31
Mar-2015

Mwani (seaweed) women of Matemwe

Marzahn Botha visited  Zanzibar and learned that the only thing you sometimes have control over is perspective. You don’t have control over your situation. But you have a choice about how you view it. Never forget the power of perspective, it may chance the way you view the world.

The beaches of Matemwe on the eastern side of island of Zanzibar, host a vibrant community of individuals that make a living from the sea. Amongst these individuals are women that pick and sell seaweed to put bread on the table. The earnings aren’t much, but the independent labour gives the women a sense of pride and purpose – especially in African patriarchal societies.

This small amount of money doesn’t come easy. The women must be able to work long hours during low tide in the scorching sun to do this backbreaking job. By now they are accustomed to the painful sting of sea urchins and have learned that it can be relieved with the milk of a raw papaya.

darrelABOVE: A student from the village of Matemwe collected seaweed on her day off from school. She is wrapped in her vibrant coloured kanga and was willing to pose for a photo, unlike many other women. The women seem so mystic, they balance themselves nicely in and out of the water, it almost seem like the glide over the greenish blue Indian Ocean.

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ABOVE: Low tide at Matemwe and it’s close to noon. The women start early and will return to shore around 14:00 with filled baskets and bags of seaweed. Sometimes there will be something like 200 gatherers at a time. During my visit there weren’t that many women in the water (maybe due to a yearly reduced crop because of rising sea temperatures and a bacteria which affects the growth of the plants).

Seaweed from Zanzibar is used as a vegetable in Asia. It is also used in dental products, makeup, medicine and in preservation of foods and beers.

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According to a guide whose mother is a seaweed gatherer the women earn little, about 1500 Tanzanian shillings for 1 kg of dried seaweed. The process of drying also takes days. A beer at a nearby exclusive hotel will cost something like 3 dollars which is 5 500 Tanzanian shillings.

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ABOVE: The activities on the beach and in the water never end. Villagers commute on their bicycles and mopeds on the beach, while the dhows sail to shore when high tide comes in. The fish market is really buzzing at 14:00.

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ABOVE: The sea at Matemwe is a garden of seaweed. This woman put her bag down to inspect the ocean floor for more food.

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ABOVE: Picking the weeds. Seaweed harvesting started in the 1980s and was introduced in Zanzibar from Philippines. Seaweed from Zanzibar is exported to China, Korea, Vietnam, Denmark, Spain, France and the US.

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ABOVE: This man digs a hole in the sand to rake off the  “flooding” seaweed on Matemwe beach.

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ABOVE: Life on the dhows. The low tide is almost coming in  and the fishermen better get their dhows out onto the water.

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ABOVE: The mothers of some of these kids pick seaweed. When the kids come from school they rush to the beach to see what mom is doing. They look after each other because they know mom is earning some money.

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ABOVE: The palm trees at Matemwe look drunk, swaying from on side to the other like a centipede.

Zanzibar’s government has commissioned more research into the exact reasons for the seaweed mortality and how to counteract it. Some scientists have suggested moving the farms to deep water where it is cooler. This has had some success in the neighbouring island of Pemba, which is now contributing 80% to Zanzibar’s seaweed exports. The problem: the women can’t swim.

Words and Pictures: Marzahn Botha

Marzahn visited Zanzibar during a press trip and stayed at the Matemwe Beach Village.

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  1. RIaan laubscher /

    so fantastic.the photos speaks real life

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