As the oceans become increasingly polluted with plastics, the boat builders are modernising their techniques and have set themselves with a challenge: to make a traditional Dhow boat entirely from recycled plastic.
The Dhow is a trademark of Swahili culture, having transported people, food, construction materials and livestock along the Kenyan coastline for centuries. This rich tradition has been passed down through the generations by elderly craftsmen, known locally as “fundis”.
‘Inside Africa’ meets fundi Ali Sekander, who has been making Dhows his entire working life. Sekander explains: “I’ve grown up in an industrial family. We are all Dhow builders, furniture makers, sailors and farmers. My entire family and all of our forefathers have lived on this island for seven to eight centuries.”
Despite modernisation, many people still rely on the traditional Dhow. The programme meets Athman, a fisherman from Lamu who sails a Dhow each day in order to run his business. Athman tells the programme: “The advantage of having a Dhow is that you can pull in shallow water. You only need one person to sail a small Dhow but a big Dhow is very heavy; you have to be strong or have two to five people to pull it… I like to have a small Dhow to fish; you can go anywhere and then follow the wind back.”
The programme hears, however, that the wooden Dhow-building industry is in decline, with more and more fishermen favouring boats made from synthetic fibres. In addition, Dhow carpentry skills aren’t being passed down the generations as they once were. Mohammad, a Dhow builder originally from Somalia, tells the programme that he struggles to interest his children in his trade: “[Dhow-building] is a very difficult job. Between this job and a job that’s better paid, I can’t argue with my children’s decisions. Everyone has their choice to make, don’t they?”
Deforestation, coupled with restrictions on tree harvesting and cutting, has forced Dhow makers to source their materials from places as far away as Mozambique and southern Sudan. This is a serious threat to Sekander’s business; he explains: “Soon Dhow-building will be wiped out. Sometimes we have to import wood from two countries. So we’ve been coming up with ways [in which] we can retain our Dhow-building skills. We need to find another alternative.”
The threat Dhow builders like Sekander are experiencing isn’t just limited to their craft. The level of plastic pollution in the ocean is affecting the quality of fish stocks and Kenyan beaches are heavily littered with plastic waste. Sam Garuya, an enterprising conservationist who is attempting to tackle the problem, describes his mission: “Unfortunately when weak pieces of plastic go into the ocean, they turn into micro plastic and this is what the fish are eating. Our intention is called “regeneration” – to reinvent the recycling business in Kenya and Africa. We collect plastic from various sources, process it and mould it into great new products.”
The problem of plastic waste is something Dhow builder Sekander has experienced first-hand. He explains: “I’ve seen how much plastic we catch in our nets when we go fishing.” As a result, Sekander felt inspired to raise awareness of the issue. He tells the programme: “Ben Morrison, a friend of mine from the U.K., was looking for someone to help him build his vision – a Dhow made from recycled plastic. We’re going to make a big Dhow, around 60 feet long, and we’re aiming to sail this Dhow from Lamu to Cape Town in South Africa… I think all of us were very ambitious and optimistic!”
Designing and constructing the recycled plastic Dhow involved much trial and error and learning how to work with plastic materials challenged the skilled carpenters. After enlisting the help of conservationists and artists, the team soon discovered the perfect waste plastic for Dhow-making: flip flops. So perfect, in fact, that the team have named the boat ‘The Flip-Floppi’.
Enterprising conservationist Sam Garuya illustrates some of the problems faced by the team during the project: “We started doing what we thought was best. We mixed plastic with a little bit of sand, which would traditionally make it very strong but the weight became a bit of an issue. So the biggest challenge of building something like the Flip-Floppi was that we had to go back to the drawing board to try to find new ways of doing things.”
Artist Benson Gitare tells the programme that the aesthetics of the Dhow’s flip flop exterior is crucial: “The Dhow will be colourful and it will look gorgeous. It’s something that we want people to see. This flip flop expedition will reach far and beyond.”
Aiming to finish the project by January 2018, Sekander and his team are looking forward to sending their message across the oceans. Garuya explains: “My expectations of the flip flop project is global awareness of the ocean plastic pollution issue.” Sekander agrees, stating: “We are human beings. We are all the same type of creature and yet we are destroying the world. We have to connect with people, so the message is: We have to be in a Dhow!”