Since her birth on Senegal’s coast, the ocean has always given Ndeye Yacine Dieng life. Her grandfather was a fisherman, and her grandmother and mother processed fish. Like generations of women, she helps support her family in the small community of Bargny by drying, smoking, salting and fermenting the catch brought home by male villagers. They were baptized by fish, these women say.
But when the pandemic struck, boats that once took as many as 50 men out to sea carried only a few. Many residents were too terrified to leave home, let alone fish, for fear of catching the virus. When local women managed to get their hands on fish to process, they lacked buyers, as markets shut down and neighboring countries closed borders. Without savings, many families went from three daily meals to one or two.
Dieng is among more than a thousand women in Bargny, and many more in other villages dotting Senegal’s coast, who process fish — the crucial link in a chain that constitutes one of the country's largest exports and employs hundreds of thousands of its residents.
“It was catastrophic — all of our lives changed,” Dieng said. But, she noted, “Our community is a community of solidarity.”
That spirit sounds throughout Senegal with the motto “Teranga,” a word in the Wolof language for hospitality, community and solidarity. People tell each other: “on est ensemble,” a French phrase meaning “we are in this together.”
Last month, the first true fishing season since the pandemic kicked off, bringing renewed hope to processors, their families and the village. The brightly painted vast wooden fishing boats called pirogues once again each carry dozens of men to sea, and people swarm the beach to help fishermen carry in their loads.
But challenges from the coronavirus — and so much more — remain. Rising seas and climate change threaten livelihoods and homes; many can't afford to build new structures or move inland. A steel processing plant rising near Bargny’s beach raises fears about pollution and will join a cement factory nearby.
“Since there is COVID, we live in fear," said Dieng, 64, who has seven adult children. "Most of the people here and women processors have lived a difficult life. ... Little by little, it’s getting better.”
Dieng and fellow processors weathered the pandemic by relying on each other. They’re accustomed to being breadwinners — one expert estimated that each working woman in Senegal feeds seven or eight family members. Before the pandemic, a good season could bring Dieng 500,000 FCFA ($1,000). Last year, she said, she made little to nothing.
Dieng's husband teaches the Quran at the mosque next door to their home, and the couple pooled their money with their children, with one son finding work repairing TVs. Other women got help from family abroad or rented out parts of their refrigerators for storage.
They survived, but they missed their work, which isn't just a job — it's their heritage. “Processing is a pride,” Dieng said.
Most fishing in Senegal is small-scale — carried out in traditional, generations-old methods. It's referred to as artisanal fishing. Once processed, fish is sold to local and international buyers. In Senegal, fish accounts for more than half of protein eaten by its 16 million residents — key for food security.
Industrial fishing is carried out in Senegal’s waters as well, via motorized vessels and trawlers. More than two dozen companies also specialize in industrial processing in the country alongside fishmeal factories and canning plants. Fishmeal factories price women like Dieng out by paying more for fish and depleting resources — 5 kilos of fish are needed for 1 kilo of fishmeal, a lower-grade powder-like product used for farm animals and pets.
Senegal’s government also has agreements with other countries allowing them to fish and imposing limits on the hauls. Monitoring what these boats from Europe, China and Russia harvest has proven difficult. Locals say outsiders devastate supply.
Dieng has become a local leader and mentor whose neighbors come to her for advice on everything from money woes to their marriages, and she and others are part of a rising collective voice of women in Senegal working for change along the coast and beyond.
Senegal has designated land near Bargny as an economic zone in its efforts to invest in redevelopment. Dieng’s neighbor Fatou Samba — a town councilor and president of the Association of Women Processors of Fish Products — has testified about challenges in artisanal fishing.
“If we let ourselves be outdone, within two or three years, women will not have work anymore,” Samba said. “We are not against the creation of a project that will develop Senegal. But we are against projects that must make women lose the right to work.”
The pandemic has taught villagers a crucial lesson: Money from fish may not always be there, so it’s important to try to save.
The pandemic also is not over, so Dieng and other women go door to door to raise awareness and urge people to get vaccinated. Senegal imposed strict measures at the start of the pandemic. The government was widely commended, and restrictions largely eased. But the country's had more than 40,000 cases. Volunteer and government campaigns aim to keep another wave at bay.
At the end of a long day of work, and before she goes home to break fast of Ramadan with her family, Dieng stands in front of her smoking fish and records a video she hopes will to motivate the women working in the industry.
“It’s our gold. This site is all, this site is everything for us,” Dieng said of the coast and its importance to Bargny. “All the women must rise up."