Emory Report
November 14, 2005
Volume 58, Number 11


Emory Report homepage  

November 14 , 2005

Fish story

Edna Bay is associate professor in the Institute of Liberal Arts and director of the Institute of African Studies.

President Jim Wagner’s recent trip to Africa (see Panel story) has encouraged many of us to think about ways that Emory can become more deeply involved with African nations. In the past several weeks, it has been gratifying to see so many people with commitments to change in African cultures talking about what we as a community might do.

The excitement on campus has made me think, once again, of the old Chinese proverb that so often gets used in the context of development projects: Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he feeds himself for a lifetime. The proverb is such a compelling and indeed seductive idea—a vision of a win-win situation where, by the simple sharing of knowledge, a fishing teacher can transform the life of another person. This should be an inspiration for us all to step forward and become fishing teachers.

However, recently I had an uneasy thought about that proverb, so I went to two anthropologists for help. I asked both: Can you name a culture or two, anywhere in the world, at any time in history, where people have lived near a body of water—river, pond, lake, or sea—and not figured out a way to fish? The anthropologists frowned, thought a bit, and both answered the same way: No. They didn’t know of any such a culture or society. Indeed, one noted that hunting and fishing were some of the earliest productive activities invented by human beings.

So suddenly the old Chinese proverb was no longer quite so simple or powerful. It had changed into: Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish who already knows how to fish, and ... ?

Well, I thought, everybody can benefit from learning a new way to do something, and there must be dozens if not hundreds of different ways to fish. But “maybes” and “what ifs” began to creep into my thinking. What if the man who already knows how to fish is happy with his way of fishing? What if it’s the way people he knows have always fished? What if he’s proud or stubborn, or distrustful of foreign fishing teachers? Or what if the man doesn’t believe that eating fish every day is a good idea? What if the man lives next to a sacred river, and taking and eating the fish in it would be a sacrilege? Soon it became clear to me that the fishing teacher needs to know a good deal about the conditions a man faces in order to teach him the best fishing technique.
And then my imagination really got going. Maybe the man doesn’t even live near any fishable water. For all the proverb tells us, he could be living in a desert! What if fishing is women’s work in that man’s town, so he’s not going to fish even if the fishing teacher teaches him for weeks and months on end. What if, a year or so ago, another fishing teacher came along and taught the man’s neighbor to fish, and then that fishing teacher went home, leaving the neighbor enough money to have a boat built. But then the neighbor’s mother died, and he used all that money for a huge funeral and never got a boat at all, so now our man is hoping another fishing teacher will come along with money that he’ll give away—and goodness knows, it’s easier to have money given to you than to fish for it!

But maybe I was being too pessimistic. So I imagined other scenarios. What if a fishing teacher came along about 10 years ago and taught a wonderfully efficient way to fish, and our man fished and fished and fished? Soon he had so many fish that he couldn’t eat them all, so he decided to sell some. So he sold fish to his neighbors, and carried fish to a village and sold them there, and he had his wife smoke fish to carry even further to trade. And he grew richer and richer, and he fished faster and faster, and he hired other men to fish and other women to smoke his fish and trade them far and wide. And then one morning he went out and was able to land only a handful of fish, and every day thereafter there seemed to be fewer and fewer fish. Until fishing yielded up nothing.

Then I imagined a final what if. What if a fishing teacher came along and figured out how many fish could safely be taken out of the man’s river, and it was still more than enough to feed his family, his village and the surrounding area. So the teacher had an airstrip built, and pretty soon fish were being packed in ice to be flown to the fishing teacher’s country for sale. But then it turned out that the fishing teacher’s country wanted to protect its own fishermen, and it gave them big subsidies so that they could afford to sell their fish at half the price our fisherman had to charge. Meanwhile, our fisherman had to pay off the cost of paving the airstrip, and still had bills to pay for the ice that a company from the fishing teacher’s country had provided.

Well, you get the picture. These imaginings may seem silly, but I created each one of them out of real scenarios that have happened in attempts to bring positive change to less developed areas. We at Emory want to go where many have gone before, where many have made mistakes, and where recipients of help have had much time to watch ill-conceived projects and grow cynical.

Nevertheless, I believe there are things that can and should be done, there are solutions to intractable problems, and we at Emory can play a role in those solutions. If we have the vision to think big and work small, the patience to commit ourselves to the long term, the wisdom to listen to those we would help and the humility to learn from and with them, the shrewdness to draw on others’ successes but avoid their failures, and the acumen to understand that all human relationships involve power, we have the potential to change this world for the better.

If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. But if you take the time and care to work with a man, a woman and their community, you can improve the lives of humankind.