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Fishing Stories from Jinja

From the horizon, the sun takes time to rise; it is an orangy subdued lighting offering its warmth to the waters of Lake Victoria while chasing the morning mist. Very early, on the shore of Kingfisher Safari Resort, men are busy cleaning and pushing their wooden boats into the waters. While men spend prolonged time fishing in the lake, women fetch water from the lake’s sandy bank. It also offers them a chattering salon when they dive their hands in the water to wash their clothes. They pour back the grey dirty lather and their last concern is their contribution to the degradation of the lake ecosystems.

These ecosystems are the source of the fish that their husbands bring back home. Godfrey Kasadha is one of these fishermen, his friends have teasingly nicknamed him “wamukisa”- the lucky man. This morning, he feels guilty to be late as the sun woke up before him. He is not very optimistic that he’ll have a big catch but his face wears a big smile that lights up his hope.

A fisherman in the middle of Lake Victoria

The boat that Kasadha rides is a wooden boat painted red from his close friend. It is jointed together by pieces of metal that are skillfully nailed in the wood. Inside it, he has a green jerry can smaller than the ones the women use to fetch water within a stone’s throw. Inside the green recipient, he keeps his fishing secret comprising three live moon fishes that serve as bait to the Nile perches that he patiently chases in the warm water.

From his fishing experience, he has learned the wisdom of gratefully accepting the lake’s generosity or its miserliness. He cruelly holes the heads of his bait with different hooks and ties them to a kamba (fishing line) that he releases in the deep calm water of the lake. Lake Victoria’s maximum depth can reach 83 meters. Today, Kasadha uses one of the nine types of hooks that fishermen utilize in his neighborhood. He chose fish-hook number seven because it has a sharp tongue and the Nile perch can never escape from it, and this wamukisa man assures that the number five can catch a crocodile!

As he paddles in this giant tropical lake, the world’s largest, which is two and a half times larger than the size of Rwanda, he careful watches the movements of the live moon fish. In case of attack, the bait will struggle to survive and the fisherman will be ready to trap the perch.

It’s like a seduction game and the perch is like a man who blindly follows and falls under a woman’s charm. But unfortunately for the perch, the spell is broken when it takes the bait.

Even if Kasadha didn’t access higher levels of education, he masters his profession. Moreover, he knows very well the history of the region.

Back in 1906, Jinja was just a fishing village that developed into the industrial heart of Uganda till the late 1970s. Now, the town is the second largest in the country. The name Jinja came from local baganda workers who were employed on the other side of the Nile River, the Basoga side, to break the gigantic stones and clear the land. Each morning, they called each other and said “Let’s go to that Jinja, to that stone” and since then the name Jinja held and represents the capital of the Busoga kingdom.

As Kasadha shares the story of his Jinja, he changes the paddle from left to right and heads for the “real source” of the Nile. Along the way, enyange (egrets) and embata (black swans) are the companions of the fishermen. The panorama in front of him is two tiny islands and some rocks. One of these lands is the kingdom of birds that rest on different vegetation species and have decorated the ground with their whitish droppings; the second is small handcraft businesses sheltered by huts. The rock pile is the “0 degree” stones symbolizing the reference point of the beginning of the Nile River as marked by John H. Speke. From the land, his statute carefully but silently scrutinizes all the visitors of Nile River.

At the source, water comes from underground and spins before flowing to Lake Victoria. Kasadha believes that 30% of the Nile water comes from beneath and the 70% remaining from Lake Victoria.

The fishing continues and Kasadha has not yet caught anything. He looks with envying eyes at others who came earlier than him and who have already caught some perches.

He often checks his kamba but the moon fish are still floating in the water. As he slowly rounds the source, he takes time to admire the comeliness of Jinja. He watches a multicolored small bird with an orange beck. This tiny bird hides constantly in the bushes and it is chance that this wamukisa man sees it. On another branch, a woodland bird is carelessly hanging.

On the Baganda side of the Nile River, monkeys play in the woods while a big black-yellowed lizard (the size of a crocodile baby) stares defiantly at Kasadha, before crawling back in the bushes.

As Kasadha moves forward, he leaves behind him the spinning water and reflects about how fishing has changed his economy. He lost his father so early that he had no other choice than helping his mother to carry agriculture products as a middle man. He could only earn around 4,000 Ugandan shillings ($1.33 USD). Currently, when he is lucky, he can make 200,000 shillings ($66.62 USD) from fishing and other small jobs.

okuvuba kwacyusa oburamu bwangge”- Fishing has changed my life.

It is worth noting that 20% of Uganda is water. In 2010, the country earned $83.3 million from the fishing industry, with the highest peak ever of $143,168 million in 2005. According to the Ugandan Department of Fisheries Resources, in 2011, aquaculture production was 100,000 metric tons and is expected to boost up to 1 million metric tons in this year. At the same time, with this ambition, the department recognizes that the exportation to international markets has recently declined due to falling stocks, overfishing and expansions of regional markets, and of course due to declining catches.

Declining catches is what Kasadha is experiencing this morning. However, he just attributes that drop to the fact that the sun rose before him and to the dry season, as the sun enlightens the waters, allowing the fish to hide more successfully. For him, it’s not the existing negative effects of climate change, overfishing or pollution of the lake. For him, it’s just not the productive season that usually generates cash.

The money that Kasadha gets from his job is spent to support his extended family but also to pay for the tuition fees of his son.

Unlike him, hundreds of other fishermen spoil their earnings with sex workers. While the national HIV+ incidence is only 7%, it reaches around 40% in the fishermen circle. Their hazardous job jeopardizes them to risk their lives in the cloudy waters of Lake Victoria.

They believe in imminent attacks from crocodiles or drowning accidents. Some have fished the corpses of their friends and are afraid that one day, it could be their own corpse that other fishermen will bring back. They earn much more compared to other informal occupations in Uganda but they are the ones whose life expectancy is threatened due to the dangers of the water, but mainly due to their irresponsible behaviors including unprotected sex. Kasadha doesn’t face these threats as he fishes near the water’s edge but he knows very well the dangers of the work.

Lake Victoria is shared by Tanzania (51%), Uganda (43%) and Kenya (6%) with over 30 million people living in its basin, directly or indirectly benefitting from this rich natural resource. This lake is the most important inland fishery production in Africa and this sector employs between one million and 1.5 million nationals in Uganda. As this represents a considerable number of individuals who are exposed, the careless sexual behavior of fishermen constitutes an alarming menace to this industry with an incredible growth potential. In addition, access to government health services is still a challenge for the Jinja municipality.

Another challenge in Jinja is the regulation of fishery activities and the protection of Lake Victoria’s biodiversity. The only restriction imposed to fishermen is the use of the fishing nets and no moral law prevents the women from polluting the lake when they are cleaning their clothes.

Kasadha observes another group of women with an ironic smile. “You see, women’s role is to wash clothes and fetch water. They wait for their husbands’ catches. They can’t fish because once they catch a fish they scream and give jumps. For them, fishing is a joke”. His ironic smile has turned into a proud and loud laughter that shakes his strong shoulders.

For the umpteenth time, Kasadha checks the kamba and decides that he is not blessed today; he is not the wamukisa Kasadha. He takes the moon fish, removes the sharp hook, leaving stains of blood on his grey face and puts it back in the green jerry can. He will keep the bait alive for the next perch fishing. Even if did not catch anything, he always loves to share his boat with tourists and help them discover the wonders of Jinja.

The region’s history and the fishing rides are not the sole treasures that Kasadha shares with people, but also the pride of having the Nile River and Lake Victoria as the chief sources of water for Egypt. Curiously, the same pride extends to miles away in Rwanda where local abasare (fishermen in Kinyarwanda) are convinced they are the primary feeders of the Egyptians. Both convictions are accurate as water from Rwanda flows to Lake Victoria for 6650km (4132 miles) journey to the Mediterranean Sea.

Now it’s around 9:00am and the sun is hotly burning the fisherman’s face. Far in the lake, four boats are still navigating in the lake’s waters while their occupants are more discussing than fishing.

Once, it took a week for Kasadha to catch a fish. Another time with a friend he caught a 60kg perch measuring two meters. The uncertainties, despairs and surprises are part of the fishing stories of Jinja.

Tomorrow morning, Kasadha will take his own boat and use worms to fish tilapia. The favorite tilapia…