Global Planan

Danny Lam: Science Communicator, Traveller, Photographer

Fishing in a Mokoro

Out of instinct, I lean away from the wall of water that is sure to follow. Mistake.”

20160306_143934-01.jpegThe waves slam into the primitive boat. The water leaps into the air above my head and splashes itself down onto my face. I licked my lips. I dare not to wipe the water from my eyes; in fear of losing the oar that I clutch desperately in my hands. I feel the strong, hard wood dig into my palm as I paddle with all my effort.

The boat itself is called a mokoro (see right), and it is, in fact, a hollowed out tree that has been carved in such a way as to make it somewhat more aerodynamic. The oar itself is cut from the same tree. George, my local guide, and fishermen, had explained to me that the tree itself had taken three years to grow into the right size to produce both the boat and ore. And they had taken him and his father a month to carve. The carving process is slow and painful; as they are not assisted by power tools but merely axes knives and stones.

The boat jerks violently as another assault of waves is unleashed onto it. Out of instinct, I lean away from the wall of water that is sure to follow. Mistake.

As I lean, the delicate balance of the boat is thrown and we begin to tip. Luckily George is an experienced fisherman and has been doing so his entire life. He instinctively throws his body in such a way as to counter the fall of the boat. I look at him squeamishly and he lets out a low bellowing laugh. He then speaks two words, “Over nearly.” and I appreciate his efforts in trying to calm me.

We paddle for another five minutes; fighting the waves as one. The water crashes around us as if threatening us not to venture further. But we paddle on until we reach the calm open water. We are now about two kilometers from the shore and the water below us is unknowingly deep. The water is unusually clear and I can see two of three meters blow the water surface; every now and then a small fish breaks into view.

We set aside our oar in the hollowed out section of the tree. My arms ache and my back desperately needs to be cracked. As we lower our ore I notice that George’s is twice the size of mine. I suddenly realize that despite my pain and panting, he was probably doing most of the work; but he hasn’t even broken a sweat.

In the distance, I can see the faint shoreline of Mozambique as well as an array of unnaturally white clouds, that are slowly roaming towards us. “There will be a storm tonight,” I think to myself.

Before we had entered the boat, George and his brother had explained to me how to sit on it. They explained that the howled section was merely for storage and occasionally our legs. Any body part from the hip upwards would not fit inside its narrow opening, and so we were to either kneel in the boat or sit on top of it with our feet dangling off either of its sides. Much like how you would sit on a surfboard. The roughness of the boat and its howled out section made both options uncomfortable.

I look over at my companion who is readying a fishing line for me. The line itself is not accompanied by the pole or any other contraption but is itself simply a wire. I ask him how old he is to which he replies “Ten and eight years.” I look at him in awe. For someone so young he looks so mature; both physically and mental. His veins pop out of his arms and his muscles bulges and his eyes are calm as if he has seen it all. He then asks, “You?” to which I reply “turning ten and ten and one.” He looks at me up and down, sizing me up; and we both know that, despite my age, I am much weaker than he.

George hands me the fishing line and instructs me to pull up the line as I feel it vibrate. However, he does so in half-spoken English and hand gestures. As he hands me the wire he says “feel” and shakes the other end. This is followed by the word “pull” and a fast yanking motion. I nod.

We cast our lines and wait. As time passes George reels in more and more fish, as I sit by inadequately trying to feel the vibration of the line. Several times I hastily pull the line in, thinking that something is biting the other end; only to find it empty. George seems to find this amusing, he laughs each time he sees my confused faced.

As George catches the fish he hands them to me, letting me see them up close. Often he would say phrases like “taste good” or “lucky color,” referring to the cobalt blue or cadmium yellow scales of a cichlid he just caught.

The fish themselves were so exotic. They came in a myriad of colors, shapes, and sizes. No two fish caught were the same species. However few of the fish I did recognize from my local pet store back home. Back home these fishes were not worth eating, they were simply too small. They were about the length of my index finger, and not worth the trouble. But here, in Malawi, if you could catch enough of them you could feed your family for a night, and if you could catch more than enough you could sell them at the market. So no fish was spared.

After an hour or two I allowed my lack of fishing ability to take over and I retire to taking in the beauty of Lake Malawi. Its crystal clear waters, that is dotted with tiny islands. Its exotic fish, that curiously dart around and below our boat. Its majestic birds of prey, that saw above us; and the kindness of the people that call Malawi home.

The shores of lake Malawi.
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