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Displaced by Boko Haram violence, the resourceful on Lake Chad’s shores try again

media These refugee Nigerian fishermen at Tagal Fish Camp are cleaning their catch, before placing the fish on draying racks to prepare for sale LA Bagnetto

On the Chadian shore of Lake Chad at Tagal fish camp, a number of fishermen are crouched in front of small mounds of silver Tilapia, speaking amongst themselves while methodically scraping the scales off the fish, slicing them open, and squeezing out the insides. They are preparing the fish for the wooden drying racks behind them, where they will be left for three days before being bagged and sold at market in nearby Baga Sola, the main town in the area.

“We are just managing, because you cannot have the same life you left [behind],” says Abakar Labbo Ummar, crouched in front of his catch. 

He wants to go back to his home in Doron Baga, in northeastern Nigeria. “I’m waiting for the place to be calm and it isn’t yet,” he says, slicing into a fish.

Two thousand people were killed in and around Doron Baga by hardline Islamists Boko Haram in January 2015, causing a mass exodus across the lake to the Chadian shores. The combination of Nigerian refugees and the internally displaced island Chadians fleeing Boko Haram has put a big strain on resources. This has also impacted the local people, who live in what the UN considers one of the poorest countries in the world.

There are some 304,000 people in the region suffering from food security, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Some have used their ingenuity to help feed their families, in addition to the food aid they receive.

Refugee fisherman Mustapha Mohamed, from Doron Baga, Nigeria, on Lake Chad in a one-man canoe LA Bagnetto

On the edge of the water, Mustapha Mohamed, also from Doron Baga, parks his canoe and steps onto the bank with a basin of fish carrying his catch of the day. He clarifies his situation. “It’s good for fishermen to have a canoe like this for one man,” he says, pointing to the boat.

“But we are 10 to 20 people per group. We get one canoe. It can only carry one person; any more would be dangerous. We need more canoes,” he adds. The groups are given boats by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Development Society of Lake Chad (SODELAC)-- the canoes are used day and night.

With only boat per group, the fishermen have to share everything, including their catch. Some have borrowed nets from the locals, and they share their fish with them.

One man walks through the fish camp talking with the fishermen. He introduces himself as Idi Adam from Tagal. “I visit almost every day,” he says. “If they need something, I will get it from the village if I can.”

He says that although they are not locals, that does not deter him from trying to help. “I am not scared of these people. They left their homes and came to Baga Sola and I must welcome them,” he says.

Despite it not being widely reported, there have been some returnees. OCHA estimates that some 40,000 island Chadians went home because they considered it safer now,even though restrictive security measures remain in place in the area. The returnees also determined that the risks outweighed staying in a camp, where the population has risen sharply due to displacement from the Boko Haram conflict.

In the fish camp, there are a few women examining the catch just brought in. Kenlu Kanaye, in a green and white embroidered hijab, examines the latest arrival of fresh fish. She used to live in Marakou, an island in Lake Chad, with her husband and five children.

“It costs 2,000 Naira (six euros) to buy the fish so I can sell them in Baga Sola,” says Kanaye, who although Chadian, defers to Nigerian currency. “I don’t have extra money and there is little food,” she says, describing how she tries to make a little extra money.

The 500 Naira (1.50 euros) she makes in profit will go towards buying food to supplement
the monthly food rations she receives from the World Food Programme (WFP) to feed herself and her children.

How green is your garden? Depends on the location

Women shoulder the responsibility for feeding their families. In the harsh environment of the Lake Chad area, where fine, hot sand is prevalent and trees are few, the distance from the lake could be the difference in eating or not. The lake is crucial, not only for fishing, but for the essential water needed for small-scale farming.

Besides trading in fish, many displaced Chadian women have taken the initiative to set up small patches for growing vegetables. The proximity of these small plots to the lake is a key factor which often determines their success or failure in growing extra food.

Palmata Douba (L) and Boul Alhaji Maluchimbi (R), two displaced Chadian women in Kadolo village who work their gardens LA Bagnetto

Without the help of aid agencies, including providing seeds, people would have a hard time surviving here, says Kashallah Abba Ali, the rural district head of Kiskira canton, some 34 kilometres outside of Baga Sola.

“People look for water all over, but the water is salty and problematic for the residents,” says Abba Ali. “People don’t have the money for a motor or diesel,” he adds, referring to the pump that provides basic irrigation using water from the lake.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is also building a well just outside of Kiskira so that people have easier access to water. Access to water is a problem for many of the displaced in the Lake Chad basin.

Palmata Douba fled from her island home after Boko Haram attacked, moving with her 10 children to Kadoulu village, another settlement inland from the lake’s shores. Douba is another woman trying to grow vegetables, but once again, access to water as well as pests have hampered her efforts.

The onions, tomatoes, eggplant and corn seeds the ICRC gave her helps to feed her children, but it is not sufficient. Eggplant takes three months to grow, she says, and then there is the water issue.

“Now the water level of the lake has gone down, so we have the problem of getting water for the crops,” says Douba. “All the women here are dealing with difficulties because they don’t have the energy to plant the seeds for June. They’re suffering because they don’t have the energy to work.”

Douba has a plot next to her neighbor, Boul Alhaji Maluchimbi, who says it takes 40 minutes to walk to her plot to water the crops. Water is not the only problem – they are also battling with insects that eat their vegetables.

“Since we started planting seeds, the crickets destroyed everything, but we took mosquito nets and put them over the seeds to save them,” says Maluchimbi.

“Those who didn’t do this had their gardens destroyed by the crickets. Our biggest enemy is the crickets. After that, it’s the lack of water,” she adds.

A short distance from the water makes a big difference in quality of life. At the Bya Women’s Garden in Bya, just eight kilometres away from Kadolo, 30 women, both indigenous and displaced island Chadians, work their communal plot just metres from the lake.

“We sell the chili peppers and tomatoes,” says Yakra Conne, the president of the garden, pointing to the produce lying on drying mats on the ground. “These are the best things to sell because everyone needs sauce,” she says.

Some of Bya Women's Garden's 30 members near the shores of Lake Chad, showing the dried peppers and tomatoes they will sell LA Bagnetto

The women cultivate onions, watermelon, cucumber, aubergine, manioc and potatoes, grown from seeds distributed as part of the ICRC’s initiative. A bit of the money goes towards buying diesel for the motor that helps them pump water from the lake, but it is currently broken.

Lake Chad is the lifeblood of the region, especially for the refugees and displaced who are trying to survive. Whether fishing the waters or growing crops, the proximity to the water is vital in determining the level of hardship they suffer.

Water issues notwithstanding, Bya Women’s Garden has created stability within the group. Money from the sale of dried peppers and tomatoes has helped the women, who did not have homes before, says Achidia Alhaji Kanai, the garden treasurer.

“With our produce, the president has built her home. After, I built my home,” says Kanai. “All the members of the group will be able to build their own houses. That’s our idea,” she adds.

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