Life on the Edge 2 | Trawler Girl

Out at sea, Johanna’s running the show… Namibia’s first female trawler captain has a crew of 23. But it’s not so long since she was living in a shantytown, with no running water, a girl from the villages who used to walk 14 kilometres to school.

Men are not used to a woman at the wheel. Women don’t normally chart the course – literally or metaphorically. Or give orders… however pleasantly. And the crew knows their lives are in her hands.

Johanna trained with the Namibian Maritime Fisheries Institute. She got to be skipper eight years after serving as an officer and chief mate under a Spanish captain. Her company now has four more women doing similar training.

“My responsibility is to command. Since I have 23 crew members on board they are all under my authority. Some of these people have this mentality of saying, ‘I can’t be told to do this by a woman, since man is considered a pillar or head of the house.’ It’s not working anymore…”

Says the Bosun: “We have never seen a black person in charge of a ship… It has always been a Spanish person. Now that black people are here in command’¦ we are very proud. Since we do not know all the foreign languages’¦ they can now communicate on our behalf. Today, I can just ask Johanna for anything…”

trawler girlJohanna has a 14-month-old son, Innocent. “He is lovely. And he is a strong boy because we are out at sea for 7 days to 15 days, so it’s too long for the young boy. I met Innocent’s father on land, although both of us work at sea. We did not get the opportunity to work together on the same vessel because we have the same rank.”

Johanna is fortunate. Her relatives are happy to take care of her son while she is at sea. But not being fully in charge while on land still takes some getting used to.
Namibia signed up to the Millennium Development Goals that aim to cut poverty by half in 2015. These goals include specific targets for women – on education, reproductive health and equality. Johanna’s an example of targets fulfilled – but going back home, how about her friends and relatives?

On route to her aunt’s house, she’s reminded of her humble beginnings, when she first came to Luderitz. Most people flock to this coastal town in search of job opportunities. Here, they have to live in shanty towns with no running water or electricity and no proper toilets – or at least until they can make a better life for themselves.

Johanna is going home with Innocent to see her grandmother after being away for more than nine months. Johanna was raised by her grandmother who still has a big influence on her.

“She told me my mom brought me here when I was young. So, she is the one who took care of me’¦ She teach me many things, traditional things. I was the only lady in the house. There was no boy. In Oshiwambo they say, the left hand adopts and learn faster with the right one. So my grandmother said to me I just have to try’¦ So then I used to chop the wood on my own and look after cattle after school. All those things I have learnt from granny.”
She thinks back to when she gave birth. “Being a mother is a huge responsibility. A child does not just appear and then disappear. If you don’t prepare for it you just attract problems for yourself. For me when it was time to deliver my Innocent, it was quite complicated. Because when I experienced labour pains, I went to my doctor and she said to me I think you need an operation. She referred me to Windhoek because here in Luderitz, the hospital does not have enough equipment.”

Many aren’t so lucky – maternal mortality’s proved one of the hardest Millennium Development Goal – MDG – for Namibia to meet. A recent report suggests maternal deaths actually increased, perhaps because of HIV. Antenatal services have actually improved. And the newborn death rate is still one in fifty.

Says Johanna: “Here in Namibia the death rate of babies is caused by the ignorance of young people is who during their pregnancy they do not understand. They don’t go to the clinic. Some of them do not know the importance of going to the clinic during their pregnancy. Some have financial problems, and the hospital is very far. Some they just ignore. They ask, what for? ‘I can even deliver at home, my mom and my grandmother they delivered here at home, I can’t waste my money there’.”

trawler 2Next, she goes back to her old secondary school to talk to the Head and the pupils. Most girls here will most likely end up as teachers and nurses. Most boys will remain at the cattle post, taking care of the family’s animals.

Coming home has been a reminder of the problems that still confronts other women – even if her story shows they can be overcome. On her way back to Lüderitz, Johanna is asked to help her company open a cold storage depot in Walvis Bay, Namibia’s biggest harbour.

A chance to meet Namibia’s founding President, Sam Nujoma. He says: “If we have more women participating in the economy, the economy will grow faster also.” Johanna’s time on land has ended. She just wants to catch fish, earn a living and bring up her child. Not everyone’s yet ready for a female skipper.

Says Johanna: “You are up there, on top, operating the wheel, they are down there. Some are saying, ‘what a young lady?’ It’s a way of showing men that we women are capable of doing something at the end of the day. I enjoy it.”


Trawler Girl was produced with tve‘s Namibian partner, Optimedia, an indigenous Namibian film and video production company operating from Windhoek. This programme is one of four ‘Life on the Edge’ films made as part of tve’s ‘Five Years to Go’ project that focuses on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in sub-Saharan Africa, supported by the European Commission, Oxfam Novib, UNFPA and UN-HABITAT.

Information on Namibia’s progress in meeting these goals can be found here.

The UN MDG Summit yakes place from 20-22 Septermber 2010. Johanna was trained at the Namibian Maritime and Fisheries Institute.

The Namibia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources website is here.

Read about founding President Sam Nujoma’s political careerhere.

For information on Namibia, see the BBC Profile of Namibia, the EU Delegation to Namibia Country Overview, UN-Habitat pages on Nambia, and the FAO Fishery Country Profile for Namibia.

Travel information is available from the Namibia Tourism Board and Lonely Planet.

TAGS: development education food fishing & farming health

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