ngalawa. Credit: Lucy Blue

The first detailed academic study of East African maritime traditions shows changes in boat building techniques, but the continued use of wooden vessels by fishermen.

Researchers have used photogrammetric technology to document a vessel using the Zanzibar Canal, on which so much livelihood depends.

Large local ships – mtepe, dau la mtepe and even larger Jahazis – have long since left the Zanzibar Canal due to the development of modern transport infrastructure, the end of the mangrove pole trade and the changing political economy of the wider Indian Ocean.

Experts have recorded how boat builders use new propulsion technologies – the outboard and to a lesser extent the internal engine.

But their work also shows that a large number of small fishing vessels still use the Zanzibar Canal. The small-scale artisanal fishing sector is bustling, largely reflecting population growth, leading to declining stocks and rising coastal catch levels.

Experts conducted studies in 2018 on Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago, and in 2019-2020 in Bahamoyo, mainland Tanzania, to show the scope of timber fishing and logging in the region.

Scientists have warned that wooden vessels in East Africa will shrink and disappear. The major ocean-going ships of the monsoon trade – connecting Somalia, South Arabia, the Arab-Persian Gulf and South Asia – have been absent for more than 50 years.

Fishermen use ngalawa for different types of fishing with nets and lines depending on the season and the size of the fish. In the shrimp season, at the end of the (northern) monsoon cascades, they sometimes use their ship simply as a means of reaching the mouths of the estuary, where they descend and use a fine hand net to catch small shrimp.

Mashua ndogo is rare – researchers found only two, one each in Bagamoyo and Mlingotini – because of the size of the tree and the special skills needed to join the logs, but also because it is significantly more expensive to make than other dugouts.

Boti la mtando, ngwanda and diminutive dingi are relatively recent innovations in both boatbuilding and the Zanzibar Canal fishing method. They have outboard motors and portable electric generators to enable new fishing techniques based on back nets and purse nets and the use of artificial light to attract fish at night. Such equipment also puts fishermen in potential conflict with regulators over the conservation of fish stocks: fishermen themselves are also concerned about its impact.

The study was conducted by John P. Cooper and Alessandro Gidoni of the University of Exeter, Lucy Blue of the University of Southampton and Elgidius B. Ichumbaki of the University of Dar es Salaam. It was published in International Journal of Marine Archeology.

Dr Cooper said: “We met fishermen, sailors and seafarers with clear views and curiosity about the historical and cultural dimensions of their vessels; many have expressed an unsentimental willingness to give up what they consider cumbersome and restrictive technologies, such as sailing, to be more possible, such as the outboard motor, if their personal economic circumstances allow.

“Similarly, fishermen are aware of the restrictions that the dugout ngalawa and mtumbwi, for example, impose on their fishing range and catches. What keeps all the wooden vessels of the Zanzibar Canal in play are the material and technical capabilities available to their manufacturers and owners and the economic opportunities they provide. The fate of these crafts undoubtedly depends on such critical factors as national forestry management policies and the price of timber, the economic competitiveness of fiberglass and metal boats (both rare today), regional fisheries management and alternative livelihoods, open to an increasingly educated young generation. A special maritime madness would be needed to condemn the practitioner’s abandonment of the ships described above in pursuit of a better life. ”

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More information:
John P. Cooper et al., Modern Wooden Craft on the Zanzibar Canal, Tanzania: Type and Technology, Continuity and Innovation, International Journal of Marine Archeology (2022). DOI: 10.1080 / 10572414.2021.2015913

Provided by the University of Exeter

Quote: The first detailed academic study of East African maritime traditions shows changes in shipbuilding (2022, 10 May), extracted on 10 May 2022 from

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