GASHUA, YOBE STATE, NIGERIA – After a lifetime spent fishing for food and income, Alhaji M. Ibrahim Chedi, the village leader of Ruwan Barde, has begun to suffer chronic pains in his legs. 

He has trouble walking, let alone traveling. But when invited to Kaduna, to discuss the knowledge and tools needed to improve the Yobe River that passes beneath the bridge nearby, he did not hesitate. He would make the cross-country trek despite the cost, while trying to ignore the pain. 

I hate whatever threatens the water, whatever torments and is detrimental to the river, like I hate my own death,” he explained. “I will undertake any measures to ensure the river’s health, since our village livelihood directly depends on its flow.”

The fate of Gashua’s people is inextricably linked to the fate of the river’s fish, and for the past few decades, the fish have been in a seemingly fatal decline. 

What happened?

Sarkin Ruwan Barde Chedi tells the tale of how “yesterday,” when “the river was in the hands of God,” large fishes “which can hardly be carried, could be caught in rivers. Water remained in all the channels for about 100-140 days, yielding big catches throughout the rainy season.” 

Fish were not just heavy and numerous, they swam healthy and strong, spawning after three years, living up to 20 years, feeding in the flooded forest, and sharing waters with many other diverse aquatic species. 

But today, he lamented, the catch is small, scarce and unhealthy: a reflection of the altered river flow. “The rivers depend on dams because man has taken over the control of water from God. The water users are not finding it easy as it used to be. Today their access to water is less than 50% what it use to be.” 

Starved of food and habitat, the few surviving native fish can’t grow old enough to reproduce. They have no place to hide. They cannot rear or protect their young from invading predatory fish.

This was the story Sarkin Ruwan Barde Chedi brought to the meeting in Kaduna about the Water Audit. Some might dismiss the experience of an illiterate villager as ‘amateurish.’ But the chief’s traditional knowledge squared with scientific fisheries specialists and hydrologists published peer-reviewed papers, and he heard people agreeing with him that the continued loss of fish threatened to undermine the local economy. After they listened, the audit gained traction.

Sarkin Ruwan Barde Chedi had seen other foreigners come and go, and nothing change. He had heard the pledges of public servants under military and elected governments, which never went anywhere due to “corruption” and inaction because “most politicians are not sincere, and the good ones don’t last. They may promise, but don’t follow through.” So he kept his hopes for the WANI project under restraint, at least at the beginning. 

I was worried that people would just talk,” he recalled. “But suddenly, I have seen the dialogues yield results.” Rather than debate impacts, or just listen and nod politely, the officials with authority over the river are actually talking about “how and when to reverse the flow back to its original course. As clearing and dredging exercises have commenced, and from the prospects I have seen, I was overwhelmed by joy and could not sleep.

In return, he better understands that the upstream users of water, the primary beneficiaries of the dam, have certain needs of their own, for irrigation of food and export crops. But he still dreams of a return to the old way, and the old practices, when prayers were said at the river, when laws and the elders were respected, when no one used chemicals or small-mesh nets to shortcut the traditional fishing practices.

He dreams of a day when the dam is no more, and the river falls once again under the hands of God. “If that were to happen,” he says with a smile and a sigh and a regional Hausa expression, “I would be so happy I would lick water off the ground instead of drinking it from a cup.
Written by Jamie Workman