It smells nasty, but Maletelo Molathiwa, a
resident of Sehithwa village on the edge of Lake Ngami in
north-western Botswana, depends on it.
In fact, until recently it was the linchpin
of the local economy.
The source of the stench is a pile of dried
salted fish in a discarded metal basin in her backyard that
Molathiwa can no longer sell.
The government has imposed a year-long
prohibition on fishing in the lake. This has had a crippling
effect on Sehithwa – and one expert says it is entirely
A single mother of six, 50-year-old Molathiwa
used to brave cold winter nights camping next to the lake after
she obtained a permit from the fisheries department last
She would add salt to her catch, mostly
catfish, and sun-dry it before selling the fish for P25 (R33)
each at the local market to traders bound for the Democratic
Republic of Congo and Zambia.
When business was good, Sehithwa and other
nearby villages exported 13,000 tons of dried fish a year,
bringing in revenue of P84,000 (R109,000) a month to a
desperately poor rural area.
Now Molathiwa and 300 other fishermen can no
longer ply their trade, after the ministry of wildlife, tourism
and natural resources ruled that the ban is needed to conserve
“There is no life here any more,” she
The prohibition has also dealt a heavy blow
to Zambian exporters, whose bales of fish have been stopped by
Botswana officials at the border town of
But Professor Keta Mosepele, a biologist from
the Okavango Research Institute who has conducted a study of
fish stocks at Lake Ngami, says there is no evidence of
over-fishing and that the lake remains
He said the ban is not helpful because the
lake will eventually dry up, as it did in 1984. “Let people
fish,” he declared.
The manager of the Lake Ngame Conservation
Trust, Galefele Maokeng, agreed, saying that the government’s
decision to impose a ban had no basis and was imposed before
Mosepele’s research study was
“We urge the minister to carefully analyse
the study and lift the ban,” he said.
The regional director in the department of
wildlife and national parks, Timmy Blackbeard, said he was
aware of Mosepele’s report and its conclusions. However, he
said the government’s position on the ban “has long been
explained” and could not be changed on the basis of a statement
from a research institute.
He declined to comment further, saying the
minister was responsible for doing this.
The minister of the environment, wildlife,
tourism and natural resources, Tshekedi Khama, did not respond
to questions over a three-week period.
However, he has been quoted as questioning
the sustainability of the fishing at Lake Ngami, telling the
Maun Administrative Authority that fishermen sell a third of
what they take from the lake and that it is unclear where the
rest of the catch goes – suggesting that the fisherman catch
more than they need.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior
official at the department of fisheries in Gaborone said
government intends to improve regulation of fishing at the lake
and work on “future management and plans”
However, he also suggested that the
government had failed to take on board expert opinion because
it arrived “too late”. “You know that the minister is very
proactive,” he said, sarcastically.
Lake Ngami is a shallow depression at the
distal end of Okavango region in the Okavango Delta. Whenever
the Okavango River comes back to life, consumers, particularly
those in urban areas, are delighted by the sudden influx of
relatively cheap fish.
Without a fishing industry, poverty is high
among the 4,000 inhabitants of Sehithwa, with only one in five
adults having formal employment. The rest take up temporary
jobs with the social safety programme, which pays very
Village chief Kgosi Domi Kandu said the ban
has hit the village badly, as everyone used to benefit from the
trade. He complained that his subjects are suffering, saying:
“Some of them are now in debt and it is hard for them to
The government said that falling fish stocks,
partly caused by an influx of foreign fishermen from DRC and
Zambia, prompted the initial ban on fishing at the lake in
The ban was partially lifted last year after
about 3,000 fishermen pressurised the fisheries department in
the delta town of Maun. But only 200 were then granted fishing
licences, including Molathiwa.
In April this year, this was replaced by a
Molathiwa sold about 700 bales of dried
salted fish for up to P17,000 a month. After the ban she
abandoned her boat and fishing nets on the shores of the lake
and turned to a precarious life vending sweets and fat cakes on
the streets of Sehithwa.
The conservation trust compounded her woes by
demanding that she continue paying the monthly levy of P1,000
for the upkeep of the lakeside fishing camps. Molathiwa
invested more than P6,000 in the wooden fishing canoe, fishing
nets and wages for staff who fish for her.
She was on the point of exporting directly to
Zambia when the news of the ban arrived. She said she nearly
fainted from fear that her children would
The situation is also dire for Molemi
Orapeng, a 36-year-old fisherman who was awarded a P100,000
loan by the ministry of youth, sport and culture to expand his
commercial fishing business. “I don’t know how I’m going to pay
back the money,” Orapeng said, referring to the mandatory 50%
of the loan he is required to repay.
Orapeng said P80,000 (R104,000) of stock
belonging to him is rotting at Kasane after it was intercepted
by officials before it could cross into
Mollen Sebetwane said he has no option but to
return to subsistence farming following the ban. He was
attracted by the good profits from fishing, as livestock
farming struggles as a result of persistent outbreaks of foot
and mouth disease.
Local fishermen are not the only victims of
the ban – it has also left foreign traders stranded, as they
are not allowed to move their large fish stocks out of the
A Zambian businesswoman who did not want to
be named said the situation at the border town of Kasane is
dire. A small group of desperate traders considered legal
action but were discouraged by the heavy
The Zambian embassy did not respond to
questions about the plight of the stranded
A councillor for the ruling Botswana
Democratic Party in Maun, Vepauni Moreti said the ban has made
life very difficult for the Sehithwa
“I know of a school principal who left his
job to venture into fishing. People should have been informed
in good time. This was not done in good faith,” Moreti said.
This article was produced by the INK
Centre for Investigative Journalism in Botswana, in association
with the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative
Photo: The sun rises over the Kwedi area
in the Okavango Delta, around 30km north of Mombo, Botswana, 04
October 2007. Photo: Gernot