Uncharted waters: Meet the female coxswains of Lake Turkana

Samal Julie (left) with her colleague Judy Achia who are both coxswains. The Kerio Valley Development Authority employees are the only women leading rescue missions and safety operations on Lake Turkana.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • At Ebenezer landing bay on the shores of Lake Turkana are two women who lead rescue missions and safety operations in Lake Turkana.
  • Currently, they are training fishermen on boat riding and safety, and in the event of an emergency on the lake, they are tasked with leading the rescue mission.
  • Joseph Ekiru, who has fished in the lake for 40 years, says he never imagined he would set eyes on a female coxswain.

Ebenezer landing bay on the shores of Lake Turkana is a beehive of activity.

Fishers prepare their gear, others are servicing their boats, while some are ferrying their catch. And you will not miss to notice tourists sunbathing on the sandy shores.

In the midst of all these, two women stand out - Julie Samal and Judy Achia.

They are trailblazer coxswains who broke the cultural stereotypes to train as boat crew. They now lead rescue missions and safety operations in Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake.

“It was in 2013 when my employer, Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA), seeing the boat safety gap in Lake Turkana, decided to offer scholarship to anyone willing to train on maritime welfare. Together with my peer and two men, we took up the task and went to Bandari College to train as coxswains,” says Ms Samal, a mother of two.

“I remember when my community learnt that I was headed to Mombasa to train as a coxswain and in marine rescue; they vehemently objected. Some people told me I should not attempt to be like a man,” she narrates as she services her boat.

Samal Julie who works as a coxswain on Lake Turkana in Turkana County.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

She recalls being warned that they would never get husbands.

“It was not an easy task for us because we had to go through rigorous training with men. But our resilience and determination kept us going until we successfully completed the training,” recalls Ms Samal.

The three-month training saw them gain skills in marine rescue, tidal effects, boat safety and diving, first aid, and life-saving, among others.

They are the only female coxswains in Turkana.

Currently, they are training fishermen on boat riding and safety, and in the event of an emergency on the lake, they are tasked with leading the rescue mission.

Uncharted waters: Meet the female coxswains of Lake Turkana

“We also take passengers to various destinations around the lake, as well as transporting fishermen and tourists to the lake’s three islands,” she says.

Joseph Ekiru, who has fished in the lake for 40 years, says he never imagined he would set eyes on a female coxswain.

“We gathered at the shore to witness how the two would handle the boats. No passenger got on board for fear that the boats would capsize. But we cheered them when they returned to shore after an hour in the water,” recalls Mr Ekiru on the first time the two women went into the lake.

Judy Achia (standing left) with her colleague Samal Julie, doing what they do best at Kalokol area in Lake Turkana on September 19, 2021.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

However, their first experience in the lake, as they recall, was not for the faint hearted.

“The waves were high and the wind and sun unforgiving, and we thought we might capsize. Our determination and skills pushed us to love the job,” Ms Samal explains.

Their most difficult task came in March, 2015. It also marked the turning point for the community’s attitude towards them. They were still relatively fresh from college when a boat capsized on the lake, killing 20 people.  

“We retrieved the bodies after a boat overloaded with fishermen capsized. Without our skills and courage, the men that didn't have faith in us would have continued to despise us,” she reminisces.

They were the only women among men at Daraja Mbili Point to fully participate in the recovery mission.

Ms Samal says the job is like any other and urges more women to join them.

Her colleague, Ms Achia, also a mother of two, says the advantage of their job is that work is readily available since they are the only women.

"Just because of the bodies we successfully retrieved, we earned the confidence of men who are now more supportive and ready to work with us," she says.

Judy Achia a coxswain, speaks to nation.africa from Lake Turkana on September 21, 2021.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Fishing in the lake is passed down the generations and many people don't pay attention to simple safety measures like investing in life jackets or monitoring waves.

The two women work with beach management units to educate fishermen on the importance of safety guidelines, which include the dangers of overloading.

Working under KVDA, they also lead rescue teams in River Turkwel.

“The main challenge at the moment is lack of lights to guide us when darkness falls. When we have to respond to a rescue mission in the evening, sailing into the night is very dangerous for us," says Ms Achia.

“Since our mission was primarily to rescue and offer safety awareness to lake users, many passengers kept away whenever we would navigate a boat. But over time, they have accepted us and now many prefer us.”

Some passengers they have carried are Turkana Governor Josphat Nanok, MPs, MCAs and other leaders.

Ms Achia urges both national and county governments to erect lights at strategic positions on the lake to ease their work.

“We have since got married, contrary to the belief that if we broke cultural norms men would shy away from us. We want to further our education in marine studies and advocate other women to venture into male-dominated courses,” she says.

The lake is mostly used by fishermen, tourists and travellers shuttling between Turkana and Marsabit counties.

The county government has increased the use of the lake for the community’s economic gains. Besides the two coxswains, the county has trained more personnel in marine courses.

KVDA Managing Director Sammy Naporos, says safety concerns on the lake prompted the authority to recruit skilled coxswains.

“Tragedies have since reduced from four cases per month to one in every four months. Our mission was to capacity-build the fishermen and other boat riders on safety, and I believe we have achieved that.”

Joseph Ekiru, a fisherman at Lake Turkana has fished in the lake for 40 years. He says he never imagined he would set eyes on a female coxswain. 

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Last year, KVDA spent Sh2 million on safety gear, which was distributed to boat users.

“We shall, in collaboration with other partners, erect lights on strategic areas to aid in night vision and assist the crew in navigation,” he promises.

The vast lake is manned by the Kenya Wildlife Service alongside other stakeholders including Fisheries Department, KVDA, the Kenya Maritime Authority and recently, Kenya Coast Guards.

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