The Boss of the Money
It's a typical morning in Nakasong village, a small but bustling market town where people do their business early before the heat rises. Nakasong sits across from the picturesque Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) on the Mekong in the very south of Laos. On this morning, goods are dropped and sold, destined for families living on the many islands that pepper this section of the Mekong.
On the Mekong riverbank men sort, weigh and pack loads of fish, caught fresh from the river. Some of the men have been fishing all night. Their catch is headed to markets and restaurants in Pakse, the district capital about two hours drive upriver. Fish are a major source of protein for the people of Laos.
Fish sales can be lucrative. For example, each kilo of a large catfish sells for about US$ 7.40. The enormous catfish pictured below weighs in at over 30 kilos and will fetch the fisherman about US$ 200.00. That's a very good day's work in a country where the official minimum wage is US$ 111.00 per month.
As the men continue to sort the fish, it's hard not to notice the women standing by with calculators, notepads and considerable cash in their hands.
At this fish market, and many in the region, men generally catch the fish, and women do the business. One of these women is Mrs. Wan, who keeps a careful eye from her seat while the men weigh the day's catch. She keeps neat tallies while her daughter beside her counts cash.
Mrs. Wan buys fish directly from the fishermen, and then sells them to the markets and restaurants in the larger centres, including Pakse and sometimes the capital, Vientiane.
"I've been doing this job for 18 years," she explains. "I knew some women who were doing it, and I wanted to do it too, so I did."
Each morning at 4 am, Mrs. Wan comes by boat to this market from Don Det, her Mekong island community. She learned her math skills at school which she attended for five years - enough to do her job.
She's now 50 years of age and has six kids - three girls and three boys.Her daughter normally runs a restaurant, but as it's the rainy season and business there is slow, she's come to help her mother.
Mrs. Wan makes 5,000 kip - or about $ 0.60, for every kilo of large fish and 2000 kip - or about $ 0.25 for every kilo of a small one. That huge catfish, for example, would have net her about US$18. In the 30 minutes or so that I watched her at work, several heavy boxes of fish were packed in ice and loaded onto a truck.
"I'm happy in this job," she says. "It's good money."
Despite what looked like a good day to my inexperienced eyes, Mrs. Wan says today's catch was quite small. Every day is different. Most people living on the Mekong will tell you that fish stocks have declined noticeably over the last several years.
Mrs. Wan says she worries about the health of the river as the levels rise and fall depending on the rains and hydroelectric dam activity hundreds of kilometres away. "I need the fish to survive," she explains.
Mrs. Wan is a busy woman. As we talk she takes multiple phone calls, continues to tally fish sales and directs men where to load the boxes of packed fish. In short, she's a woman at work, bringing in a decent salary for her family. In Laos, she says "women are the boss of the money."
As I say goodbye at about 9 am, she sits down to breakfast, already finished a big part of her work day.