Papyrus and Lake Tana
The peaceful boatmen of Ethiopia’s largest lake reflect a grand and ancient past.
At dawn, the sun creeps over the hills to the east to greet a lone fisherman tugging on his net, bringing in the night’s catch. The fishermen who dot the lake keep to themselves for the most part, working in small handmade boats called tankwas, made from papyrus reeds. It is a peaceful scene. And a lonely one.
Papyrus boat-making — once a vital activity that has built fleets and shaped the course of empires — now only exists as a sustained part of a local economy here, on Lake Tana, just off Bahir Dar in northwest Ethiopia.
“Bahir Dar” literally means “by the sea.” The term can also describe a big lake, and that fits Lake Tana. Covering more than 3,000 square kilometers, Lake Tana is by far the largest body of water in Ethiopia.
“It’s almost impossible to imagine Bahir Dar without the lake,” says tour guide Mistru Kebede. “It’s the lifeline for the town.”
Mistru has lived his whole life in Bahir Dar, which is less of a town lately and more of a city — Ethiopia’s third-largest, with roughly 200,000 residents. Wide, palm-lined streets define the northern edge of the city, cradling the lake. The city also hosts Bahir Dar University, which recently expanded to welcome 40,000 students, as well as a thriving arts scene and a growing textile industry.
Lake Tana itself is the source of the Blue Nile, which then winds through the Sudan, combining with the White Nile to form the world’s longest river system. Though upstream hydroelectric projects have reduced the flow to the Blue Nile Falls, the rainy season can still present a spectacular display.
The lake is also bejeweled with 37 islands, many of which host churches and monasteries that trace their roots back to the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Filled with ancient manuscripts and Orthodox artifacts, many have been identified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for restoration and special protection.
These connections to the past help draw more than 130,000 visitors to Bahir Dar every year. Few visitors, however, may realize that the papyrus boats floating tranquilly on the lake represent an even deeper historical connection.
Over the centuries
Papyrus boats are mentioned in the Bible, first with a mother’s memorable efforts to save baby Moses by floating him down the Nile in a makeshift boat of reeds. Later, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the nation of Cush — referring to Ethiopia — “which sends ambassadors by the sea, in vessels of papyrus on the waters” (Isaiah 18:2).
Deeply embedded in world history, the papyrus plant was once essential to human progress. In addition to boat-making, ancient Egyptians adapted it for cooking, medicine, household uses, even architecture. Papyrus paper helped spread written communications in the Western world for more than 2,000 years.
Ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder noted in his Natural History that during the reign of first-century emperor Tiberius, a papyrus crop failure made paper so scarce that senators were assigned to supervise its distribution, without which “all the ordinary relations of life would have been completely disarranged.”
Today, papyrus scarcely grows in Egypt, and papyrus boats can only be found inscribed onto ancient artwork. Yet those early images bear remarkable resemblance to the boats being built near the shores of Lake Tana. It’s believed that the Negede Weyto people group traveled up the Blue Nile from the Sudan or Egypt to Lake Tana centuries ago, and their craft has been passed on ever since.
Weaving his way through a patch of wild papyrus in the swampy, shallow water along the lake’s edge, Saidu Alem looks for plants to harvest for his next boat, as he has for much of his seven-plus decades. The plants dwarf him. He slices each stalk above the root, choosing only enough to easily carry home, where he will then cut them into strips and let them dry for weeks before beginning to build.
The once-pliant green strips of papyrus turn light brown and stiff. They are then overlaid in bundles and tied together, defining the shape of the boat’s hull. A second papyrus bundle is fashioned into a seat, giving stability and a little height for the boat’s driver. The front and back of the boat are pulled up and tied off again and again, tapering the ends and giving the bow an upward lift.
A papyrus fishing boat is long and narrow — slightly wider than Saidu but easily more than twice his height. It can be crafted over a couple of days, although larger boats — some built to carry passengers or two oarsmen with cargo — can take quite a bit longer.
“I started off twisting ropes for my father, who made papyrus boats — and he learned it from his father,” says another boat maker, Ahmadi Dawd. He made his first boat some five decades ago. “It’s come down from generation to generation.”
Over the decades, a commercial community has formed around Lake Tana boat-making, with boats being sold for both fishing and basic transport. Fishermen typically use their smaller boats on a daily basis. After the day’s catch is hauled in, each will carry his boat — amazingly lightweight — and lean it against a tree to dry out for the next use. Because these boats are constantly cycling through wet and dry, they last only two to three months.
The firewood run
Larger papyrus boats also form part of the rhythm of life on the lake — moving goods from outlying areas into market at Bahir Dar.
Every Friday morning, for example, people carry firewood down to the shoreline of Zege, the bulbous peninsula that stands sentry over the southern end of Lake Tana. For the men loading wood onto their papyrus boats, the trip involves four or more hours of hard rowing across a gulf at the end of the lake to Bahir Dar in time for the Saturday market, followed by offloading and the long trip back home.
The approach across the lake makes a striking scene: The bright, hazy sky reflects onto the brown water, the line between them barely detectible except for the boats, one or two abreast set against a seemingly infinite horizon. From a distance they look like a stealthy invasion fleet. Closer, the work is obvious as the men stab their oars deep into the water. The gentle glide of the fishing boats on the water is nowhere to be seen.
Yet even strength of will or centuries of tradition may not be enough to resist papyrus boat-building’s slow retreat into history. Such boats are no longer built in Egypt. In the Sudan, where papyrus supply is abundant, reed boats are rare and not used for fishing. Once dominant in Lake Chad in central Africa, papyrus boats have largely been replaced by modern boat-making. Similar reed boats are built and sold in Lake Titicaca, bordering Peru and Bolivia in South America, but they are made from a different plant altogether.
Papyrus supplies along Lake Tana are much less abundant than in the past, as more shore area is converted for development or full-time cultivation. And as the supply of papyrus fades, so does the number of people dedicated to the craft.
“Back in the day, children from our tribe grew up to make boats and fences of papyrus grasses,” Ahmadi says. Today, however, young people are pursuing an education, becoming doctors and lawyers in Bahir Dar, all while the local government encourages fishing in modern boats by larger, more sustainable cooperatives.
However peaceful the view may be of tankwas floating atop the lake, the boats’ future looks bleak. Perhaps one day not too far from now, a lone fisherman will glide slowly along the water, heading toward shore. Having lost out to fishing cooperatives with more modern boats and methods, his catch will prove disappointing, and his boat will cost too much to replace. After preparing his fish for market, he will — out of habit alone — carry his boat to dry against a nearby tree, where it will warm all afternoon until the sun sets for the last time on the papyrus boat fishermen of Lake Tana.