinctive characteristic of Bakwele fishing to engage in the activity as a family, sometimes even going out for over two months.
Photo 2: Rowing their boat
In terms of African fishermen, those in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa and the savannahs of West Africa are well known. A fishing culture also exists, however, in the tropical rainforest areas, which skillfully uses the ecology of the forests and rivers and is deeply rooted in people’s lives. Characteristic of the fishing activities of forest dwellers is the variety of fishing methods they practice (25 methods among the Bakwele of Cameroon alone) to catch a wide array of fish (over 160 species in the Dja River basin alone) and aquatic animals. Many people actively participate in fishing, and in addition to the fishing practices of adult males in the river mainstream, there are methods that women and children excel at, such as damming small streams flowing into forest areas and draining pools of water in the forest and catching the fish left behind (bailing) (Photo 3).
Photo 3: The author learning to bail out fish
More than anything, the best part of fishing camp is eating all the fish that was not available during the wet season. Any of the fish caught left uneaten is smoked and brought back to the village to distribute among relatives and friends, or is exchanged for money in the town. Thus, the more relatives and friends who join the boat trip, the more fish is eaten and not sold. There are delicate tactics at play on the boat between those who prefer to smoke more fish, and those who prefer to eat them. Ultimately, however, no one is held back from eating the fish (Photo 4).
Photo 4: Food distribution among the large group at fishing camp is a big job
There has been a recent increase in the number of fishermen from northern Cameroon and West Africa going into the tropical rainforest rivers. Many Bakwele people do not have the money to purchase new hooks and nets, and thus borrow funds for their fishing equipment. As they do not care much for the people bringing in thousands of Nigerian-made fish hooks and several hundred meters of gill nets, the Bakwele men remain indifferent to the phenomenon and continue to fish as a family, upholding fishing practices that value communication at fishing camp.
For more information on the fishing activities of the Bakwele people in the tropical rainforests of Cameroon, please refer to the following video clip and references.
- Oishi, T. 2010. Holidays in the forest: A case of fishing practice among Bakwele cultivators in Southeastern Cameroonian rainforest. (in Japanese). In (D. Kimura & K. Kitanishi, eds.) People, Nature and History of African Tropical Forests 1: From Social Perspectives, pp. 97-128. Kyoto University Press, Kyoto.