The story of Tanzania’s people’s park
December 1, 2004
Dec 1, 2004
28 Min read time
The story of Tanzania’s people’s park.
I first heard the explosions in 1994 shortly after I arrived on Chole, the smallest island in Tanzania’s Mafia archipelago. Mafia (a name derived from an archaic KiSwahili form, ma-afya, suggesting a healthy place) is part of a long string of islands that line the East African “Swahili” coast. Although its blue ocean, white sands, and coconut trees delight the trickle of international tourists who visit this remote spot, Mafia is also a much neglected district in one of the poorest countries in the world.
While conducting anthropological field research on Chole during the mid-1990s, I also worked as a volunteer English teacher. On the afternoon I first heard a blast, I was teaching English phrases to a dozen or so day laborers at the island’s only tourist hotel. I was unable to identify the far-off rumble, but the men angrily turned their heads and listened.They told me that the sound came from underwater dynamiting, an illegal fishing technique that stuns or kills the fish, which then float to the surface and are scooped into boats. Each blast can yield large harvests with minimal (although risky) effort, but the practice destroys the coral reefs that shelter and provide food for marine life (reefs are known on Mafia as the nyumba ya samaki, or “home of the fish”). The men, most of whom supported their families by fishing, blamed the dynamiting on interlopers from Dar es Salaam and complained that it was threatening their livelihood by turning the underwater landscape to jangwa, or desert.
The passionate reaction of these men foreshadowed a larger drama that would soon emerge. This drama originated in the early 1990s, when national and international planners chose Mafia as the site of Tanzania’s first national marine park. In a country in which nearly a quarter of the land mass had already been devoted to wildlife parks and other forms of nature reserves, the Mafia Island Marine Park was conceived as a new kind of park, one that planners hoped would be emulated in other parts of the world. Largely funded by international organizations, the park sought to spur both conservation and development by encouraging environmental tourism. It was also the first national park inTanzania to allow residents full legal rights to live within its boundaries, and it promised islanders the ability to participate in the management of the park, thereby ensuring respect for their rights. Like so many global projects today, the park’s oversight by powerful international organizations, presumed to be operating free of national political influence and corruption, was held to be the guarantor of good intentions and sensitivity to local interests.
Despite these hopeful foundations, a conflict rapidly emerged among island residents, national officials, and international organizations on Mafia, and dynamiting appeared at the heart of that conflict. Park planners recognized that for the park to succeed, the dynamiting (and the environmental and economic degradation it caused) would have to be stopped. But the various groups involved on Mafia offered very different explanations of who the dynamiters were and why this illegal method of fishing was so difficult to halt. While representatives of international organizations identified poverty as its underlying cause, national-government officials blamed local ignorance about the environment and inadequate regulation. As a matter of course, both groups assumed that Mafia residents were among the dynamiters. Island residents offered a very different explanation. Not only did they assert that the dynamiters were from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, but also that dynamite fishermen operated with the complicity of government officials and national elites. In short, although park planners presented the marine park as a simple managerial solution to both environmental degradation and poverty, dynamiting revealed the complex political and social forces at work. Indeed, dynamiting around Mafia offers a potent example of the power struggles that may underlie environmental degradation and that are regularly ignored in the official accounts of both national governments and international organizations.
Like the dynamiting itself, Mafia’s history challenges easy assumptions often made by Americans and Europeans about rural people who live in what used to be called the Third World. Literature for the marine park and the nascent international tourism industry often celebrate Mafia’s “traditional” and “untouched” character and describe its marine environment as “pristine.” Mafia residents themselves, however, lament their current isolation and poverty, and describe the contemporary period as one of maisha magumu, or “the tough life.” Out of Mafia’s many scattered villages, home to nearly 40,000 inhabitants, only two have phones and electricity. Transportation to the rest of Tanzania (and the world beyond) is notoriously difficult. Tourists predominate on the erratically scheduled six-seater airplanes that land on a tiny sand airstrip in the district capital of Kilindoni, while the overloaded cargo ship that once stopped periodically at Mafia has recently begun to skip the region altogether. Within the Mafia archipelago, a handful of motorized vehicles grind to a halt when the rainy season turns the unpaved roads to mud, leaving a dwindling fleet of leaky wooden sailboats as the primary form of transportation.
Mafia’s current isolation offers a stark contrast to its former role as a center of world trade. Along with other areas of the East African coast, Mafia once formed an integral part of the dynamic Indian Ocean trading world and served as an intermediary region between mainland Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, as traders (and slave sellers) plied the monsoon winds in their wooden dhows. When Chole residents recount the history of Mafia, they point to the islands’ crumbling medieval ruins whose builders included Shirazi Persians, the export-oriented coconut plantations of 19th-century Omani Arabs, and the customs house where European colonialists attempted to regulate ancient trade routes. Contrary to the theory that present-day globalization is creating a more tightly integrated world, Mafia, with its cosmopolitan history, has instead become increasingly isolated over the course of the 20th century.
The current reliance of Mafia’s residents upon the sea also fails to reflect a “traditional” or isolated past. Since the 19th century,Mafia islanders have depended upon copra, or dried coconut, as their primary export to world markets. The recent collapse of the copratrade, however, and the growing need for cash (as international and internal pressure transforms Tanzania’s economy from state-centered socialism to free market neo-liberalism) have brought about dramatic changes. In the grip of an increasingly precarious “tough life,” islanders have turned their attention to the ocean. Although dried fish has been traded along the coast for centuries, only recently has fresh fish become an important source of cash, with refrigerated “ice boats” now making periodic visits to Mafia to buy fish for consumers in Dar es Salaam.
Just as the technical and managerial focus of the marine park draws attention away from the complex history of the region and its residents, it also obscures thesocial and political tensions that erupted into widespread controversy during the park’s formation between 1995 and 1997—a conflict in which dynamiting plays the lead role.
• • •
In 1995, I first met David Holston, a lanky Australian, in a chance encounter at Kilindoni’s airport. (All the names used in this article, including “Maritime Division,” are pseudonyms.) At the time, I only knew that Holston was employed by the largest international organization working on Mafia, the World Wide Fund for Nature (known as WWF). Holston’s job as technical adviser was to share joint responsibility for setting up the marine park along with a Tanzanian governmental counterpart. Later, Holston revealed to me that some national officials were opposed to implementing the park’s participatory aspects. A non-KiSwahili-speaker, Holston also worriedthat Mafia’s villagers did not support the project’s goals. Although I knew that many residents had initially opposed the idea of a marine park (fearing restrictions on their own fishing practices), they had become strong supporters after being promised rights to participation as well as patrols to help end illegal fishing. Taken aback by the apparent lack of communication, I offered my services as a translator and suggested that Holston visit tiny Chole Island to meet informally with some of its residents.
In July, several weeks later, Holston arrived on Chole. Mzee Maarufu, the village chairman, immediately sent word around the village that the mzungu (European) from the marine park was visiting Chole and that all adults not working off the island that day should gather for a meeting at the schoolhouse on the waterfront. On an island where only a handful of people possessed watches and where tides, winds, prayers, and meal times instead structured the pace of daily life, I had long since learned that gathering people for meetings was anextremely slow process. As a result, we were surprised to find 30 or so people waiting expectantly for Holston at the schoolhouse—a striking turnout for an unplanned event.
Despite the emphasis along the East African coast on etiquette and social delicacy, the questions at the meeting came with unusual sharpness: If the point of the marine park was to “protect” the sea, why was there as yet no patrol boat? Why was the governmental Maritime Division, which had been put in charge of the new park, patrolling the area around Kilindoni rather than the other side of the island,where the fish were concentrated? Why, when villagers traveled personally to Kilindoni or sent messages to alert the Maritime Division that dynamiting was in progress, were their requests for assistance ignored? These direct questions spurred forthrightness in return. Holston confessed that he had been prohibited from speakingwith villagers without the presence of Maritime Division officers,and he asked that the meeting be kept confidential. He responded tothe ensuing snickers and looks of disgust by acknowledging that although he sympathized with residents’ complaints, his hands were tied; he could not act alone.
Those at the meeting appreciated Holston’s frankness. However, when he conveyed yet another important piece of information—that the Maritime Division was planning to relocate the temporary marine-park headquarters to the capital, Kilindoni, outside the park’s boundaries, outright anger and disbelief ensued. Several people stood up to protest, saying that they were well aware that wageni wanakula tu, “the visitors just eat” (wageni is a reference to centrally appointed government officials in Kilindoni, who come overwhelmingly from the mainland, while “eating” is a well-known metaphor for taking bribes). Clearly, Kilindoni represented an all-too-familiar site of disenfranchisement to residents, and the relocation of the headquarters suggested an effort to shift control over the fledgling marine park to government officials. When one young man stood up to bitterly proclaim, “The ‘visitors’ have not yet understood that the park is ours!,” he received widespread support from those gathered. Later, I learned that residents’ insistence that the park was “theirs” was not simply due to the promises of participation made by international organizations but to their own understanding of themselves as wenyeji, or the rightful “owners” or proprietors of the area’s natural resources.
Holston encouraged those gathered to let their views be known in Kilindoni. He further revealed that the Maritime Division was looking for a reason to dismiss him, as well as the recently hired community-development staff member from Chole, presumably to stymie efforts to encourage the participation of Mafia residents within the park. The village chairman, Mzee Maarufu, responded to this revelation with disarming simplicity: “We will protect you.”
Only later would I realize just how subversive this meeting had been, inasmuch as it offered village residents an opportunity to speak with a crucial NGO representative without the presence of government officials. While I had heard hints of corruption before, and would increasingly hear such comments the longer I stayed on the island, this was the first time I encountered explicit charges that government officials were accepting bribes to ignore dynamiting or even cooperating with dynamiters.
• • •
But who exactly were the dynamite fishermen in Mafia’s waters, and why was it so hard to stop them? On a November afternoon a few months after the meeting with Holston, I asked the marine park’s acting warden, Pius Mseka, what he thought about the dynamiting. An official in the national Maritime Division, Mseka had been transferred from Dar es Salaam to serve as the governmental counterpart to Holston. The decrepit state of the tiny storefront in Kilindoni that he used as his makeshift office reflected the relative poverty of the national government compared to the WWF. But to Mafia residents it was equally clear that Mseka was a member of a national elite. A university-educated Christian, he was—like many Kilindoni government officials—a member of a dominant mainland ethnic group known for holding decidedly ambivalent attitudes toward less-educated coastal Muslims.
Mseka offered a perspective that I would soon learn was common among government bureaucrats. He told me that several residents of Jibondo, the neighboring island to Chole, had just been apprehended for dynamiting, disproving, he claimed, the “myth” that Mafia residents did not participate in this destructive form of illegal fishing. Given the anger that Chole residents regularly expressed about the dynamiting, I asked Mseka why he thought island residents would participate in the practice. He assured me that Mafia residents were simply unaware of the impact of dynamiting on the marine environment. How could it be otherwise, he asked, given the lack of education on this issue and the absence of informational meetings and awareness programs on television and radio? Although I listened in silence, his comments were strikingly incongruent with the vivid descriptions that Chole’s fishermen gave of the destruction that dynamiting caused the reefs. It also seemed odd to emphasize the lack of informational television programs on an island where television sets were virtually nonexistent, electricity was rare, and even radio batteries were beyond the means of most residents. Nonetheless, the acting warden insisted that lack of education was the central problem and argued that it could be remedied with additional funding from international donors. As we ended the meeting, he pressed me for information on organizations in Ulaya (Europe) that might be willing to help.
In Mseka’s view, villagers’ lack of formal education, and their presumed lack of knowledge more generally, formed the key to the “backward” economic state of the region. In Tanzania, such viewpoints have their roots in the ideas of late-colonial British bureaucrats and post-independence socialist officials. According to this perspective, education is the solution to “underdevelopment” and requires intervention from international and national “experts.” Such accounts, however, also make it easy to dismiss Mafia islanders’ knowledge of the marine environment and to obscure the political motivations and accusations of corruption they raised.
WWF as an organization offered its own perspective on dynamite fishing. According to the organization’s literature and park reports, environmentally destructive practices in developing countries such as Tanzania stem from poverty; the remedy is to create “alternative income” sources, including tourism. Given the low wages, the seasonal work, and the relatively small number of new jobs created by the tourist industry (fishing and farming, in contrast, are widely accessible), it was all too apparent that most families on Mafia would see little benefit from this alternative-income strategy and would continue to rely heavily on natural resources. Although WWF representatives on Mafia privately acknowledged these realities, such distorted assumptions continued to drive the organization’s “global” agenda as well as its plans for the Mafia Island Marine Park.
When I returned to Chole after interviewing Mseka, a number of Chole residents (including a man who had participated in the recent patrol) were already discussing the Jibondo incident. They told me that the men apprehended by maritime officials were merely in the area of the dynamiting and had scooped up fish remains after the actual dynamiters had left. Although it is impossible to know the true story, Chole residents expressed widespread sympathy for the men from Jibondo.
When I challenged my friends on Chole about whether any Mafia residents ever participated in the dynamiting, I received complicated answers. Given that dynamiting was understood as a form of theft within the tightly knit villages that formed the core of the marine park, many suggested that social considerations prevented them from dynamiting. Exceptions to the rule, they argued, were Makonde Christians, a poor lower-status group which had more recently immigrated to Mafia from southern Tanzania; socially ostracized individuals from Mafia (particularly “drunkards” who had relocated to Kilindoni); and a handful ofyoung men from tiny Bwejuu island (a notorious hideout for visiting dynamiters) who were persuaded to show dynamiters the best fishing spots or to rent them boats.
Although my friends may simply have been scapegoating marginal individuals, I believe that the key to their response lay in the nature of their self-identification as a group. Although coastal society has been known historically for its ability to assimilate people from a variety of backgrounds, the commonplace distinction in Swahili coastal culture between wenyeji, the original inhabitants or “proprietors” of a place, and wageni, strangers or guests who have fewer rights, is important. Through marriage, wageni can assimilate relatively quickly into the thick web of social ties that link the families, villages, and islands of southern Mafia. Such ties provide access to land and other natural resources as well as economic support when times are difficult. It was this thick web of social interconnections that exercised informal control over individual behavior. It was also these kinds of connections that appeared to discourage Mafia’s wenyeji from taking part in dynamiting, and thereby risking the anger of friends and family upon whom they depended. According to this logic, those outside such networks, such as economically marginal young men, alcoholics in a Muslim society, or Makonde Christians who failed to intermarry, might be more willing to engage in activities that were personally profitable but anathema to other Mafia residents.
The general consensus, though, was that dynamiters were poor men operating out of Kigamboni, the dock region of Dar es Salaam. Although this view appears to support WWF’s poverty thesis, my informants also believed the dynamiters were wage laborers, hired by elites who provided the dynamite. Indeed, European expatriates in the region gossiped that people at “high levels” were involved and that the dynamite, illegal to purchase in Tanzania, came from road and quarry projects sponsored by international donors. Although these speculations would be difficult to prove, if true, they suggested a far more complex social and political terrain than either government officials or the WWF acknowledged.
• • •
In December of 1996 a sleek double-engined Boston Whaler speedboat arrived in Mafia. Bought by WWF to patrol the region’s waters, it represented a radical breakthrough to many Mafia residents. Previously, enforcement of anti-dynamiting legislation (passed in the early 1970s) had come under the jurisdiction of the government’s Maritime Division, in conjunction with district police. I was told, however, that few had ever been convicted under this legislation on Mafia or anywhere elsealong the coast. Now, although Maritime Division staff and district police officers still held the power of arrest, patrols were led by Holston, the only person who at that time knew how to operate the new boat and who had been trained in anti-dynamiting enforcement procedures.
At a meeting called by WWF field staff shortly after the boat’s launching, Mafia village leaders named the boat the Ukombozi, meaning “liberation” or “deliverance,” and much to the delight of those living within the marine park, the patrols soon had their intended effect. Within a month, eight dynamiters had been arrested near Bwejuu Island in two separate incidents, and the dynamiting in Mafia’s waters appeared to stop. A young fisherman on Chole, who like many other men sold his fish to an ice boat from Dar es Salaam, said that former dynamiters were now working as laborers on the ice boat. One such man had told him that dynamiters feared being arrested by the Ukombozi and had nicknamed Chole Bay “the jail.”
The success of the Ukombozi generated a flurry of publicity, newspaper accounts, and expressions of support for the Mafia Island Marine Park, all praising the only successful effort to halt illegal dynamiting within Tanzania and one of only a few internationally. An Italian camera crew even came to film the Ukombozi as part of a documentary, and the WWF field staff, Maritime officers, and district police spent a week simulating the arrests of dynamiters for the cameras. Not everyone was happy with the success of the Ukombozi. The chief security officer for Mafia District—an official unusually close to Holston—sent a memo to the WWF field staff warning WWF to hire additional security guards because of rumors about plans to sabotage the boat. He added, “I . . . suspect that a lot of prominent persons in Mafia and Dar-es-Salaam have suffered a big monetary loss since the arrival of this 230 HP boat.”
Strangely enough, the backgrounds of the arrested dynamiters were never mentioned—Holston and other WWF field staff admitted that they were unsure of who exactly had been apprehended. But a perusal of the district police report filed with the WWF office turned up not only their names but their ethnicities and places of residence. While half of the dynamiters were from Dar es Salaam, as people on Chole had claimed, others were listed as Mafia residents. Although all of the latter possessed common Muslim “Swahili” names, their ethnicity in each case was listed as “Makonde.” I could only surmise that these Makonde had taken Swahili names to ease their assimilation into coastal society, creating confusion among non-resident park officials. Although this information supported Mafia residents’ speculations, few in the marine park or WWF took notice since the identities of the dynamiters failed to figure into their accounts. For their part, Mafia residents simply appeared happy to have an end to the dynamiting.
After the Ukombozi’s debut, discussions of marine-park politics became strikingly more open, even within the hearing range of those Mafia residents who were rumored to be the paid informants of corrupt officials. As one fisherman from Chole explained, Holston had demonstrated “through actions rather than words” that he was serious in his opposition to dynamiting and thus gained the support of Mafia residents. Those living within the marine park now made pointed distinctions between the WWF and government branches of the marine park and began looking to WWF as a patron that would defend their interests against more powerful players. But such hopes would soon come to an end as a new series of events dramatically altered the course of the marine-park drama.
• • •
By 1997 more government officials in Dar es Salaam and Kilindoni were supporting WWF field staff and, indirectly, island residents. Perhaps the changes reflected the new level of accountability brought about by “multi-partyism” within Tanzania, or the park’s own publicity for its anti-dynamiting efforts. In any case, Mseka appeared increasingly marginalized on Mafia, the new district commissioner (the highest official on Mafia) was publicly critical of the Maritime Division’s role in the marine park, and villagers themselves were more assertive in their demands concerning the park.
Nonetheless, rumors were circulating that alarmed village leaders. When Mseka and other district officials requested to review Holston’s contract, rumors of a plot spread quickly. Residents as well as European expatriates speculated that the officials were looking for an excuse to fire Holston.
In February, Mafia residents, armed with renewed incentive to alter marine-park dynamics, made a calculated effort to do so during an official visit by Tanzania’s prime minister. At the customary open meeting held between national political leaders and district elders in Kilindoni, one elder—chosen by his peers as someone who could “speak freely” because he lived in a village safely outside of marine-park boundaries—delivered an angry speech:[Concerning] that dynamiting, we have been complaining long and hard about it. So we made a plan and we were brought an expert [Holston], praise be to God, we are grateful. But there are great battles being waged against us. [Mseka] wants to have that expert who has knowledge of this kind of work removed, and another one brought in. If we are brought this other person, we the citizens of Mafia will be dying [from lack of food]. Therefore, Mr. Prime Minister, we ask you that the European expert not be taken away from us here on Mafia so that he can protect us here on Mafia and our ocean.
Mafia’s new district commissioner, apparently supporting the villagers, elaborated for the prime minister: WWF has a patrol boat that goes out with the police patrol. They are catching those people who have been causing the destruction. Now in my reading of the situation, the people of [Maritime Division] have an interest [i.e. economic stake] in those dynamite fishers. Should that boat leave Mafia, the dynamiting will continue.
After the speeches the prime minister publicly charged the district commissioner to investigate the matter and report back to him.
Although many Mafia residents were heartened by this turn of events, others remained skeptical. One friend asserted that promises to investigate matters were common, but usually meant nothing; he would wait to see what the future would bring. In the end, his fears proved well-founded, although trouble would next emerge from a different quarter.
The same week of the prime minister’s visit, a report was faxed to the WWF regional office in Dar es Salaam with the recommendations of a review team sent to Mafia in January of 1997 by a Norwegian development agency, one of the park’s major funders. Composed of both Europeans and Tanzanians, the commission spoke primarily to official park personnel, meeting with village residents only in the presence of government officials. The report questioned Mseka’s competence and noted that “disturbing allegations have been made against the [acting warden] concerning forging of signatures and embezzlement of WWF funds.” The report acknowledged that Holston was “technically competent,” but argued that he “acts autonomously” and “behaves in an arrogant and contemptuous way towards the [acting warden] and others that disagree with him.” The review team recommended that “For the smooth running of the project in the future the [relevant Ministry] is advised to ensure the replacement of both the AW [acting warden] and TA [technical adviser] with immediate effect. It must be clearly stated that the MIMP [Mafia Island Marine Park] administration should have authority over the WWF TA in all park matters.”
The report resulted in Holston’s resignation and Mseka’s removal over the next six months. Although I have little information about how this report was received by the Maritime Division, it is clear that within WWF there were conflicting responses. While some of WWF’s international offices cited a crisis of confidence in Mafia’s park and threatened to withhold funding, the WWF-US office insisted that it was necessary to find a technical adviser who was more amenable to working with the Maritime Division. Ultimately, the latter view prevailed. For those in international and national offices, the conflict over the marine park was reduced to a managerial problem, a mere “personality clash.”
The refusal of international institutions to acknowledge the political undercurrents within the park meant implicit support for existing social hierarchy in Tanzania. While faulting Holston for acting independently, the report failed to acknowledge that his willingness to challenge entrenched, elite perspectives was for Mafia residents a defense of their interests. In short, the report validated a fiction central to the park: that national and local interests were always the same.
• • •
When I returned to Mafia in 2000, things had changed dramatically. WWF employees in Tanzania and abroad assured me that the Mseka–Holston conflict had been laid to rest (Holston had returned to Australia, while Mseka managed to obtain a prominent post elsewhere within the Maritime Division), and the park was now operating according to plan. Indeed, on Mafia the new warden was widely viewed as an honest individual who did not act pembeni, or “in the corners,” as had his predecessor. Dynamiting had also been held at bay in the ensuing years, much to the relief of island residents, and the divisions between WWF and the government marine-park staff had been largely eradicated. Consequently, I was taken aback when I met with fishermen from Chole and neighboring islands and heard a very different story.
Chole residents, who had so strikingly described the marine park as “theirs” in their early meeting with David Holston, now stated bluntly that they hated the park. One afternoon at Chole’s boatyard, several dozen fishermen spoke directly to my tape recorder, asking me to convey their viewpoints to distant offices and decision-makers. One fisherman said in slow and emphatic tones: “The marine park is no good. It is going to kill us through hunger.” Another elaborated:We say that the marine park is no good. The marine park is totally unacceptable. It has refused to cooperate with us and this is a problem. If they wanted to meet with us fishers, we could agree: in what areas should we preserve the fish? What areas should we leave [the marine park] for its activities? We could cooperate with them because we’re the ones who know the environment here, not those people from the marine park. . . . But if you tell me not to fish here, where will I fish? What kind of work will you give me today so I can continue my life? . . . It has to be today, not tomorrow. If it takes six or seven months before I get food, what am I going to do right now? What will my family eat? What will they wear? And if my children want to go to school, what will I do? . . . The marine park is killing us. Its goal is to reduce us to the worst kind of poverty.
Yet another individual suggested that promises of “participation” had been a hoax designed to gain their acquiescence to the park; now that the park was in place, the park staff felt free to do as it pleased.
How did such a sense of ownership and hope turn to radical disillusionment in three years? A number of factors seem to have contributed. Although tensions between WWF and the government marine-park officers had been resolved, and both sides were ostensibly united in the conservation of the environment, there was now no highly placed advocate for the interests of island residents. Indeed, the new warden acknowledged that given the low level of “education” about environmental issues on Mafia, he sometimes needed to act with what he later described as an “iron hand.”
Indeed, by 2000, marine-park officials had turned their attention to control over the fishing practices of island residents themselves. Although during the mid-1990s many fishermen expressed a willingness to discuss concessions regarding their own fishing techniques, their positions had now hardened. They were infuriated by changes to the original park zoning plan which were intended to increase environmental protection by further restricting Mafia residents from prime fishing grounds. Although the original zoning plan had included input from Mafia residents, the changes being considered in 2000 were unilaterally conceived by park officials and visiting experts with minimal involvement from residents. On Chole, this situation confirmed residents’ fears that their livelihoods were meaningless to park officials.
Tensions were further heightened by the increasingly difficult economic situation on Mafia. Facing depressed agricultural prices and a growing need for cash, residents had become ever more dependent on fishing. Yet fish populations continued to decline, partially due to the destruction of coral reefs caused by El Niño in 1997–1998 and to the recent appearance of visiting businessmen in Kilindoni who provided gear-less fishermen with destructive small-mesh nets. By 2000 the park had become an expanding and increasingly oppressive bureaucracy that residents felt threatened their very survival. Once their “liberator,” the patrol boat was now an oppressor, harassing them as they fished to feed their families. Just as official viewpoints ignored the political and social undercurrents associated with dynamiting, so too the assessments of the “people’s park” that I had heard in national and international offices in 2000 obscured the anger and increasing poverty found among park residents.
One afternoon in 2000, I sat with Issa Hamisi and his younger cousin in his grandfather’s fishing boat. Issa was an energetic young man who I’d met when he was still a teenager. On this day, the two mused about the hopelessness of fishing as a livelihood. The handful of fish one caught made it barely worthwhile: how could one marry and support a family?
Issa said he would like to use the family sailboat to take European tourists out on snorkeling day trips; he knew all the best places and the prettiest corals. But like other Chole residents, he had not had the opportunity to continue his education beyond primary school. The few words of English he knew were the ones he had picked up in my classes years earlier. He wondered how he would communicate with the tourists to get business. He also worried that the European hotel owners would be angry with him; after all, they were powerful people and preferred their guests to hire their own boats, which they rented at much higher prices.
Although his cousin mockingly referred to work in the tourist hotels, notorious for below-subsistence wages, long hours, and sometimes difficult conditions, as “donkey work,” Issa nevertheless hoped hecould find a job in a hotel in nearby Utende village. He knew he would be one of the lucky few if he could get such work. Indeed, those who managed to find jobs were so lucky that they were willing to endure the jealousy of neighbors and friends upon whom they otherwise depended (jealousy so bitter that hotel workers worried that witchcraft might be directed against them). But it was a risk Issa was willing to take.
While fishing had been open to nearly all men—even if one did not own a boat, one could work on the crew of another family’s vessel or fish from the shore or from canoes with handlines—the best chance for survival now was to obtain one of the few wage jobs. The tough life, maisha magumu, had become even tougher.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
December 01, 2004
28 Min read time