Who put your prawns on your plate?

I’ve been looking for a Pungwe River fisherman for some time. And today I found him. We hear so many stories about these men; how they often get taken by crocs during the rainy season and how they are as tough as nuts, surviving bouts of cholera and being drilled by swamp mosquitos 24/7. I was thrilled when I met Francisco Govea, a seemingly gentle, but tough old man.

After hearing his story, I looked at him with interest. I feel at ease with him and I get a strong sense that he is a good man, a man at peace with himself. Yet how is it possible that he is what he is now after almost two decades of violence and killing?

This is the story of Francisco Govea.

I will tell you his story in 2 parts. This post will shed light on the daily laborious life of a Pungwe River fisherman. The second post will focus on his experience as a soldier during the Mozambican guerrilla war that went on for 16 years. (It will be featured in my Personal Encounters Category)

For all of us expats who love a good Pungwe Prawn Curry, this post is for you. Know how your prawns get on your plate!

He wakes up at 4 every morning, the crack of dawn. With a hint of light, Francisco gathers his fishing basket, knife and bucket and walks to the river bank where his boat is docked. He sinks his feet deep into the thick, sticky clay. Knee high and bent forwards, he battles his way to the boat.

Once there, he clutches onto it and pushes. It eagerly slides down the river bank and into the murky water. He jumps into the boat with the agility of a 20 year old, hoping that the lurking resident crocodiles had a successful nights hunt, bellies full.  He paddles out towards the opposite side of the river where his nets were cast the previous day. Using all of his strength, he steadily pulls in the mornings catch; a basket full of small fish, a couple of mud crabs and if lucky, some prawns. Prawns fetch the best price.

He returns, keeping close to the banks of the river where the current is slower. He reaches his camp and thrusts his oar deep into the clay, using it as a pole to tie his boat. He carries his basket of fish up the bank, his feet sinking deep into the clay with every step he takes. Fransisco empties his catch out onto the sugar sacks. I catch a glimpse of disappointment as he inspects the fish of small to medium sizes, all flapping and gulping frantically.

The mist slowly lifts off the river and the sun beats down, finalising the fish’s fate and drying them into crispy, salted carcasses. Birds flock around the camp in hope of any tit bits or fish too small to be worth salting and selling.

I notice a pile of small dried and skeletal fish, discarded and lying in the sun, rotting. The birds did not find this in time.  The fish seem alive, moving and flipping over occasionally. I look closer and see maggots in a feeding frenzy. I jump sideways as I notice them crawl onto my shoe and tickle my toes.

The pace of life is slow here on the Pungwe River banks. Time is dictated by the tides and not so much the rising and setting of the sun.

But listening to Fransisco, it’s not always slow and uneventful. He says it’s important to keep your wits about you, especially during the rains when the crocs are fierce and in high numbers. Just last year 2 of his friends were taken. One of them got dragged out while standing waist high in the water, pulling the prawn nets in. The other escaped after being chewed on the leg, but unfortunately died of blood loss shortly after.  The particular crocodile that attacked these two fishermen also came to its end. I’m told that problematic crocodiles are caught and culled. They catch them with a hook and rope, only the bait is either a dead dog or cat.

He spoke about the nights too. Don’t be deceived by the quiet river nights with only the sound of gushing water and the odd call of a night jar. Not all is calm and peaceful. Bandits scour the river, stealing the nets and fish and attacking camps, demanding money or cell phones. Fight them or give them nothing and it could all end with a slit of the throat.

Sometimes the rustle of a bush is not a bandito or a gust of wind. Sometimes it’s a hippo emerging from the murky waters, wanting to get to the sugar cane on the other side of the camp. Anyone living in Africa will know that the hippo isn’t a cute and cuddly animal! In fact it is one of the deadly dozen, more territorial than most wild animals. Cross paths with a hippo and they will attack! The problem is that in the darkness they can be difficult to see, or difficult to hear coming with their padded feet. He tells me they have also had leopard in the camp.

But if any man seems well equipped for this living, it is surely Fransisco. He is a master at surviving difficult conditions. His war stories are fascinating. Next week I will be meeting him again to delve deeper into the psyche of an ex-soldier.

“Most of us exist for the most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled.

One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence.”

Robert Macfarlane