Fishing for a Future

How Lake Malawi's faltering fish stocks jeopardize young girls' dreams

Editor’s note: We recently launched our WhatsApp group for paid subscribers! Read more in last week’s announcement. It’s been so great getting to chat in a more informal setting and we look forward to meeting more of you there.

This week’s SEA offering is a short documentary (our first-ever video) about the impacts of climate change and overfishing on the livelihoods of girls living along Lake Malawi. We’d love to hear what you think about video as a new medium for FFJ. - IV & ZJ

Film by Mélissa Godin and William Martin; text by Mélissa Godin

When we first met Fanny on the southern shores of Lake Malawi in 2018, she was preoccupied by one thing: the lake’s fish stocks.

Fanny’s village, Zomba, is a small town built upon the orange sand of Lake Malawi. Here, a few dozen people spend their entire lives fishing, catching enough to feed their families and to sell at the local market. We found ourselves here in the late summer of 2018 while shooting a documentary called Daughters of Drought, which explores how ecological destruction is affecting women of all ages in Malawi. Within hours of arriving, we noticed Fanny swimming in the water, using a small plastic bag to catch fish. 

Over the past few decades, Lake Malawi, Africa’s third-largest lake, has seen its fish stocks decline by more than 93% due to overfishing and climate change. Malawi’s population has increased fivefold in the last 60 years. This has driven up demand for fish, which is a primary source of protein for Malawians, and put impossible pressure on the lake’s fish stocks. Meanwhile, a drier climate means that water levels in the lake have dropped. This loss has had devastating impacts on lakeside communities. While fishermen used to be able to spend only a few hours out on the water to catch enough to last a village a week, today, they have to spend whole days fishing for food that sometimes, barely lasts a day. 

In Fanny’s village, Zomba, virtually the only topic we heard discussed between people was fish. Many people were debating whether they should move, leaving behind their families and communities in search of work. But while this was of concern to everyone, it was particularly alarming for young girls like Fanny. At only twelve years old, she already knew that just one bad fishing season could be the difference between her finishing her education and being forced to marry in order to survive.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with over half of the population living in poverty. Over 80% of people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, making the country extremely vulnerable to climate change. When crops fail or fish stocks decline, families lose their income and food source. Left with no other choice, young girls are often pulled from school and married off by their parents who see marriage as the only way to ensure their daughters are fed. 

Although Fanny’s mother, Janette, was determined to make sure her daughter stayed in school, one night when the cameras were turned off Fanny told us that she knew it was out of her mother’s control. “She cannot put more fish in the lake,” she said. 

The short video we’ve shared here captures Fanny at a critical period in her life: straddling childhood and adulthood, she is dreaming of what kind of person she wishes to become. Yet it also portrays a sobering reality: the gendered impacts of climate change and environmental destruction may prohibit her from realizing those dreams. 

In the years since we left Malawi, we’ve been unable to reach our local contact who is in touch with Fanny. Meanwhile, the country has been hit with devastating storms and cyclones made worse by climate change, which has forced millions of people into displacement camps. In those camps, we know there are many girls like Fanny, watching as a changing climate and poor resource management steal from them the opportunity to define themselves — a reminder that every year we fail to meaningfully confront the climate crisis is a year that tens of thousands of lives are irreversibly changed.

You can watch the Daughters of Drought documentary in full here.

Mélissa Godin is an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker telling character-driven stories about climate change, culture, identity, and human rights. She has previously reported for Time Magazine, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

William Martin is a BAFTA-nominated documentary filmmaker focused on gender inequality, immigration, queer rights, and climate change. His video journalism is currently featured in Time, Teen Vogue, The GroundTruth Project, BRIC Media, and Al Jazeera. 

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