Fish Tales South Sudan - Photojournalism

Fish Tales South Sudan - Photojournalism

Catch of the day, fishing to survive in South Sudan - Documentary Photojournalism.

By John Wilson - Australian Photojournalist

At Nyamliell (Nymlal,Nyamlell), South Sudan a local Dinka man casts his large hand made net from a narrow perch on a hand-carved wooden canoe.

During one assignment in Southern Sudan I was travelling to the village of Marial Bai when I had to stay the night in neighboring Nyamliell, a remote town in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state. The Bahr el Ghazal region (now Lol state) is a harsh environment of the African savannah and basically a broad flood plain for the several rivers that flow through it. Its a land of extreme climate conditions with flooding rains through the winter and intense droughts through the later summer months. Many villages are found close to rivers which play an important role in daily life and survival for residents.

South Sudan borders

The town of Nyamliell sits on a bend of the Lol River and at this time the river had stopped flowing as the dry season took hold across the region. Food becomes scarce in the dry season and families look to the remaining river estuaries for fish.

Lol river sudan

River view, the Lol river at Nyamleill midway through the summer dry season.


Fish catching techniques

Cast netting from the narrow wooden canoes is an incredible feat to witness as the handmade nets are large. Smaller nets are used from the shoreline while some fishermen also use longlines which they stretch across smaller watercourses and pools. Interestingly they use steel hooks unbaited yet still manage to catch fish!

Longline. In the Chel river at Aroyo fishermen set long lines with unbaited hooks in hope of catching a meal for their families.

Fisherman Chelkou South Sudan

Another method used to catch fish is a handmade fish trap basket which is opened at either end and carried usually by women along shallow stretches of the river and then driven quickly into the water trapping the fish inside. The women then reach in through the opening in the top to feel for any fish and remove them. Hand spears are also used to catch fish in the shallow reaches of rivers and estuaries.

Women's business. At Chelkou women are able to provide fish for their families using hand made fish trap baskets.

On this visit, fisherman could be seen catching two species of fish. A smaller fish that looked similar to whiting and catfish. 

Handfull - During the summer dry season as food levels become critically low fish become part of villagers' diets but these to will almost entirely disappear as river levels diminish and even stop flowing.

All smiles - A young Dinka boy with his catch from the Lol River behind him.

The region experiences the most incredible extremes of climate from massive flooding in the rainy season from late April till November when boats and canoes are the only way to travel in the region to the dry season from December to March in which most rivers stop flowing or dry up. This dry season also ends with the hunger season which is when any crops will have failed due to lack of water and river beds dry up in some areas. I travelled to a very remote village with no road access and watched as residents cooked up tree leaves for meals. Food insecurity has always been an issue in the region and exasperated over the years as the civil war between the South Sudanese Liberation Army and Sudanese government forces was waged.

How this photo was made

Travelling into remote regions always causes a dilemma with what equipment to take. Working in Southern Sudan I’ve flown around the country in a variety of aircraft, 4WD vehicles, and pushbike! Yes, pushbike. Hard to believe but true. On this assignment, I was to meet up with some people in the village of Marial Bai and the only way for me to get there was to ride the 20km on an old pushbike. The pushbikes had been donated to the village some years previously by a humanitarian aid agency. So off I road along with an armed security detachment also on pushbikes across the sandy African savannah in the middle of a civil war zone. There were no roads (as there are now) between the villages, just walking trails to follow. Just to make travelling even more difficult, the pushbikes had only a single gear and sized for people over six feet tall !!

sudan johnbikes 

Cross country - Photojournalist John Wilson at Marial Bai with his security team after a 20km bike ride from Nyamliell.

You can’t take much gear when transport is limited and for this journey, I had a backpack and an oversized bum bag style camera bag. The main photo was made with one of my favourite travel lenses. It is a manual focus Nikon 400mm f5.6 ais lens. This lens is well built and relatively small in comparison to many modern autofocus lenses. I still use this lens to this day with digital cameras when space and weight is an absolute premium while travelling. The camera for this shot was a Nikon F5 film camera and high shutter speed (1/1000th/sec) to arrest the movement of the net. I was also able to use the steep river bank to give me a slightly elevated position which allowed for a better view of the water than if I'd been at the water's edge. What also made this into a great image was the lighting. When on assignment and in transit I don't always have the luxury of choosing the time of day or lighting conditions to make a photo and I have to make do with what I have. On this occasion, the late afternoon sunlight was an absolute blessing providing just the right amount of cross-lighting and contrast to provide impact to the image. 


John Wilson - Australian Photojournalist

John Wilson - Australian Photojournalist

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