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 long wooden canoe. The size of Manhattan, Tanbi teems with life. The mangroves provide an important habitat for many birds and fish, which nest, breed and spawn in the protective, nutrient-rich environment. Snow-white egrets stalk schools of needle-like fish nipping through the shallows as curlews and hornbills whirl overhead, and higher still, vultures turn in lazy circles.
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, rock-like 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 resubmerges the mangrove roots, the rest of the day is given over to preparing the raw oysters on land – first steaming them in large steel drums, then removing the green-grey meat, which is flicked into wicker baskets. At the end of the day, the baskets of prepared oysters are taken to the roadsides and markets of Banjul, the country’s capital, 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.
For consumers, this labour is the hidden background to a tasty treat used in a variety of traditional west African dishes, such as oyster stew and oysters in lime. But for harvesters such as Sambou, making a sustainable living has been a matter of balancing environmental and financial responsibilities.
Unlike other fishing in the Gambia, the oyster trade is entirely run by women, who pick, process, cook and sell them. Like most Gambian harvesters, Sambou, 33, is from the Jola people, an ethnic group known across Senegal and the Gambia for their hardworking agricultural roots.
Along with about 500 other women in the Tanbi area, she 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 financial management, food hygiene and water safety.
Mboob wanted to make the harvesters a cohesive part of the ecosystem, rather than a force acting against it. In 2012, she successfully lobbied the Gambian government to make Tanbi a “special management area”, within which TRY members have exclusive harvesting rights.
Before the TRY, the harvesters worked Tanbi’s mangroves very differently, hacking off roots entirely and picking even small, unsaleable oysters. Through educational initiatives organised by Mboob and the United Nations 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 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 a standard 50 dalasis (75p) for a cup, a fivefold increase over previous average prices, which were decided by each woman.
On a good day, Sambou might harvest, steam and shell enough oysters to make 2,000 dalasis (£30). But on other days the low tide is at night, or too late in the afternoon to make it worth going 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 the 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 increasingly 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 says. “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 and avoiding the need to take 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 might 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, says 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.”