The reinvention of Africa’s largest lake
THE OLD fishermen at the Cape Town landing site in central Uganda remember when they first arrived in the 1990s at this strip of rock that sits between a forest and the lake they call Nnalubaale. There were then nine settlers. Now there are over 600: nervous boat hands, cheerful children, and stiff-backed women drying silverfish in the sun. However, the drinking troughs and half-timbered houses retain an air of impermanence. A fisherman is a wanderer, they say, like a shepherd always in search of fresh pasture.
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These waters are never yet. Lake Victoria, as English speakers know, is Africa’s largest freshwater lake, roughly the size of Ireland. In 1960, about 9 million people lived in its watershed, mainly in the riparian countries of Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya; today, over 60m do. The dual intrusion of market and state transforms fish in its waters and life on its shores, bringing export revenue, violence and ecological crisis.
The lake was once home to around 500 species of small, brightly colored haplochromine cichlids, which feed their young in their mouths. The colonial authorities considered them to be “garbage fish” of low economic value. In the 1950s, a dishonest fishery officer dropped the Nile perch into the lake, hoping to create a commercial fishery. The new arrivals have “accepted the terms” of their employment, says Anthony Taabu-Munyaho of the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization, an intergovernmental body. In the 1980s, an increase in Nile perch and algal blooms killed more than half of haplochromin species. A team of environmentalists described it as perhaps “the greatest extinction event among vertebrates” in the 20th century.
The old lake was ecologically diverse and economically unproductive. The new one is the dominance of the Nile perch, which is wrapped in styrofoam and ice and transported to far corners of the world. Processing factories, owned by Indians and Europeans, clean and fillet the fish for export. They are prohibited by law from operating trawlers, which is why they buy through intermediaries from artisanal fishermen.
There are perhaps 77,000 ships on the lake, most of them open wooden boats with crews of two or three. They catch Nile perch, tilapia, and tiny silvery cyprinids, attracted to kerosene lamps on moonless nights. A lucrative secondary trade exists in the fish mouth, swim bladder of the Nile perch, valued in China for its purported medicinal properties. Chinese traders will pay more for the mouth than for a whole fish fillet. Fishermen call it “the gold of the lake”.
In the early 2000s, commercial fishing exploded. Then the Nile perch began to die out. Fishermen used fine mesh nets to catch immature specimens, which they marketed across East Africa. Such practices were illegal, but the management committees elected at the landing sites were often headed by the less scrupulous fishermen.
Overfishing was bad news for Uganda on the northern shores of the lake, where fishery products had become the second largest export. Sujal Goswami, a factory owner who chairs the association of exporters, blames “the greed and callousness of fishermen” for a collapse in stocks. In 2017, there were only five fish factories left in Uganda, where there were once more than 20. President Yoweri Museveni had seen enough. He decided to call the army.
Military patrols helped rebuild fish stocks and six factories reopened. But fishermen have been arrested, beaten and drowned during encounters with the army. Ziyad Nsereko had only been fishing for a few months when he and a friend drowned in March. A relative says they fell into the water after soldiers hit their boat; the army says they jumped trying to escape. At its former landing site in Kalungu district, residents count nine dead in similar incidents. When the soldiers catch you, “they beat you until they see blood,” says one fisherman. A trader, hobbling and holding a crutch, says he was beaten for selling undersized fish.
The commander who resumed the military operation in December, Lt. Col. Dick Kirya Kaija, admits that she used “a lot of force” at the start. He portrays the lake as “a port for criminals” who operate “like a network of drug traffickers”, bending the rules to import contraband nets. It is true that some businessmen have fleets of 100 or more boats. “They’re pretty darn rich,” complains Colonel Kaija, “and they befriended the security personnel, they befriended the ministers.”
But the punishment falls mainly on their crews and those who fish for their own supper. “The government doesn’t help when these poor people are thrown into the water,” says one fisherman. “It’s like they’re working for the rich.” Uganda has banned boats under 28 feet, although larger ones, with bigger engines, require capital and credit. Aishar Nakamanya used to employ two laborers to fish in his canoe, until the army burned him down and seized his equipment. She now reimburses the owner of the outboard motor she rented, rather than paying the fees that would keep her children in school.
Some sort of control is needed, as many fishermen even recognize. In Uganda alone, fish processing plants directly employ 5,600 people. Maybe 1m in all, from carriers to boat builders, depends on the industry. These livelihoods face multiple threats. Climate change makes extreme weather more likely, and the destruction of lakeside wetlands makes its impact more dramatic. Last year, the lake hit its highest level since record breaking, flooding homes. This year, the dead Nile perch washed up on the shore, a mysterious phenomenon believed to be caused by low oxygen levels.
Fisheries officials want to tame this turbulence. They talk about fish farming and plan to create a paramilitary lake unit, similar to rangers who fight poaching in national parks. They envision a monitored and profitable lake. It could create jobs, but would be totally different from the Nnalubaale of the past. ■
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This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Finny business”