Mozambique’s Museum of Fisheries looks inward

The street side is almost austere: whitewashed ground floor and a surprising cantilevered first storey, all glass and beams in rich, reddish wood.

Writer: Mercedes Sayagues

Images: Mercedes Sayagues, José Forjaz

He is talking about the Museum of Fisheries, the newest and lovely addition to Maputo’s unique urban fabric, at the entrance of the fishing harbour in the Baixa or Old City.

The street side is almost austere: whitewashed ground floor and a surprising cantilevered first storey, all glass and beams in rich, reddish wood. The ocean side cascades in organic forms, lapping the vertical rhythms of wood screens, ramps and spatial surprises.

Its charms unfold as you roam: clean lines, airy space cooled by sea breezes, gently rounded ceiling curving like a white sail, polished wood, glass walls linking sea, sky, harbour and city with 360° fishbowl transparency. The feel is maritime, channelling a dhow.

And yes, says Forjaz, there is “a clear intention of evoking technologies and forms used in nautical construction, like the roof structure supported in what could be a dhow’s ribs – not as a caricature but as a poetic metaphor”

The challenges were many: small space confined by the harbour, its docks and a busy street; large, open ground- floor required to display boats and aquariums; a tight budget; the need for an eco-friendly building with low operating costs and easy maintenance in one of the poorest countries; and sturdiness against sun, salt, humidity and wind.

Instead of corrosion-prone steel or expensive reinforced concrete, Forjaz chose resistant timber for the structure. Unusually for a museum, wood-frame windows open outwards manually, to allow natural light and ventilation with minimum energy consumption. The curved roof slopes downwards to let breeze and landscape in, but blocks direct sun on windows – an African imperative.

Along the ramps, a curving wooden palisade evokes the traditional fishing traps known as gamboa, exhibited inside. The museum houses some 3 000 traditional fishing artefacts, the passion of Manuel Gonçalves, a fisheries official who began collecting 30 years ago.

Fish, food and income

Fishing is embedded in Mozambique’s identity and economy. The country has a 2 700km-long coastline - Africa’s fourth longest - and 1 500 fish species, of which 400 have commercial value. Best known are its tasty prawns grilled with piri-piri (chilli) sauce.

About 350 000 Mozambicans work directly in fisheries; 850 000 households, or 20% of the 25-million population, depend on fishing for their livelihoods and food security. Fish provides half of the protein consumed, 5% of GDP and 2% of exports.

And most of it – a whopping 90% of the total annual catch – is artisanal fishing by men, women and children on the sea, from the shore and river banks, from boats or on foot, with nets, traps, spears and fishing lines.

Semi-industrial fishing accounted for 2% and industrial for 7% of the 213 000 tons caught in 2012, according to the Ministry of Fisheries. Mozambique exports shrimp, prawns and kapenta (Tanganyika sardine), and imports cheap mackerel from Namibia and South Africa.

One has only to step outside the museum to see how vital and how poorly organised the fishing sector is.

At about 4pm, dhows and small trawlers return with the day’s catch.

Rows of rickety wooden stalls on the sidewalk o er grouper, snapper, swordfish, prawns, crabs and clams. There is no shade, ice or refrigeration, no toilets and no public lighting, although the market is bustling until midnight with the help of small LED lights, kerosene lamps and cellphones. In the rainy season, huge puddles of stagnant water stink.

The sellers, women known as mamanas, are assertive, good-humoured, and so ready to cheat on weight that most customers bring their own hand scales. People from all walks of life shop here; the last are the resellers for greater Maputo, arguing late-night cheaper prices.

Drive 15km eastwards to the Aldeia dos Pescadores (Fishers’ Village). At low tide, dozens of dhows, motorised boats and canoes painted in bright colours are moored on the sand. Redeiros (net makers) repair nets on the beach. Women sell magumba, a sardine, Maputo’s cheap and popular source of protein.

Rodrigues Pacula, 29, a fourth-generation fisherman, has been working for 14 years, is married with three children and doesn’t see a future in fishing. “There is less and less fish,” he says. “Ten years ago, one boat would bring 30, 40, maybe 50 boxes of fish in one day. Now it’s 10, 15, maximum 20 boxes. And some days we bring nothing.”

The reasons, he says, are climate change and too many fishing boats. In Maputo city alone, the number of fishing gear sets in use grew by one-third between 2008 and 2011, from 42 750 to 56 600. And the mesh holes got smaller, from 25mm to 20 or 15mm, catching ever-smaller fish and depleting stocks, says Pacula.

The boat owner takes half the catch; the rest is shared among the crew. A 10m boat involves eight crewmen, three redeiros and a manager - a dozen people to share the catch. Most crewmen don’t work for money, just for fish.

“My father bought a car with his earnings; I can’t,” says Pacula. As improvements, he mentions the three-mile exclusion zone from the shoreline for semi-industrial fishing vessels, and credit facilities for buying new engines and fishing gear.

But most fishermen go out to sea in old, unsafe boats without radio, insurance or enough life jackets, and little chance of rescue if they capsize. Every year some drown during storms.

Eyewitness? Submit your stories now via social or: