The shell game

By Danika Kleiber

Ate Elac, the caretaker of Project Seahorse's fieldhouse in Suba (an island off the coast of Bohol Province, Philippines, where I'm doing my research) had agreed to teach me how to glean. Unfortunately the tide wasn’t low enough, so we combed the beach for discarded shells.  We came across a conical bivalve shell, and Ate Elac picked it up and said, in careful and clear tones, “In Visayan [the local dialect] we call this shell bangunon." Next was a spiky bivalve: “We call this shell tikod tikod.” We went on to examine 16 different shells each named by Ate Elac in the Visayan dialect. My favorite was the kasing kasing, or "heart shell": a white bivalve shell that resembles the shape of a human heart.

In Visayan you will often hear words doubled, and the naming of shells is no exception. The repetition often conveys that the object is a smaller version of the singular version. For example, on the island of Calituban, which is known for its gleaning areas, you would find large litob shells, but in Suba where Ate Elac lives you find the smaller litob litob.  As Ate Elac named off more shells my mind played with this linguistic rule.  If “fishing” was what people used to do here, did the depleted marine resources and meager catch now make a more accurate name for this activity “fishing fishing”?

Most of the shells we found on the beach had come from other islands.  “This is not a good area for gleaning, not now,” Ate Elac explained. I asked her why there were fewer shells to be found today.  “More gleaners,” was her reply. I had heard this explanation before. There are simply more people in these communities every year. When I visit communities and examine the census sheets found in every health centre, the number always increase from year to year. 

Before I could ask about the population increase in Suba, Ate Elac went on to explain that the increase in gleaners was due to the collapse of the fisheries in 2000. Fishing was no longer sufficient to feed families, so men were increasingly gleaning to fill the gap.  And then something clicked in my mind. In almost every community we had visited, officials explained that for the most part women gleaned, while men fished and gleaned.  Not only have we overlooked women’s participation in marine resource extraction, we may have also missed a key method men have used and maybe increasingly using.

This is the great thing about gender research. It takes the radical step of including women, but it also often tells us a lot more about what men are doing too.