Stepping on the sand and among the pirogues at Tanji Market in The Gambia is a mesmerising experience that is difficult to absorb. There is so much activity, people are buying and selling a bewildering variety of fish and crustaceans, in an array of shapes, sizes and colours.
Women wearing rainbows of vibrant shades barter on both sides of tables attempting to secure the best possible price, men and women carry large bowls laden with today’s catch balanced on their heads from the vessels anchored just offshore and wheelbarrow boys cart heavy loads of fish between vendors.
The smell of fish hangs heavily on the fresh salty breeze, the aromas mingling with the powerful aroma seeping from the nearby smoking sheds while cats, dogs and a variety of birds attracted by the pungent aromas pick among the refuse for scraps of fish bones. The sky is alive with the calls and the acrobatic manoeuvrings of squadrons of seabirds swooping like feathered divebombers for anything dropped.
While the fishing fleet is out at sea the wheelbarrows stand idly on parade, fishermen sit among piles of mesh repairing their nets and a small flock of sheep joins the menagerie in search of a meal. Just beyond the breakers several lone figures stand waist deep in saltwater casting small nets, gradually filling baskets to feed their families and sell to the nearby traders.
Not all the vessels have gone to sea, regimented lines of dozens of traditional pirogues in a variety of sizes, their colourful painted patterns contrasting with the uniform orange of the sand.
There is something which draws me to small fishing boats, they have the power to mentally whisk me away to an exotic destination. It is a romanticised and wholly inaccurate perception but it is difficult to resist the notion that they are vessels of adventure. The colourful fishing craft of The Gambia known as pirogues seem to exemplify this adventurous spirit.
The sturdily built boats seem dug-out in their design and the smaller ones probably are. The larger ocean-going vessels are pushed out beyond the breakers, gamely battling against the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean are a jigsaw puzzle of robust planks. The larger vessels are manned by ten or more fishermen but numbers are kept to a minimum to allow extra space for the catch and to cut down on crew wages.
I spent a fascinating morning exploring, strolling between and clambering over the assorted craft. The local fishermen waiting for the fleet to return hopefully fully laden with fish and some of the skilled joiners provided many fascinating conversations and insights into a people who make a living from the ocean. The pirogues providing shelter from the fierce sun and lofty perches for spotting the first vessels of the returning fleet.
The ocean is the lifeblood of these communities and the pirogues the tools with which they ply their trade. A large one can take up to 3 months to complete with between 3 and 5 workmen co-operating to build a craft for themselves. There are also a handful of skilled ‘professional’ joiners which hire out their services, working on various craft and completing specialised tasks. Vessels can also be commissioned, built by an individual or co-operative which may own a number of boats.
The wood is usually sourced from Senegal but apparently is becoming increasingly difficult to buy as most of the high quality hard woods required are now exported to China. Once cut planks are shaped for joining with a kind of crude axe and strong spikes up to 30 inches long are then driven into each plank to secure them together. This requires a great deal of skill to prevent the wood splitting and drive the ‘nail’ in a straight line. A string like substance is used to fill any cracks, and all joints daubed with a mastic glue to prevent any leakage. Finally the boat is painted and the owning family’s name emblazoned on the side.
Even the smaller pirogues can spend several days at sea with the crew taking turns to fish, complete tasks such as net repair, storage, cooking and sleep. The captains know the locations of the best fishing grounds, reefs, wrecks and where specific species of fish are found. The knowledge passed down by generations of fishermen that have cast their nets here for centuries.
Though most boats use nets some of the smaller boats use longlines or even single hook handlines to catch large fish.
The plucky little pirogues seem to epitomise a traditional seafaring way of life, when lined up on the shore they seem to represent the perfect image of a fishing village. However they also seem out-of-place, as if straining to get beyond the waves and riding the rollers of the deep ocean. It is only when they are pushing past the breakers and heading towards the horizon that they seem genuinely at home, hunting for shoals of fish, the wolf pack of the waves.