Koginga beach

Koginga beach in Homa Bay town on January 14, 2021. Dead fish have been spotted in some beaches along the shores of Lake Victoria.

| George Odiwour | Nation Media Group

For our fish, misfortunes never come singly but in battalions

What you need to know:

  • Most of the dead fish found on the Ugandan shores of Lakes Victoria and Kioga, and banks of the Nile are the gigantic mbuta Nile perch.
  • Apart from the sheer shock of discovering the dead fish, the lake-dwellers’ first reaction was suspicion that their scaly treasures had been poisoned. 

“Nyamgondho Wuod (son of) Ombare” is one of Kenya’s best-known oral tales. It is the story of the ungrateful fisherman who starts off destitute, acquires fabulous wealth and then loses it all through his ungratefulness to the wife who had earned it for him.

My late friend Benedict Onyango Ogutu recorded the tale in his seminal collection, Keep My Words, and it has been retold and dramatised by numerous other authors.

Nyamgondho’s rags-to-riches and back-to-rags story starts and ends with fishing and the waters of Lake Victoria.

Out in Busia and Budalangi, when you hear the name “Mang’eni”, you know that its bearer was born in a season of plentiful fish catches from the Lake.

Further west and south, in Uganda and the West Lake (Bukoba) Region of Tanzania, the legendary lake native and sailor, variously called Mugasa, Mugasha or Mukasa, is deified as a patron of lake-farers and a spirit of fertility and plenty.

My friends and colleagues, Profs Mlinzi Mulokozi of Dar es Salaam and Nyambura Mpesha, formerly of KU, have given us both scholarly and literary works of the epic exploits of Mugasa.

Dying in large numbers

The lakes and their fish are thus very serious business for all of us Jonam (lake and river) communities. Fish and the “big waters” in which they thrive are not only food and economic resources. They also in many ways define our cultural identities and practices.

Lake Victoria, for example, called Nam Lolwe in Kenya, is known as Nalubaale (seat of the divinities) in Uganda. Most Waganda, like me, believe that their origin (Eden) is in the Sese Islands, just about 45 kilometres off the mainland at Entebbe City, which is itself built on a peninsula.

A necessary ingredient in the meal marking the official naming of Waganda children, and their acceptance within their lineages, is the nkejje (mackerel) fish from the Sese Islands.

I am sure that other communities around all the lakes, from Malawi (Nyasa), Tanganyika through Kivu, Albert to Kioga and back to Victoria, with their related river networks, including the Nile, have similar social and spiritual attachments to them.

That is why we call the region lacustrine (lake complex) or “Great Lakes” (Maziwa Makuu). We depend on the lakes, and they define us in many significant ways.

We thus have cause to be concerned and alarmed at reports that fish in our lakes are dying and washing on to our shores in large numbers. Significantly, too, most of the dead fish found on the Ugandan shores of Lakes Victoria and Kioga, and banks of the Nile are not the humble omena or nkejje, but the gigantic mbuta Nile perch, that can weigh as much as several score kilogrammes when fully grown.

Shortage of oxygen

Apart from the sheer shock of discovering the dead fish, the lake-dwellers’ first reaction was suspicion that their scaly treasures had been poisoned. Such evils have happened in the past.

Ignorant and crooked-minded people have from time to time considered poison to be a viable fishing method, maximising their catches! This, of course, is an unforgivable sin and crime in the mind of anyone who lives by and loves the lake waters and all that they hold.

Comfortingly, for now, our scientists tell us that their findings from examining the recently spotted dead fish show no signs of poisoning. Rather, they attribute the fish deaths to seriously low levels of oxygen in some parts of the water bodies.

The scientists give two probable explanations for this critical shortage of oxygen that fish, like the rest of us breathing creatures, need for survival. One explanation is what the scientists at Uganda’s National Environmental Authority (NEMA) call a “lake overturn”, and the other is rotting water hyacinth.

The “lake overturn”, the experts say, is a phenomenon that causes water from the bottom of the lake, which is low in oxygen, to come up and mix with the upper layers, where the fish live. The resulting reduction in the oxygen seriously affects the fish, apparently fatally in the case of the Nile perch.

A recent news report says the local fisher-folk know of the phenomenon and they imaginatively call it “kaliro” (little fire).

As for the water hyacinth, it is a decades-long problem on most of our open water bodies and we are yet to find a lasting solution to it and its other weedy relatives.

Fish lives do matter

Sometimes it invades our lakes and rivers so thickly and aggressively that even simple water travel through it becomes impossible.

This is when we rush in, crisis managing, with our “harvesters” and dredgers. We cut through it, drag the matted mess to the shores and banks, only for them to start growing and floating back again even before our backs are turned.

Obviously, the prolonged hyacinth cover affects the quality of the waters in which the fish are supposed to thrive. Even more sinister is the development that, as the weed ages and drops down into the depths of the waters, it absorbs even more oxygen from them as it rots. For our fish, misfortunes come not single spies but in battalions. What can a fish lover like me do?

While accepting the scientific hypothesis that the fish are dying of lack of oxygen and not of poison, we must ask ourselves a few questions about our own concern about the water around us and the environment in general. We may not be deliberately dumping poison into the lakes to kill the fish. Do we, however, care about the tons of plastics, industrial waste, agricultural chemicals and raw sewage that are dumped or washed into our waters every day?

We drive our vehicles onto lake shores and river banks for a clean shining wash. The dirt and oily and hydraulic wastes from them end up (or is it down) in the water. We pile stones and marram into the wetlands and streams around our water bodies, in order to build glittering mansions and apartments. Are we sparing a thought for our lakes, and our fish?

Fish lives do matter. Let us not be Nyamgondhos. Mbuta oyee!

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]

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