The Fishing Wives Of Damboa (where women run the show)

In the mainly agrarian community of Damboa in Borno State, the Marghi Speaking women are apparently subservient to their husbands. The fishes that have fallen prey to their fishing nets in a weekly fishing rites in the area are ultimately used to win over their men by way of using the proceeds there from to supplement the family’s income and prepare a delicacy popularly known as ‘Marghi Special’ for the family, to consolidate their rightful place in the matrimonial home throughout the fishing season!

For many people traveling to Damboa en route Maiduguri the Borno state capital from different parts of the north-east, is like having to travel to watch a circus, which leaves many commuters with a strong nostalgia to always make the trip back through Damboa, a place where the women compliment the aesthetic landscape of the area with their unique features.

Hardly can one cover a kilometer without seeing a woman on a bicycle, which is seen as an exclusive reserve of men especially in the north. Interestingly, these women are not alone on their bikes, most times; they back their babies and carry other children together with their farm produce. In some occasions, to the amusement of commuters, the women are seen riding with one hand while breastfeeding their babies with the other hand and at the same time, peddling their bikes that are often loaded with heaps of farm produce or fire woods without the slightest fear of the swift movements of vehicles on the high way of Damboa.

This apparent show of dexterity by these women provided the spur for Daily Trust to visit the homes of some of them. Interestingly, beneath the cycling tradition of these women which evolved as a result of farming activities in distant places in the area. Most of these women are breadwinners in their homes, they often go to the farms than the men, they transport farm produce often than the men do, and they are the ones that often cut down trees as fire woods in their homes. Young girls are often seen on trees guarding their farms against monkeys particularly during market days presumably when the men are there to sale their farm produce.

The point of this amusing anecdote of these women during the raining season is to appreciate their Industry as they engage yet in another activity during the dry season in their attempt to please their husbands. Daily Trust found out that every Wednesdays and Fridays, mostly from December to May, women of all ages assemble their selves from different households in Damboa town for a regular fishing trip, from where they crammed themselves in one or two chattered pick up van(s) to take them to several fishing locations close to the banks of river Hawul that supports the vast cultivation of vegetables across Damboa.

This reporter was billed to accompany these women in one of their fishing trips last week, but the women had left about an hour before his arrival from Maiduguri. However, as soon as the direction of the fishing destination of these women was confirmed by a succession of villagers, the women where trailed after covering a long distance, until when a group of children under a tree at Bra village were sighted about 40 kilometers away from Damboa and that brought a sigh of relief when they confirmed that their mothers are part of the fishing group, and they pointed to a direction where they can be found, the four children that are barely 10 years old that were nursing their infant relatives look on curiously. After trekking about 3 kilometers by the river banks we began to hear chanting and the moment the women sighted us, the chanting rose in volume.

The group of women that are over 20 in numbers, whore T-shirts and Shorts and they where all bare footed, each with her fishing net appeared to be enthusiastic about what they where doing, “this is all we need for this weekly fishing day” said Maryam who is also called Mama Larai, the leader of the group who said that the need to have a leader in their long and tedious weekly fishing activities is to settle disputes between them and the surrounding communities around the river banks where they fished.

According to Maryam, there are times when either Fulani nomads or other villagers try to stop them from exploring a particular area to find fish and in such cases, “we either resist or I advice my group to leave the place depending on the level of threat” said Maryam adding that though they have never been attacked possibly because of their large numbers and the fact that it is known to many that, they are only keeping to a long tradition. However, Maryam confirmed that there are cases that some of them where harassed particularly if they missed being together with the large groups.

Daily Trust found out from the women that, the biggest dispute which made them to have group leaders and a code of conduct where if anyone violated, the person will be fined by the group leader: This is indicative of the biggest complains in the weekly fishing trips, where at the middle of a river when everyone is busy trying to net their fish, all of a sudden, shouts, will be heard from rival parties. But Maryam told this reporter that the dispute often starts back in the village where girls that are rivals or women that are envious of one another bear their grouches in the river.

“The woman that is most experienced in swimming will wait for the person she intends to settle a score with until they get to where the water is deep, then she will engage her in a fight and ensure that her victim takes in large quantity of dirty water” said Maryam. “If the victim has friends or relatives, it will then become a group fight though there are times we deliberately allow such fights to go on for a while if we all agree that the victim was at fault and never apologized. But lately we realized that such frequent fighting’s are becoming more and more dangerous and we needed to stop it” said Maryam.

According to Maryam, she has been doing these fishing rites for nearly 30 years “I started before getting married and now I have 9 children and my daughter is also a good fisherwoman and swimmer who is here with me”. For these women, every single breath of their life is garnered towards pleasing their husbands “during the raining season we are in the farms, and now that we are in the dry season, we are up fishing in order to help our families”.

On that fateful day, the group claimed that the water in Bra village has very few fishes because, at about 12 noon they have barely netted enough fish to sell in order to defray the cost of their transport and give their husbands, let alone, catch what they may prepare Marghi Special, a special delicacy in the north coined after the Marghi tribe that are found in Adamawa and Borno States.

For these women, the proceeds of the fish, especially for those that are not married are handed to their parents in their bid to buy bicycles and other items to take to their matrimonial homes. While for the married, “we give our husbands and use the rest to cook soup for the family”, said one of the women.

Although the reasons the women gave for what they use their proceeds varies amongst them like the fish that are found in the river, but one thing drives their different motives, which is centered on pleasing their men or husbands. Nearly every one of them believes that there is a Heavenly reward for being subservient to their husbands, and this notion is taken seriously by these women as an expression of strength and not weakness.

“My husband gave me the transport money which I used to come here and I hope to go back home with a lot of fish to prepare a nice meal for him, and if I am lucky to catch much, I will give him to sell” said Kurshuwa a mother of 2 children who is in her late 20’s. “If you help your husband, you have helped yourself, if your husband falls, your must fall with him and the entire community will laugh at you” said Kurshuwa adding that she look forward to every Wednesdays and Fridays because of the fun from this exercise and also, the curiosity of their husbands when they come back home in the evenings with tales of the day’s events “this is what our grandparents, our parents did and we are trying to keep the tradition alive” said Kurshuwa.

However, for these women, river Hawul no longer provides the fish that was found 30 to 20 years ago in the area and they attributed this scarcity to the drying waters of the river, sometimes you will trek long distance without seeing water”. The waters are formed in what is like ponds closely in between each other, while in some cases the water stretch to quite a distance along the water ways of the river.

In Bra village, the water can be over 10 to 20 meters deep in separate clusters, but the fish according to these women are mostly tilapia and a handful of cat fish that are rarely netted these days like in the past. “ During the raining season, the entire river that stretched hundreds of kilometers is full of flowing waters, but then there are no fish, we only come here to bath and swim on our way back to the farm”.

However, to Kurshuwa, life is interesting especially during this season when they are out fishing because she has built a reputation of being a good swimmer according to her, for ten years of partaking in this exercise no body has ever made her to take in the dirty water of river Hawul instead she is always employed to protect other women that are having some problems with others and “I did just that last week”.

Daily Trust was told by these women that there are times when a woman will complain of being sick to avoid having a fight in the river. But she can not go on for long without being scorned by her husband instead she will try to find help from people like Kurshuwa or compete to improve her self in order to assert her status as a woman of substance from their own point of view.

For Bintu,Talatu and Halima Bello, all members of the same family from Damboa that are resident in Maiduguri said that, their education would not allow them to do what many of their relatives back home are doing for their husbands. They prayed that Government at all levels would provide education and basic amenities for women to find better opportunities in live than to remain as house wives, offer cheap labour to their husbands and seen as baby making machines, the ladies implied.

But however, Ibrahim Wamdeo, a retired Civil Servant, and a proud Marghi man said that, what ever development that Governments will brings to this area should be focus on improving and refining the cultures of the people and not to bring developments that will make people abandoned their heritage and embraced westernization which has proved to be chaotic in Urban-settings, Wamdeo contends.

But no amount of persuasion can make this young educated girls from Damboa whose population is surging by the day to embrace the tradition of “doing it all for the husband and taking whatever he throws at you as the culture demands from every woman” said Talatu, one of the girls who is also a nurse. This explains why even in Damboa the population of women that goes out dwindles by the day.

“When I was growing up, the number of women that comes out for this exercise was nearly a Thousand, the water was much. In fact if you remain at home it’s as if you are the only woman in the village, but today our number have been reduced by education and other businesses that some of us now do in the town” said Maryam.

According to Wamdeo what else do we have in the rural areas that encourage girls to eagerly await marriage to join the teaming population of married women that are determined to pamper their husbands, apart from the subject in contention, Wamdeo argued. He said that when the tradition is swept away by westernization, the issue of single mother-hood, high rate of divorce, prostitution and same sex marriages will rare it’s ugly heads in our rural communities as it is the case in developed worlds, Wamdeo implied.

For these women, the talk of empowerment for them at this moment is a distraction in a world they see with contentment and delight. The only thing “we want from Government is to provide maternity centers for us to deliver safely and good schools for our children so that they don’t end up in the farms and in the river like us”, said Maryam.

Interestingly, one of the very young women shouted from the river that she wants to go to the city to swim in a pool like the way she sees women do in films. A second look at this girl revealed that she was barely 15 years old and seems to have the largest chunk of fish which was apparent that she was very skillful in the act. “ If only this girl can be given the opportunity to be in a good school, she may employ her skill in something else that may improve her life and her immediate environment beyond the stipend they make from the river”, Wamdeo concluded.

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