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 my village. Maybe next time I go to Sicily, I will swim in the very waters that I swim in at my 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 daga 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 my physical eye realm. 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.

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Published in Freshwater

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