Sink or Swim: How Ghana’s Female Fishmongers Came Out Swinging
Once the wife of the fisherman, the professional term fish wife no longer implies matrimony, although they are often connected by conjugal or matrilineal relations. A fish wife takes on many roles, including the responsibility to exchange, carry, process, and distribute the fish. The title of fish mammy is reserved for those who managed to make a successful career as fish wives and operate on a larger scale as wholesaler, processor and market trader, canoe owner, creditor and manager of fishing companies.
Fishmongers often have no formal education or training and learned how to run their business from apprenticeships. Seen as autonomous agents within the Fante people, fishmongers are as encouraged to have economic independence as they are expected to bear children. Some women fund their business with a loan from their family or husband, who can take as much as 50 percent of a day’s catch until the loan is paid off, although it is not uncommon for the women to lend their husband money. For those restricted by financial or social connections, the risk of going into business as a fish wife or fish mammy is worthy of the risk and, as such, studies have found that the average woman approaches the entrepreneurial endeavor with positive thought and fervor.
The role of a fishmonger begins at the coast, when the women are handed the day’s catch by the fishermen. Fish wives will then buy and carry the day’s catch on their head — and sometimes a child on their back — and travel inland to sell the fish, often traveling hundreds of miles to ensure they can sell and turn a profit. For fish mammies, their roles are less labor intensive, although not without. These women often manage a staff, including that of female fish wives, and own canoes themselves, a sign of wealth which is limited to a small portion of the population.
During the 1980s in Moree, a small seaside village in Ghana, it is estimated 25% of total canoes were owned by women. Fish mammies are not only responsible for offering credit for industry tools such as canoes, motors, and nets, but they also oversee the preservation of fish by way of smoking anywhere between 2-7 hours depending on the desired shelf life of the fish. It is estimated that women’s early adoption of advancing fishing technologies in the 70s and 80s, such as motorized canoes when they became the main financiers of the new technology, therefore securing their place in the market.
Markets are seen as particularly favorable environments to women who are regarded as social organizers and community leaders. Every individual community has her own Queen Mother, elected by other female members of her community based on her abilities in trade and politics, her main role is to mediate conflicts between traders.
Ghana fishmongers, however, are seen as more than just a members of the country’s workforce. The combination of Ghana women in fisheries being heavily involved in both the business and family side makes fishmongers revered leaders within their community and are major players in the socio-economic development of West African countries.