‘We were never fisherman’: At lakeside, trying new ways

Michael, a fisherman of 60 years, taught one of his sons to fish and sent the other to school, so that the family will still have access to incomeshould the family no longer be able make money off of fishing, Eliye Springs, Kenya, Jan. 12, 2013. Experts on the region have discussed the possibility of overfishing taking a hold on Lake Turkana and have discussed ways to teach the importance of sustainable fishing. (Deanna Del Ciello)

Michael, a fisherman from Eliye Springs, takes his handmade raft into Lake Turkana. (Deanna Del Ciello)

By Lindsey Welling

TURKANA, Kenya – Paolo Lolem said a few words to the goats that wandered the shores of his small village, which hadn’t felt rain in weeks. Then he walked down a sandy path shaded by palm fronds to the hidden spot where he kept his raft moored. He untangled his fishing nets, pushed the raft into the water and demonstrated how he navigates the choppy waters of Lake Turkana in search of fish.

“The fish belong to the goats,” Lolem said. “They tell us when we can fish.”

While many Turkana tribesmen spend their days herding goats, sheep, cattle, donkeys, or camels, some make a livelihood from fishing. The region’s frequent droughts have pushed the Turkana closer to the lake in search of water and greener pastures. Fishing has become an attractive alternative for the people of the small village of Eliye Springs, where Lolem lives.

Eliye Springs sits on the western shore of Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake, which stretches 20 miles wide and 180 miles long, reaching north into Ethiopia.

Paul Egonyo, the chief of Eliye Springs, said the people of his village decided to leave their nomadic life, traveling from northern Kenya to settle near the lake, in 1963.

“We were never fisherman,” Chief Egonyo said. “Because of drought, people turn out to be fishers.”

Because of recurring droughts, the villagers now depend on food aid from organizations such as Oxfam, World Food Programme and the International Red Cross, Egonyo said. The fish they catch supplement their diet and bring in cash when the fishermen sell them at larger lakeside towns to the north.

Nile perch and tilapia are the most common of the 59 species that inhabit the lake. Fishermen also encounter crocodiles, turtles and hippos. Although fishing provides income opportunities and supplements the villagers’ traditional diet of herd animals’ milk, blood and meat, few consider it a better livelihood than herding livestock. As a pastoral people, the Turkana measure their wealth in livestock, and many are reluctant to change.

While some of Lolem’s sons have learned to fish, others learn reading and writing in school. This gives him a backup plan: “If fishing isn’t going well, my son in school can get a job and help our family,” Lolem said.

Lolem knows the importance of preparing for the worst. First, herding gave way to fishing. Now, the lake itself has dwindled — as has the number of fish. Samuel Maina, communications consultant at Friends of Lake Turkana, said the lake levels regularly fluctuate but drought and climate change also are playing a role in the lake’s shrinking size.

And the lake faces an even bigger threat.

A dam under construction in Ethiopia, now about halfway complete, will block the flow of the lake’s largest tributary, the Omo River. Maina said the completed dam would cut the Omo River’s flow in half.

“This is even bigger than climate change,” Maina said.

Natasha Gownaris, a Stony Brook doctoral student researching hydroelectric development and climate change at Lake Turkana, said the lake’s levels correlate directly with the number of fish it can support. When the water level is low salinity increases, reducing both the size of fish and their ability to breed.

Low lake levels also have a way of increasing conflict. Other tribes that live at the lake’s southern end come north to fish in what the Turkana consider their fishing grounds. Disputes sometimes end in violence, the fishermen at Eliye Springs said.

A few hundred yards from the shore, Lolem joined a group of men who sat in the shade of swaying palm trees. They laughed and joked as they wove thin strings into fishing nets, which they would sell. They bent and sharpened strips of metal into the knife bracelets, known as “abarait,” that Turkana use for various tasks, from scaling fish to giving haircuts.

Once the fishermen earn enough from selling nets and fish to bigger towns along the lake, they can upgrade from rafts like Lolem’s to wooden boats. The rafts, made of only handhewn logs and rope, barely hold one person and are safe only in shallow waters. Lolem also owns a wooden boat, stained with brown water marks, that allows him to go further from shore. Although the deeper waters promise more fish, they hide more dangers.

“Because the men is so strong, they can go anywhere,” Michael, one of the net makers, said. “The lake is something different. You can find crocodile there. You can find bad animal that eat you.”

International donors have tried to improve the fishermen’s prospects but without success. In 1991, the Norwegian government built a $2 million fish-freezing plant in Kalokol that was shut without processing a single fish fillet, according to an exhaustive 2008 study of conservation and development in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The cost of bringing the 100° F (37.8° C) ambient temperatures to below freezing, cost more than the fillet[s] were worth,” wrote the authors, ecologist Paul Andre deGeorges and biostatistician Brian Kevin Reilly.

The Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, a new government program, may prove more successful. It provides a place where fishermen can dry their catch on racks instead of on mats on the beach where bugs swarm. In a recent paper, Andrew Lokaale, chairman of the Turkana Water Service Board, wrote that fishing could enhance food security for the Turkana—if their distaste for fishing, and for eating fish, changes.

But Lolem’s days on the lake suggest that life as a fisherman will be a struggle, too. Some days, he spends all morning and afternoon poling the shallows of the vast lake and returns home with empty nets. On windy days he can’t fish at all, and the nets hang dry in the very desert wind that drove Turkana’s goatherds to the lake.