Silent Sufferers: The unseen plight of children in fishing villages

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One of the six wharfs in Mosam Village

By Alfred Koroma

If living in a grass-thatched house depicts poverty, then most residents in Mosam, a rough coastline village in Shenge, are poor.

Despite being a fishing ground that produces fish sold in most parts of the country and elsewhere, the majority of its homes are constructed from sticks and mud, thatched with dried savanna grass, properly arranged for shelter.

Although few of the houses stand out with corrugated roofs, many of them belong to boat owners or boat masters – the more prosperous and influential individuals who command fishing activities in the village.

Most of those masters make profit from their investment by employing young people, including under-age children as a source of cheap labor in their fishing activities.

Two recent deaths in the sea and how a teen brought back his dead colleague to the shore dominates conversation in the village. In a three-day visit, the first two sources, Osman Bah and Pa Thua who spoke to Concord Times have these stories to narrate when asked about recent sea incident involving young people in the community.

One is about Komoh Lahai, 14, who faced a daunting task of traveling back with a young adult who died at sea while they were out fishing.

Bah explained that Brima Tar, who took Lahai to sea met his demise after jumping into the ocean to avoid losing a big fish trapped by the net they had deployed.

While swimming towards the fish, the net twisted around Brima’s legs and pulled him down, desperately calling on young Lahai to save him. Minutes stretched, the boy scrambled to haul back the net, bringing Brima who was now unresponsive closer to the boat.

But because the weight was too much, Lahai could not lift lifeless Brima back into the boat, so he grabbed a rope and tied it securely around Brima’s foot. He then tied the other end to the boat, cut the net and slowly dragged him back to the deck.

 Lahai is one of many children trafficked into Mosam to be exploited under the guise of men pikin. Until the incident forced his father to come and collect him, he was there under his uncle.

Concord Times was unable to speak with Lahai, but his Uncle, Pa Thua who also happens to be the deceased’s father confirmed the incident, expressing outraged that his son had to die in such a way when the sea is often ‘quiet in the dry season.’

Reports of fatal sea incidents are rare here in the dry season. Such incidents often occur during the rainy season, Pa Thua said. Rainy season in Sierra Leone typically lasts from May to October each year, a cloudy period full of significant rainfall, high humidity, flooding and thunderstorms.

“I’m shocked because this happens in sea during dry season when the tides are usually calm,” he said, insinuating some demonic forces must have taken away his son, as the fish he had chased was not ordinary.

While moving with Concord Times around the village, Bah who appeared to like media attention recalled another incident within the same year.  He said Tommy Themneh, another fisherman drowned after he was pushed in the ocean while quarrelling with another group in an opposing boat at the sea.

These incidents signals the risk surrounding young people in coastal communities across Sierra Leone.

“Every year there must be three to four people, including children from Mosam who must die in the sea. Sometimes more than that,” Bah added, recalling the 2009 Cheche Boat accident that claimed the lives of 250 people from the village and other coastal communities within Shenge.  

The daily struggle of children

Just like many other areas of Shenge, net fishing in Mosam is predominantly artisanal, categorized in different forms. Among them is a common one locally known as Channel Fishing, (Seine Netting), it’s a fishing technique that involves encircling fish with a net and then drawing it in from the water. All Channel fishing nets have large net bags at the bottom that can gather the smallest fish when deployed. They are similar to that of those used in trawlers.

The others, also locally called, ‘Lehgo chain, Yelleh, Driff and Mullit Fishing are all fishing methods characterized by low technology, mostly involving children who are being exposed to dangerous working conditions.

Collecting shellfish such as clams, oysters, from shorelines and water banks is also common in the village, undertaken mostly by women and young girls.

These fishing practices are done using locally made boats that go fishing based on the sea level. Some boats go to sea during low tides while others wait for high tides.

Children hauling a net into a boat

Children as young as eight years old, join adults on those boats or along the shores, aiding in the difficult process of fishing.

Apart from going to sea, they also mend nets, sort fish, fetch wood and assist with other heavy labor that sustains fishing in the village. The youngest are often taken to sea to consistently bail the water that leaks into the boat to keep it afloat while in the sea.

“This is how we start introducing them to the sea, by the time they grow bigger, they understands fishing very well, a fisherman, Mohamed Kamara told Concord Times.

 “Every boy here is a fisher man,” he said. 

Despite the risks and harsh conditions, involving children in fishing activities appears normal for everyone in Mosam. And the children as well appeared accustomed to their daily tasks, filled with the sense of contributing to the collective effort of the fishing crew.

Most of them are trafficked into those fishing activities from other villages in the guise of ‘men pikin’ and transferred to work for boat masters, while some are taken to sea by their very own parents.

 Parents who own no boats, have their children working for boat masters for daily payment. A payment which is dependent on how they catch for the day.

In most cases, the payment for child laborers in the village is not cash-based. They are usually given a share of the day’s catch, shared among them in groups which they sell and share the money. How much a boy makes out of that is dependent on the quantity of the catch and what’s left after the boat masters and adult fishermen have collected what they want.

In Mosam, fish are mostly measured in plastic basin bowl for sale

“For example, sometimes half a ‘baf’ is given to four fishermen. They sell and share the money,” the village Chief, Sulay Mansaray said.

 A ‘baf’ is a plastic basin bowl where raw fish are commonly measured in the village for sale, especially for smaller size fish caught in Channel Fishing. According to Mansaray, half a baf fish cost from 40 to 60 Leones while the price of a full baf raw fish ranges from 80, 90 to 120 Leones ( around $5), depending on the size and type of fish.  “So what a fisherman takes home is not static, he said. “It depends on the catch for the day.”

For other fishing boats, this is slightly different. Those fishing for ‘Bonga,’ a common and widely consumed fish in Sierra Leone are being paid with fish counted in dozens. A dozen Bonga fish is sold at Le5 (far below $1) and below the price of a cup of rice in rural areas of the country. In a good day, a boy can get more than a dozen – sometimes two or three, taking home up to a dollar or more than that in a day. Sometimes they take home nothing.

Almost all boys in the village work for this kind of daily payment in Channel Fishing and the other forms of fishing.

“The challenges in fishing here are too much, more so with the payment. The money fishermen get is not sufficient and equivalent to the labor involved,” Bah, once a fisherman who claimed to have abandoned fishing for other business said. “People sleep in the sea, spent a whole night fishing. When they come in the morning, some men only take home or take home below that amount.”

The little the children make from this toiling end in the hands of their parents or guidance, most of whom depend on it to feed their homes. For those who do fishing directly with their parents or relatives ‘caring’ for them, it’s a different case. They don’t see money.

Bundu Bangura, his peers and Mohamed Kamara, an adult dragging a net into a boat

Bundu Bangura, a boy looking younger than 12 spoke to Concord Times standing naked while him and his peers drags a net from the land into a boat, preparing for an evening fishing expedition. They called the process ‘bodens,’ in Sherbro, the dominant local language spoken in the village.

Bangura said he does fishing with his uncle in the small wooden boat. In an interview, he said his work in the sea is bailing water leaking into the boat and assisting in deploying and drawing the net for all the long hours they spend in the sea.

Sometimes we go in the morning and come in the evening, and sometimes we go at night and come in the morning, he said. Because he does fishing with his uncle whom he directly lives with, Bangura does not get payment like his peers. They feed him, and buy him new cloth occasionally, especially during Ramadan.  

 “They don’t give me money, but they buy me new cloth on ‘Pray Day’ (Eid al-Fitr),” he said.

Just like Bangura, Kiwon Beinson, 10, as well does fishing with his Aunt’s husband. But Benison’s problem is that despite going to see every day, he hardly get enough food to eat. Five of them eat in a bowl and because he is a little younger than the others and the food they are given is not sufficient, he rarely get fed. He said he is always worried that the others have bigger palms to scoop more food in the bowl than him.

Out of 36 children Concord Times interviewed, 21 (58%) said they were brought to Mosam village to live with their uncles and aunts as assistance to their parents in the form of men pikin. Some live and work for boat owners who are not their relatives. About 41% (15) said they were born in the village, and they live with their parents, although some whose parents own no boat also work in other boats on payment.

Abikie Mbawah, 16, the eldest of five Children works to feed his mother and four siblings who haven’t got married. His father drowned four years back in a boat incident that killed three.

“Abikie is not alone,” Bah said, “most people depend on their kids for fishing.”

Like many other rural communities across Sierra Leone, it is obvious that poverty is one of the common causes of child labor in Mosam.

According to 2023 UNDP estimates, 59.2 percent of the population in Sierra Leone is poor while 21.3 percent is classified as vulnerable to poverty.

This high levels of poverty in the country mean families rely on every member, including children, to contribute to the household income.  And fishing, one of the few available sources of income, which plays a significant role in the country’s economy and food security is no exception.

The sector worth over $100 million annually, according to F.A.O. It provides employment to some 200,000 people, indirect employment to 600,000 and contributes 12 percent to the country’s GDP. 

Although there is no specific percentage or data pointing at how much fishing activities contributes to the rate of child labor in Sierra Leone, research published in 2022 by the Center on Human Trafficking Research and Outreach (CenHTRO) highlighted fishing as one of the main sources of child labor in the country, mentioned among other hazardous activities such as mining, pottering, construction, manufacturing and commercial sex. 

In an interview, the Senior Child Protection Officer at the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs, Bashiru Thulah also acknowledged that child labor in fishing and sand mining is an issue in the country. In some cases, he said this has even gone beyond child labor, extending to exploitation of children.

“Usually we use to say after school children can go and assist their parents, at least, for those within the ages of 15, but that has been abused,” he said.

Child Labor Laws and Implementation

Over the years, government and partners have made efforts to establish laws and regulations targeted at tackling child labor.

For instance, Section 128 of the country’s Child Rights Act of 2007 prohibits the taking of children to sea and the engagement of children below 13 years in light work. The law allows for children above 13 to be engaged in light work, but again, there is no clear definition of light work on the provision.

 The country is also signatory to other major international conventions dealing with child labor. In addition, there is also an existing Child Welfare Committee in various communities to help advocates against child labor, exploitation and abuse. 

Yet, child labor remain rife in the country. According to a 2020 publication by GOAL, 45% of children in Sierra Leone, aged 5 -17 are engaged in child labor, with over 20% involved in dangerous work.

Part of the problem with fighting child labor in Sierra Leone has to do with weak implementation of the laws coupled with the fact that most Sierra Leoneans, particularly those in the rural settings view practices regarded as child labor as normal rite of passage for children.

In many remote fishing communities like Mosam, it is acceptable for boys, as young as eight, to begin going to sea to help their families. For instance, Chief Mansaray of Mosam told Concord Times that in his village, children are taken to sea and they have no regulations prohibiting them from doing so. When asked whether he is aware about the existing laws of child labor, he responded they have not heard about it.

Most parents and guardians in the village have no knowledge about the country’s child labor laws, policies and regulations, even when those laws have been in existence for years. This indicates how much more need to be done for awareness raising and the enforcement of the laws.

Lack of awareness makes it difficult to combat child labor practices that are deeply rooted in communities like Mosam. Those involved in it have no thought about the negative impacts and the long-term consequences of those practices.

“Sensitization, advocacy with the involvement of everyone is key to combat child labor,” the Senior Child Protection Officer at the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs said.

 “At least, let people know that there is a law prohibiting child labor.” In addition to sensitization, he said, we also need effective implementation of the law.

“We use to have motor bikes, but there are no longer motor bikes. As social workers, we need to go to the field,” Thulah added.

The work of government institutions like the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs tasked with handling child labor and exploitation issues in the country are also another issue. They are not yielding much result in ending child labor, and they often justify their failure on easy excuses, such as lack of resources. 

When contacted for comment, the Sierra Leone Maritime Administration, Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, and the Ministry of Employment, Labor and Social Security refused to talk to Concord Times on the issue of involving children to in fishing activities.  

Semblance of Hope

Islamic Call Society Primary School, Mosam

For generations, settlers in Mosam have depended on the sea for survival, with families passing down fishing knowledge from one generation to another.  Young boys grow and end up in the sea while girls are pushed into the homes of fishermen as wives at an early age.

Amidst this practice, schooling has been a distant dream for many in the community. 

However, in recent years, some parents have managed to send their children to urban towns like Moyamba, the District Headquarter town for Shenge and other places around the country to attend school. Those students who often come back to spend holidays with their parents have served as a source of inspiration for some other children and parents in the community.

Moray Sheriff, 30, is one young person who got inspired into schooling. While into fishing as a young boy, Moray said he was given to a local Arabic Teacher under whom he worked and learn Qur’anic teachings. He spent all his younger age into fishing and learning Arabic.

But he actually did not like going to sea because of the hash way they were being treated there as young ones. Rather, he had admiration for English education students coming for holidays in the village and wanted to be able to read and write English like them.

“Within myself, I did not like fishing because anytime we go to sea, I see things fearful. Sometimes the adults would be shouting on me draw the net as if we were having the same strength. Even when you are tired, they would be shouting you are too lazy,” Moray explained.

“But when we return from the sea, they get the bigger share. Because of this, I did not like fishing but I had no choice because anytime I refused to go to sea, they will say I will not eat at home. Sometimes they beat me,” he said.

 In his late 20s, having got marriage with a kid in the village, Moray moved to Freetown to pursue formal education, leaving his wife and daughter behind.   

“My great grandparents, my grandparents and immediate parents were fishermen. But they all died in the sea without living any legacy for us. I needed a different path. So I decided to attend school,” he said. “My believe is that being educated, at least on to a WASSCE level (West African Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination) and engaging in fishing is more profitable.”

Presently, Moray has completed high school and holds a WASSCE (West Africa Senior School Certificate Examination) result, making him eligible to enter university. But he is back in the village fishing with a hope of raising money to enroll into university.

Osman Bah, thinks he is too old to begin schooling now, but he as well said, he has sent all his children to school.

“Some people use their children to go to the sea. For me, my children are attending school. I will not allow them to get involved in fishing activities,” he stated.

The Village has also got a school, opened in 2019 after Action Aid, an International Non-Governmental Organization constructed a three class room block for the village. But attendance remain low, and the teachers are not on government payroll, affecting their commitment to the job.

 Festus Yenki, one of the Teachers said some people are now sending their children to the school, but enrolment, especially for male children is still very poor. Many boys don’t attend school here. Some come but they don’t continue, he said, fishing still takes precedence over education here.

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