A net is usually a patch of new and old threads

By Pelu Awofeso

“This is how we cast our net. This is how we harvest our
fish,” Nugboyan says after he flings a plastic floater in the ocean, allowing
it to drift away gently. Like an athlete who has just breasted the tape, he is
visibly excited that the evening’s task is done—what is left is to wait for the
catch. The floater doesn’t travel too far off, because a rope around it links
it to a bunch of netting some four feet underwater. It is the point where
Nugboyan will check first when he returns at midnight for the harvest.

While Nugboyan is at work spreading the net and deftly  paddling his canoe back and forth and around the three stakes (positioned one from the other in a ‘V’ arrangement), I am seated, cross-legged,  in another canoe some feet away, watching him perform a routine he has had to repeat almost every day for the past 20 years. His son Laide, only six years old and wearing just shorts, sits unruffled on the other end of Nugboyan’s canoe, watching his
father’s every move. Every once in a while he lifts up his face to stare at the
sky and chatter inaudibly; and once or twice, Nugboyan tells him to scoop out
the water collecting in the canoe with a handy plastic bowl.

It is the tradition with the fishing families in the Badagry
neighbourhood for fathers to school  their sons in the art of fishing. “My father
sent me to school with the money he made from fishing,” Nugboyan tells me as we
head back to Ganyigbo Topa, where he lives. “This is the only profession we
know best.”

A fisherman’s net-casting chore  lasts anywhere between 25 minutes and a
quarter of an hour. A fishing cycle –from the time the net is cast till the
hour of harvest—last eight hours, which means that a fisherman can go out to
fish three times a day, weather and circumstances permitting. It’s just a few
minutes before five in the evening. Three hours from now, Nugboyan will return
to this same spot with kerosene lamps, which he will hang on the stakes. “It is
a warning of sorts to anyone plying the waters by night that there are fishing
nets there, so they take a different route,” he says.

However, fishermen hardly get any warning signs from the mother
nature. Shortly, rain clouds begin to form in the sky; the waves on the ocean
surface suddenly become more turbulent, crashing into one another with
increased frequency. Nugboyan says that there are times when strong waves and
heavy rains damage the fishing nets, or even the stakes that support the nets,
as has happened to his uncle, who has lost one of his own stakes and is now
paddling back home unhappy.

Naturally, Nugboyan feels the man’s loss. Like hundreds of
other fishermen in the area, there is little to do when a calamity such as this
occurs. “It is one of the hazards of our work. When it happens we take it like
that and make plans to replace what is lost as soon as possible,” he says.

A stake costs two thousand naira in the local  market, which is sometimes beyond the average
fisherman’s daily earnings.

Back in Gayingbo Topa most of the young men and adults are
either chatting or just enjoying the evening’s peaceful atmosphere and waiting
for the perfect moment to pack their own nets and paddle to their own stakes. Somewhere
under a shed, a lone figure repairs his damaged net; I step closer and see that
it is a patchwork of old and new netting.  “Our nets usually have about six different hole
sizes,” says Botan, another fisherman of Nugboyan’s age group, who takes me around the vicinity.

The reason for this, he adds, is that the fishes come in different sizes.

On a normal day, people join hands to mend ruptured nets,
whether it belongs to them or to someone else; but today, the affected
fisherman is doing the work all by himself and has a more serious concern. “We
want the government to give us free nets or subsidise the ones we buy,” the man
says, looking up for a brief moment. “What we spend on the nets is just too
much.”

For generations, the fishermen of Badagry have relied mainly on natural indicators to tell when is the perfect time to go fishing . The direction of the water current is one. A few hyacinths on the ocean surface drift slowly in the direction of the overhead bridge far to my right. It is a welcome sign: any moment from now, everyone will pack into their canoes and paddle away to cast their nets for the night.

“When the water is moving from our right to the left (upstream), we don’t bother to go fishing, because it carries fewer fishes,”
one of the hamlet’s older men says. “But when the water moves in the opposite direction(downstream), that is the one that bears the fish. And that is when we stand a better chance to make a big catch.”

The following day I call Nugboyan to find out what his
harvest was like. “It was ok,” he says. “But it can be better.” He later tells
me that the peak season for fishermen in the area is June through September .
These are the months, Nugboyan says, when the Badagry waterways will be crowded
with fishermen stakes.

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