At the recent “Peace Corps and Africa” conference in Madison, Wisconsin, as well as at a meeting of the Southwest Writers group in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last Saturday, I read selections from the fun chapter “Motorcycle Mamma of Mana-Mana” in my memoir How to Cook a Crocodile.  In this chapter, I contrast the health-and-nutrition work I did in Gabon with my postmate Morgan Case’s fish farming work.  Due to time constraints, I wasn’t able to read the entire chapter at either event (nor provide the recipe), so I thought I might share here what I had to omit there — what I learned from Morgan about farming tilapia – in case you missed it or would like to know:

 

 

As Morgan explained it to me, the purpose of the Peace Corps’ pisciculture (fish farming) program was three-pronged:  to increase protein in the Gabonese diet, to reduce the villagers’ reliance on bush meat, and to provide a means to earn money in the village.  To do this, Morgan and her fellow “fish heads,” as they affectionately called themselves, taught rural Gabonese how to build and stock ponds for raising fish.

    

Gabon had rivers, of course, but few people dared to fish them, it seemed to me, due to their treachery.  The Ogooue River, Gabon’s own Mississippi, rushed past Lastoursville [the town where I was posted] on its long, downhill journey to sea level at the Atlantic; crashing over large, jagged rocks along its bed; slinging errant logs from upriver chantiers across its choppy surface; and harboring all kinds of stealthy, hungry crocodiles on its overgrown banks.  Building man-made fish ponds in gentle valleys next to streams and springs was a far safer and more benign solution to the challenge of adding fish protein to one’s diet.  That is, if you were intent on not becoming a crocodile’s dinner.

 

 

The fish they bred in these ponds, Morgan told me, was tilapia, a hardy, fast-growing fish that can do well in less-than-ideal conditions.  According to the historical evidence, she said, tilapia were raised in ponds in Egypt as long as 3,000 years ago; and they not only have a high tolerance for poor water quality and crowding, they also have a high degree of disease resistance.  “They’re mainly plankton eaters,” Morgan added, “so most of their food supply comes from naturally occurring plankton blooms in the water.  But we supplement the fish’s diet with manioc leaves and termites.”

 

 

Many of the men, Morgan said, especially those too old or too tired of hunting wild game in the rainforest, were keen to learn the tricks of fish farming and welcomed her instructions.  The fact that she was a woman – and young – made no difference to their receptivity.  Her lessons were free, easy-to-follow, and practical; so these men attended willingly, hungrily.  Using locally available supplies, such as clay, shovels, bamboo pipes, and maybe, if lucky, a wheelbarrow or two, she showed them how to construct their fish ponds.  She encouraged them to integrate their fish farming efforts into other agricultural activities, such as mixing mud from the ponds into garden soil as a fertilizer.

 

 

If I were the right-brained, artsy puppeteer, Morgan was the left-brained, clear-eyed scientist.  She knew the hard-edged, scientific facts, and she generously enlightened me.  “The soil here in this rainforested part of the world is among the worst on the planet,” she said.  “It’s totally depleted, barren, infertile, washed out by all the rain.  So if the people are going to grow anything, they need all the natural fertilizer they can get.”

 

 

Progress in pisciculture, as in most other endeavors in the interior of Gabon, with its sweltering equatorial heat and its nearly incessant rains, was slow, but, Morgan said optimistically, sure.  When she first arrived at her post in September 1996, there was only one fish pond within her territory.  By the following year, under her direction, there were three more.  [Note:  Morgan and I served in Gabon from 1996 – 1998.  Not long after, the Peace Corps ceased operations in Gabon.]

                                                               

Spicy Blackened Tilapia

(adapted from Gourmet)

 

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

1 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled

½ teaspoon cayenne (or more, to taste)

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 tilapia fillets, skinned

2 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoon unsalted butter

lemon wedges, as accompaniment

 

Combine spices and seasonings in a small bowl.  Pat tilapia fillets dry, then sprinkle spice mixture on both sides of fish, coating well.  Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking.  Add 1 tablespoon of butter to skillet and heat until foam subsides.  Add two fish fillets and cook, turning once, until cooked through, about 8 minutes total.  Transfer fillets to plates and keep warm.  Add remaining 1 tablespoon butter to pan and cook remaining two fillets in same manner.  Serve with lemon wedges.  Makes 4 servings.