Home PageArchivesVolume no. 6Issue 1Nonfiction: Leslie Roberson

Fishing on Ghana Man Time

by Leslie Roberson


The fishing beach in Winneba is bounded by a river of sewage to the west and to the east by a looming figure I called Poop Mountain. At first glance, the 200 meters stretched between these conspicuous landmarks looks like a traditional Ghanaian fishery; a recordable system of boats, nets, fish, and people. When I looked again, the fishery swirled into a frenzy of pushing, pulling, dancing, and screaming. Men coming in from sea passed their fish through a tangled production line of metal bowls, woven baskets, and empty gas cans that snaked up the beach and into the recesses of the village. Those heading seaward hauled decrepit, creaking canoes into the water as naked children darted between their legs, diving through wads of plastic and debris as they charged into the waves.

The steady easterly current gradually sifts garbage towards Poop Mountain, which is actually an eroded cliff. Years of sand mining, mangrove deforestation, and dredging projects have hacked away at the beach, leaving exposed 20 feet of tightly packed layers of trash and excrement. The shacks fringing the fishing village are perched precariously on top of the cliff, destined to submit and crumble, just as the row before had. At the base of the cliff are dozens of crouching figures who prefer to relieve themselves in the sea breeze rather than in the noxious public toilets overflowing onto the village walkways.

I turned back to the boats, alternately scrutinizing the fishing activity and the ground beneath my feet. Every possible fishing tactic seemed to be on display. Some of the nets were as fine as dental floss while others were woven with thick twine. There were canoes barely longer than my height and others that carried 30 men; some were powered by outboard motors and others by patchwork sails.

I looked down at the page of empty rows and columns in my data sheet—printed from the Observer Training Manual on the National Marine Fishery Services website—and laughed at the absurdity of reducing this scene to a list of numbers.

Over 95 percent of the world’s fishermen are engaged in “artisanal” or small-scale fisheries. Yet, they are usually overshadowed by the industrial vessels that scrape, scoop, and hook millions of tons of marine life from the ocean every year. The impact of small fishing crafts seems negligible compared to super trawlers that drag nets large enough to hold 13 jumbo jets. But however small the individual boats, effective management of artisanal fisheries is critical to the future of marine ecosystems. Maintaining wild fish stocks at a harvestable level is a colossal challenge that has repeatedly thwarted us.

Small-scale fisheries are difficult to characterize because they range from organized, semi-industrial speedboats to sail-powered dinghies to no boat at all—just a person throwing a net into the surf. My months of research had revealed little about the small-scale fisheries in Ghana besides warnings from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization that most West African fish stocks are either fully exploited or on the brink of collapse. I discovered that, beyond these regional estimates, nobody knows the amount of fish caught by artisanal vessels or the amount of illegal and unreported fishing perpetrated by industrial trawlers.

My goal was to characterize an artisanal fishery in Ghana as an example of small-scale fishing in the greater West African region. I needed to know what gear they used, what species they caught, how much money they made, and how many people participated. After a consultation with several interested biologists from NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service, a grant in hand, a contact at the Ghana Wildlife Division and a freshly minted college degree, I felt confident and prepared for anything. I knew things wouldn’t go exactly as planned and I thought I was ready for the unexpected. I never imagined how the air would saturate with the fumes of sweat and burning plastic, that retrieving a parcel at the post office would cost me an entire working day and a hefty bribe, or that I would spend a year sitting next to Poop Mountain.

Ghana is the only place I have ever been that became more foreign the longer I stayed. Normally, I arrive somewhere and if feels strange and unfamiliar, but I soon discover shelves of imported products, hear American music, and meet people who share my sense of humor and, for the price of a few cheap beers, can teach me that the country’s politics and cultural idiosyncrasies are not so distant from the United States. And this was Ghana, official language English, West Africa’s rising star, a beacon of political stability nestled in between the chaos of the Cote d’ Ivoire, Togo, and Burkina Faso. But on my second day, a man with a weathered smile and leathery fingers told me, “We’re GMT plus zero, just like London. But here is Ghana Man Time.” He was right.

During my final two months in Winneba, I conducted 75 one-on-one interviews with fishermen. I would ask their age (usually prompting a lengthy discussion with the bystanders hovering around us) and then how many years they had been fishing. I started to get suspicious of some of the answers, so I tried reversing the order of the questions.

“How many years have you been fishing?”

“Ohhh, 45 years.”

“How many years old are you?”

“Me? I am 32.”

A contented silence followed.

I eventually succumbed to Ghana Man Time. My existence slowed and grew more bewildering with every day. It wasn’t that the English faded into dozens of tribal dialects as soon as I left the capital, or that the ShopRites were replaced with ramshackle markets stocked with soggy tomatoes barely visible under a pulsating blanket of flies. What surprised me was when something I thought I recognized revealed itself to be a façade of familiarity.

I saw more churches than hospitals, police stations, and schools combined but slowly learned that beneath these Western icons lies a subversive reality of superstitions, curses, and voodoo cults. Advertisements line the roads and building walls, but they are far more literal than American media. Billboards and signs flash hand-painted renditions of exactly what they are advertising: bloody animal heads from the butchery, cures for the pictured fungal infections, gastrointestinal afflictions, or sexually transmitted diseases—even a shack that offers ear piercing and circumcision.

I made the same mistake on the beach in Winneba when I thought I saw a fishery structured around economic and scientific logic. My first attempt at collecting accurate scientific data was to consult the local fishery officer, Mr. Baden, who was supposed to be monitoring Winneba’s catch. I cycled to and from Baden’s house for four consecutive days. He would emerge through curtains of laundry, grinning and waving in his black rubber rain boots and corduroy pants. At the beach, if Baden spotted one of his friends, he might mark down how many baskets they had collected. Sometimes he dismissed the catches as too small to record, mostly he just chatted with the fishermen.

An unpublished pamphlet composed by a professor at the University of Ghana estimates that 120 species land in the artisanal nets of this region. There are five species in the tuna family, all of which Baden recorded as “tuna.” The dozens of species of sea bream, porgies, and snappers were “red fish.” On the third day that I futilely followed him around, some fishermen (illegally) landed a shark. I hadn’t brought my identification book, so I asked him what kind of shark it was. He said, “Yes! It’s a shark!”

At this point, I couldn’t appreciate the complexity of Baden’s job. I saw one fishing village. But the beach actually hosted five distinct communities, and each tribal fishery had its own language, chief, economic structure, and particular fishing method. Baden had no other officers or enforcement bodies to assist him and he was tasked with monitoring the hundreds of unlicensed boats, illegal nets, and ethnic groups of fishermen migrating along the coast of West Africa, jumping between enclaves of their same tribe.

From what I understood of Baden’s broken English, he wanted something from me in exchange for the tour: a fast-pass to an American university and a scholarship to do his Masters degree. I didn’t know how to answer him because I couldn’t produce an acceptance letter for Mr. Baden any more than I could propagate the stack of green cards requested of me every day. I had no way of supplying the faster motors, bigger boats, and magical “American fish-finding machines” the fishermen insisted I bring them from my country. I was overwhelmed by my inability to fulfill any of these requests or to adopt the babies thrust at me by women overburdened with wheelbarrows of firewood balanced on their heads and their children—younger siblings strapped to their backs—tugging at their skirts.

I saw the meager catches the fishermen lugged to shore, and it seemed impossible that they were making any money. The waters stretching from Nigeria to Senegal are a global hotbed of illegal fishing, but the actual rates are unknown. A combination of illegal industrial fishing, overfishing and climate change is warping the function of the Eastern Atlantic’s marine ecosystems and straining the livelihoods of millions of West Africans who have historically relied on fishing as a source of protein, society, and culture. But how bad is bad? I wanted numbers, so I had to leave Mr. Baden to his folder of statistically flawed data and sample the hauls myself.

I sat down with the fishmonger women as I waited for the canoes to arrive. I befriended Sistah Ama, who poked my stomach and cackled wildly, shouting, “Baby, baby!” I said, “No, I don’t have a baby.” She grabbed my breast and tucked my skirt tightly around my legs as she offered me a seat by pushing me into an empty fish bowl. A fisherman approached and asked me to marry him. Then he insisted that I marry him. I told him sorry, but I’m not getting married for a long time. He said, “OK, OK, you marry me next month.”

Several afternoons with Sistah Ama paid off; I finally made a friend who guided my data collection. Kwesi was the son of the owner of two large canoes and the only person I met at the beach who spoke English with clarity. The first time I went out with the fishermen on his father’s boat, “One Man No Chop,” Kwesi told me they were leaving at 3:30 a.m. But I showed up at 4:30. We left at 6:15. When I observed the daily landings from the beach, the fishermen always told me they had left at 4:00 a.m. I made a note to account for Ghana Man Time when calculating the hours spent at sea. I already suspected the times they gave me were estimations, since none of them had watches. Or maps. Or compasses, which were unnecessary in past generations when stocks were plentiful, but made me nervous now that the men had to travel two, three, ten times farther to find fish. Fishing trips used to take less than a day. Now, a short trip is 12 hours and the two-man canoes frequently spend three days at sea.

I expected the fishermen to have some romantic method for finding fish. As it turns out, the catches are so small and erratic that the only option is to start the trip with a 10-minute song to the sea goddess Mama Wate, then strike out randomly and hope to find a flock of diving seabirds signaling underwater activity. We zigzagged back and forth, looking for any ripple of life, but all I could see was a barren ocean and the distant shadows of boats scouring its surface for the anachronistic school of fish.

The crew lounged in their underwear, mending the net or napping on the deck as the 40-horsepower motor sputtered along. Whenever we came across another canoe, the fishermen would stop and ask if they had found any fish. Given that there are way too many boats searching for way too few fish, I figured the atmosphere at sea would be fiercely competitive. But Ghanaian people share everything, even when they have nothing. “Chop” means food, so I was sitting on a boat called “One man no food”—you have to work together to survive. Someone onboard brings a cell phone (which is more useful than a compass, after all) and when one canoe finds a school of fish, they call their friends to join the feeding frenzy. Makes sense, except when they are unable to explain their location with no landmarks or coordinates.

Soon we saw a swarm of 20 boats converging on a patch of suggestive ripples. After the fishermen had stared at the water for half an hour, the captain let out a shout and the frenzy commenced. The crew scurried across the deck with armfuls of net, tying knots, untying knots, and yelling at each other. Two men stripped off their pants and leaped into the water with flailing arms to corral the fish. Another man chucked the anchor overboard, which was attached to one end of the 200-meter-long purse seine net. Once the boat circles the fish with the net, two lines of men pull from opposite ends and the net closes from the bottom like a drawstring.

The process of setting and hauling the net takes about an hour. The men sing as they pull, one man drumming on a metal canister to keep time. The rhythm is hypnotizing; I forgot how hard I was pulling until we finished and my back was throbbing and blisters covered my hands. After all this work we caught three flying fish and two small Spanish mackerels. At the beach I often noted boats returning with a salad bowl of sardines to split among 25 men. But now I felt all those zeros I had been jotting down for my analysis, and they didn’t feel good.

I was so tired I slept all the way back to Winneba, which they found without a problem. The fishermen have adapted to the longer journeys. Petrol prices increase, fish stocks decrease. The soil grows barren from the epidemic of palm oil and pineapple plantations that suck the life from the ground and sequester it to foreign markets. The people respond by sharing more, traveling further and eating less nutritious food. I took the next morning off work and slept for 14 hours, while the real fishermen arose in the darkness to pray to Mama Wate and go fishing once again.

After that day, the “One Man No Chop” crew kept asking me when we would fish again. I wanted to see how they counted and sorted the fish when they got a big haul. One of my primary questions was how they knew how much money they made and how they divided it amongst the crew. I watched hundreds of boats come in and I never saw anyone write anything down, but everybody seemed to know exactly how many fish were arriving.

If a large canoe got a catch, the fishermen would scoop fish from the hull into a massive tin bowl and hand it over the ledge onto the runner’s head. This younger man was in peak physical condition because his task was to sprint up the beach with the bowl, which I could only manage to lift with an expletive series of strains and grunts. As he ran, men too old to fish and young boys meant to be in school descended upon him like a birthday party on a broken piñata, snatching fish from his bowl and darting into the colorful maze of beached canoes, abandoned nets, crowds of waiting fishmongers, and men with nothing to do but watch the daily commotion.

I estimated up to 10 percent of the bowl was absconded in the 12 meters between the canoe and the fishmongers. The fishermen remained remarkably unfazed, until some invisible line was crossed and their friends would suddenly smack the boy across the head or push the old man out of the runway amidst a growing crowd of shouting bystanders. As I watched one of these mobs descend upon an inordinately greedy thief, I asked Kwesi about the embezzlement quota. “It’s not fair. Da catch has been very bad for da fishermen. Dat man took too much.”

With so little reward to begin with, I was surprised the men allowed even one slippery sardine to escape. Perhaps they were once young boys, stealing fish instead of sitting in school because their parents could not—or did not—pay their fees. Maybe they understood that their bodies would eventually decay from years of constant strain against the ropes attached to the clunky wooden canoes, against the nets heavy even when devoid of fish, against the barrels of the watered down “premix” fuel heavily subsidized by the government in order to keep the unsustainable artisanal fishing boats dutifully lumbering out to sea. With no retirement plan beyond a contingent of children and grandchildren who also had not completed school, they would resign themselves to the shade of a derelict canoe, snatching a few horse mackerel or pitifully undersized yellowfin tuna as their successors made the dash up the beach.

I just couldn’t believe that it still made sense to fish in Winneba. Someone, sometime, must land a massive catch that sustains their brothers, their crew and their children through the subsequent weeks of petrol debt. After months of greeting One Man No Chop, I never really answered this question. I suspect only a few fishermen get lucky and end up accruing enough earnings to permanently buffer themselves from debt. The rest survive off a network of generous brothers and entrepreneurial wives.

I agreed to a round two of fishing. Kwesi told me to show up at 3:30 a.m., but I was a wiser and less naive obruni and rolled up at 5:45; just the right amount of time to buy water and snacks before we departed at 6:30. We had just finished the opening prayer chant when Kwesi realized he had forgotten his cell phone on the beach. He said he was sorry but he had to go get it, so he hopped on a canoe coming in from an overnight trip and headed back to shore. I decided to keep going without my translator.

By mid-afternoon, this fishing trip was looking to be even longer than the first—we had set the net twice, caught nothing, and were preparing to try again. It was 2:00 p.m. and I hadn’t relieved myself since I left the house at 5:00 that morning. There is no cover on the canoes and I had been chugging water all day to brace myself against the scorching sun. I couldn’t hold it any longer. I had to pee, NOW. On the previous trip, Kwesi had explained the situation and all the fishermen kindly turned towards the bow while I hung off the stern and executed a logistically challenging but liberating maneuver. This time, however, I couldn’t communicate my predicament, and we had company: someone had spotted fish and a flock of canoes surrounded us.

Given that people were highly entertained when I rode my bicycle, washed clothes, or bought produce, I dreaded the spectacle of hanging bare-assed off the back of the boat. The only option was to get in the water. I waited until we stopped moving then, clutching my stomach, I hobbled over to the captain and pointed urgently at the ocean. “Me ko water, me ko water! Urinate, URINATE!” I mimed diving off the boat, and the crew hurried towards me, shaking their heads and wagging their fingers in alarm. Kofi yelled, “No! White lady, don’t Jump!! Salt bad for white skin!”

Splash. I was in, and chaos ensued. Twenty-five fishermen rushed to the side of the boat, which tipped dangerously close to the water. I felt primary school-talent show panic, my brightly patterned dress ballooning around me in the tepid, lazy waves as I looked up at three massive wooden boats circled around me, the men all yelling and gesturing wildly. I paddled around for several minutes before I finally convinced my insides that it was acceptable to let go.

These small moments of complete, primal relief kept me sane in Ghana. Racing the thunderclouds back to my house and snatching my laundry off the line seconds before the monsoon drenched my laboriously scrubbed dresses. Getting a compliment on how I ate like a Ghanaian, left hand on my lap and right hand molding a spoon from my lump of fufu and successfully shoveling the oily groundnut soup into my mouth. Sending a flock of children into ecstatic laughter when I showed off my azontu dance moves.

I finally figured out how to extricate myself from the demands for my hand in marriage. “I will marry you,” I would say solemnly. “But I am very, very expensive. I want one thousand cows.” This incited a shocked gasp. “And I want my own canoe! And a house! No, TWO houses! And I want a BIG car!” I would continue with my list until the suitor burst into delighted laughter. “Ohhhh-bruni, ohhh white lady,” he would grin, shake my hand, and walk away chuckling.

Those little successes expunged the failures. They make me remember the little boys who climbed 50-foot palm trees to pluck me a fresh coconut and deftly slice it open with machetes longer than their arms. I remember the teenagers in their crisp, glowing white T-shirts, looking stunning despite living in a shack with no water or electricity whereas I was permanently creased with red dirt and yellow sweat stains. I think of Ghana and remember the music, pumping over the honking taxis and bleating goats. I remember the people who waved and asked how I was doing every single morning on my ride to the beach, and the village chief who protected a nesting turtle from hungry poachers after I had given a workshop on the importance of sea turtles to the health of the ocean.

During my first fishing excursion we passed an industrial trawler. It was likely a foreign vessel fishing illegally in Ghana’s waters, bold and content with the knowledge that Ghana had zero police vessels at the time. I asked Kwesi where he thought the boat was from. “Dat boat Korea Boat.” He might have been right; several Asian nations are major culprits in the global problem of illegal industrial fishing.

Then he said, “Da Korea Man, she no speak good English.” The Ghanaians I spoke with in the village tended to use gender pronouns, and verb tenses, interchangeably. He continued, “Dis Korea Man, nobody understand her.” I eventually relaxed my dependence on verb tense. It didn’t make sense to specify past, present, and future in a place where acknowledging the existence of the high-income world’s time only causes problems. I felt helplessness at protecting the fishermen from the ticking clock of fish stocks sputtering into collapse, driven largely by forces far beyond our control.

The question my translator had the most trouble communicating to my interviewees was, “What do you think will happen in the future?” I phrased it a dozen different ways, even asking bluntly, “What will you do if there are no more fish?” but it always triggered a confused and disgruntled look. The concept of thinking beyond tomorrow, predicting what might happen to their fish stocks and planning for the crash that seemed so blatant to my scientific, pessimistic eyes, was irrelevant to them. Frustrated with my culturally nonsensical question, they shook their heads and told me, “only God knows.” The fishermen will continue to pray, to stitch nets together to stretch them farther, and to borrow more money for petrol so they can venture farther out to sea in search of fish.

Our oceans may not be as adaptable as the Ghanaian fishermen. One Man No Chop is one of hundreds of canoes parked next to Poop Mountain, but one of thousands in Ghana and hundreds of thousands in West Africa. Together, the seemingly pitiful baskets of undersized fish amass to a serious dent in the near-shore fishing grounds that dot the coastlines of every inhabited continent. But each pulsating stretch of beach, each shouting mob of people, might pray to its own Mama Wate. And ultimately, each artisanal fishery might require a unique solution to the universal plight of climate change and dwindling catches. Even if our standardized observer sheets are frustratingly simplified, we need to do our best to research and record the state of the world’s Winnebas. Our marine ecosystems are not separated into GMT + 0, or Ghana Man Time, or any other time zone we have constructed.

I swam back to One Man No Chop and the crew hauled me on board like a behemoth tuna they might have landed a century ago, before industrial trawlers from across the globe raked through the Gulf of Guinea, or GMT sped so far ahead of Ghana Man Time.

Leslie Roberson AuthorLeslie Roberson grew up in Seattle, Wash., and graduated from Yale University in 2011 with a B.A. in Environmental Science. She completed her Masters degree in Applied Marine Science at the University of Cape Town in 2014. Her PhD dissertation will test new underwater video techniques to monitor offshore fish assemblages.

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