Source Book for African Anthropology



This occupation is widely distributed among Negroes living near lakes, rivers, and the sea. Study of the technique of fishing covers a wide field of research into the use of nets, weirs, baskets, spears, bows and arrows, canoes, and poisons. Several comprehensive articles have dealt with these technological aspects. The photographs and descriptions of fishing operations in the Kavirondo Gulf, as recorded by C. M. Dobbs (1927, pp. 97–100), give information which has a wide application, though each locality has its own peculiar development of technique, and of ritual also. F. Claus (1930, pp. 1095–1114) has described the use of toxic plants for preparing poisons that stupefy the fish. K. G. Lindblom (1933) has contributed a detailed study of the use and geographical distribution of two types of fishing basket.

Apart from the question of technical appliances and methods of work, the main considerations are (1) seasonal variations in method; (2) allocation of method according to sex; (3) observance of ritual and taboo to secure success in fishing. Examination of the practices of the Ovimbundu will exemplify the operation of these principles.

The chief methods of this tribe are fishing with a rod and line, the use of weirs (Fig. 94, b), dragging baskets against the stream, fixing small nets to sticks in shallow water, and scattering poison on the surface. Near the coast, large circular nets are used for casting, and fishing spears with sharp bamboo prongs are employed.

Fishing with a baited line is a method confined to males. Women use drag-baskets and employ narcotic poisons. When canoes are used, they are paddled by men. If a current flows swiftly, men assist women in dragging large baskets against the stream. These are the chief divisions of labor according to sex.

Two points of ritual are observed. The night before fishing, men must abstain from sexual intercourse. And when fishing with a line, success depends on the chanting of a spell to encourage the fish to bite.

The fishing line of the Ovimbundu consists of a tough strip of bark that varies in length with the height of the river bank on which the fisherman sits. A hole is bored through the body of a grasshopper, a worm, or a pupa taken from under the bark of a tree. Through this hole in the bait is passed a short, stiff piece of grass to which the line is attached. The fish is caught when it swallows the bait and the stiff piece of grass becomes transfixed. When a fisherman throws his line he sings:

O fish, come and taste your good thing.Do not send a little fish to spoil the good thing.Better you come and take the good thing with all your strength.

To make fish-poison, the tuberous roots of a plant are soaked in water until scum rises to the top. The solid part of the narcotic is not given because it would sink, and the fish that ate it would remain at the bottom of the river. No fishing can be successful unless the fish rise, and the taboo against sexual intercourse the night before fishing must be observed to prevent the fish, males and females, from remaining together on the river bed. Poisonous scum causes fish to gasp at the surface, where they are seized by women and transferred to gourds which the women wear round their necks. Poison is used only in dry weather when water is shallow and pools have been formed in the beds of rivers.

When a weir (olunja) is employed, the device consists of a wicker fence with a gap in the middle, and on the lower side of this aperture a basket is placed. The Ovimbundu do not fish by torchlight, though this is a well-known method among Negro tribes. The poisoning method and all the other techniques mentioned are widely used. Harpoons with detachable, barbed, iron heads are unknown among the Ovimbundu, but they are of local occurrence elsewhere, notably among the Buduma of Lake Chad and the Munshi of Katsina Ala in southeast Nigeria. H. A. Stayt (1931a, pp. 80, 237) gives an account of the Bavenda method of shooting fish with bows and arrows. He notes that fishing is a favorite pastime of young boys, but the occupation is disliked by adult males and is entirely taboo for women. The dependence of occupation on religious belief is aptly illustrated by Stayt’s account of Lake Fundudzi, which is inhabited by ancestral spirits. "Although the lake swarms with fish no one has succeeded in landing a fish caught there. Water, if carried away from the lake in an open receptacle, simply vanishes away. Water sealed up for a day or two will burst the vessel that holds it, leaving a curious characteristic odour behind it."

A common form of canoe in the forest regions of west and central Africa is the heavy dugout, which is often made from a bombax tree, whose massive trunk can provide a canoe thirty feet in length, though the actual length is sometimes as little as eight feet. The dugout is employed outside forest areas, but the size diminishes away from big timber (A. T. and G. M. Culwick 1935c, pp. 265–273).

Fig. 93, b shows a type of bark canoe used by the Vachokwe of eastern Angola during fishing operations. A fisherman uses this kind of vessel for short journeys into mid-stream, where he sets his nets. The Buduma of Lake Chad have a type of canoe made by lashing together bundles of reeds to make a canoe with a prow (Fig. 95). Such a vessel is employed for fishing and for the transport of natron and animals. With a few weeks of constant use, these reed canoes become waterlogged.

Contacts with Asia have resulted in the appearance of outrigger canoes near the coasts of Madagascar and east Africa. J. Hornell (1919, No. 55) points out that a structural relationship exists between this kind of canoe and certain designs of outrigger canoes from Java. This Asiatic influence has possibly affected the construction of canoes on the shores of Lake Victoria Nyanza, where the Baganda build large vessels consisting of dugout hulls having their sides built up with planks. The details of construction have been described and sketched by P. Kollmann (1899, pp. 22–26). Other contributors to the subject of Indonesian influences are A. C. Haddon (1918, No. 29; 1920, pp. 69–134), A. T. and G. M. Culwick (1935c), and R. B. Dixon (1928).


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Chicago: "Fishing," Source Book for African Anthropology in Source Book for African Anthropology, ed. Hambly, Wilfrid D., 1886- 603–604. Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2023,

MLA: . "Fishing." Source Book for African Anthropology, in Source Book for African Anthropology, edited by Hambly, Wilfrid D., 1886-, pp. 603–604. Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Fishing' in Source Book for African Anthropology. cited in , Source Book for African Anthropology, ed. , pp.603–604. Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2023, from