“Women” and “fishing” are two words that would not have been used together in the same sentence a few years ago in Rwanda. It has been a long-held belief in Rwanda that fishing is not for women – it is a man’s occupation. Women have mostly embraced this thinking as well, but a few brave women from Nkombo, an island on Lake Kivu in the Rusizi District, are determined to prove that what a man can do, a woman can do too.
One of these women is Valeria Maniraguha, a 38-year-old mother of four children who started fishing in 2010. Prior to launching her career as a fisherwoman, she used to sell fish, a set of skills that still proves useful on the days when she participates in selling what she catches.
Valeria was born on the island of Nkombo and had to drop out of school early on to support her mother on the farm. She describes her first time fishing as a fun learning experience.
“I was motivated to fish because I saw fishermen making more money than I was. One day I decided to try out the net,” says Valeria. “People were supportive. They would help me pull in the fishing gear along with the fish, but sometimes I would ask them not to help because I wanted to learn to do it by myself.”
Her husband, who works at the district pharmacy as a night watchman, is supportive of his wife’s interest in fishing.
“My husband doesn’t mind at all. He was actually once a fisherman himself, so when I explained to him about my newfound passion, he was not bothered,” Valeria continues.
Adapting traditions in a new way
Valeria goes fishing with a team of ten women at two in the morning. Each member of the crew has a task to perform: some hold the lights, some throw in the nets, and others pull the fish out of the water and onto the boat.
They catch small-sized sardines, locally known as Isambaza, and other local fish such as, Ndugu and Isamake, which Valeria and her team collect in one of their boats until it can be sold. Valeria belongs to a local cooperative known as “Dushakumurimo,” which is comprised of fish dealers and fisherwomen and men on Lake Kivu. They sell one basin (about15 kilos) of the Isambaza at a price of RWF 22 500, or approximately USD 26.
“We can catch between 15- 150kg of fish in three hours depending on the fish species,” Valeria reports. “But in our manually-paddled boats, it takes us forty minutes to transport the fish from the water to the shore in Rusizi’s Kamembe District.”
Dushakumurimo and three other cooperatives that operate in the Rusizi District were recently given motorized boats by FAO to help them more efficiently move their perishable fish to waiting customers on shore. Each member of the cooperative also received a life jacket to help prevent drownings while out on the water.
“The boats will allow us to deliver our fish faster, increasing our clientele and income,” Valeria explains.
In 2015, FAO launched a Youth and Women Employment programme to boost access to quality employment opportunities by developing the skills of young people and women and building well-functioning value-chains. Historically, women and youth in Rwanda have been underemployed and subject to poor working conditions. In this setting, Valeria is a pioneer for change in her community.
Improving safety, sanitation and storage
When asked about the challenges of fishing, Valeria admits that fishing can be risky – especially when faced with heavy rains and strong winds.
“In April 2009, I lost a fellow fisherwoman. She drowned when her boat capsized due to strong winds. She was good at fishing,” Valeria recalls. “If we had had life jackets, perhaps she would still be alive. It’s good that we have the jackets now.”
Valeria and other local workers in the fishing industry received training from FAO on a variety of safety guidelines. The training focused on the sanitation of the fishing gear, hygiene and safety procedures of fishermen and women, handling, storing and processing the fish they catch and sell, as well as on food safety standards. For example, they were trained in smoke-drying fish to increase its shelf life and preserve its taste.
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“Our hygiene practices were not good. We used to wear dirty fishing clothes and used old basins to sell the fish. We have since learned how to wash the fishing nets properly and store the fish so it is safer for everyone,” says Valeria.
“We had been selling raw fish, which would go bad if it was not sold on the day it was caught. If we could not sell the fish before it went bad, it would be a loss for us. But smoked fish lasts longer and fetches relatively higher price than raw fish,” says Enock Nshimiyimana, a local fisherman who has put his FAO training into action.
In addition to the training that Valeria and others in her community have already received on sanitation and safety in the fishing industry, they are scheduled to receive further instruction on fish seed production, proper fish seed handling and hatchery management. Plans to build a processing centre for the fish cooperatives in Rusizi are also currently underway, another sign that fishing in Rwanda is a growing industry.
Helping support her family
Valeria reports that she can now support her family with additional income. Her husband’s income pays the school fees for the children while Valeria’s fishing income helps the family buy a wider variety of food.
These days, Valeria proudly feeds her family a balanced diet of rice, flour, beans and vegetables from her garden, and of course, fish.