Before arriving in Mbakaou for my service, I learned that Mbakaou was a major fishing town and that fish would be an essential part of my diet. I was very concerned. At the time, I was in training in the small landlocked village of Mengong, and I ate fish every single day with my host family. They were good cooks but the quality of the fish was decent at best and I was eating EVERY SINGLE DAY. Thus when I first learned I was going to cattle country (Adamawa is Cameroonian cattle country) I was very excited, until of course I found that the town in particular was the center of the regional fishing industry. I didn’t know if I could do fish every single night for the next two years.
However my concerns were soon washed away. First, it’s still cattle country and beef is always part of the local diet. Second, when fishing season did start (last February, but really in full effect the last month or so), the Fish was amazing!!! On top of that, the fish is unbelievably cheap (even compared to other regions). If I wanted a fish for lunch, namely one that had been caught that morning, I would go to one of the fish stands, choose my fish, watch it get grilled and then pay $0.40 to $0.80 cents for it! For a good sized delicious fish! Yes, translated into US dollars! Also, it is well prepared healthy fish. It’s not like other cheap things that seem too cheap to be considered healthy. Like the vodka in Russia I heard about when I was there that costs less than a dollar. STAY AWAY FROM THAT! Like other seemingly innocent things in Russia, it could kill you. Thankfully (and hopefully I am not jinxing myself), it is not the case for the fish of Mbakaou, Cameroon. On top of that, mango and avocado season coincide with fishing season, which is a good sign for nutritional intake in town.
Despite the nutritious fish and increased incomes in the town, the fishing industry also has a few negative impacts on the area as well. To start, many young men who would otherwise attend high school drop out to work in the relatively profitable fishing trade, much the same way several decades ago in the American rust belt, young men would drop out to work in coal mines (as a broad example). This may provide immediate income for their families, but it is seasonal still relatively low income, and deprives both the town and Cameroon of educated individuals. Also there are other negative effects to making one industry the center of a town’s economy especially when that industry is (legally speaking) seasonal. Farming is also important, but aside from cattle raising it is often subsistent farming and is not as large as the fishing industry.
Recently, I have also been learning more and more about the high HIV relevance in the fishing villages because of men who travel to the lake, fish and have relationships (or other sort of connections) with local women and then leave them behind.
Finally, another concern has been raised in Africa in general and was particularly brought to light by a New York Times article, is the use of mosquito nets as fishing nets. I have heard of it used in lake Mbakaou yet, however I have not seen it, but their use raises a lot of concerns. First, people are not using their mosquito net to protect them from mosquitoes. Living by a lake only makes them more vulnerable and most families only have one. I am already having trouble convincing people to use their net primarily for their young children and pregnant women, who are the most vulnerable to malaria. Moreover, while the nets are very effective in scooping up many fish (sometimes too many), they kill many fish because of the insecticide they use on the nets and they leave those toxins in the lake.
All in all, fishing is an essential part of the town’s economy and lifestyle (including cuisine) and these problems need to be overcome so we can continue the fruits of the lake without major consequences. I hope you are well and eating good food too!