New Internationalist

Fish money

Issue 373

For most of the world’s population, daily life is based on often unspoken agreements between men and women. Nikki van der Gaag reports from the Gambian coastal village of Gunjur.

Money in Gunjur smells of fish. Not the larger, more pristine 50-delassie notes, but the crumpled smaller ones: the red 5, the green 10 and the small tinny silver one-delassie coins with the alligator on the back.

It is not surprising, for fish is the daily staple. Together with groundnuts it provides the protein that keeps everyone going: spicy benechin, fish and rice, or domida, fish and groundnuts.

On the coast where the brightly coloured wooden boats brave the waves, the women run into the sea when the catch comes in; helping to carry the fish to the shore, gutting them on the sand, and taking them to be dried by the thousands in the sun on wooden racks, or smoked, or sold fresh to the surrounding villages. The smell of fish here is overpowering.

But fish is not just the staple, it is also a symbol of relations between men and women. While men do the actual fishing, women make up 80 per cent of fish-offloaders, and do 99 per cent of fish processing. ‘Fish money’ is what a husband is supposed to give his wife or wives every day as part of his side of the conjugal bargain; money to keep his family fed.

He is also responsible for building and maintaining the compound where he lives with his extended family. For the rest – school fees, soap, clothes, sandals, cooking pots, firewood, matches – the woman provides by selling a few green tomatoes, chilis, sweet potato or mangoes from her garden; small tidy piles stacked neatly in the market.

There are other parts of the bargain too. Women and girls undertake all the domestic tasks, which include fetching firewood and water from the well – most rural areas in the Gambia have no electricity and no running water.

The agreements on marriage rest on the fact that most Gambians are Muslim, and Islamic beliefs on marriage fit neatly with those of earlier polygamous societies. A man may have up to four wives, but he must treat them equally. The women accept that this is what the Qur’an dictates, but they are not always happy with the situation. Muna, who has three children, says: ‘My ideal would be one man, one wife, with all things shared. He puts in 50, she puts in 50.’

Normally a man will spend the same number of nights each week with each wife, who during that time will cook for him, wash his clothes and bear his children. Then he moves on to the next, who is usually in an adjacent room along the verandah that fringes their compound.

Women make up half the agricultural labour force in the Gambia and account for 99 per cent of rice production, but the main cash crop – groundnuts – is largely a male preserve. In Gunjur, few women are involved in paid work, because the majority have never progressed beyond a rudimentary education. They have many skills, but they cannot read, write, tell the time or use a telephone.

So the one thing that is likely to bring most change to women’s lives in the future is that the majority of girls today are going to school. At present, 73 per cent of women in the Gambia cannot read or write. In rural areas women’s literacy is very low – in one province, Basse, it is only 7.4 per cent. Three years ago the President, Yahya Jammeh, responding to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, declared that girls’ education at primary level would be free. This has already made a difference, as Fatou, one of the handful of educated women in Gunjur, who teaches at the local school, pointed out: ‘Where before I would have more boys in my class than girls, now it is at least half and half.’ In practice, not all schools benefit from the handout, and as it is given to individual families, sometimes the money simply does not arrive. But it is a start.

Ali Brownlie
Rich pickings: the men catch the fish in brightly coloured boats; the women clean, dry and sell them. Ali Brownlie

Other bright girls can get scholarships – though these are declining because sponsors believe that the Government is now providing free education to girls. Girls like Fatou, aged 16, who was picked out by the Forum for African Women’s Education early on and still has her education paid for. ‘I have a good memory and I will do well in my exams. I would like to be a journalist and write about women’s issues. People think that if you come from a farming family you are not clever. But I am clever and I know that we would not survive without farmers.’ She smiles. Her hands work busily plaiting a younger girl’s hair.

Because levels of education are generally low, women with an education are likely to do just as well as men. The proportion of women in managerial, professional and other technical occupations doubled between 1980 and 1993.And in 2004 at the prestigious Gambian Technical Training Institute, half the students are women. But women make up only 13.2 per cent of the lower house and there are no women in the senate, though the Vice-President, appointed by the President, is a woman.

Buba Bojang, a young man in a smart purple and white suit, ready for Friday prayers, believes that things are slowly changing: ‘Ten years ago we didn’t think women had rights. Now we know they do. Even when I was small, the father was in complete control. He could simply say to his wives: “You should not go to the naming ceremony”, and they would not go.’ Now we have a new generation, a new millennium. Women are more confident – just ask my boss! I think a woman should have a say in a marriage and in her own life.’

Meanwhile, back in the compounds, the sun glints on their knives as the women raise them to begin descaling the yellow-tailed fish, ready for another meal, another day.

  1. Statistics from The Situation of Women and Children in the Gambia, November 2001, UNICEF

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