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.

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 savouring 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.

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