Navigating seas, smoke, and social relations: making a living in a Sierra Leonean fishing town
This thesis explores maritime livelihoods in the fishing town of Tombo, in Sierra Leone’s Western Province. With global attention on the decreasing fish stocks in the Gulf of Guinea, and national and international policies of economic development through the use of marine resources, I research how people navigate in a shifting social, ecological and economic landscape to sustain themselves, their families and their communities. At its core, this thesis is about what happens – socially, economically, and ecologically – in a fishing community when there are less and less fish in the sea. Central to the project is the question of how an ethnographic exploration of a West African community and the people involved in the artisanal fishing sector can contribute to new understandings of entanglements between the global and local, between the human and the non-human, and between the land and the sea. Focusing on the fishing boats, the banda fish smoking houses, and the wharfs where fish are traded, I trace gendered and generational working relations that centre on capturing, trading, and materially transforming the fish. By analysing people’s socio-economic navigational practices (chapter 3 and 4) and relation-building and trust through fresh and smoked fish (chapter 5), I show how fishermen and fish processors search for new economic patrons, as evidenced by foreign fish export companies (chapter 4) and development NGOs (chapter 6), which again affects the gendered fish trade in the artisanal sector. Building on the literature on relationality in West Africa, I argue for an incorporation of shifting material environments and other-than-human beings, like fish, to understand how the embodied skills of the fishermen and fish processors are shaped through their relations with moving fish, the smoke they use, and the profits they earn, as well as how these skills inform their continued hustle. Throughout the thesis, I focus on the relationality and embodied knowledges as being shaped through lives lived by and at the sea, to argue how the working lives in a resource depleted environment should not be reduced to individual survival tactics in a post-conflict landscape of social breakdown. Rather, working together on the fishing boats, trading fish on the wharfs, and making smoked fish in the banda smoke houses, shape the foundations for local relations of trust and solidarity, competition and exploitation, which are historically situated while always containing temporal possibilities and creative potential.