Native Intelligence | The lake they call Victoria is dying. The seeds of its destruction were sown during the colonial era but we are left to face the fallout. By Kalundi Serumaga.
From the moment it was re-named, it was doomed and destined to its current state. I am talking about the 400,000-year-old lake known by many native names to the peoples of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania now bearing the name that perhaps epitomises the worst period of the European imagining of Africa: Victorian Britain.
Its actual demise would be an immediate disaster for the estimated 40m East Africans that live directly off its resources. However, being the largest fresh water body on the African continent (and the second largest in the world), as well as one of the key sources of the Nile River, such an occurrence would have much wider, and longer-term implications.
The lake is a victim of “Develop-ment-ality”, that globally dominant mindset birthed in Europe’s Industrial Revolution, which has gripped even the African elite. Basically it afflicts the patient with an inability to look at an item of nature, and not become consumed with a desire to “improve” it, or make it “productive”.
One of the lake’s problems is overfishing – as a result of which there is now a real danger of fish falling below the number needed for them to reproduce effectively.
But, even if there was a sustainable number of fish, another issue is that there is too much of one type: the Nile perch, a large monster that was introduced into the lake in the 1950s and 1960s, to meet a “development productivity” target. This voracious fish, which can grow to a length of more than six feet, and weigh up to 200 kilos, has proceeded to eradicate all the lake’s indigenous fish species.
A third problem is the effect of the major urban settlements in all three countries dumping thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the lake on a daily basis – as well as industrial run-off. One result of this is eutrophication, whereby plant life near the sewage dump is over-nourished to the point that its denseness, and later decomposition, suffocates other life forms in the water.
This only compounds the problem of an overgrowth of algae, which cuts off light and oxygen into the water, given the Nile perch had already driven all the algae-eating fish into extinction.
In his 2004 Oscar-nominated documentary, Darwin’s Nightmare, the European film-maker Herbert Sauper explores the recent roots of this crisis, with a focus on the “boom town” effect of shanty towns taking root all around the shore.
These outcomes were foreseen. The colonial authorities ignored advice to think deeply about this idea that they had held since the 1920s – they reportedly considered the indigenous fish types to be not much more than vermin – and the post-independence government followed suit.
As for the natives, there were rites embedded in their culture designed to pre-empt overfishing. For example, among the Baganda, a man is not permitted to go out fishing on the night of a full moon, during his wife’s period of menstruation, or if he had had sexual intercourse the day before. One can clearly see how such conditions would curtail a lot of fishing activity.
Besides, locals fished only to feed themselves, not unseen millions thousands of miles away.
The crisis reached a peak due to the fact that a lot of white people like to eat fish. Earlier decades of overfishing in the North Atlantic forced European food industries to look to places like Africa to make up the shortfall. This led to a sharp domestic price increase. With the native species gone, locals were reduced to buying the bony leftovers from the factories after the choice fillets had been packed for export.
The World Conservation Union sees the Nile perch as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. It is illegal to own one in Australia.
Despite all the evidence of an unfolding disaster, one John Babiiha, the Agriculture Minister credited with introducing the monster fish, is still being lauded as a “development hero”. He was listed among the top 150 most inspirational Ugandans in a government publication commemorating Uganda’s Independence.
It goes on to quote a colleague of his: “Besides being exported today, the Nile perch remains ideal for both nutritional benefits and an efficient means of fighting poverty….[Babiiha] made fish affordable in the 1960s to the ordinary citizens.”
He forgot to mention that in most cases, fish was free for the ordinary citizen. Now he may have to migrate to Europe to eat fish from what used to be his lake.