The people of the lake came down in 1770 to escape a conflict and established a stilted way of life, based on fishing. The AIZO predominate at the northern village of Ganvie but they are spread right around the lake to subsist on the fish. On the way over we encountered river buses crammed with gaily coloured people making their way to the shanty markets in Cotonou, to work, buy and sell produce. The boats are made of sturdy wood, but even they strain low in the water with the 50 or more people on board.
In between are the small canoes, like dug outs, with poles and paddles. Towards the middle of the lake it seems that nothing has changed for thousands of years, the lake people are topless fishermen, covered women and active children acting out a timeless scene – silhouetted against the vast flat water. It’s shallow, people stand at times and drive poles into the mud to propel the boats – even large barges with wood and materials. In lake Aleppy, Kerala in India, the same silhouettes appear – fishermen in similar boats, poles, digging mud in the morning light, netting and singing. I’m sure the same scenes happen in Latin America and they used to in early Europe around Crannogs and up the big river valleys in England. What we’re now seeing is an ancient aboriginal hunter gatherer behaviour that extends back even before agriculture, something that defines the humanity and sustained us over the centuries- fishing in simple wooden boats, living on the lakes in small communities. I suspect we see in Ganvie the early shared human experience, and for that it’s fascinating.
But there is a the threat from the population boom, that turns an innocent activity into a dangerous pursuit, and its beginning to happen in Cotonou, where we see hyper-growth, too many fishermen and squalor. But at the northern edge of the lake its still fishable, the people build palm stockades to farm the small fish and harvest them before the floods come, ready for the next lot. All over the lake are large square plantations, delineating family fish farming plots, like islands in the mud. Closer to Ganvie village a green bloom of water jasmine is creeping over the surface. It looks pretty with a hyacinth-like flower, and great green trumpet leaves sticking up about 2 feet. Our host Udo said that since he last visited some weeks ago, the waterways have become over grown. Judy, Mercy Ships UK CEO, hasn’t been back for four years; back then the weed didn’t yet exist. But now it covers large tracts over stockade, acres of green now surround the village and its getting hard to cut through the vegetation. This flower like nitrates, something is disturbing the balance and its become an invasive species. Soon the people will find it takes the oxygen, and fish yields will drop, the lake will become subsumed. On the up side, it is good for composting, but in general it’s a concern. Hopefully they realise, or there will be trouble in the next 5 years. The same goes for Bangkok klongs, and Aleppy, its either human waste or fertilizers, and both need to be managed, as does the plant.