When I was 12, my brothers and I would go fishing using our grandfather’s pale green, 14-foot aluminum boat. We’d haul it in the back to our father’s tiny S10 Chevy pickup. When we got to our northern Minnesotan lake of choice, my older brother would take one side of the boat, my little brothers Anthony, Joseph, and I would take the other, and we’d hoist that boat shell out of the bed of the truck. After setting it on the ground and then sliding it into the water, we’d then grab the 7.5 horsepower engine, mount it to the back of the boat, grab our rods, tackle, bait, snacks, load everything up, and hop in. Then my older brother would yank on the engine cord a few times, get the engine purring, and off we’d putt-putt-putter along the water to our favorite fishing spot.
Twenty years later, I’m walking along the edge of giant Lake Nyasa in southwestern Tanzania, East Africa. I’m watching the men prepare their boats for hauling in a catch of freshwater fish. But the similarities between them and my experiences end here.
Tanzanian men of varied age prepare nets—not fishing poles. They ready their boats—not of aluminum or fiberglass, but wood. And it’s a single piece of wood—a section of a large tree trunk hollowed out with manually-operated tools. Chip, chip, chip, goes the man tap-hacking away slices and slivers to hollow-out and shape the body of the vessel.
I saw this man making a toy boat with the same method:
The fact that they actually make the boat represents the biggest schism between the life I know and this life on display.
To me, an aluminum boat would be advantageous in every way–stronger, lighter, longer lasting. I was told their boats only go a few years before starting to look like the one in the picture above.
Water damage means patchwork.
But I also thought about how this method and craft is a vital a part of this fishing culture. And for these guys to start using an industrially-made boat would mean undercutting their tradition–a system they’ve had in place for who knows how many generations and one that casts a wide net to include such aspects of culture as the time-consuming creation of the boat itself, their appearance and style like how American men might compare cars, and the methods for locomotion and fishing. As inefficient as I might consider their system, all this would need to be forfeited. I had to appreciate that development would come at the expense of this way of life.
I also appreciated and better understood, by comparison, the “American way,” where immigrants from all over arrived from their own boats for a fresh start, and with that, a willingness and ability to set aside tradition and custom in favor of efficiency and productivity. The culture was still in the method, but not in a static ways of farming, cooking, clothes-making, etc. The method was in ever-changing the methods for quicker, stronger, more output. Culture became disconnected from the task and attached to the result.
That being said, and inspired by the example of the fisherman before me here at Lake Nyasa, I realized we Americans do appreciate that the task can become a precious aspect as well, despite it not being the most efficient. We don’t carve our boats or sew out own clothes, but many American families prefer to take the hours necessary to prepare their Thanksgiving meals. Buy my mother all the pre-made food from the store, and I’m not so sure she would be happy come Thanksgiving morning. There’s a pull to finding meaning and comfort in tradition. There’s a warmth to connecting history and ancestry and culture to a task. Having these tasks suddenly done by machine or hiring out supplants that warmth in favor of cool efficiency.
That’s not so much the case in southwest Tanzania.
Another difference between fishing here and what I know is that the men here go out late at night and return in the early morning. Thus, when I awoke my final morning in the village of Matema Beach on shores of Lake Nyasa, I was able to step out of my guesthouse and see the results of a hard night’s work.
Rise and shine.
I walked along the shore past scenes of post-catch activity.
The equipment worked to bring in a haul.
Some fisherman sold to gathering villagers by the heaping five-gallon bucketload. Other fisherman laid their catch out in the morning light.
The smaller fish were laid out to dry.
Not all were laid out on nets.
While parents took care of business, children hung out with one another.
The homes of these villagers sat just beyond the beach.
This village of Matema Beach is a product of the fishing and small-scale farming producing income and bringing people together. As discussed, tradition and productivity can run counter to one another. And as evident here, the traditional ways are dominant.
Americans have been ones—by situation and character, I think—to favor productivity regardless of what might be lost in the process. As a result, we’ve gotten rich, but wage a constant cultural battle with critics pointing our how apt profits come before people.
We are a people who do put less meaning in tradition than other societies. Though I fondly look back at our childhood fishing routine, there’s no way we’d fish that way today. Just this last summer in fact, my older brother bought a fancy new fishing boat for his family. The fishing tradition continues. It’s just nice to be able to not have to lift the boat out of the back of the truck to do so.
After this morning, I packed up and readied to leave Lake Nyasa. My week-long excursion to southwest Tanzania was over. Time to get back to my “real” life. School break was ending; students would be returning; I had to get ready for daily life teaching computers back in the village.