Taking the Bait

Boom and bust at Lake Victoria

01 March 2018
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KAYUMBA JOHN USED TO SIT IN HIS OFFICE by the shore of Lake Victoria, in Kasensero, Uganda, and watch boats arriving at dawn. While the crews onboard sold Nile perch—a freshwater fish found in the Nile river and its tributaries—fishmongers packed them into refrigerators in trucks bound for Kampala.

“When you look in the country, there is no other profitable activity like fishing,” Kayumba, the former chairman of the local beach management unit, told me, with a hint of pride in his voice, as we sat in his office in April 2015. “It is us fishermen who have educated our children in good schools, alongside those politicians and well-off people,” he added. Lake Victoria, the largest body of freshwater in Africa, surrounds Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, and it affects lives and livelihoods thousands of miles beyond the shore. The majority of fish are sold in Europe, making the fishing industry one of few—alongside coffee and tea—with a lucrative export market.

Over the last two decades thousands of migrants across the country abandoned subsistence farming, their traditional occupation, and jumped at the chance to make a quick fortune in the burgeoning fish market. The frenetic growth of the fish market led to overfishing, causing the catch to dwindle. Fishermen had to travel deeper into the lake to locate fish; this intensified the hazards of an already dangerous profession, as boats would often capsize or break apart. Alcoholism and gambling soared in the town, particularly among fishermen, sex workers, truckers and those involved in the unpredictable and risky fishing industry. HIV rates in Kasensero—which recorded the first case of an AIDS epidemic in Uganda in 1982—escalated.

Kayumba supports an extended family with over thirty children, including his own, those of his brother, and orphans he has adopted. He settled in Kasensero after fleeing the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Others from his country made the same journey, but few emerged alive. The Kagera River just to the south of town carried a flood of bodies to the lake that are now buried nearby in a mass grave marked by a memorial.

When Kayumba set up his fishing business, named Besiga Mukama—“those who believe in god”—Kasensero was a small town with thatched huts and little infrastructure. (The town’s name comes from the Luganda word for “penetrate,” a reminder of the first settlers who cut a path through the jungle to reach the beach.) In 1994, Kayumba told me, fishermen could capture dozens of Nile perch within an afternoon, and sell them to nearby villages. The town expanded rapidly, acquiring roads and enough infrastructure to export the catch to supermarkets around the world. Kayumba got over 30 boats, while the town obtained over 400.

Alec Jacobson is a photographer and writer based in Telluride, Colarado. He has worked around the world as a National Geographic Young Explorer and as the executive director of the Mountain Independent.

Keywords: Africa Uganda environment fishing fish sustainability HIV/AIDS