The Fishermen of Jinja Photo by Torbjörn Alander

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.

"The best part of beauty is that which no picture can express." Francis Bacon

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.

Jinja 2021 bFish from Lake Victoria

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…

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Last modified on Sunday, 24 October 2021 17:36

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