Since her birth near Senegal's coast, the ocean has always given Ndeye Yacine Dieng life. Her grandfather was a fisherman, and her grandmother and mother processed fish. Like generations of women, she now helps support her family in the small community of Bargny. The women dry, smoke, salt and preserve the catch brought home by male villagers.
But when the pandemic hit, only a few men went out to sea. Many people were too afraid to leave their houses or go out to fish, for fear of catching the virus. When the local women did get fish to process, there was no one to buy them. Markets had closed. Neighboring countries had closed their borders. Without savings, many families went from three meals a day to one or two.
Dieng is among more than a thousand women in Bargny, and many more in other villages along Senegal's coast, who process fish. Fish exports are an important part of the economy for Senegal. The industry employs hundreds of thousands of its citizens. The fish provide more than half of the protein eaten by Senegal's 16 million people.
"It was catastrophic -- all of our lives changed," Dieng said. But, she noted, "Our community is a community of solidarity."
New hope with a new fishing season
Last month was the first fishing season since the pandemic began. It brings a new hope to the processors, their families and the village. The brightly painted wooden fishing boats are again carrying men to the sea. Crowds wait on the beach to help the fishermen carry in their catch.
The coronavirus is not the only problem the people of Senegal face. Rising seas and climate change threaten the livelihoods and homes of people on the coast. They do not have enough money to build new homes or move away. Near Bargny's beach, builders work on new factories to make steel and cement. These raise fears about pollution but supporters say they are necessary.
Dieng and the other processors use old ways do their work. New factories that process fish pay more for the fish and produce a fish powder used for animal food.
A bad year
Before the pandemic, a good season could bring Dieng about $1,000. Last year, she said, she made little to nothing. She depended on the help of neighbors and her family.
"Since there is COVID, we live in fear," said Dieng, 64, who has seven adult children. "Most of the people here and women processors have lived a difficult life." She said they are very tired, "But now, little by little, it's getting better."
Dieng has become a local leader and informal teacher. She and others are now part of a rising group of women in Senegal working for change along the coast and beyond.
Dieng's neighbor, Fatou Samba, is a town leader and president of the Association of Women Processors of Fish Products. She speaks in public about the problems facing the traditional fish industry. She hopes to stop much of the growth of big industry as fishmeal companies take large amounts of fish and send the product to Europe and Asia.
Women must be empowered
"If we let ourselves be outdone, within two or three years, women will not have work anymore," Samba said. "We are not against the creation of a project that will develop Senegal. But we are against projects that must make women lose the right to work."
"Especially in Africa, women are fighters. Women are workers. Women are family leaders," Samba said. "Therefore, women must be empowered."
Late last month, fishermen finally came back to Bargny with fish in their boats. Dieng and others hurried to meet them on the beach. She bought a load of fish and took it to the piece of land she and friends claimed. Then she started the work she's known for many years.
They put the fish on the sand and covered them in peanut shells, which they burned. Smoke filled the air. The women stepped away after making sure the fire would continue burning. After a day or so, they returned to turn the fish and let it dry in the sun. Another day passed, and the women returned to clean it. Finally, they packed the fish in large nets and sold it. Others took fish away in trucks.
The pandemic also is not over, so Dieng and other women go door to door to ask people to get vaccinated. She speaks to the other women, hoping they will stay in the industry.
"It's our gold. This site is all, this site is everything for us," Dieng said of the coast and its importance to Bargny. "All the women must rise up...We must work, to always work and work again for our tomorrows, for our future."