If you’ve seen Hubert Sauper’s (2004) documentary film Darwin’s Nightmare you may remember the stark contrast he draws between the sterile disassembly line of a factory producing Nile perch fillets for export to Europe and the seething, smoky, maggoty miasma where Tanzanian women, men, and children work to dry and fry fish carcasses. You may also recall your own sense of disgust, even horror, when presented with the sights, sounds, and imagined smells of lives made turning rotting flesh and bones into food that Sauper tells us “a few million Africans eat.”
Readers who haven’t seen the film need not stop here – I’ll recount one of the most moving scenes now:
Walking between seemingly endless rows of wooden drying racks, Sauper stops to show the hands of a woman picking up freshly delivered Nile perch carcasses from the ground three at a time. These carcasses — the heads, tails, and meager flesh still clinging to bones — are the remains of once whole fish whose sides have already been carved out and trimmed into fillets for sale on global whitefish markets. Before we see the face of Sauper’s interlocutor, we see the heads of these carcasses wedged between rows of vertical wood and hear the buzzing of flies circling the whole scene. Sauper’s lens zooms in on a single fish head adorned with a crown of worms feasting on its sun-softened flesh. A single maggot inches towards the juicy pit where this fish’s eye once had been. It then slips on the slick slime of their own mutual decomposition and falls off and out of view.
Sauper’s translator asks the woman in Kiswahili to whom these laboring hands belong to “say something.” We finally see her face. She smiles as she tells us she is alone. Her husband fell sick and left to find help. “My life is now good,” she says. Because she earns cash every day working with carcasses, Sauper’s interlocutor says she is better off now than when she was a “normal farmer.” Even before her boss tells her to stop talking and return to work, she continues bending down, picking up fresh piles of rotting carcass, and hanging them to dry. Sauper’s camera follows her movements, panning down and zooming into black mud that seethes with fly larvae and squishes up between her toes. Another single maggot inches up and onto her foot searching for something more to digest.
Next we encounter a woman carrying an empty woven tray on her head. Her right eye is covered with the drab green cloth of a zippered canvas hood that was likely once attached to a complete rain jacket. “I should go to the hospital for an operation,” she says before swiftly pulling off her hood to reveal smooth brown skin that now covers the space where her right eye once had been. When asked to describe her working conditions, she opens her pursed lips to speak of stomach pains and diarrhea caused by the bitter ammoniac gasses produced by the decomposing flesh she works to carry. Because we’re told these gasses sting the eyes, viewers intuit that they also may lead to the loss of them. “It’s worse when it rains,” she says.
Viewers shudder to feel our own toes squishing into the mud as we imagine the tickle of maggots crawling across our skin, eyes watering from the sting of ammonitic gas, and intestines rumbling from the imaginary toxins rushing through our digestive system. The smell of the whole scene must be unbearable; the taste of what’s produced there abominable. It becomes impossible for viewers to believe – let alone remember – that a woman who moves visibly decaying fish carcasses for a living says her “life is good.” Certainly she must be soothing herself with a false consciousness, rather than the daily cash she earns. Certainly farming, even in a drought prone region like Northern Tanzania, must be a better option than lives made where eyes might disappear to toxic fumes.
There’s a sensorial empathy generated through Sauper’s account of carcasses and of fishing sites more generally that frames much of what the latest generation of Euro-American trained researchers and policy-professionals working on Lake Victoria’s fisheries know about this lake, its fisheries, and its fishworkers. This sensorial empathy – while likely well intentioned – is metaphorically toxic. It taints the sensibilities of individuals and institutions tasked with designing a sustainable future for Lake Victoria’s fisheries by sympathetically rendering fish products produced outside of seemingly sterile factory settings as unsanitary and unsafe – whether or not they actually are.
Given the strength of Sauper’s message, it strikes me as strange that I never fell sick from the great quantities of fresh, dried, smoked, and fried fish that I’ve eaten in mainland and island fishing camps in and around Lake Victoria since 2007, most gluttonously from 2011-2012, and most recently in 2016. After all, these are the most classically “underdeveloped” and “unhygienic” places in the region. Indeed, given Sauper’s focus on carcasses, I was initially surprised to find whole fish being produced and consumed there at all, let alone regularly.
The only cases of fishborne illness that I’ve encountered seem caused by fish contaminated through industrial means. My first and most personally moving experience followed an exceptionally delicious dinner served at the elite Tilapia Hotel in Mwanza, Tanzania (the very same town where Darwin’s Nightmare was filmed). That night two dishes of tilapia curry poisoned two-thirds of a research team I was leading – rendering us, not unironically, unable to collect a day’s worth of data on the socio-economic determinates of waterborne diseases because we were busy managing our own diarrhea and vomiting. The hotel’s refrigeration, we assumed, had been less than consistent. Later, I was treated to an account from a Ugandan colleague who spent several days suffering from “throwing out, loose motions, and delirium” after he ate a bag of dried sardine-like fish now abundant in Lake Victoria that he had purchased from one of Uganda’s finest foreign-owned grocery stores. Although he enjoyed the taste of these fish, given their explosive and mind altering effects, he vowed never to eat them again.
It’s not just viewers of Darwin’s Nightmare who are repulsed by images of Lake Victoria’s fisheries. Even eastern Africans who perhaps should know better fear invisible toxic agents, hidden within the flesh of locally produced fish and the water within which they live. A Ugandan Fisheries Officer once confessed to me that she almost did not survive her month of fieldwork in an island fishing camp required for her Bachelor of Science in Fisheries and Aquaculture. She didn’t trust the water where she was posted, nor anything cooked with it – especially fish, even though she knew that potentially dangerous pathogens in the water could be boiled out of existence. So, for thirty days she spent her meager stipend on pre-packaged sugary biscuits and drank nothing but Fanta and Coke. She was so constantly thirsty and hungry that she regularly fantasized about jumping into a boat and heading back to the mainland. Her personal experiences of revulsion and deprivation confirmed what she had already learned from her coursework – fishworkers are poor, hungry, and backwards, their fishing camps are unsanitary and unpleasant, and they both should be developed along industrial lines.
The metaphorical toxicity that sensorial empathy engenders does more than simply taint the experiences of experts and concerned outsiders and the solutions they pose for Lake Victoria’s fisheries crisis. It pathologically promotes the material ruination of fishworkers and the local and regional markets they serve. In the decade that followed the release of Darwin’s Nightmare, fisheries experts promoted development of managerial practices and physical infrastructures designed to further “modernize” Lake Victoria’s fisheries. These included seizures of “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” whole Nile perch destined for local and regional markets; confiscating and burning “undersized” fishing nets; building more ice-plants and cement loading docks at fish collection sites to serve industrial processing plants; and redirecting the sale of “byproducts” from filleting plants to other factories that make fishmeal for fertilizers and animal feeds. All were designed to improve the conditions of Lake Victoria’s fisheries by decreasing quantities of fish available for local processing, and local and regional sale and consumption.
Despite the virulence of sensorial empathy’s toxic effects, multiple species and forms of fish, including whole Nile perch, continue to be safely produced and consumed in places and by methods that experts deem dangerous (Johnson 2016, 2017). In July 2016, after spending two years away from “the field,” I returned to an island fishing camp in Ugandan waters with Akello Florence, a woman who has worked with fish and with me since 2007. This camp was one we had lived and worked in alongside women and men who fish, process, and sell fish for a living. Although my friends and colleagues there noted that fish were still scarce, we were treated to multiple meals of fresh and smoked Nile perch, tilapia, and several species of fish without English names. These were prepared by and eaten with fishworkers in the usual way – boiled in water from the lake, served in ceramic and plastic bowls alongside large plates of steamed bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava, and stiff maize porridge (often without forks or spoons), and savored while seated on the ground atop thatched papyrus mats. None of these meals made us sick. The industrially processed Nile perch “fish fingers” that I ate alone that same month as part of a lavish breakfast buffet served at one of the more expensive hotels on the Ugandan mainland, however, resulted in a much more unpleasant digestive experience. The hotel’s freshly starched white table cloths and fine cutlery could only conceal encounters with the actual toxicity of these factory produced fish products for so long.
Jennifer Lee Johnson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Purdue University. She holds a PhD from the University of Michigan and completed a postdoctoral fellowship with the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University. Johnson’s research is historically rooted, ethnographically engaged, and focused at the confluence of gender, illegality, and the ontological politics of sustainability in and around Africa’s largest body of freshwater where she has conducted long-term field research since 2007. Her most recent publications have appeared in the journals Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East and Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management, and in the edited volumes Subsistence under Capitalism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (McGill-Queen’s, 2016) and Landscape, Environment and Technology in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa (Routledge, 2012). Johnson’s current book project examines how stories about the past shape and are shaped by contemporary environmental policy debates, and how alternative – but no less accurate – accounts of linked transformations in social and ecological life may inspire more livable futures.
Sauper, Hubert. 2004. Darwin’s Nightmare. Mille et une Productions. Film.
Johnson, Jennifer Lee, and Bakaaki Robert. 2016. “Working with Fish in the Shadows of Sustainability.” In Subsistence under Capitalism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by James Ernest Murton, Dean Bavington, and Carly A. Dokis, 195–233. Rural, Wildland, and Resource Studies Series 4. Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Johnson, Jennifer Lee. 2017. “Eating and Existence on an Island in Southern Uganda.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 37 (1): 2–23.