Fishermen turn to tourism as stocks dwindle

AFP – Fishermen perch precariously on wooden scaffolding that stretches above raging rapids in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), hoisting wicker baskets in the hope of catching a tilapia or a Nile perch – an age-old practice now threatened by overfishing.

Basket fishing was once the lifeblood of the Wagenya community, feeding them generously on a section of the mighty Congo River near Kisangani, a town in Tshopo province. But the number of fish has declined in recent years and fishermen receive little help from the government.

Many people, like 16-year-old student Kalimo, sell homemade dioramas of traditional Wagenya life to the few tourists who visit the poor area.

“It helps me pay for school,” said the teenager, who was selling wooden models of little stick men holding big fish, for $10. Kalimo, whose father is a fisherman, wants to become an engineer.

In addition to fish issues, the Wagenya – divided into three main clans and five sub-clans – bicker among themselves.

Fishermen in the Democratic Republic of Congo. PHOTO: AFP

The position of traditional chief, who serves as an intermediary between the community and the government, has not been filled due to infighting.

Augustin Tangausi, who describes himself as a “fisherman and servant of God”, said that means the problems are piling up. “Everyone does what they want and we have no one to defend our rights.”

Tangausi pointed to what he calls the “little fishery” near the rapids, known as Wagenya Falls. Wooden poles are stuck in holes in the rocks and tied together with vines to form scaffolding.

Baskets are then dropped from the scaffolding into the roaring currents to trap the fish. “There were facilities everywhere before,” Tangausi said. “But now there are hardly any left.” The government once subsidized the maintenance of elaborate scaffolding, he said, but stopped doing so more than a decade ago.

Andjoipa Aluka, a 27-year-old fisherman, also feels a sense of loss.

“Our ancestors passed this craft on to us. We have to do it, but it’s really difficult,” he said.

Fish stocks have plummeted because mature fish are caught during spawning season and poor people scour the waters with nets to pick up juvenile fish, Aluka said.

Augustin Issa Balabala, described as the manager of Wagenya Falls, said the fishing was no longer offering anything. “We live off visitors, from the little they give us,” he says, sitting on a plastic chair in a straw hut.

Tourists have been scarce since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, although there is hope that more are starting to arrive.

DRC’s environment minister visited Wagenya Falls earlier this year and promised investments to attract visitors.

Augustin Tangausi, for his part, was enthusiastic. “We want modern cabins, a restaurant, a hotel, shops, offices, a museum, an aquarium and a cold room too, for the fish,” he said.

“This is an international tourist site, known all over the world,” he added, noting cautiously that renovation work was still to be done.

Tshopo Governor Madeleine Nikomba said AFP that a hotel will be built, and that “we will try to modernize the fishery”.

But the scale of the work to be done is considerable. The roads are so bad that they are impassable. Electricity is spotty. And tourist sites linked to Congolese history are in ruins. Visitors also have to contend with chaos at the local airport, where crowds jostle to board flights and planes occasionally run out of jet fuel on the ground.

Much of the DRC, one of the poorest countries in the world, has crumbling or non-existent infrastructure due to mismanagement, successive wars and chronic corruption.

Nikomba promised that all issues would be resolved.

The airport will be renovated, she said, along with tourist sites and the local zoo – which is currently empty.

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