Sea Sponges in Zanzibar struck me as a story that should have wider circulation. It is, at the same time, heart-warming, topical, and an indication of human flexibility and ingenuity.
As a gentle morning breeze blows across the eastern shore of Zanzibar Island, Hindu Simai Rajabu walks through knee-deep water to reach a shallow lagoon off the town of Jambiani, where her floating sponge farm is located. Sporting shiny goggles, and with a snorkel placed on top of her headscarf, Rajabu wades through the Indian Ocean, her laughter at the experience of being filmed, mingling with the sound of the crashing waves. As the tide rises, the 31-year-old mother of two swims and submerges to the depth of the buoys which hold the floating sponge farm in place.
The quest for prosperity has led Rajabu, and 12 other divorced women and single mothers from Zanzibar’s Jambiani village into the Indian Ocean, to grow climate-resilient sponges.
Farming sea sponges has become a lucrative business for these women in recent years. Many women in Jambiani farm seaweed, but low yields due to rising sea temperatures have started to make it difficult to earn a living. In 2009, some women began switching to growing puff-like soft sea sponges: primitive aquatic animals that, when harvested, are used for bathing and cleaning.
Sea sponges are more resilient to warmer temperatures, and filter pollutants such as sewage and pesticides out of the water. Local women’s rights activists say sea sponge farming is helping to improve gender equality in Zanzibar, and has lifted these women out of poverty. The farmers themselves say their quality of life has improved.
When Rajabu reaches the buoys, she adeptly propels herself forward to inspect the juvenile sponges on the ropes. She briskly starts scrubbing a thick polyethylene rope with a clasp knife and removes lurking bacteria from the baby sponges bobbing there. “The sponges are delicate animals; if I don’t clean them well, they will die,” says Rajabu, as she handles them carefully, taking care not to squeeze them. To prevent the sponges from becoming overheated by the sun or damaged by motorboats, Rajabu ensures they always remain underwater. She spends four hours every day in the ocean, tending to the farm. In the afternoon, she goes to the office to sort and label dried sponges for sale.
Sea sponges, which are technically animals but grow, reproduce and survive like plants, are comprised of a shell-like layer, riddled with tiny pores which allows water to flow in and out. They are thought to have existed for over 600 million years, and may well have been Earth’s first animal: Scientists have identified over 15,000 species globally. Aziza Said, a marine biologist at the University of Dodoma in Tanzania, agrees that sponges are more resilient to hotter temperatures, adding that they also require less maintenance, and fetch a higher market price, than seaweed.
Sea sponges also effectively filter sea water and reduce marine pollution, according to other studies: A single sponge can pump thousands of litres of water per day through a maze of channels and pores that trap impurities and organic substances.
The women in Jambiani are trained by the Island’s Marine Cultures Department before they start harvesting sea sponges. Sponge farming is helping to redefine traditional gender roles in the Jambiani community of more than 1,400 women. The women, who are traditionally confined to childcare and domestic chores, now have a financially stable future, says Nasir Hassan Haji, a female sponge farmer, and chair of the farmers’ cooperative.
Rajabu’s hard work as a sponge farmer has paid off. In just two years, she has earned enough money to buy a plot of land on which she is building a three-bedroom house. “I want to stay with my children in my own house,” she says. Rajabu says her rapid economic rise has sparked curiosity among her neighbours. “I was a laughing stock when I started, but now those who were laughing ask me how I managed to build a house,” she says.
The global sea sponge market extends well beyond Zanzibar, with thriving cultivation and harvesting in various regions worldwide, including the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Greece, Turkey and Indonesia. These sought-after sponges, valued for their natural beauty and sustainability, serve as natural alternatives to synthetic sponges, and are widely used in households globally.
“I work tirelessly to earn money so that my children can receive a better education, and can succeed in life,” says Rajabu. “I want to break the cycle of ignorance in my family.”
As I said at the beginning, sea sponges in Zanzibar is a heart-warming story.