MIGINGO ISLAND, Lake Victoria — As the morning sun spreads across the inky waters of Lake Victoria one speck of an island glints in the early dawn light. Migingo is the only inhabited place in this part of Africa’s largest lake, a blip on the horizon coated in corrugated tin.
Around 500 fishermen, traders, police and prostitutes live on the island (see map below) that is less than an acre in size so almost every inch is covered in tin shacks.
They are here for one reason: fish, in particular the huge, heavy, silver-scaled Nile perch that lives in the deep waters around Migingo. It is a valuable but diminishing resource, and one worth fighting for.
A row between Kenya and Uganda over who owns the island led to threats of war this year as tiny contingents of armed security forces from each nation crowded onto Migingo claiming it as their own. Shots were never fired, although irate Kenyans did pull up a section of railway
that links landlocked Uganda to the Indian Ocean.
Instead of coming to blows the politicians came to an uneasy agreement: A joint border commission was to consult maps dating back to the 1920s and decide who owns the island and therefore the fish that swim around it. Months later the commission has not yet reported. Instead of clarity, there is an ominous silence.
Old men say that there used to be plenty of fish in Lake Victoria but now, with greater numbers of fishermen desperate to bring in bigger catches, with climate change causing the lake level to drop at an alarming rate, and with mushrooming lakeside communities and industries polluting the waters, the Nile perch is harder to catch. The fishing is best where the water is deepest, which is where Migingo is located. Closer to the shore the waters are fished out: at night hundreds of long wooden canoes with gas lamps burning on their prows bob on the water like Chinese funeral lanterns.
As a rooster crows its hoarse dawn call, John Obunge rubs sleepy eyes and swings his legs out of bed. The 34-year old Kenyan fisherman has lived on Migingo since 2004. “It is good fishing here because we save fuel and the tedious work of actually coming into the deep water to fish and then going back to the shore to deliver,” he explained.
Instead he lands his fish and middleman traders come out to buy from him. Although the waters here are still rich Obunge said, “We find the fish reducing in number day by day.” Catches of up to 450 pounds used to be common, now boats are coming back with a quarter of that.
Four years ago as word got out of the big catches, more and more fishermen came to the far-flung island, from the Kenyan shoreline two-hours away and from Uganda, three times further in the other direction.
Pirates came too. “They would steal our fishing equipment, engines, money, whatever we had,” recalled Obunge. So a Ugandan resident appealed to his government for help and police were sent to provide security.
That’s when the problems really started. With the Ugandan state providing security it began to flex its muscles in other ways, taxing the fishermen and confiscating valuable hauls the police claimed were caught illegally in Ugandan waters.
While the border commission keeps silent, the divisions are growing on Migingo. A provocatively raised national flag has been taken down but 20 or so Ugandan police are still stationed here causing resentment among the larger population of Kenyan fishermen.
“The dominant community is Kenyan but the Ugandans feel they have the power and the authority because of the police so they look down upon us Kenyans,” Obunge complained. “Sometimes there is a brawl.”
Kenyans and Ugandans work separate boats, fix nets in separate groups, live in separate communal shacks and go to separate bars. “The two big bars are owned by Ugandans so we prefer another small small bar where we feel free,” Obunge said.
One of the bigger bars — called Kaguta after the Ugandan president’s middle name — is stocked with Ugandan imports: Nile Special, Bell lager and Waragi gin sold through a chicken wire grille that separates the barman from the drinkers.
Narrow alleys beetle across the filthy, crowded hump-backed island running between bars, shacks and kiosks selling little packets of biscuits, cigarettes bought singly and little sachets of washing powder. At the end of one, on the slick black rocks down by the water’s edge, two women from a rough restaurant wash plastic plates, metal cups and teapots in the lake as the waves wash over their feet. Standing in a nearby beached boat a crew of men work together finger-picking through the nets looking for holes to patch up.
George Ochieng is not working. His pungent breath and red eyes speak of a long night short of sleep, something that is common on this rock populated with lone men with pockets full of cash.
Ochieng leans on the edge of a 20-foot wooden canoe, letting the brisk lake wind blow his hangover away. “This is our place!” the 36-year old Kenyan fisherman declared. “We are fighting for our place, and for the water that has the fish within … the island is ours.”
But he has little time for talk of ownership, sovereignty or fish. There are other things on his mind. “There are some ladies around,” he said with a chuckle, “some drinking joints, well, well well, that is going on. You know fishermen, they like women well, and the women they like fishermen because we have money!”
While the politicians argue about the island’s future — Kenyan or Ugandan — for most of the men who call Migingo a home of sorts, all that matters is that the fish keep filling their nets.
“I don’t care about the arguments, what I know is I come for business,” said a Ugandan
fishermen, Abem Musasizi, 34. But then he adds with a laugh, “in any case we are in Uganda now.”