Isaiah Ochieng is a worried man. Whenever the seasoned fisherman sets out for an expedition, foreboding thoughts dampen his spirits.
The frequent arrests of fishermen by security officials from Uganda and Tanzania have made their struggle for a livelihood in the lake a nightmare.
Whenever they leave at night and return safely at dawn, they attribute the success of the mission to a miracle.
“Fishing has become a tough task. We have to keep dodging Ugandan and Tanzanian security agents who have this notion that all Lake Victoria waters belong to them,” says Mr Ochieng.
Despite the harassment by agents from the two countries, there’s a loud silence from local authorities. He feels hopeless and accuses the government of doing nothing to protect its citizens.
“Our government has neglected us, leaving us to suffer at the hands of security officials from Uganda and Tanzania,” he says.
Fishermen are forced to venture deep into the lake as they search for fish and end up exposing themselves to danger. Many from Homa Bay and Migori have been arrested by foreign forces after accidentally crossing the boundaries.
Many have been detained and fined heavily for allegedly fishing without permission. Others have been killed.
Mr Ochieng, the Litare Beach Management Unit chairman, says though he has been navigating the waters all his life, fishing has become risky.
He pleads with the government to deploy the Kenya Coast Guard to the region, saying the team will help in countering the unpredictable attacks from Uganda and Tanzania security agents.
“We are pleading with our government to help us. It has abandoned us for a long time. It should also invest in our security and ensure our waters are safe. The government should look at Lake Victoria and take care of its fishermen,” says Mr Ochieng.
He partly blames politicians, who only approach them for support during campaigns.
“We are now wise and will only vote for those who have assisted us. We have taken loans, but we cannot service them because they keep seizing our boats. We deserve to be heard by the government. Due to fear, we cannot go deep into the waters, because Ugandans will arrest us,” he says.
Once arrested, they are released after paying heavy fines, the least being Sh25,000. Only the lucky ones raise the fines and return home.
“Over 200 boats are lying idle. We’ve become poor in our own land, yet Lake Victoria is an enormous resource. We work very hard to enrich our neighbours. This is unfair,” offers Mr Ochieng.
Another fisherman, Gordon Owiti, is yet to recover from the harrowing experience he underwent while in detention in Tanzania.
“It hurts to know that no one cares. You go fishing to eke out a living and you end up in police cells for robbery with violence charges. Your government then behaves as if it does not exist, leaving your fate in the hands of foreigners. Relatives have to contribute money to bail you out of prison. I was tortured and denied food,” says Mr Owiti, adding that he survived on food rations from other inmates.
Detained for two months
He’s among six Kenyans who were arrested and detained for two months after being charged with robbery with violence at Ruluba Island in Roria District.
They were arrested in June after a scuffle with their Tanzanian counterparts over the ownership of fishing gear. Four of them pleaded not guilty to the charges, while the other two were charged with “trespassing into Tanzanian waters”. They paid a Sh300,000 fine.
“They robbed Tanzanian fishermen of 26 Sangara fish worth TSh325,000 (about Sh17,000). They used machetes to threaten and attack their victims,” states the charge sheet.
On August 4, a man from Sindo Gateway Beach is reported to have been killed by Ugandan security agents and his body tossed into the lake. The Ugandan officers also arrested 36 fishermen and seized nine boats without clear reasons.
The man reportedly failed to obey orders to stop his boat. The two incidents led to tension in the lake and many Kenyans stopped fishing for several weeks. Mr Joshua Otieno, a fisherman from Mbita in Homa Bay County, urges the government to create a fund that will help them improve their welfare.
“The government should put in place a fund where fishermen can take loans at low interest rates,” said Mr Otieno.
The loans will enable them to practice cage fishing, he says. National Beach Management Unit chairman Tom Guda says the security crisis has worsened the situation in Lake Victoria.
“Our fishermen are often harassed by Ugandan security officials. They have their boats on our side and this causes fear among fishermen who can no longer conduct their business with ease,” he says.
He accuses local leaders for not taking up the matter.
He wants MPs whose constituencies border the lake to approach Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i and Foreign Affairs’ Raychelle Omamo to shed light on what plans the government has to protect fishermen.
“The government is not keen on protecting fishermen. Our MPs have also not taken seriously the suffering that we undergo. They need to summon relevant ministries and ask them where the problem is,” says Mr Guda.
“We may see increased cases of territorial disputes between Kenya and Uganda if our government continues being silent as the harassment continues. We many soon see more cases of Ugandans claiming islands like Migingo.”
Homa Bay County Commissioner Moses Lilan blames some fishermen for their woes, saying the lake is a shared resource and everyone using it should know the laws that govern fishing in the three countries.
After the arrest of the 36 men from Homa Bay, Mr Lilan sent a team of security officers from Kenya to negotiate their release. He says some cases of arrest and detention reach his office when it’s too late.
“Whenever one crosses into Uganda or Tanzania, he needs to make sure he familiarises himself with laws governing fishing in the other country,” Mr Lilan says.
Coast Guard base
Meanwhile, the government is fast-tracking the establishment of a base where Kenya Coast Guard personnel would operate from. This will be a temporary solution to some of the problems facing local fishermen.
Mr Lilan says the establishment of a KCG base in Mbita is a priority.
“The base will respond to security threats in the lake. It will be equipped with personnel and equipment to protect fishermen,” he notes.
Plans are also under way for Kenyan and Ugandan security officers to engage in talks to strengthen the relationship between the two counties.