In the name of the forefathers: Of lake witchcraft and strange beliefs

Fishing vessels named after departed relatives. This is meant to invoke such spirits to protect the fishermen and also bring good catch in the waters.

Photo credit: Kassim Adinasi | Nation Media Group.

The gods of the lake must be appeased from time to time, the fisherfolk say.

They determine whether a fishing expedition would be successful or not.

“Mag nam ng’eny” (the lake has many secrets) is a common phrase in Lake Victoria and often times, many who go fishing invoke the spirits and supernatural powers to flourish.

Despite advances in technology, fishing here is widely done using the rudimentary methods of boats, fishing lines for Nile perch and fishing nets for other types of fish.

As much as there is more cage fishing, the majority of fishermen still depend on fishing directly from the lake.

They name their vessels after their forefathers. Those who do this hold that it not only invites good from the departed but also protects them from the fury of the waters.

Mr Samuel Ogola, from Luanda Kotieno beach in Siaya County, has named his vessel Ongalo Ka'Nyipiedho Nyang’ dhi momo, after his grandfather, who was a successful fisherman.

“Every time I go to the lake at night, I must invoke the spirit of my departed grandfather; this is meant to enhance my catch and would also keep away the misfortunes that might befall me,” says Mr Ogola, a Form Two dropout and a father of three.

Mr Ogola specialises in fishing the Nile perch and gets an average of 12kg every day.

“My grandfather had four wives and through fishing he managed to keep his family together. Every time I get to the deep end of the lake, there is a specific invocation that pulls fish to the lines,” he says.

Vessels named after people are often designed in a way that depicts the person. For instance, Mr Ogola’s vessel has white fibres at the edge fitted with goat horns.

“The white fibres represent the grey beards that my grandfather had, so from far one would easily know that this is a male fishing vessel. The goat horns symbolise bravery. The fibres are supposed to be brushed till they are smooth,” he explains.

But Mr William Arika, another fisherman from Luanda Kotieno, has named his vessel after his grandmother, Awino Nyobuola nyar Ruoth ja Nawi (Awino Nyobuola, daughter of a chief, a female witch doctor) who was a powerful magician.

The name is meant to bring the powers for a good catch and protect the grandson every time he goes out to fish.

The vessel also has fibres at the edge but they are maroon to represent the female gender.

“Fishermen used to visit my grandmother frequently to get charms that would protect his boat from capsizing in times when violent waves caught them in the lake,” he says.

“For me, every time I get to the lake and the waves begin hitting the vessel, there is a specific incantation that I recite and the waves subside.”

He adds: “The fishermen understand the role of spirits in this business; sometimes when the spirits are hungry, they cause calamities, which may include reduction in fish in the lake and sometimes accidents.”

Enhancing the catch

It is the case at Misori Beach in Rarieda where fishermen use traditional methods to enhance their catch.

Mzee Harrison Owiny, from Uyoma Kobong’, says the most common practice that fishermen have maintained is forbidding women from boarding a vessel used for fishing.

“A woman is not allowed to step into the vessel that is used for fishing because women are associated with ‘mkolo’ or bad luck when it comes to fishing. If a woman gets into a fishing vessel, it is advisable for the vessel to be used for water transportation but not for fishing,” notes Mr Owiny.

If a fisherman comes across a floating human body, he is not supposed to run away, because that brings bad luck.

“People die in the lake, some from capsizing boats or even animal attacks,” says Mr Owiny.

“It is important for the fisherman to tie the body and pull it out to the shore and inform the people about it for the relatives to get the body, and it will bring you good luck by increasing your catch.”

Mr Owiny explains that the rope used to pull the body out is a source of good tidings for fishermen.

“That rope attracts fish when tied on the fishing nets or fishing lines. This has been practised for many decades and works very well. If you do your investigations well, you find that most of the successful fishermen use some of these methods,” he says.

Fishermen also believe that theft of fishing gear is reduced through witchcraft and other traditional methods.

“Though it is not common among the current generation of fishermen, there is use of charms that would confuse the thieves,” adds Mr Owiny.

“The charm that we used when fishing was buffalo excrement, which was common in South Nyanza. It would be mixed with some other traditional herbs and then burned inside the vessel.”

The smoke from the burning mixture invokes the spirits, which would confuse anyone planning to steal the vessel and fishing gear.