Neal looked over at Chelsi from across the watery hole. Mud covered him up to his waist, pond slime was splattered across his face and the skin on his back was flush pink from the sun.
“I am really glad I’m not a RAP volunteer… I don’t like getting dirty.”
Chelsi laughed, “You know you’re a Peace Corps volunteer, in Zambia, right? Getting dirty is inevitable. Grab that corner of net, would you? Pass it on Mr. Kahokala,” she gestured to the mosquito net that they were using in the fish pond. Mr. Kahokala, the Zambian owner of the fish pond, squished the mud under his boots. “Hold the net really taut this time, across the surface. I want this to be our last drag, get the last few big fish in here.” Chelsi past her side corner to her helper, Mr. Kahokala’s son, “mwamvwa?”
“Eee,” he replied.
Chelsi and Neal began to easy in the muddy water. Their feet sank into the soft silt, “You’ve got the net on the bottom over there?” Chelsi had to turn her head awkwardly to prevent water from filling her mouth.
“Yeah.” They started walking, slowly in step, all hunched over. The wetted part of the pond was three meters at most, but the weight of the mud logged net and the soft pond bottom made the work arduous.
“Alright, pull the bottom of the net up, quick, Quick! Or the fish’ll get out!” The crew of four struggled in the mud to haul up the net on to the bank of the pond. So much for the cod end, Chelsi thought as the mirky water revealed the mud clogged net. In her mind’s eye, she pretended they were fish.
“Ah, Ba Neal. Pull your side of the net this way.” Mr. Kahokala’s voice was hushed and strained with exertion. They were trying to make it away from the soft parts of the pond bottom and up on to the sun hardened, clay, berm. “Okay, I think we can put it down here.”
“Shi, oot,” the word came out as Chelsi slipped into the mud up to her thigh. So close… all she need was one more step. “Neal, do you mind giving me a hand?” The mud sucked her a little farther down, every time Neal gave her a tug out.
Mr. Kahokala, safely perched on the berm, was already opening the net and beginning to sift through the mud for the fish. “Next time Mr. Kahokala, it’s gonna be you and Neal in the pond. Now that you know how it’s done.” She let out a chuckle and conceded to the mud. I can reach the net from here.
“Sure, sure, sure,” he sifted the jelly like mud through his fingers looking intently for the flash of a silver scale.
“Next time I’m gonna be like Mr. Jere, over there. Measuring, weighing, supervising as he says.”
Hearing his name Mr. Jere, the Department of Fisheries officer, looked over his shoulder from his position, hovered over the scale. “What’s that?” he began standing up to bring them a bucket for collecting the fish.
“Just telling Mr. Kahokala and Neal here that next time I’m going to be in the supervisory role,” Chelsi started sifting through the mud sorting out the two and three inch long fish for the bucket. “You know, passing the torch.” She tossed a few fish in to the bucket.
“Oh my gosh!” Neal exclaimed. “It’s poking me!” The hand-sized fish flopped back on to the mud.
“Quick, get it,” Mr. Jere point at the fish, careful not to dirty his shiny shoes.
“These fish have dorsal spines!” Chelsi laughed, leaning down to pick it up. She started by gently smoothing back the dorsal fin, then wrapping her fingers around the body of the fish just behind the operculum. “Ba Jere? Do you have a separate bowl for the bigger ones?” He turned back to get the bowl he had been using for weighing. After placing it gently in the bowl, Jere took it the river to rinse the mud off it. “Remember when I was here, back in April, Mr. Kahokala? With Ginny and Harrison? And Harrison said he saw otter poop?”
“Yes, yes, I remember.” The crew continued to sort diligently.
“I think it’s that otter that’s made it off with most of your bigger fish. Because we’ve found like what? Seven or eight, good sized ones, but there’s lots of babies. So what we can today, while we are reshaping your pond, before restocking you pond, is put in sticks going across the pond, kind of close together. This way when the otter gets into the water, all the fish will swim to the other side of the pond, but the otter won’t be able to fit through the sticks, so it’ll have to get out and go round. Then when it gets back in the pond the fish will swim back across the fence. And back and forth, back and forth. How does that sound, are we together?”
“No, that sounds good.” It has to be that otter, Chelsi thought. She wanted it to be more than anything. Getting fish farmers to commit to a pond, to get it ready to be stock, to follow up with six months of care and management, was a feat. ‘Raising fish, farming fish is such a departure from the way Zambians have traditionally raised animals,’ Chelsi would explain to her friends and family back in America. ‘Goats, pigs, chickens, sheep, even some cows. They’re just freely roaming around. No one feeds them, gives them water, or takes them out to pasture. But you can’t do that with fish, because they’re stuck in the pond.’ So then to pull up nothing but tiny fish, it’s not good for moral.
They sorted the last few fish out of the mud, and when it was decided that they were done, Chelsi reassessed her position in the mud. “So, I heard about this technique for getting out of quicksand, where you kind of twist and roll over it.” She thought aloud. The rest of the men were rinsing the mud out of the next in the nearby river. “I mean, what’s more mud on my shirt, right?” She started to lean over on to her side, pushing the weight of her body around. The hole that had swallowed her leg started widen. She pressed harder towards the firmer, raised part of the pond bottom. When she saw her knee, she made the real attempt to roll.
“What are you doing?” Neal stood on the berm looking down at her.
“I’m getting unstuck… I thought maybe rolling might work. I would have asked you for help. But you know, I didn’t want to get you dirty.” She laughed over the rumbling suction sound that was the mud giving up her leg. “There we go!” She finished rolling up the berms, to prevent becoming re-stuck. Neal offered her a hand up. “Thank you! Mr. Jere?! What does the scale say? How much fish did we get?”
“ Umm,” he looked up from the bucket of fish, “about 5.2 kg. And the bigger fish, on average they’re 800g each.”
“Is that good?” Neal looked at her, then him.
“It’s okay,” Chelsi shrugged. “It’ll be better next time after we out smart that otter. Plus for a first time… It can only go up from here!” her voice twanged with optimism. “I think I’m going to rinse off in the river before we walk back to the house,” she said, staggering towards clear water two meters away.
“Feel free. There are no worries,” and Neal ran after her.