Fishermen ply Ethiopia's largest lake in papyrus boats, but hope for better

On Lake Tana, locals eke out a living as they have since the 9th century B.C., in boats woven from papyrus growing on the shore. But some are eyeing the motorboats they say are the key to moving up in life.

By , Staff writer

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    A fisherman prepares to recast his net on Ethiopia's Lake Tana after failing to catch any fish. The traditional boats are made of papyrus reeds lashed together with rope. Lake Tana is the only place where they are still used to make a living.
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As other fishermen haul in their catch a little after dawn, Temasgen Zelalem is just beginning to drop his net.

Looking weary in the faint morning light, Mr. Temasgen says it’s his second drop in the last 24 hours. The nets he laid out last night were still empty at sunrise.

His knees poke through holes in his pants as he feeds the net out of the boat, chunks of Styrofoam on one end to keep it afloat, rocks weighing the other down. He's trying not to go home empty-handed.

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Lake Tana’s fishermen slip out onto the water every morning in these flimsy boats of papyrus reeds lashed together with rope. Another cluster of reeds forms a seat, keeping them above water that pools on the boat floor.

Locals have been fishing this way since the 9th  century B.C., when Egypt’s Nubian dynasty brought the practice to Ethiopia and Sudan. This is the only place where these papyrus boats are still used to eke out a living, says local tour guide Tesfaye Biazen. There are about 2,000 of them on Lake Tana. 

The hulls look especially archaic as they glide over the reflection of a glassy high-rise building. The vessels can’t carry much, nor move quickly. The fishermen estimate they make about 250 birr ($12.72) a week out here. Many of them know only this line of work.

Temasgen grew up on one of the many islands in Lake Tana, which is the source of the Blue Nile and the largest lake in landlocked Ethiopia. His father used these boats to fish and transport firewood from the islands to the mainland, where it was sold.

“This is my life job,” says Temasgen, who guesses he has been a fisherman for about 12 years. He is unsure because he doesn’t know his exact age. “I enjoy it. I like it. It’s in my blood cells.”

The papyrus is plentiful along the shoreline. Temasgen, who made his own boat in only three or four hours, says they sell for between 150 and 250 birr ($7.60 and $12.72) and last about a month before they become waterlogged, although some well-built boats can last longer. The fishermen prop the lightweight hulls on shore to dry every day, as their fathers did.

Yet nearby is a sign of a more modern method of fishing. Two men untangle a much larger net in their modest motorboat. One of them, Mihmet Baye, says they make 500 to 600 birr ($25 to $30) a week. They bought the boat for 70,000 birr (about $3,500) as a group and split the profits. They assume men like Temasgen will have no choice but to join them soon.

But as a traditional fisherman, he feels it is impossible to move up. “I can’t afford leaving. I used to get 900 birr ($45) a month, and I couldn’t [even afford to buy new] clothes,” says Temasgen, who has a wife and child.

There are some positives to the old ways. Although they may cluster together as they fish – far from the hippopotamuses that lurk along the shoreline – the traditional fishermen relish their independence.

“I’m free and no one is there to give me instructions,” says Temachew Gizaw, his head swathed turban-like in blue cloth, his shorts hanging off his lanky frame.

But he hopes to one day work in one of the big, loud, money-making motorboats. “The amount of money we make from fishing is hand to mouth,” he says.

One man who drives motorboats for a local tour company says he used to fish papyrus-boat style. But now he nets 1,500 birr ($48) a month, a jump from the 700 birr ($22) he made then.

“You cannot improve your life. I can’t say I miss it,” he says.

Ariel Zirulnick reported from Ethiopia with the International Reporting Project.

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