Malawi | Troubled Waters

The country’s claim over a lake’s oil resources is challenged by an aggressive neighbour

01 November 2013
Fishermen on the banks of Lake Malawi. The dispute between Malawi and Tanzania could threaten the livelihoods of thousands.
SIPHIWE SIBEKO / REUTERS
Fishermen on the banks of Lake Malawi. The dispute between Malawi and Tanzania could threaten the livelihoods of thousands.
SIPHIWE SIBEKO / REUTERS

IT HAD BEEN A LONG NIGHT for Precious Mwenifumbo. At 6 pm the previous day, in August this year, the fisherman and his six colleagues left from the lakeshore for the middle of Lake Malawi. After sailing for 15 kilometres, they stopped the motorboat and slid two narrow canoes, carved out of wood, into the water. While Mwenifumbo and a few others remained on the mother boat, three of their colleagues entered the water in the canoes. They hovered above the silent world, lamps tied with white cloth to their boat’s bows baiting the fish to come to the surface.

Bucket after bucket of “usipa”, the endemic lake sardine, filled the belly of the mother boat, which Mwenifumbo was steering. After ten hours on the water, the fishermen drew the last net full of fish into the boat, slid the canoes back into the mother boat, and started the engine. On the journey back to the shore, Mwenifumbo’s colleagues dozed off in the boat, tired after the long night’s work.

Like hundreds of thousands of people in the region, Mwenifumbo has been making a living from Lake Malawi for many decades. He likes his job, he said. But since late 2011, it has been under threat owing to the fraught relationship between Malawi and Tanzania over the oil in the lake. “That oil is a problem,” said Mwenifumbo, a Malawian. “Oil that is found in Tanzania is owned by Tanzania. Oil that is found in Malawi is owned by Malawi. Now, the problem is that Malawi wants all of [the oil in the lake]. And we don’t know how they’re going to discuss it.”

Benno Muchler is a reporter in Addis Ababa, who covers Ethiopia and East Africa. He works for German and American media outlets.

Keywords: Africa diplomacy fishing oil territorial dispute Malawi Tanzania
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