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Making Two Worlds One

July 2, 2010

The following article was written by Brian Feagans of CARE USA, who spent several days with the P&S Project on a recent visit to Mozambique.  Photos are by Ausi Petrelius.

Through CARE-WWF Partnership, Fishing Families Find Alternatives

Photo by Ausi Petrelius

Abiba Ussene and Chugue Chugo hold hands as they move through a fish farm in Topa, a village of 4,000

Traditionally, along the northern coast Mozambique, men and women go their separate ways each morning. Husbands head out to sea, casting nets and fishing lines into the Indian Ocean. Wives trudge inland and work small family farms called machambas.

But in recent years, fish catches have plummeted, the result of overfishing and a reef ailing in waters warmed by climate change. The picture on land isn’t much better. More erratic rainfall has made growing cassava, maize and other staples more difficult. In a region where most people live on less than $1 per day, families find themselves searching for a new way.

That’s why, on a recent morning in the remote coastal village of Topa, six men and six women head off to work – together. Carrying a red tub, a 10-foot net and bags of fish-feed, their conversation crackles with anticipation. Up ahead is the saltwater fish farm they’ve built from scratch over the past year. And in a few minutes, they hope to celebrate a major milestone: first fish harvested.

The neighbors formed a fishing association two years ago as part of an innovative project spearheaded by CARE and the World Wildlife Fund. Named for the string of islands that distinguish this stretch of coast, the Primeiras e Segundas Livelihoods Project (P&S) connects seemingly separate worlds: land and sea, women and men, economic development and ecological protection. The key to a better future, it turns out, is finding ways to make those worlds work together, as one.

For members of the Muaweryaca Fishing Association, the new path is made of soft white sand. Wearing a mix of bright floral shirts and wrap-around capulanas, they walk single file down the trail, winding and bending like a rainbow ribbon as they move through green fields of cassava.

Photo by Ausi Petrelius

Families learning conservation agriculture techniques through P&S rely less on the sea.

“We’ve fattened the fish up with this,” says Abiba Ussene, 50, clutching a sack of cassava she ground into a fine powder the night before. A few other members rib Abiba, saying she’s made today’s job harder. Bigger fish, they say, are smarter and harder to catch. They like to hang out in deep pockets, far from the earthen walls.

Abiba is quiet, perhaps nervous. The group has been so focused on growing and protecting the fish– they even formed a night-watch rotation to ward off thieves – that they haven’t completely thought through how to catch them. To come up dry on the first attempt would be a bad omen.

Then Abiba’s pensive expression gives way to smile of confidence. “I know how,” she says in the Makua language native to this region. “Watch and you shall see.”

A Seachange

The fish farm got off the ground in early 2009, when P&S staff helped the association gain legal registration. Because the government owns most of the land in Mozambique, the registration enabled the group to secure a 50-year lease on a parcel slightly larger than an Olympic pool.

Photo by Ausi Petrelius

Abiba Ussene feeds the fish, moments before trying to catch them.

P&S has found that registering fishing associations is a simple move that opens doors along the coast. Once registered, one women’s group was able to take out a loan and start a cement-block making business. In March, another association launched the first motorized ferry connecting islands to the mainland in the city of Angoche.

Economic options are particularly critical now. CARE, WWF and the government of Mozambique have worked with communities here to create two no-fish zones to help aquatic life rebound around the reef. Fishermen want to let the ocean rest. But along the coast of Mozambique’s Nampula province, where half the children under 5 suffer from malnutrition, families must have other ways to feed themselves.

Increasingly, they are turning to the land. P&S staff are training families to rotate crops and, rather than burn fields after harvest, leave mats of vegetation that trap nutrients and moisture in the soil. As a result, yields are on the rise. In many cases, husbands are spending less time at sea and more time helping their wives in the machambas.

“We are not catching enough fish to feed the family,” explains Abiba’s brother, Abdla Ussene. He and his wife have another three mouths to feed at home. “So we are working even harder on the farm.”

When Abdla does join crews at sea, they often spend time patrolling one of the no-fish zones. “It is a good idea,” he says of the marine reserve. “We understand that this is a time of reproduction for our sea.”

Photo by Ausi Petrelius

The people of Topa blame overfishing and unpredictable weather for the decline in fish populations. More are turning to the land.

P&S staff are cultivating dozens of patrolmen who, should the plan for an office marine reserve come to fruition, could work as paid rangers. But Abdla’s greatest hopes, like those of his sister Abiba, are tied to the aquaculture project whose earthen walls are now visible in the distance.

“There it is,” Abdla says, his voice filled with pride. He points to a barren patch of land next to it. “Our dream is to make it bigger next year.”

Before  reaching their fish farm, the group steps past a stand of palm tree trunks slanted at a severe angle, like straws in milkshakes. Dead or downed trees dot the landscape here. “Jokwe,” Abiba says solemnly.

No more explanation is needed. Cyclone Jokwe devastated this storm-battered coastal region in April 2008. The monster storm tore apart the mud-and-thatch homes. It carried away their boats and nets. What farms it didn’t ruin were left more vulnerable to disease, most notably the cassava-infecting brown streak virus.

Photo by Ausi Petrelius

Omar Amisse, president of the Muaweryaca Fishing Association, leads a basic literacy class for women in the group.

Many here feared Jokwe would cast this stretch of coast into a downward spiral of ecological destruction and economic decline. Parents desperate to feed children might return to catching juvenile fish with mosquito nets, a destructive practice that robs the sea of the next generation of fish. Others might cut down mangroves to make charcoal sold for meal money.

But in that circular connection between their natural and fiscal resources, Abiba, Abdla and two dozen of their neighbors didn’t see a spiral downward. They saw a spring up. They decided to form the fishing association, put their heads together with P&S staff and develop more sustainable sources of income and food.

Omar Amisse, a-56-year-old father of six, is president of the association. He says the community needed a fresh perspective and some new ideas. “Primeiras e Segundas acts as our teacher and our inventor,” he says. “Because if you are just in one place, you don’t get the whole. You have to learn first.”

The association started a savings group and a social fund that helps pay for emergency medical needs and funerals. They built a small cement meeting house. And they bought into the concept, preached by P&S staffers, that the women have to be more equal partners. Omar said it was in the group’s self-interest, particularly as they confronted the paperwork required to secure land from the government.

“All the women are illiterate,” he says. “But they’re the ones at home when we’re at sea. We need to teach them so they can read and write.” At a minimum, he wants the women to be able to sign their name.

Photo by Ausi Petrelius

Abiba was the first woman in the group to write her name.

Early on, the women floated the idea of weekly lessons in reading, writing and basic math. Abiba was among the strongest advocates.

“If I receive a paper from somewhere else, I want to know what it is,” Abiba laughs, holding a flat palm out in front of her face, as if reading. “The president could write a letter saying he wants to come visit us. I want to read that letter and know: Ah-ha, we have a meeting with the president.”

So one day the savings group held a formal vote on whether to add literacy classes to their weekly meetings. It was unanimous. Now, every Friday, a chorus of A,B,C’s floats out of the little cement hut with big plans inside.

A Will to Win

With all the positive momentum, Omar hardly misses the boat that Cyclone Jokwe took away two years ago. In fact, he sees the storm as the push he and the others needed to try something new. That’s why the group chose the name Muaweryaca. A Makua word, it means “Try, and you can win.”

Nothing has come easy. Mounding the mud into walls took months of backbreaking work. And the group couldn’t afford to buy a flood-control gate, so they experimented to fashion one of their own. Eventually they succeeded by stringing reeds together, much like a traditional mat. They lift the contraption up on rising tide to let fish in, then drop the filter-like mat back into place on the falling tide, allowing the brackish water – but no fish – to escape.

Now, as the dawn sun casts a glow on the fish farm, each member walks across a wooden plank that spans the gated opening. They settle at the far corner, where a deep pass runs between islands of marsh grass. Omar and Abdla look to the water, as if to ask “Who will jump in?”

Photo by Ausi Petrelius

With mud and moxie, Abiba closes in on a school of fish.

Abiba, who seems to have a plan, doesn’t hesitate. She slides into the murky water first, followed by Chugue Chugo, who holds a net anchored by two spear-tipped sticks.

Abiba holds one end of the net and Chugue the other. They push the stakes deep into the mud. Then, Abiba starts working her way down the length of the net, using her feet to tuck the bottom under the mud and prevent fish from sneaking underneath. With their trap set, Abiba and Chugue angle for another part of the pond.

The bottom is uneven, however, making it hard to tromp through. Abiba and Chugue reach out simultaneously, to support each other. They hold hands.

After circling around, so as not to disturb any fish in front of the net, Abiba and Chugue stop and face the trap they’ve set about 25 yards away.

It’s showtime.

Photo by Ausi Petrelius

Members of Muaweryaca cheer as Abiba plucks fish from the net.

Abiba squats down in the water and comes up with two fistfuls of mud. Then, as if she’s been corralling fish her whole life, Abiba starts throwing chunks of mud to scare them toward the net. Chugue takes her lead, moving along the more shallow edge and splashing. As they near the net, the two stop. It looks like they may have come up empty.

Suddenly, the net starts bobbing up and bouncing. Abiba rushes forward. Then, to everyone’s delight, she jerks the net up to reveal silvery flashes of success. The others erupt into shouts of “Macupa! Macupa!” the Makua name for the captured fish.

Photo by Ausi Petrelius

Abiba holds up a tub triumphantly, as Chugue adds fish.

It is a small but important victory for people who, with just a little help, have built real hope for the future. In the face of sick seas, debilitating droughts and terrible tempests, members of the Muaweryaca Fishing Association refuse to be defined by what they have lost.

Abiba throws the fish into the red tub. Then she lifts it high in the air like a trophy. Shouts of “Muaweryaca” echo across the fish farm, through the cassava fields and into the Indian Ocean sunrise.

Try, and you can win.

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