A reporter reveals the cultural, economic, and spiritual forces affecting a Senegalese fishing community.
For nearly 20 years, journalist Badkhen (Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah, 2015, etc.) has reported on daily life in Africa and the Middle East in six books of nonfiction and articles in venues such as the New York Times and the New Republic. But she had never focused on a population utterly dependent on the ocean. “How,” she asks, “does the shifting demarcation line between earth and sea define the way we see the world, shape our community and communality”? For a season, she lived and worked in the West African port of Joal, Senegal, joining in the “primordial sloshing” aboard handcrafted boats that, day and night, in calm or storm, set out into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean for fish. During night fishing, she sailed for 20 hours at a time; on land, she writes, “I dream I am growing gills.” Fishing as livelihood, she quickly discovers, is becoming increasingly imperiled by industrial vessels and climate change, reducing the catch to a tenth of what it had been 10 years earlier. “To live off the sea,” she realizes, “is to submit to its vagaries, to endure constantly the tension between desire and defeat.” Fishermen “rely on miracles for a living,” sought through sacrifice and prayer to God and to the ocean, “whose waters carry their fortunes and their sorrows and their dead.” For Badkhen, those roiling waters exerted a primordial power: “The ocean bewitches,” she writes, “reveals the ancient predator in me.” The community bewitched her, as well, and her affection was reciprocated: village children called her Auntie; her name was painted on a ship’s bow, as mascot. The author’s prose is lyrical, precise, and lucent, whether she is portraying fishermen and their families or the sea at night. “Luminescence weeps into the boat through seams in blinking rivulets,” she writes. “You bail buckets of radiances. The outboard motor churns pure light.”
A highly absorbing chronicle of a transcendent journey.