Lakes (7)

Wednesday, 22 June 2016 00:00

Lake Kivu's Biodiversity Treasures

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The panorama offered by Gisenyi bay beach is a scenic expanse of blue water that ends on the Congolese hillside. Gisenyi town is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rwanda. In the middle of the Lake Kivu stands a pole. From far, it looks like a giant tree that grew from the deepest lake bed. But it is the methane gas extraction plant.

On the other side of the lake lives a farmers’ community. They raise their children and send them to public schools. Clarisse, 13 years old, is a young girl born in that community. She speaks normal Kinyarwanda tinted with the sweet Swahili accent. She knows the secrets of the water that she has paddled in with her brothers since her tender childhood. But the biggest secret she holds is the marvels of the thermal waters, amashyuza.

When you reach the water source, small children, boys and girls together are taking everlasting baths. The hot vapors that come from underground wrap their tiny bodies like invisible robes. These hot waters provide livelihoods opportunities for Clarisse and her young neighbors. After class, she fervently explains to tourists the curative powers and benefits of amashyuza before offering a massage using local herbs.

From her rural land, she has a picturesque view of the methane gas extraction plant. She doesn’t know the role of that pole in her Lake Kivu but she heard from her big brothers that it generates electricity and that they can’t fish in the 30 meters around it.

With its pacific blue, Lake Kivu itself offers a spectacular sight while its waters provide a meaning as a source of drinking water, for fisheries and a transportation corridor to the livelihoods of more than two million people from Rwandan and Congolese communities, including Clarisse’s family.

The main economic activities of these inhabitants are farming and fishing with the most abundant fish being isambaza, the Tanganyika sardines (Limnithrissa miodon). They were introduced into the lake in the 1960s to fill the obvious vacant niche of Kivu. Currently, only 31 fish species live in this lake compared to 400 species of Lake Tanganyika. This poor diversity in terms of biota is due to the steepness of the banks, age and the nature of the lake’s bottom.

The biodiversity of Rwanda is mainly conserved in protected areas like the three terrestrial national parks but these parks don’t represent the whole biodiversity and ecosystems of the country. For instance even if Lake Kivu’s fauna is poor due to its physical isolation or doesn’t shelter either hippopotamuses or crocodiles; it has several aquatic biodiversity, phytoplankton, zooplankton, more than 200 Afro-tropical superior plant species and vegetation.

Lake Kivu, situated around 100 miles north of Lake Tanganyika is a volcanic Lake of 2370 km2, almost the size of Mauritius or Moscow city, with a maximum depth that can attain 485m. It is located in the East African Rift Valley between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its uniqueness consists of the prodigious quantity of dissolved gases (carbon dioxide and methane gas) in the deep water and far from the mountainous shores.

Kivu is among the 3 lakes in the world with high dissolves volumes of CO2, the two others being Nyos and Monoum from Cameroon. But contrary to them, it contains a considerable amount of methane gas and if not exploited might erupt within a century.

On August 21, 1986, Lake Nyos emitted CO2 and suffocated fauna, flora, livestock and caused a loss of around 1800 human lives.

To shun such a disaster, Rwanda has started the extraction of methane from Kivu. The origin of this gas is not yet very well known and there have been hot debates around the subject. Scientists don’t agree on its origin, some assume that it is caused by earthquakes and volcanic activity. However, according to Dr Klaus Tietze, a German scientist, this gas is a result of bacterial reduction of the magmatic CO2 that leads to methane but along with bacterial fermentation of acetate[1] in sediments.

Currently, there is no imminent danger of explosion in Lake Kivu that threatens Clarisse’s community because gases are trapped below 260 meters. Up till now, these gases are not harmful to the biodiversity although they hinder the development and expansion of numerous species accommodated inside the water. The surface water is totally isolated from deep water where carbon dioxide and methane gas are located. The living organisms and biodiversity, especially fish species, are found in the biozone comprising only between the first 50 and 60 meters from the surface. Biozone is the part of the lake provided with sufficient oxygen to support life.

As the risk of “bang” is relatively low, Clarisse will still be able to earn some cash from amashyuza and contemplate the lonely triple-colored national flag fluttering on the methane gas extraction site. What prevents Kivu’s methane gas from exploding is the presence of several layers with different densities in addition to the fact that the water pressure is twice higher than the total of partial pressures from the gases. The bigger hydrostatic pressures from the water block the methane gas and CO2 from ascending to the surface and to have a calamitous effect on the lake’s biodiversity.

In order to reduce the accumulation of the gases in Kivu, the Rwandan Ministry of infrastructure and the Congolese Ministry of hydrocarbons operate hand in hand to ensure safe, environmental friendly and economically sustainable extraction of methane gas in the lake.

The Rwandan government has contracted private investors to start the degassing process. Since 2008, the extraction work has been ongoing on a government funded pilot project called Kibuye Power Ltd (PK1) under the Rwandan Energy Company. This company is currently extracting methane and produce electricity in Gisenyi, generating 3.6 MW. The KivuWatt is another project that is supposed to start in a near future with a potential of producing 100 MW, almost equal to the current national power consumption. Captivatingly, in addition to its other numerous benefits, Lake Kivu has an opportunity of producing 700 MW of power over the next 50 years.

It’s worth noting that Rwanda has established Lake Kivu Monitoring Program (LKMP) to circumvent negative impacts of a wrong extraction technology to the surrounding environment. This unit is mainly in charge of overseeing the plant inspection, near plants and lake wide levels. According to Mrs Augusta M. Christine Umutoni, the LKMP Programme manager, LKMP ensures public safety by maintaining the stability of the lake and preventing any potential gas eruption, thus avoiding any hazardous impacts on the environment and people as well as maximizing the socio economic benefits.

The effectiveness of Kivu Lake Monitoring Program to prevent environmental hazards will enable the few fish species to evolve in the waters of this small and young lake of East African Rift valley. The local people will keep fishing in Lake Kivu; will continue to offer tourism boat tours and to trade with the neighboring Congo. But also Rwanda has gained another source of power generation that gradually will help to reduce the gap between national electricity demand and supply.

Even if Methane gas is being extracted and averts the outburst risk, the volume of electricity produced under KP1 is still insignificant considering the national consumption and Lake Kivu neighboring communities do not yet benefit from this power that their natural resource breeds. Clarisse is currently using the tadowa, a kerosene traditional lamp, to do her school homework. She is hoping that that electricity produced in Gisenyi and channeled in the national grid, will one day reach her house through the national rural electrification program.

But s long as the methane gas extraction prevents the detriment of the ecosystems, Gisenyi local communities gain from the surrounding biodiversity to earn their livings. Clarisse’s parents will still be able to farm their lands and pay her school fees. Her older brothers income from fishing will allow them to build their future households and she will keep making pocket money from the massage and satisfy her adolescence basic needs.


[1] Acetate is a salt or ester of acetic acid especially used to make fibers or plastic.

Not many people know that Rwanda has an island. But it does. Nkombo Island, which sits squarely in Lake Kivu.

Located on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lake Kivu is delimited by five districts from North to South: Rubavu, Rutsiro, Karongi, Nyamasheke and Rusizi. Nkombo is one of the multiple islands of the Lake with merely 22 km2 and around 18,000 inhabitants living on the one spacious and two smaller islands. Felix is a young boy from Nkombo Island. He sees Rwanda as another country, a country where he would love to live. He has recently started primary school and is learning Kinyarwanda language at Gihaya, one of the four primary schools on the island. Before joining school, he only used to speak amashi, the native local language in his neighborhood.

For 40 minutes, a semi-traditional motor boat transports, from Rusizi town back to the island, local Nkombo men and women who came earlier to sell fish. During the ride, they intone songs in amashi accompanied by a stench of decomposing fish from their baskets. On the other side of the strand, Felix and more other kids are excitedly waiting for adults to return from the city with nice things, maybe.

Just like many other Rwandans, farmers on the island plant soybeans, climbing beans, cassava, banana plantation,….and their soils slowly run-off in the Lake.

Felix was born in April 2008, just after the earthquake that ravaged the island. He has experienced Nkombo’s transformation over the years. He has seen engineers installing electric cables. Every night, he has light in his house and he has seen adults map out the roads even if no car has yet driven there.

In his free time, the young boy imitates men by fishing and capturing fishes from Lake Kivu. Afterwards, he hides the breathing fishes in his jacket pocket and tries to sell them to strangers who come to his land. With other boys of his age, they bargain and set the prices in amashi language so that visitors don’t understand. The fishes that these boys sell are among the 40 species of fish that were inventoried in Rwanda but only 4 are of economic importance; the Lake Tanganyika sardine Limnithrissa miodon (locally called isambaza), the Nile tilapia Oreochromis niloticus, the African catfish Clarias gariepinus and Haplchromis sp. .And today, Felix’s catch is of course isambaza.

This Tanganyika Sardine is a small pelagic clupeid living in Kivu as a non-native species. L. miodon was voluntarily introduced in 1959 into Lake Kivu, where no planktivorous fish existed before. Adults live in the pelagic areas while reproducing populations and juveniles inhabit bays and shores. This species becomes omnivorous at the adult stage, feeding on diverse preys: zooplankton, insect larvae and adults, other small fishes and their own young stages.

Since its introduction in Kivu, it has slowly been delivered on the Rwandan and Congolese fish markets with other species. According to Rwanda Development Board, the fish market demand consists of 90% of tilapia, 5% isambaza, and 5% of other spcies like cat fish.

Nkombo island inhabitants supply isambaza to Rusizi town and cook the rest with peanut oil in their households that are densely settled and scattered on the island.

As in any other part of Rwanda, Nkombo’s biodiversity is also threatened by population increase, land use changes, destruction of habitats and natural disasters. In Africa, while Rwanda has one of the biggest population densities, Nkombo’s demographic pressure is even more alarming as 818 people live on just 1 km2 compared to the national level of 450 persons living on the same surface.

This large population on the island is using natural resources at an alarming rate. They were used to cultivate all land till the banks of Kivu, overfish isambaza for market supply and family consumption as well as using various trees for fire wood.

The Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS) calls for the protection of Lake Kivu’s shores as well on Nkombo islands. This denotes that 50 meters from the lake shores and 10 meters from the river banks have to be protected from human exploitation.

Nkombo islands have already started to implement the EDPRS target of planting 320,000 agroforestry trees and tonkombo2 creating 50 hectares of progressive terraces to prevent soil erosion. A special tree nursery has been established on the island and more than 140,000 seedlings of different species have been produced.

And to valorize the biodiversity, a hotel is under construction at Nkombo as a way of developing tourism potential of the area that local community can economically benefit from. As the beauty of the nature attracts an increased number of tourists, local people will be more motivated to protect their source of revenues: biodiversity. According to REMA, Rwanda Environment Management Authority, Kivu islands are not hotbeds of island endemics because nearly all species found there also exist in the mainland. However, in a recent study, 14 islands [1] of Lake Kivu were surveyed and the results clearly showed that 142 plant species, 80 species of birds, 52 invertebrates, 6 mammals, 6 reptiles and 5 species of amphibians exist on these islands.

Additionally, these islands shelter 3 migratory bird species namely cossypha natalensis, milvus migrans as well as bulbucus ibis and some endangered species like marsh mongoose, water birds and snakes. It’s worth noting that half of birds registered on Lake Kivu islands are on the IUCN[2] red list. Furthermore, this research for the conservation plan of Kivu Lake islands clearly shows that these islands comprise the key zones in Rwanda for biodiversity conservation, tourism and recreation.

Felix notices several inquisitive sightseers coming to Nkombo; although they don’t usually buy his fishes. They give him hope that the island has something particularly unique to offer that attracts people from Kigali, the capital, and other countries. Local kids always shout to those visitors, in either amashi or Kinyarwanda:

Ompe ehyo hicupa hyaminji ,wampaye agacupa. Give me the water bottle, Give me the water bottle.

The belief is that tourism development with all associated facilities will create and generate more jobs and income for Nkombo residents and local children will get a better access to clean water and more water bottles. Currently, they mainly fetch the Kivu water for domestic use.

Nkombo’s residents desperately need new opportunities. Most of them fish in a lake with poor fish reserves with the national fish production from Rwanda’s 24 lakes estimated at only 13,000 tons, annually. According to the ministry of Agriculture and animal resources, the low fish production is generally caused by increased fish pressure, illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, and increased unmonitored fish movements, all driven by higher fish demand, inadequate fisheries and aquaculture management framework. This fishery sub sector has potential of contributing to 2.7% of the GDP if a total of 115,000 tons is produced by 2017.

In the Rwandan Kivu, which consists of 48% of the total Lake surface, Nkombo fishers are not allowed to fish all the time. They have to stop one week in a month and they are not allowed to fish on the Congolese part of Kivu. During their free time, some cultivate their lands but this year kirabiranya (Xanthomonas wilt) has invaded their banana plantation and this disease constitutes another whack to the island’s agro-biodiversity already menaced by overpopulation and climate change.

In 2014, agro-biodiversity has contributed to national economy with a share of 30.5% of the GDP. But Rwanda being reliant on rain-fed agriculture is still extremely vulnerable to climate change. This phenomenon is not only a threat to the agriculture industry but also the biodiversity of the Lake Kivu islands and little is known about the economic cost of biodiversity loss.

Apart from the worst worldwide water hyacinth, there are other invasive species that affect the Lake Kivu islands biodiversity and these led to the extinction of some species in the past and threaten more that are endemic. But again, even if invasive species are the core current menace, climate change is predicted to be the key threat to islands in the future.

To prevent the detrimental consequences of the degradation of ecosystems, Rwanda has set 16 new major policies, laws and strategies to promote biodiversity conservation and socio-economic development. Despites the existence of these, the value of biodiversity is not yet reflected in broader policies. However, the first needed step which is to recognize the importance of conservation has been made and established measures help to raise awareness about the protection of the country’s natural capital.

With this national will, Nkombo hopes that the biodiversity conservation and tourism expansion will contribute to the sustainable socio-economic development of the island. so that while Felix and his age mate friends grow up, they will be able to understand that there is a future on their native area, that they can conquer the rest of Rwanda or neighboring Congo or any other broader land. But above all, Nkombo residents dream to have a young generation that always remember that their beautiful Nkombo have choices to offer to its children. To achieve this dream, they first have to grimly preserve, conserve and protect their biodiversity so that natural resources keep providing them a source of economic, social and nutritional benefits.


[1] Mapfundugu Islands Complex, Karugaruka, Nyanamo, Karinga, Nyamunini, Mbabara, Mukondwe, Shegesha, Amahoro, Nyenyeri, Mpangara and Nyarugaba, Ishyute and Ireba Islands

[2] International Union for Conservation of Nature

Saturday, 06 February 2016 00:00

Is Mali's Lake Faguibine Dead?

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I first knew about Lake Faguibine back in 2009 when I wrote a short creative story showcasing the work that UNEP had done to restore the lake.

‘Lake Fa.. what?!’ I had asked Levis my boss when he told me about this Lake.

Lake Victoria, I knew. Lake Tanganyika, I knew. But Lake Faguibine?!

For several weeks, I dug in and unearthed as many facts as I could about the Lake whose claim to fame is the fact that it dried up. I learnt to my shock that that the lake had dried up in the mid-seventies, before I was born.

What! I wrote in a tiny brown notebook that was always in my breast pocket.

So what causes a lake to just dry up? I wondered. Well, it doesn’t ‘just’ dry up. The people who live near the lake plus those who live near the rivers that pour into the lake are mostly to blame for stifling and strangling the lake.

Recently, seven years after my first encounter with Fagubine, I decided that that it was time to pay this lake a visit again. But when I dusted away the cobwebs that had gathered in my Faguibine notes and contacted Mr Google for several updated answers, I realized that Fagubine was more than facts and statistics narrated by people like me, most of whom are far far away.

Many of the journalists and environmental experts who write about Fagubine may be familiar with the letters (cold data) of the dry lake through the internet and literature reviews, but they definitely don’t know the spirit and soul of Fagubine.

The spirit and soul of Fagubine. Does such a thing even exist? I wrote this question in my brown notebook.

The spirit and soul of Fagubine refers to the Malian people who have lived adjacent to the lake for centuries. They have sapped and fished from its waters. Felt its fresh scent.

As children, they raced along the lake’s shores; as youth, they jumped into sturdy canoes that took them into the deeps of the lake for joyous fishing expeditions; as adults, they continued with the fishing but when their years advanced further, they took great joy in simply gazing at the orange rays of the setting sun.

Moussa Coulibaly is one such person. I met him in one warm morning in Tunis during an event for the World Social Forum in 2015. I had known him for a decade via email but this is the first time that we were meeting in person. We were both members of the Global Independent Media Network (Indymedia), a movement whose revolutionary inclined members definitely know the first name of Che Guevara and the birthday of Thomas Sankara, two icons of revolution.

Moussa was able to unlock for me a little bit of Lake Fagubine’s spirit. As a Malian, he could blow a bit of the Lake’s scent my way so that I could catch its whiff instead of just unearthing its data.

Although his eyes had the calm blaze of the revolutionary in him, his voice was calm as he explained, ‘Le système constitue pour le Mali une immense ressource pour la lutte contre l’insécurité alimentaire. Il regorge d'immenses potentialités agricoles, pastorales, halieutiques et sylvicoles.’

Because he said these words in his calm, slow manner, I was able to understand half of what he was saying. I have an on and off relationship with French despite my regular vows that I will stabilize this relationship.

Basically, Moussa was telling the utter importance of the Lake Faguibine System in such critical matters like food security.

Nodding keenly as I was understanding very word he was saying, I continued listening to him, ‘autrefois le lac était appelé le grenier du septentrion d’autant plus qu’il a servi à nourrir une bonne partie des populations du nord des céréales et du sud des produits de la pêche et de l’élevage. Ces produits étaient même exportés vers certains pays voisins en Mauritanie pour la plupart et en Côte d’ivoire, Burkina et le Ghana.’

For all of you non-French speakers out there, Moussa was saying that at one time, Mali used to export cereals to countries like Ghana, thanks to Lake Faguibine. Then it dried up. The waters fled and took with them the priceless benefits that cling on their wings.

Why did this Lake dry up?

Since I hadn’t been able to ask Moussa this question while in Tunis, I posed it in an email that I sent him a few weeks later.

Although he was from Timbouctou, 80 kilometres east of Lake Fagubine Moussa’s mother was a Touareg from the Lake Fagubine region, so he had visited this area several times.

‘David John!’ Moussa’s response to my email came within an hour, ‘is good to read your email. You can call me on +22376...’ At the end of his brief email were the words, La où s’abat le découragement, s’élève la victoire des persévérants.

After wondering what those words meant, I bought airtime using MPESA, Kenya’s famous mobile money transfer service and dialled the numbers.

‘Is dead’ Coulibally said after the initial awkward pleasantries because my French was as bad as his English.

‘Is dead,’ Coulibaly repeated in response to my question about Lake Fagubine.’

‘I go there last week, and the lake is still dead.’

After a pause, he added louder, in French, ‘le lac est mort,’ the lake is dead.

Coulibaly’s statement summed up the Lake’s soul, spirit and reality much better than Mr Google or the dusty notes in my notebook.

Lake Fagubine was dead. Period. One is either dead, or alive.

Lake Fagubine was not flowing with water, swarming with fish, teeming with biodiversity, rustling with water.. It was dead.

Can the people of Mali in particular and humanity as a whole breathe life back into it?

Saturday, 03 October 2015 00:00

Swimming for crocodiles in Mwanza

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Cold drink in one hand, blazing sun intoxicating the other, the sweet, soothing rocking of the water under me, and all I could think of was diving in. The grey-blue tranquility surrounding me for miles looked so inviting and delectably cool that I knew as soon as we switched the engine of the boat off, I was going to jump straight into Lake Victoria.

I stopped for a second though, as a clump of water hyacinth collided with the boat. Almost imperceptible to Don (my nature-loving friend who could normally spot any species of plant or animal from a mile away) who was standing beside me, for it was about the size of my fist, and a reassuring felt-textured green glistening under the late afternoon celestial light, the water hyacinth didn’t pose any real threat to me, my friend, or the boat we were basking on in the middle of the Mwanza Bay, but it prevented me, somehow, from jumping in to the water there and then.

I can only assume that it was the sight of something alive in the seemingly inconspicuous water I was about to cool down in, that made me have second thoughts. If these few leaves of water hyacinth could be so full of life and mobile, what’s preventing other creatures, plants or ‘things’ (all sorts of ominous thoughts were running through my head at this point) from also greeting me as I swam around?

I thought about the crocodile we’d spotted an hour or so ago; or rather, the single-parent family we’d seen, alternately lounging on a rock and lurking in the mangroves. Though one was as small as a cat (albeit less furry and friendly) the other, undoubtedly the mother, was more akin to a saloon car in length, with teeth the length of chopsticks and the width of something very, very deadly.

I had reassured myself, as we backed out of the mangroves, satisfied with our day’s aquatic safari, that in the middle of the lake no crocodiles would bother us. They wouldn’t get a hold on us in open water, and what would the chances be of them sniffing us out in a lake bigger than almost half of the countries in the world? It was at this point, an hour after making this flippant assumption, that I realized I was almost definitely, hideously and dangerously wrong.

Crocodile attacks can happen anywhere, and they do, hundreds of times a year around Africa.  Most go unreported and therefore the world doesn’t get to know about them, but for the hundreds of Africans who die every year due to the ferocity of these creatures, the attacks are all too real.

So it was possible, but not likely. What was likely, however, was coming up against fish. Nile perch, most likely, or tilapia, and neither would be of the ready-to-eat variety I enjoy in the local eateries.  They would be large, possibly voracious, and scaly. And I remembered from my biology lessons that such fish were often prey for larger predators, and I didn’t even want to imagine what they would be or how they would enjoy chomping down on my thrashing legs or panicking arms. Though not dangerous as such, the idea of being surrounded by such fish and not being able to see them filled me with a menacing feeling of unknown.

At this point, having been staring into the deep abyss of the lake, fretting over my safety and mortality for a good five minutes or so, I realized that my drink was getting increasingly warm and that my friend was tugging at my shorts, urging me to take a dip.

“I can’t, that man over there’s trying to work’, I protested, pointing to the small, polystyrene and wooden dingy with a weary-looking fisherman sitting atop it, legs stretched out in front of him, fishing line held between tired hands. Behind him, I realized, was another man just like him, but a little more stern-looking, and another a little further towards the shore, with a large puffy coat on, despite the tropical heat of northwestern Tanzania. 

Their boats were handmade, perfectly crafted for their trade, but flimsy against hefty waves or crocodiles. They’re ever-present, night or day, feeding the export trade for Nile perch and tilapia, and scraping the barrel of the increasingly barren lake. Swimming in their place of work seemed to me to be a show of disrespect, of flaunting my disregard for the breeding ground of their livelihood. Another reason not to swim.

One of the fishermen had a mark across one side of his face. A long, wide and troublesome patch of irritated skin which looked painful and made that side of his face flinch when he moved or when he remembered it. It could have been anything, but I could only assume that it was related to one of the many diseases that lurk on and under the surface of the gunmetal grey mass which stretches across three countries and which infects large portions of the lake-dwelling population.

 In one particular Ugandan fishing village further northwest of Mwanza, the infection rate of Shcistosoma Mansomi, commonly referred to as Bilharzia, was 88.6% (Study by Edridah Tukahebwa; 2013). The disease is spread via a parasite which makes its home in a small sea snail and can penetrate human skin upon contact with water. It can cause bowel problems, skin rashes, seizures, nausea and chronic tiredness. I couldn’t see any upside to contracting the parasite and giving them a cosy home, and the only way to avoid it was to stay well away from the water.

A loud noise knocked me out of my paranoid reflections and reminded me that it wasn’t just us leisure-boaters and fishermen out on the water on this Saturday afternoon. The ferry joining Mwanza city to the rural villages of Sengerema district was descending on us at a steady speed, intent on getting to the other side and offloading its impatient cargo of passengers and fish.

 A trail of undistinguishable froth, murkiness and fumes spewed out from its rear-end, sending even greater clumps of water hyacinth and islands of plastic bottles and plastic waste to brush up against the stern of our previously sparkling white boat.

The ferry steamed pass and once the waves dulled down we were back in our peaceful bubble of tranquility. And then I heard a scream. Animated and frightening to the outsider, I feared the worst. Frantically turning round in my seat I unwittingly rocked our boat from side to side, bringing the edges dangerously close to the water, panic in my eyes, until I focused on a small group of children and teenagers frolicking in the water by the edge of one of the islands to our right. They’d paddled out on a makeshift raft and were enjoying their natural playground in sheer, shrill delight.

They didn’t care about the man-eating crocodiles, or the parasitic creatures which they could neither see nor apprehend, but they couldn’t care less because they were enjoying that moment of life where nothing else mattered in the world except ripping open the doors of spontaneity and savoring every delicious drop of water, perspiration and existence which they could get their hands on.

I at last stopped thinking, dropped the stagnant bottle I still had in my hand, shrugged off my clothes and dove in head first to the living, breathing, giving Lake Victoria. And it felt, quite simply, amazing.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015 00:00

Fishing Stories from Jinja

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From the horizon, I see the sun taking time to rise; it is an orangey subdued lighting offering its warmth to the waters of Lake Victoria while chasing away the morning mist.

I am watching the sun from the shore of Kingfisher Safari Resort. Also in my view are men that are busy cleaning and pushing their wooden boats into the calm waters. Women are scooping water into their faded buckets and ferrying it home in fast, rhythmic steps.  Some are chatting loudly as they wash clothes. Every few minutes a boat docks at the shore after a night of fishing.   

Godfrey Kasadha is one of these fishermen. His friends have teasingly nicknamed him “wamukisa”- the lucky man.  This morning, he is nonchalantly cleaning a boat. I approach him with a hesitant look and an idiotic smile. I only have 10,000 Ugandan shillings in the back pocket of my red pants, but I omit to say it.  I want a ride, a ride to the source. I want to see the origin of that magic Nile, that Nile that existed from the time of the ancient testament in the Holy Bible, that Nile I have studied in geography. The Nile that makes Africa proud as the longest River in the world.

Kasadha is feeling guilty because the sun woke up before him. As he gives me a ride, he is not very optimistic that will get a big catch but is spotting a big smile nonetheless. B

A small voice full of fear is reminding me that I am in the middle of a 68,000km2 body of water with a stranger that I just met sixteen minutes ago. Yet, my enthusiasm to realize my dream of discovering the source of the Nile slowly silences that voice.

Kasadha’s red boat is joined together by pieces of metal that are skillfully nailed in the wood. Inside there is a small green jerry can that contains his fishing secret – three live moon fishes that serve as baits to the Nile perches that he patiently chases in the warm water.

He relates to me that years of fishing experience have taught him to gratefully accept whatever the lake gives him. He ruthlessly drives holes into the heads of his baits using different hooks and ties them to a kamba, fishing line, which he releases into the lake. He entrusts me with one kambas that I seriously but clumsily hold in the deep calm water.

Lake Victoria’s maximum depth can attain 83 meters.  Today, Kasadha uses one of the 9 types of hooks that fishers utilize in his neighborhood. He chooses fish-hook number 7 because it has a sharp tongue and the Nile perch can never escape from it.

Victoria is the largest tropical lake in the world. It spreads over an area that is more than twice the size of Rwanda. As he paddles in its expansive waters, he carefully watches the movements of the live moon fishes. Any slight movement will communicate to his trained eye whether a perch has swallowed the bait.

It’s like a seduction game and the perch is like a man who blindly follows and falls under a woman’s charm. But unfortunately for the perch, the spell is broken when it takes the bait.

Kasadha doesn’t have a secondary, leave along a bachelor’s degree. But he has a masters in practical fishing. He has definitely mastered his profession and has a firm grasp of the region’s history.

Back in 1906, Jinja was just a small fishing village. It grew gradually to become the second largest city in Uganda.  The name Jinja is said to have been coined by local baganda workers who were employed on the other side of the Nile River; the Basoga side, to break the gigantic stones and clear the land. Jinja means stone and each morning, they would call out to each other, ‘let’s go to that Jinja, to that stone.’ The name stuck and Jinja it is until today.

I am all ears as Kasadha shares the story of Jinja, he changes the paddle from left to right and heads for the “real source” of the Nile.

Along the way, enyange (egrets) and embata (black swans) are the companions of the fishermen.  The panorama in front includes two tiny islands and some rocks. One of these islands is home for birds that have decorated the ground with their whitish droppings. The second island hosts small handcraft businesses sheltered in huts.

At the source, water comes from underground and spins before flowing to Lake Victoria.

There, I allow my spirit to bend over the incomparable beauty of that moment, I am wordlessly grateful of being alive and present at the source of the Nile River. I sample the stillness of the spinning water.

The fishing continues. Kasadha and I have not yet caught anything, he looks with envy at others who came earlier than him and already have piles of perches in their boats.

I imitate him as he checks his kamba often but both moon fishes are still floating in the water. As we slowly round the source, we take time to admire the comeliness of Jinja. He watches a malakayiti; a small multicolored bird with an orange beak. The tiny bird hides constantly in the bushes and it is only by chance that we see it. On another branch, a woodland bird is carelessly hanging.

As we move forward and leave behind the spinning water, Kasadha reflects on how fishing has changed his economy. He reminisces how he lost his father when he was very young. He was obliged to help his mother by carrying food products to the market. He could only earn around 4,000 Ugandan shillings ($1.4). Currently, when he is lucky, he can daily make 200,000 shillings ($71) from fishing and other small jobs.

 “okuvuba kwacyusa oburamu bwangge”- Fishing has changed my life.

It is worth noting that 20% of Uganda is water. In 2010, the country earned $ 83.3 million from fishing industry with the highest peak ever of $ 143,168 million in 2005.

The money that Kasadha gets from his job is spent to educate his son and support his extended family.   

Unlike him, hundreds of other fishermen spoil their earnings wit sex workers. While the national HIV+ incidence is only 7%, it reaches around 40% for fishermen.  Their hazardous job jeopardizes them to risk their lives in the cloudy waters of the Lake Victoria.

They believe in imminent attacks by the crocodiles or drowning accidents. Some have fished the corpses of their friends and are afraid that one day, it would be themselves that other fishermen will bring back.

This lake is the most important inland fishery production in Africa and this sector employs between 1 million and 1.5 million nationals in Uganda.

As this represents a considerable number of individuals who are exposed, the careless sexual behavior of fishermen constitutes an alarming menace to this industry. In addition, access to government health services is still a challenge for the Jinja municipality.

Another obstacle in Jinja is the regulation of fishery activities and the protection of Lake Victoria’s biodiversity. The only restriction imposed to fishermen is the use of the fishing nets.  It’s forbidden for fishers who are not part of a fishing company to use nets; they can only fish with hooks and no moral law prevents the women to pollute the lake when they are cleaning their clothes.

Kasadha observes another group of women with an ironic smile. My eyes follow his regard.

“You see, women’s role is to wash clothes and fetch water. They wait for their husbands’ catches. They can’t fish because once they catch a fish they scream and give jumps. For them, fishing is a joke”.

His ironic smile has turned into a proud and loud laughter that shakes his strong shoulders. I want to confront him but I remember that I’m just here to admire the nature. I calm down my feminist spirit.

For the umpteenth time, Kasadha checks the kamba and concludes that today is not our lucky day, that he is not the wamukisa Kasadha. He takes the moon fish, removes the sharp hook, leaving stains of blood on his grey face and puts it back in the wet green jerry can. He will keep the bait alive for the next perch fishing.

Even if we did not catch anything, he always loves to share his boat with tourists and make them discover the wonders of Jinja without a fee.

-          Now, you are my friend from another country, no money can pay that! He wisely explains.

It’s around 9:00 and the sun is hotly burning our faces. Far in the lake, four boats are still navigating in the lake waters while their occupants are more discussing than fishing.

Once, it took a week for Kasadha to catch fish. Another day with a friend; he caught a 60kg perch measuring 2 meters. The uncertainties, despairs and surprises are part of the fishing stories of Jinja.


The next morning, I will be far away back to my normal life while Kasadha will take his own boat and use worms to fish tilapia. The favorite tilapia….

Monday, 17 August 2015 00:00

Meet Kapenta the Alien

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Maria Mutola’s short ponytail was still, her head bent low as she waited for the big race to commence. It was in the finals of the 800 metres at the Barcelona ’92 Olympics Games. Although she was only nineteen years old, Mozambique’s Olympic hopes rested on her young shoulders.

She sped off from the starting blocks with characteristic vigour and by the time the first lap was over, she was ahead of Ellen van Langen, the Dutch runner who ended up winning gold in the event. But in the final one hundred metres, Maria fell behind and finished fifth. Despite the poor finish, she had won the hearts of millions across the world and it was no surprise when she finally won an Olympic gold eight years later in Sydney, Australia.

In the same year of 1992, when Maria stormed the world stage, tiny, popular fish invaded the waters of her home country Mozambique. Known in the southern Africa region as kapenta, the tiny fish are natives of Lake Tanganyika, hence their official name – Tanganyika sardine. Although they were introduced into Lake Kariba in 1967 it took more than two decades for them to finally invade Cahora Bassa, Africa's fourth-largest man-made lake.

They population of the little fish exploded and within no time, they were being harvested through semi-industrial means. They became, together with the Cahora Bassa hydro-electric scheme, leading revenue generators for Tete province in particular and Mozambique as a whole.

Who would have thought that such tiny fish that are not even native to the lower Zambezi, could play such an important economic role for the region?

One of the beneficiaries of kapenta was Pedro, a young man from Tete. In 2004 when Pedro, was a big-eyed ten-year old boy, fishermen from Tete harvested 19,000 tonnes of kapenta. Among them was Pedro’s father who was one of the 800 weather-beaten men working on the 200 Kapenta rigs on the lake. Every night, Pedro’s old man would set out with three other men on a rugged rig that was armed with sufficient lights that they used to attract the tiny fish and sturdy nets to capture them.

The nights are dark and peaceful for Pedro’s dad. They are a million times better than those years before 1992, when the civil war raged across Mozambique. Back then, life was fragile and there was nothing peaceful about the darkness of the night. But now, peace mostly reigns, not just in the country but in his heart, especially out there on Lake Cahora Bassa at night.

Every time their rig dances gently or roughly, depending on the winds of any given night, Pedro’s father – whose nickname is O Rei (the King) – rubs his calloused hands together to keep warm and calm. He looks like Eusébio, great Mozambican born Portuguese footballer hence his inheritance of Eusebio’s own nickname – the king.

Between 2005 and 2008, when his son Pedro first accompanied him to the night-time fishing, O Rei and his colleagues in the semi-industrial rigs plus the artisanal fishermen helped Mozambique to export US$14.6 million worth of kapenta fish. Because of their diligent efforts every freezing dark night and humid hot days, this South African nation earned a handsome amount from its little fishes.

The US$14.6 million export revenue it generated earned kapenta fish a bronze medal, behind only shallow water shrimp and deep water shrimp. However, the little fish took gold when it came to production volumes from commercial vessels, accounting for 55 percent of production.

Indeed, the little fish has given O Rei a livelihood for many years and provided Mozambique with much needed foreign exchange revenue. For a tiny fish that arrived in Mozambique in the early nineties as an alien immigrant, this is quite a fete. It is now a naturalized citizen that is playing its role in nation-building.


The big question is whether the nation is replenishing and giving back to the very ecosystems that are building it. Even more important is whether O Rei is a king by nickname and a slave in reality – a slave in the sense that the money accruing from the kapenta will never really make a definitive and lasting difference in his life. Most of Africa’s artisanal fishermen and fishing vessels workers never quite strike the gold that Africa’s fishery deposits into the wallets and accounts of...

Sunday, 16 August 2015 00:00

Lake Victoria's Finsteps

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Little sighs followed my keen gaze as our dhow set off from Osieko beach in Kenya. We were headed for the Lulwe archipelago on the Ugandan side of Lake Victoria. My heart was thumping so loudly that I was sure the two canaries above us would soon be dancing to its tune.

A new species of fish had been sighted in the vicinity of the Lulwe islands. It had feline whiskers and feline speed, I was told. And was spotlessly white in color. I was determined to sight it and fight it with my ready hook, also white in color. I wanted to prove that although Lake Victoria has lost over four hundred species within forty years, some rare species still grace this lake.

Just a stone throw from our boat, I could see the shimmering green of the gathering waves as they galloped towards us and melted into a sky blue along the way. They reminded me of a mango that starts its journey donning jungle green and ends it in sunset orange. I leaned on the side of the narrow dhow, arms outstretched, ready to hug the swooshing onrush of water. When I scooped a portion of the waves into my palms, the water was crystal clear. Maybe my-soon-to-be-discovered feline fish had swum in these very waters, I thought as new inspiration seized me.

Rising and falling, courtesy of the blowing wind, the waves seemed to be in a hurry to cross an invisible finishing line. If only the waves could voice their thoughts, then I would follow them to the white feline fish. At 6,889,000 ha, Lake Victoria is the second largest fresh water. This was my maiden fishing trip in the lake. Apart from the feline fish, I also hoped to capture the highly valued Nile Perch and some tilapia for dinner.

Fifty years earlier in 1954, Kenya’s colonial government had introduced nile perch into Lake Victoria. The alien fish thrived unbothered until the mid 80s when it became popular on the export market. That popularity triggered a stampede into Lake Victoria for the new lake gold. Between 1996 and 2009, Kenya exported between 18,000 and 42,000 tonnes of Nile Perch, earning private exporters and the country millions of dollars in foreign exchange revenue. The once populous fish is now on the wane.

As if to revenge its rapid demise, these predatory fish have over the years gobbled up three hundred species of indigenous cichlids to extinction.

I hope the yet-to-be sighted feline shoal will live to be fished by my grandchildren, I sighed my hope. The little sigh tugged at my heart as I watched two perches race to the deeps. Hot on their heels was a musical swoosh of waves whose fresh smell prompted my tongue to stick out in an attempt to taste the lingering freshness.

Sunrays were now stretching hither and thither as the sun continued its gentle rise. My merry heart was imbibed into the orange constellation of the early morning rays but my eyes continued to devour the series of waves that kept racing towards the dhow. I found myself bending time and again to scoop the new arrivals in my arms. The water was icy in my palms but the lake breeze was a balm on my face. I felt a sudden sensation to dive into the water and shout for the feline fellow to come forth.

We were deep in the lake now. Water bordered us on every side. It bordered on crystal clear and this enabled me to sight the gyrating fish below us. Lake Victoria is said to have one hundred and seventy seven species of fish but my untrained eye deemed all the fish beneath me to possess striking resemblances.

I couldn’t tell a tilapia from a perch. And I didn’t realize that I was actually looking at cichlids. They were probably from Uganda, I thought, or Tanzania. Their country waters of origin didn’t lessen their fish status. Divergence was for them, a mere prelude for convergence. The East African community should follow their finsteps.

Could this be the spot that is eighty meters deep? I wondered. This was one of the few surviving facts from my high school Geography lessons. I wondered whether Usain Bolt would still come out tops in an eighty-meter dash down the deeps. I had no idea that he would probably encounter one too many live reptile obstacles prettier than the rather stout Nile perch.

Neither did I know that the lake owed its incredible volume in part to six major Kenyan rivers that deposited a whooping 7.3 billion cubic meter of water into it annually. River Nzoia was one of these rivers and it passed just outside one my colleague’s village. 

As we drifted past a lone isle, I gazed peacefully at shorelines unfettered by ship dockings and sheep grazing. Instead, they were dotted with tiny craggy caves, shaggy shrubs, fluffy pebbles and trendy sea birds whose names I didn’t know. The isle’s basalt-like rocks were rather menacing. Tonnes of terns were tarnishing the rugged image of the shorelines with their fluffy presence. The plumage of the terns was a white-blue color, just like the waters they loved so.

My ever-keen gaze came face to face with an array of water lilies that were floating near the white-blue plumage of a sulking tern. The lilies’ purple flowers were like a waving dark spot. Shoal of bass and small fish, locally known as dagaa circled around the light in our boat, dancing to our artificial light. Hundreds of the tiny fish wander back into the deeps and end up in the bellies of several predatory bass cronies.

I am oblivious of this buffet because the dining is taking place beyond the realm of my physical eyes. Besides, my gaze is preoccupied with the incredible metallic blue color of approaching waves. This metallic aspect reminds me of beetles, which in turn reminds me of a certain South American beetle that made a gallant effort to save my precious lake from the pervasive and destructive hyacinth.

This beetle from the Neochetina family munched away the South American weed with gusto. Probably the same gusto with which I was now scanning some colorful birds overhead. They were papyrus canaries and were gliding slowly, as if to put up with the slow pace of our dhow. I knew that the canaries were from the nearby Sio Port swamp.


Were the chirping canaries also bound for the Lulwe archipelago? I wondered. If I could catch one of them, I would band it and send it to the Great Egret, a bird that I was intensely infatuated with. Graceful like a giraffe and white like the inside of a coconut, the egret continues to grace the shorelines and skylines of Lake Victoria.