A dirt road runs into Abimbo, a small fishing village along Lake Victoria, it stops at the edge of the shore near an open-air market buzzing with activity. Little egrets with white and buff plumage perching on empty boats and rocks ubiquitously feature throughout the shore. It is dawn and as the rising sun gradually cast its light on the ebbing waters, dozens of boats dock on the shore while dozens of others can be seen from a distance approaching. A large crowd mainly comprising of women begin to gather and scramble around the docked boats. They shout themselves hoarse in a bid to catch the attention of fishmongers and fishermen who have just arrived after a long night of fishing. It is survival for the fittest as they holler and jostle to get fish.
Around the corner, a small group of women are busy cleaning, cutting and laying out to dry huge piles of sardines and nile perch that they had acquired earlier on — perhaps a testament to the adage “the early bird catches the worm.” Another group stands besides them, troughs in hand, pensively waiting for the approaching boats. Some women with sleeping infants tied to their backs are selling food— mostly tea and mandazi (Kenyan doughnut) to frail-looking fishermen. The unperturbed infants move to the sway of their mothers, as they bend and shuffle around to serve their customers. A strong acrid smell of raw fish dominantly wafts on the air.
Our outfits— jeans, t-shirts and sport shoes betray us. We were hoping to blend in, but we stood out conspicuously and became subject to long curious stares from the locals. We catch the attention of a tall lanky man in tattered black shorts and a turquoise faded t- shirt. He introduces himself as Jakwath, a tour guide by day and fisherman by night. He offers to take us on a boat trip to see the islands of Lake Victoria. We politely decline. Undeterred, he gives us a spiel of the breathtaking views that the Islands have to offer for only Ksh.300 ($3 USD). On second thought, we decide to take him up on his offer but instead of the Islands we ask him to take us around Abimbo.
Abimbo has an otherworldly feel. Away from the open-air market, the surrounding areas are eerie and still. The mud huts with thatched roofs spread out across the village seem deserted. We walk past an elderly woman balancing stacks of dry fish in a basket on her head. We begin to make small talk about fish, its nutritional value and economic significance to fishing communities. “This fishing business is no joke,” Jakwath chimes in. He pauses for a while then and steeps his feet in water to get rid of sand on his feet. “You could get killed by the waters or by Ugandan soldiers. I haven’t gone fishing for weeks because I am still recovering from an attack by Ugandan soldiers. Those people have no mercy, they are animals,” he declares. We continue to walk along a small sandy path widening towards the main dirt road as Jakwath narrates a harrowing account of his experience at the hands of Ugandan soldiers.
For almost two decades, Jakwath has been fishing in Lake Victoria. He started out at the age of sixteen after dropping out of school. “With my stomach growling due to hunger, I couldn’t concentrate in class. The teachers would beat me up because I performed poorly. After awhile I lost all interest in education and decided I’d rather take my chances out in the lake and start making money. I don’t regret this decision because even my former classmates who finished school and performed well in their exams are out here fishing with me. Sometimes I make more money than they do.” He admits that initially things were okay until the Ugandan government began sending an increased number of armed soldiers to the lake. “These soldiers are like terrorists. When they catch you, you are as good as dead, ” Jakwath explains.
Since the early 2000s, Kenya and Uganda have been embroiled in an intense border dispute revolving around Lake Victoria. While Kenya holds 6 percent of the lake surface, Uganda 45 percent and Tanzania 49 percent, there is no clear demarcation of their marine borders. The increasing levels of tension are mainly fuelled by the decreasing levels of fish yields on Lake Victoria. In the 1990s, there was a nile perch boom on Lake Victoria that provided income to thousands of fishing communities in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Subsequently, small fleets of fishing canoes were replaced by larger motorized boats in order to maximize fish yields. It is estimated that the annual value of earnings from fish exports from the lake was at least $600 million USD. Overtime, fish stocks and exports dropped due to overfishing as tiny, immature breeding fish were pulled out in order to meet the growing demands of the many players on the lake. In response, the Ugandan government deployed its military forces to clump down on illegal fishing by Kenyan fishermen.
Jakwath recounts how a month ago, he and his team of four fishermen were out in the lake. They had started their journey at 6pm in the evening—a little late than usual since their boat’s engine was acting up. As ominous dark clouds slowly gathered overhead, he admits feeling a little sickly and uneasy. He wanted to stay behind but the thought of feeding eight hungry mouths with empty pockets compelled him to carry on with the rest of the crew. He now wishes he could have listened to his instincts. As they sailed through the night, casting nets and exchanging witty banter and tales, his nerves calmed down. They managed to catch a sizable load of nile perch and were assured of getting at least Ksh.1,000 ($ 10 USD) each, after they had paid the boat owner and the middle men. From time to time, they would notice small lantern lights emanating from other fishermen’s boat beaming from a distance. However, one boat kept trailing after them for hours. Ajowi, one of the crew members jokingly suggested that they were being followed by Somali pirates. The crew laughed it off knowing too well that Somali pirates target ships in the Indian Ocean and not fishermen on Lake Victoria. They continued to fish, with their guards up as the boat trailing them drew closer. If worse came to worse, they were a clique of five able-bodied men with knives and cudgels to defend themselves.
To their dismay, four stoic-looking men in military gear,carrying AK-47 rifles flagged down their boat. In a blink of an eye, two of the soldiers jumped inside their boat, drew their guns and commanded them to lie down. “Why are you fishing illegally in Ugandan waters?” one of the soldiers yelled as they aggressively kicked and stomped on Jakwath and his crew. “ But Sir, this is Kenya, we are nowhere near Uganda. We have fished here for many years” Ajowi tried to explain. He was met by a fierce blow on the back of his head. “The land may be yours but these waters belong to Uganda” one of the soldiers responded. He then ordered Jakwath to steer the boat and follow the lead of the other soldiers on the speed boat. For unknown amounts of time, they sailed until it was almost dawn. They reached an unfamiliar island and docked their boats. They were met by three other soldiers who did not hesitate to jump in with kicks and blows. They drag Jakwath and the other fishermen to a small shack, a makeshift prison—dark and filthy.
To the left side of the main dirt road, we pass through a narrow, canopy-forested alley covered with scraggly grass. There are a handful of mud thatched huts in the vicinity. “Do you see that?” Jakwath asks pointing at a fresh grave next to one of the huts. “ That is where we buried Ajowi, four days ago.” “Oh no, Ajowi, the guy you went fishing with?,” My partner asks in dismay. “Yes, sadly Ajowi didn’t make it.”
“After confiscating our boat, fishing gear and the fish we caught, the soldiers left us in the shack for days without food and water. From time to time, they would ambush us and beat us up. When we begged them for food and water, they brought us dirty water from the lake and forced us to eat raw stale fish. They demanded that we pay a fine of Ksh. 30,000 ($300 USD) for fishing illegally. They gave us a mobile phone to call our families so they can send money. However, none of our families could come up with the full amount. Even after selling all our chicken and borrowing money from our neighbours, my wife was only able to come up with Ksh. 5,000 ($50 USD). Ajowi and the other fishermen managed to raise Ksh.8,000 ($80USD). They sent the money to the soldiers through M-Pesa (a mobile money transfer service). For days, they refused to let us go but after catching another group of Kenyan fisherman, the shack we were in became very congested. They decided to release us but not before torturing us. They took turns whipping and stomping on us and ordered us to run and not look back. We run for our lives, leaving behind our boat and everything we owned. After running for hours, we came across a small village. The villagers were kind enough to give us food and water. By this time Ajowi was very weak, he had head injuries. We rushed him to a nearby dispensary for treatment using one of the villagers bicycles but it was too late. He succumbed to his injuries and died. I will never forget the look on his wife and children’s face when I broke the news to them. He was such as young kind-hearted person,” he says remorsefully.
Completely dumbfounded by Jakwath’s account, we offer our heartfelt remorse and sympathy. “ Thank you. We leave everything to God.” He says. He quickly changes the subject “ So what more do you want to see? There is nothing much to see in this village. I can still take you to the Islands.” he offers. “But what about the Ugandan soldiers?”my partners asks. Jakwath blurts out a laugh “ The waters may be theirs but the Islands are ours.” We all laugh. Part of me is glad that even after his excruciating experience Jakwath is not mangled by life but still maintains a sense of humor.