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'Fisherman's Blues' takes readers to Senegal's coast for an upclose view of a fading lifestyle

This book's prose shimmers, making it a memorably beautiful tribute.

Fisherman's Blues: A West African Community at Sea By Anna Badkhen Riverhead Books 304 pp.
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  • Steve Donoghue

Fisherman's Blues: A West African Community at Sea, the new book from Anna Badkhen, centers on the West African town of Joal, Senegal's largest artisanal fishing port. Badkhen, a veteran reporter and author of six works of nonfiction, lives among the fishers of Joal and all its neighboring communities, talks to dozens of people whose lives, livelihoods, and in some ways entire world revolves around harvesting the bounty of the sea. She learns their hopes and fears, hears the stories from their folklore, and watches the long days they put in. 

"Fisherman's Blues" is a colorful and affecting portrait of an entire way of life, but it's also a report from the front lines of a small industry in the twilight of a struggle it never thought it would even face, much less lose.

Badkhen also embeds herself into that struggle. She sails with the crew of an old, hardy pirogue called the Sakhari Souaré on voyages in all weathers, sharing in the conception of the crew – conceptions that have been handed down through generations. “You learn the sea the way you learn the spells – from your father, your uncles, your older brothers, other fishermen who hire you on their pirogues, the sea itself,” Badkhen writes, and the knowledge you gain is divided into two kinds: the manifest and the hidden. “You can access it if you know where to look, if you are humble, and if you ask God's blessing.”

God's blessing is as explicit in the Koran as it is in the Bible: “So is this great and wide sea,” says the Psalmist, “wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.”

The promise of the simple word “innumerable” has been unwavering until the modern era, but at last humanity has begun to empty the oceans. Great industrial fleets of “foreign mechanized trawlers,” line-fishing enormous tracts of open ocean, hunting shoals of fish by sonar and pinpointing them by GPS, have succeeded in strangling the local fishing trade all along Senegal's 350 miles of coastline.

And in their wake ply smaller vessels called “purse seiners,” hundreds of them, which catch all the fish the bigger vessels miss. “And when they don't catch the big fish, they go after the small fish, the juveniles,” Badkhen is told. “Yes. They deplete everything along the food chain. Yes. There aren't any fish left.”

The author experiences first-hand the small exhilarations of the trade, the boredom and beguilement of time aboard the Sakhari Souaré working the water. “When a school rises, a patch of the sea stirs, jiggles, churns. A kind of anticipatory shimmering, like something about to be born,” she writes. “You hold your breath for it.” The book's prose likewise shimmers; this is a memorably beautiful tribute.

Beautiful, but heartbreaking. The story is the same on the West Coast of Africa as it is in the North Atlantic or off the coast of Newfoundland or any of the world's other fisheries: large-scale state-of-the-art mechanized fishing fleets work in round-the-clock shifts far beyond the reach of any possible competition from small vessels like the Sakhari Souaré, and they are driven by quotas so merciless that they have driven the fishermen in those fleets to disregard the primary rule of all fisheries: don't take juveniles, or you'll soon have no adults. You will soon have fished the seas empty.

And long before that happens, ancient local communities like Joal will simply fail. This is the brutal backdrop of Badkhen's story, made all the more pointed by the hope that weaves its way through the community this book so wonderfully portrays. When the people of Joal are anticipating the night-fishing season, Badkhen can feel their optimism: “There will be much more fish in the sea, more money in fishermen's pockets to buy even more powerful motors and bigger nets with which to catch more and more,” she writes. “How can they be so sure? Because fish are always just about to arrive, and wealth, like the sea, is always imminent.”

By the end of "Fisherman's Blues," that hope is a raw abrasion. There isn't any realistic light at the end of the story Badkhen tells. But readers can still be grateful for this graceful, perceptive account. Badkhen captures a way of life that certainly won't survive the century, and although the men, women, and children of Joal will lose the sea, readers will have the small comfort of visiting their world in the pages of this book.

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