As the sun sets over the waters of Lake Victoria, Kenya, the hump of the motors submerges the gentle sound of the lapping waves. Squinting, I can see them on the horizon, small boats splattering oranges and gloomy sky twists.
Only one or two appear at first, but soon some are formed, a raft circulating above the water appears chasing the horizon. The vast expanse of the lake, the largest in Africa, appears to be swallowing the boats as they descend into darkness. But I know their destination and goal: the fishing grounds and silver cyprinids – known as omena in Luo, the vernacular in this part of Kenya – that stir at night under wind-whipped waters.
Omena is a type of baitfish, which is less than two inches long, and these fishermen work in the night shift to catch under a closet of wires. But as the boats are parked for the night, the stars are outfitted by lanterns, the fishermen swim on the water to attract the fish to their nets.
Lake Mesangano, a Kenyan island in Lake Victoria, where many fishermen live, is known as the City of Lanterns stored on water. Hundreds of lights twinkle and melt in a magnificent succession of shining ornaments. The casual observer will see a city, or a highway in the distance. And it is not until you are among them, inspired by the fishing boat, that the true nature and purpose of these lanterns is revealed.
I am riding with two local fishermen, a brother named Mike and Robinson Okayo. They have been targeting Omena for five years, but the practice of fishing by lanterns lasts as long as anyone on the island can remember. In the past, most have used paraffin lanterns, but many are now switching to using portable (and rechargeable) lights powered by small solar panels.
Looking at the city from the lakeshore, it is easy to tell the difference between the two types of lights. Paraffin lantern glow orange, contrasted with metallic blue emitted by rechargeable lights.
But it is not the type of light on the lake that is causing problems. Rather, it is sheer quantity: the number of fishermen is steadily increasing.
I first heard about the fishing tradition of lanterns while working as an advisor to non-governmental organizations in Kinnu, Kenya. While Kisumu is also on the shores of Lake Victoria, it is a three-hour drive and a ferry ride to reach Magangano Island.
For me, a long trip in a cramped Mattoo – a common form of local transport where 12 people often pack in nine-person vans – was worth it. As the sky changed from orange to blue, fishermen had the idea of casting lamps in the water to protest a lot. But the reality of the situation on the lake is much calmer than I imagined.
Robinson Okeo estimates that now more than 400 boats fishing for omen every night. While many fishermen formerly lived and worked on the island of Mfangano, more and more are coming from the surrounding cities to the shores of the lake.
Shagun’s draw is clear. Despite the high number of fishermen, it is still a much easier fish to catch than indigo perch or tilapia, which have long been depleted despite restrictions on the size of fishing nets. “It’s the only reliable fish, because it’s so easy to catch,” Mike Okeyo tells me. And he goes on to emphasize the point, “It takes a lot of sweat to catch Tilapia and Neil Perch.”
The omen may be easier to catch, however, fishermen have to spend the entire night in small boats, with a maximum crew of five. The nights are long, and the clothes get wet despite the fisherman wearing homemade waterproof jackets. No catch is guaranteed. Competition has increased so much that violence has erupted on the lake at times – which, in the worst case, has resulted in drowning.
In other cases, Kenyan fishermen have found trouble with Ugandan authorities, as the border between Uganda and Kenya is located less than a mile from the tip of the westernmost point on the island of Mfangano. Fines for crossing unmarked limits on water can be imposed as heavy, fines or forfeiture of equipment.
But, at the end of each night, crews of Shagun fishermen reach their lanterns and from shore to shore, where Omena costs more than in the past. Fishermen typically sell to two types of customers: local people who dry fish and sell to consumers, or companies that use fish in the manufacture of animal feeds.
Regardless of the customer, wages helped almost all people in the community. “The fishing industry has positively affected the lives of fishermen and people of Mbangano Island,” reported Robinson Okeyo. “Many youth are investing in business, which in turn is creating employment opportunities.”
Fishing, he said, also supports other ancillary businesses: shops, restaurants, boat builders and outboard mechanics.
As I watched the fishermen selling their catches in the morning light, I was impressed by the difference in size of each person compared to the hands of the locals that they use to feed their families. So many people – in this case the entire community – rely on the ecological balance of a small fish. The situation is critical. But as I remember my scene from the water, with the lanterns flashing across the horizon, I can’t help but feel that this unstable balance between people and their ecosystem remains a beautiful dance.