Senegal: The Colours of the Pirogues

The fishing sector is crucial both for socio-economic stability and for the food security of the populations of the entire region. We accompanied some fishermen on a fishing night.

In Soumbédioune, a colourful harbour nestled between the rocks of Medina, one of the oldest districts of Dakar, the bustle is incessant. Lines of women carry crates of freshly disembarked fish on their heads towards the stalls of the adjacent market, while a crowd of kids hops from one pirogue to another, sewing up nets and preparing lines, hooks, baits, and floats for the ‘grands frères’ who are waiting to set sail. It is close to sunset.

Madj, like all the children of the port of Soumbédioune, scrutinizes the ripples of the waves without ever taking his eyes off the horizon. His face, furrowed by the wind and the sun, contracts with each gust, each wave, each increase in current, betraying his concern. Dressed in a military jacket, tracksuit trousers, an Air Jordan sweatshirt and an artist’s beret, with short salt-beaded dreadlocks sprouting here and there, this expert artisan fisherman in his forties knows the waters of Dakar like the back of his hand.

“It can be said that I was born on this beach”. Madj does not own a boat, but often accompanies his friend Bouba into the sea, a young captain of one of the many colourful wooden pirogues that, arranged one after the other on the beach, make up the fleet of ‘informal fishermen’ of Soumbédioune. Long and narrow dugout tree trunks on which the brightly coloured paint – the green-yellow-red of the Senegalese flag prevails – and the writings, especially ‘Allah’ and formulas of blessing in the Wolof language, only partially hide the cracks that open in the hulls, a thousand and one times riveted and repaired.

The sun is about to set behind the houses that, in the distance, appear on the opposite side of the bay from the small port of Soumbédioune, when Madj adjusts his hat and waves to his friend Bouba. It is the signal to set sail. It is time to load the latest equipment on board and, with a tireless collective movement, slide the pirogue from the beach until it touches the Atlantic Ocean.

Many, like Madj and Bouba, hurry to leave the shore before evening falls. The crossing in the open sea, with its big long waves that lift the fragile wooden boats from below, takes only about ten minutes. The ancient engine, with Bouba at the helm and Madj at the bow, coughing over the whistling of the wind and the crying of the seagulls.

The spikes of the rugged cliff of Sarpan Island appear before their eyes like the back of a dinosaur lying in the water. The Madeleine Islands are an archipelago made up of two volcanic rock formations, Sarpan and Lougne, which is only a few miles off the west coast of Dakar.

Followed on sight by several other pirogues, Madj and Bouba circumnavigate the island to reach one of the best squid fishing areas: the bay of the inlet that penetrates the southwestern side of the island.

After careful observation of the seabed, Madj drops anchor, trying to predict where the wind will rise from during the night. Meanwhile, Bouba, still aft, fiddles with a 12-volt battery, torches and electric cables. This type of traditional fishing is practised with the help of lamps lowered a few meters deep to attract fry and nocturnal predators, such as squid. “Once upon a time people used to fish with fires lit on boats. I saw it done when I was a child. Today, however, we use coloured Chinese LEDs”, says Madj.

In a matter of minutes, the last lights of the day give way to a disarming darkness. The sounds and glares of nearby Dakar are lost beyond the cliff. Under each canoe shaken by the current, the ocean lights up with blue and green lights.

“The colour depends on the moon. When there is a full moon, we put the red LEDs and create a shadowy space”. A surreal atmosphere, accompanied by the powerful cry of flocks of birds perched on the wall of the island.

Madj lights the flashlight on his head, tying hooks and lures to the ends of the lines. The space on board is narrow and the two fishermen work seated, to avoid dangerous jolts to the hull.

Crouching on the opposite sides of the dugout, one facing the other, the two men look at each other in silence and, in a dance of ancient gestures, they slide lines tightly between their fingers into the water.

Rhythmically they raise and lower first one arm and then the other, making the lines crawl along the edges of the hull, which follows their swing. Wide grooves left on the sides of the boat testify to countless fishing trips like tonight’s.

Despite the handfuls of sand thrown overboard, another technique for attracting predators from the deep sea, the first abundant hour of fishing brings no prey. “Sometimes you don’t have time to throw the sand as they begin to bite. Others, on the other hand, spend hours without taking anything. Fishing is like that”.

Madj, to keep up the morale of the crew, sings songs in Wolof. Bouba nervously lights yet another cigarette, starting to heat the embers for coffee on an improvised stove, made from an old, moped tyre and a perforated aluminium plate. The breeze blows crackling sparks of coal onto the surface of the sea. Even on the pirogues around, the fires of the improvised grills gradually light up.

Suddenly the young captain stands up, dangerously rocking the boat. In the rush to haul it aboard, the first squid escapes his grasp, splashing ink in his face. But it is only the prelude to an hour of abundant fishing, with several large squid (and a cuttlefish) caught one after the other.

The same good luck that night was also enjoyed by the other boats anchored in this bay, with young fishermen (some alone, others in pairs) who celebrate by sharing coffee, cigarettes, and laughter with the nearby pirogues. “It seems like a lucky evening!”, Madj rejoices, without stopping to bring to the surface fish which, before being thrown at his feet, twist on the hooks spraying black slime.

The night is far gone, and the rising wind penetrates under the numerous layers of clothes of the two fishermen, who pull the wax suits out of their backpacks. Madj tries to rest, perched in the bow on the wet top of the anchor, while his companion alternates teapots of coffee with toasted cuttlefish tentacles. On the horizon, moved by the rolling waves, persistent cold lights burst into the dark: “Those are the foreign fishing boats”, comments Madj, who is unable to sleep.

“We must be on our guard because if they arrive at full speed, they do not see us from up there and risk ramming us, as has already happened to many other boats”. Fortunately, the large boats flying European and Asian flags remain offshore tonight, without disturbing the fishing for the pirogues, which continues, with unusual success, until dawn.

Upon returning to the port, Madj looks at the sun that returns to peep out behind the buildings of Dakar, puffing wearily and pulling on a woollen hat. The tense features of his face break into a smile only when his bare feet and the bucket full of squid touch the fresh sand of the shore. All that remains for this exhausted man is to entrust the catch to the sellers of the Soumbédioune market, return home, wash, smoke, and rest for a few hours, before the next trip to sea.

(Andrea de Georgio)

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