This morning, she could not do her usual sweeping and galavanting. When her granddaughter Bibio strayed towards a heath made of three big stones planted to firm a tripod, still smoking, she shouted for help.
She has spent all her youth on smoking fish in Abrewanko, the renowned fish smoking community in Tema Newtown, where she made a living but ruined her health as a result.
Now, in her seventies, she is losing one eye, burdened with several chest and throat infections and many body scars which remind her of her wrestle with smoke and fire.
Abrewanko has not changed very much since she abandoned it and now many young and old women also make a living in the smoke.
Approaching the smoking site, one is met with the spectacle of the intense smoke rising and whirling from the fishes as they roast on fire.
In the midst of the heat and smoke, an elderly woman turns the fishes with bare hands, one after the other whilst fighting the smoke with waving palms, now making her eyes bloodied and watery.
Other women too are tending to their products on fire. The whole vicinity is awashed with smoke from the burning firewood and charcoal and the sweet aroma of roasting fish.
It is obvious that this is a lucrative business linked with local and national food cultures and it would continue to thrive because there is a high demand for smoked fish in Ghana.
But the question arises as to whether these smoked fishes are actually healthy for human consumption and whether the methods used in producing them had no effects on the eventual consumer, not to talk about the effects of the smoke on the women who tend to these fishes.
Smoking of fish, though an act that has been with us for a long time, has been proven to have some harmful effects. It has been proven that carbons that come out of the burning affects the smoked fishes negatively.
This perhaps is better articulated by Madam Victoria Anawoe, an ENT Specialist at Tema General Hospital.
“Smoke inhalation can bring about nasal, sinus and throat infections and the long term exposure to it can cause throat and other cancers,” she said.
Dr Ebenezer Wireko, a Medical Doctor at La General Hospital, also explains that smoke is composed of hydrocarbon, cellulose, hydro cellulose and lignin.
“And in using wood, the carbons which are produced are not good for human health as they can cause asthma, COPD, arthritis and cancers,“ he said.
To the poor woman who is trying to survive by smoking fish, Dr. Wireko informs that it is not advisable to smoke the fish in an enclosed area because it could bring about respiratory and eye infections.
“I entreat our women who are engaged in it to use kerosene and gas which is the best way to stay safe because of the minimal hydrocarbons produced from them, “he advised.
Research has also shown that frequent consumption of these salted smoked fishes could lead to hypertension, diabetes, and renal and heart failures.
Research also have it that, Listeria, which is common in babies, is found in the genital track of pregnant women and when it comes in contact with babies, leads to disease, and this happens because some women take in a lot of smoked fish during pregnancy.
With all these risks, it is certain that society must chart a new course for the smoked fish industry which would mean a shift from the traditional method of roasting or smoking fishes to safer and efficient mechanical methods to rid society of the health and environmental challenges it poses.
However, the cost of installing such mechanical facilities fueled by kerosene and gas would be problematic to some of these petty fish smokers.
It would therefore be necessary for government to help such women with the needed facilities.
Many of the women who are into these businesses are clearly below the poverty line, a clear indication that government’s commitment to poverty reduction needs to be scaled up.
It should be the concern of government to come up with programmes that would help such women to turn the petty fish businesses into viable projects that could employ others.
And as we grapple with the health challenges of smoked fish, one cannot lose sight of its environmental consequences. It is phenomenal to note how we cut down our forests with recklessness for the firewood and charcoal which fuel fish smoking.
In all these, it is sad to note that there are those who may still think they are so used to smoked fish that they cannot depart from its consumption and so taste stands in the way of enforcing such health laws because, apart from government’s inability to provide the needed facilities for these poor women, the general public may not be willing to abandon their taste for the sake of their health.
This is perhaps a call on government and relevant authorities and individuals to work towards reforming the fish smoking industry as a way of safeguarding the health of consumers, the environment and our precious women.
By Rebecca Asheley Amarh