The women harvesting oysters – and guarding the mangroves






In the cool air of an April dawn, Marie Sambou, an oyster harvester, carves through the brown water of the Gambia River’s Tanbi wetland in her wooden canoe. The mangroves provide an important habitat for many birds and fish, which nest, breed and spawn in the protective, nutrient-rich environment. For the next six hours or so, while the tide remains low enough to work, Sambou will paddle along the forests on the riverbank, knocking hard, rocklike west African mangrove oysters ( Crassostrea tulipa) from the exposed mangrove roots. It is tedious, physical work – and painful. Sambou has only thin gloves and socks for protection; her hands and feet are scarred from the razor-edged oyster shells. Once the tide rises and covers the mangrove roots, the rest of the day is given over to preparing the raw oysters on land – steaming them in steel drums, then removing the greengrey meat. The baskets of prepared oysters are taken to the capital, Banjul, where they can be exposed in the heat for hours or days, and must be sold before the hard work of gathering them is wasted. Along with about 500 other women in the Tanbi area, Sambou, 33, is a member of the TRY Oyster Women’s Association, a collective founded by a social worker, Fatou Janha Mboob, in 2007. A community-based, non-profit organisation, TRY aims to improve harvesters’ lives through environmental and social initiatives, and training. In 2012, Mboob successfully lobbied the government to make Tanbi a “special management area”, within which TRY members have exclusive harvesting rights. Through educational initiatives organised by Mboob and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), TRY members were encouraged to consider themselves stewards of the mangroves; roots are now left intact, and harvesters prevent others from chopping them down for firewood. TRY is also involved in reforestation; as part of a UNDP-funded project, members planted more than 50,000 mangrove seedlings. In 2011, they voted in favour of a closed harvesting season, from March to June, and to set a minimum size for collecting oysters. To increase the oysters’ market value, TRY members agreed to charge 50 dalasis (95¢) for a cup, a fivefold increase over previous average prices. On a good day, Sambou might harvest, steam and shell enough oysters to make 2,000 dalasis ($37). But on other days the low tide is at night, or too late in the afternoon to make it worth going out on the river. And with the TRY harvesters’ season lasting only four months, money remains their primary concern. Most supplement their earnings with subsistence farming. During the off-season, Sambou travels south to Senegal’s Casamance region to buy cockles and oysters to sell in Banjul. To address this unregulated harvesting, TRY is working to expand its reach to the Allahein River, which forms the Gambia’s southern border. Climate change also affects the work; floods are more common and can cause sewage to leak into the mangroves, spoiling the filter-feeding oysters. Though TRY has achieved progress ecologically, for Sambou and Mboob the focus now is to raise the harvesters’ standard of living by improving facilities. Mboob envisions a designated market area for shellfishers within Banjul, so harvesters do not have to sell at the roadside and their wares can be kept in saleable condition. “Unless we have a processing area, we cannot sell oysters properly,” she said. “We want to vacuum pack the oysters and sell them in the supermarkets, in hotels and in local restaurants. You cannot take the oysters being sold at the roadside and take them to the supermarket.” Sambou would like refrigeration, allowing the women to store their catch so they don’t need to take the oysters straight to market, thereby spreading their income over the year. But many women live without electricity, and establishing that infrastructure on the banks of Lamin Bolong, a tributary of the Gambia River, would be complicated and costly. Those goals may be distant, but the pair’s work has not gone unnoticed. In 2012, Mboob received the 2012 Equator prize from the UNDP Equator Initiative. And in 2019, Sambou’s leadership among the harvesters was recognised with a Young Business Innovation of the Year award from the Global Youth Innovation Network Gambia. Such recognition is overdue, said Mboob. “We want people to know that the harvesters matter. They’re the ones who protect the environment, who protect Tanbi and the mangroves. The harvesters take care of each other. Because of that, and because of their hard work, they are empowered.”