Globalization in Darwin’s Nightmare

by Sumon Saha

Hubert Sauper’s 2004 documentary Darwin’s Nightmare illustrates the negative effects of globalization on a specific area and culture in the world. It shows a stark reality presented through very striking images and interviews. The film focuses on Mwanza, a small fishing village on Lake Victoria in Tanzania, and its economic dependence on a species of fish known as the Nile Perch. It describes how a few decades after the Nile Perch was artificially introduced to Lake Victoria by Europeans, it had completely dominated the ecosystem of the lake, eating every other species of fish that was indigenous to the region. The Nile Perch is a large predator that completely ate out the previous inhabitants of Lake Victoria, none of which, the viewer learns, ever yielded as much money for the fish market in Europe.

Darwin’s Nightmare follows the stories of a few different residents of Mwanza, as well as a flight crew from Ukraine, to show how the town as a whole has been affected economically and culturally by the introduction of the Nile Perch to Lake Victoria. The viewer learns that once the Nile Perch are caught, they are filleted at a local processing factory, and the fillets are then transported by airplane back to Europe for distribution and consumption. The filmmakers check in with the manager at one of these factories, who tells the story of how the Nile Perch came to Tanzania, and relates that all the towns bordering Lake Victoria are now completely dependent on Nile Perch fishing. He frames the issue positively in terms of economics, as the Nile Perch nets the factory more money than other fish such as the cichlid, which is one of the species of Lake Victoria to be killed off. However, a short journey outside the factory and into the village of Mwanza itself tells a different story. Despite the increased industrial presence that appeared in the wake of the Nile Perch flourishing, Mwanza is exceptionally poor and underdeveloped. Children are homeless and most of the women in the town work as prostitutes who primarily service the foreign flight crews that come to pick up the fillets from the factories. AIDS is apparently running rampant, as the only thing resembling sex education seems to consist of a local preacher who counsels some of the women, but tells them that the use of condoms is a sin against god, raising the possibility that, though his faith is not divulged in the film, the preacher was taught in and represents a Western, Judeo‐Christian tradition.

The bleak economic realities of Mwanza are also brought to life when the filmmakers talk to a man who works as a night watchman for one of the factories. Armed with a bow and arrows, some of which are poison‐tipped, he talks about his authority to shoot any intruders on sight. He also expresses his desire for a better job, which requires more education than he has access to financially. He does mention that soldiers tend to be well paid, especially during combat. “War is good for the people,” remarks an off‐screen member of the film crew, who receives a response in the affirmative. The night watchman also introduces the filmmakers to a friend who works as a fisherman, who relates the story of his deceased brother, also a fisherman, who was killed when a crocodile bit his leg off, and he bled to death on the spot. According to the fisherman and the night watchman, he did not receive medical attention, as there is no medical staff in the fishing camp. The guard makes the gloomily strange point that if a fisherman is injured, he needs to arrange for transportation out of the camp himself before he dies, as the cab or bus fare will be cheaper than if he were to be transported out as a corpse. One of the more harrowing scenes in the film depicts villagers rummaging through scraps of fish offal, looking for something to eat. With maggots and insects crawling all over their bare feet, villagers search through piles of gutted cadavers for fish heads and any meat that did not get filleted out at the factory. These scraps are all they are left with once the fillets leave the country on of the airplanes bound for Europe. Though the fillets are sold at high prices in Europe, and are considered delicacies, the people of Mwanza, where the factories lie, are left with scraps and leftovers. They can only eat refuse, as the Nile Perch fillets are too expensive for the villagers. The prices set by the global marketplace for a particular commodity has shut out the very people responsible for farming said commodity. It is a harsh irony, and the scene of the villagers foraging through the offal is placed in the movie right after a scene that documents a delegation from the European Union congratulating the factories, and the fishing industry of Dar‐es‐Salaam as a whole, for their progress and modes of production, specifying their sanitation.

Sauper’s film crew also talks to a Ukranian flight crew responsible for transporting the fish fillets from Mwanza to Europe. The Ukranians are seen cavorting with prostitutes earlier in the film, and in the section where they are singled out for interview, the radio engineer of the plane talks about how much money he makes at his job, and the places he has traveled to, while theorizing that black people simply do not want to work. Despite expressing his racial politics, he refuses to speak further when asked by the film crew about transporting weapons and munitions to Africa, claiming that he is not a politically‐minded person. Earlier in the film, Sauper broaches the same subject when interviewing a small group of prostitutes, who say that guns and bombs are not being transported into Africa by the fish transporters. Still, it is more plausible that a group of poor prostitutes are simply not aware of such activity taking place than it is for a gun runner to not know what the cargo of his plane consists of. Indeed, Sauper reveals that arms are in fact being brought into Africa for use in the various conflicts taking place throughout the continent on the same planes that transport the Nile Perch fillets back to Europe. This fact is also uncovered by an investigative journalist, who writes a newspaper article about contraband being run through the unsecure Mwanza airport.

Darwin’s Nightmare depicts the price of globalization by focusing entirely on the economic exploitation of the people of Mwanza. The viewer may wonder just how far the darkness spreads. On the film’s website,, director Hubert Sauper states his belief that Mwanza is far from unique. He writes:

In DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE I tried to transform the bizarre success story of a fish and the ephemeral boom around this “fittest” animal into an ironic, frightening allegory for what is called the New World Order. I could make the same kind of movie in Sierra Leone, only the fish would be diamonds, in Honduras, bananas, and in Libya, Nigeria or Angola, crude oil.

He writes that these types of stories can be found all over the third world, contending that such economic and cultural subjugation is part and parcel of the global marketplace.