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close this bookCERES No. 121 (FAO Ceres, 1988, 50 p.)
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Fish ladies of Dakar practise development' in the feminine

In the Dalifort quarter on the outskirts of Dakar, one of the city's most precarious neighbourhoods, a shantytown with a very mixed population, a group of women have gone into the fish business. They retail fresh fish which they have bought in other markets farther away. A French sociologist, Mireille Lecarme, followed the progress of this experiment and studied the mobile and lively milieu in which old peasant women or vegetable vendors have come in from the country to become retailers of carp, mullet, morays, and sardines.

Even if, as they say, "the sea of Dakar is not for them," the rural women who no longer live on the land their ancestors left them deploy prodigious organization to exploit the sea's wealth as they do. They spare the neighbourhood customer at least three kilometres of travel to the nearest market, that at Hann, and longer trips to other markets. They women shuttle back and forth, sometimes on foot, carrying their full baskets on their heads, but more often they make deals with a number of drivers and go by bus.

The best off among them go to the large market at la Gueule Tap which, though farther from Dalifort than Hann, offers a larger choice of fish. There they follow their purchases with an almost ritual daily breakfast, and in this they follow the example of their male "colleagues".

Lecarme stresses the special features of the women's market of Dalifort: brutal price fluctuations that make prediction impossible and the exigencies of a clientele with very little money to spend. The latter forces the women retailers to lower their profit margin considerably. "More than one of them", she says, "feels relieved when she merely breaks even."

She also insists upon the preeminence of the social factor over the economic factor: "The objective competition present is attenuated by a cluster of daily social practices: gestures, gifts, words, laughs, care of children, dances." The market thus constitutes "a paradoxical place where two social modalities meet: the older goes back to a system of barter, to the "teranga" essential value based on the sense of collectivity, exchanges of gifts which has stayed with the women; the second, the product of colonization and of monetization, poses the primacy of the individual and subordinates the social to the quest for individual gain. Marketing plays on these two modalities: the vendor will lower her prices only by steps, in function of the market and not because of the customer's bargaining skill. On the contrary, she will simply give away fish to a relative or woman friend."

Ethnic differences govern choice of vendor and choice of fish: "Women customers prefer to go to a vendor of their own ethnic group for the pleasure of speaking their own language and choosing fish that are to their own taste; for the Kiola that means ouass and quiss, carp and mullet, for the Toucouleurs it is sompet, which carp, and pageots."

The spontaneous and improvised nature of the vendors' organization in this shantytown has not stood in the way of the development of a hierarchy. Lecarme distinguishes between the "bigs" who benefit at the outset from greater capital and do their best to procure fine fish for a clientele that can provide secure profits, and the "smalls" who buy mostly "yabol" (sardines) on the beach at Hann and need supplementary activities (such as the sale of fruit or the clandestine sale of drink), "which presupposes the access to credit at usury rates, a rotation of debts, the help of the husband or of a relative of her own." Savings clubs permit daily saving, and this system too closely unites the local and the economic sides of life.

To conclude her report, Lecarme recalls "the need to think of development in the feminine, as well as in the masculine, in its social implications as well as in its economic". In her opinion, it would be disastrous, for example, to implement a project that has been proposed by the CAPAS (Senegalese centre for assistance to artisanal fisheries) which addresses only fishermen members of cooperatives of provisioning the marketing of their fish, in suppressing "external intervenors" as the women of Dalifort. ''If this project were implemented across the board," she says, "it is probable that a good number of families would see their standard of living fall below the tolerable level.

Guillemette Roy