In Darwin’s dreamland
A two-year stint on an island in Lake Victoria makes for a poignant and memorable memoir
The Saviour Fish: Life and Death on Africa’s Greatest Lake by Mark Weston
When Mark Weston and his wife arrive on the remote Tanzanian island of Ukerewe, the largest in Lake Victoria, he is told by the immigration officer that they are the island’s only wazungu (a local name for white people). “In fact,” he says, “you are the only ones to have lived here in years.”
They have come so his wife, Ebru, can take part in a British government aid project to modernize teaching methods in Ukerewe’s rudimentary schools during a two-year posting. Weston, a travel writer and novelist, is tagging along having “nothing better to do”. Notebook in hand, of course: he is already author of a West Africa travelogue, The Ringtone and the Drum as well as a satirical novel, African Beauty.
Ukerewe is one of the most deprived parts of Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest nations, and education is basic. Forget lessons on laptops — or anything to do with the internet. Many students’ parents cannot afford uniforms, textbooks or even pencils. Without these, children are barred from lessons.
Classes have a rigid, learning-by-rote approach, with many teachers more interested in sideline jobs such as growing crops or working in liquor stores. Pupils who turn up late are caned and menial tasks set: “[Teachers] supervise them like slave drivers while they sweep the school grounds or cut the grass with machetes.”
The Saviour Fish covers the fascinating story of the couple’s two years on Ukerewe, during which Weston learns enough Swahili to get by and becomes accustomed to living in a little house that — unlike most others on the island — has both running water (although this is for one hour each evening) and electricity (“no more than half a dozen power cuts a week”, as they are informed on arrival).
Being such outsiders obviously marks them out; the population is about 350,000 (no-one is quite sure of the exact number) spread across 200 square miles of land on an archipelago said to have between 27 and 38 islands (again, accounts vary). There are roughly two dozen cars, and only two paved roads, covering little more than a mile. A single ambulance is on call, with two doctors and an “overcrowded and dirty” hospital.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, malaria, cholera, typhoid and bilharzia (a chronic disease caused by parasitic worms found in local waters) are commonplace, with life expectancy for islanders a mere 48 years. Prudently, the Westons do not splash about much in Lake Victoria during their two-year stint — bilharzia aside, there are hippos and crocodiles to consider.
Despite concerns of ecologists, a bucketful was released from a wharf in Uganda
Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest lake, roughly the size of Ireland, and fishing is a mainstay of its shoreline economies, crucial to life on Ukerewe. The Saviour Fish’s title comes from the introduction of Nile perch to its waters by British colonialists in 1954, a move calculated “to rescue the ailing fishing industry” at the time. Such perch, venerated up-river in centuries past by the pharaohs, had already made their way to other Central African lakes, where they thrived. Despite concerns of ecologists, a bucketful was released from a wharf in Uganda.
At first nothing happened. Overfishing of Lake Victoria’s ngege tilapia fish, carp and catfish using tightly-knitted flax gillnets introduced by the British at the turn of the 20th century had meant only smaller fish remained. Of these, many brightly-coloured cichlids survived, of which the waters boasted more than 500 species, prompting the Dutch evolutionary biologist Tijs Goldschmidt to dub the lake “Darwin’s Dreamland”.
These cichlids, however, were soon to prove excellent snacks for their new neighbours, which could grow to an incredible six feet in length weighing as much as 200 kilogrammes. Yet it took a while for Nile perch, known locally as sangara, to become established. Only by the late 1970s were they turning up in fishermen’s nets, although numbers thereafter shot up. Tanzanian fishermen alone netted one thousand tonnes in 1981. By the mid-1990s this had risen to 200,000 tonnes.
A “gold rush” began with fishermen from beyond the three countries bordering Lake Victoria — Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda — flocking to its waters. “The lake region was for the first time awash with cash,” Weston writes, “and the threat of hunger evaporated.” Hence the fond nickname, “saviour fish”.
The problem now is overfishing to such an extent that the average weight of the fish caught has dropped from 50 kilogrammes in the 1980s to less than 10 kilogrammes today. Improved nets strong enough to detain a Nile perch without breaking, as well as fishermen with small boats who drag nets along shores, catching the young before they can mature, are to blame.
Another contributor has been pollution from sewage and industrial waste, which has ballooned with so many new fishing communities springing up. This has led to algae clouds and microbes that suck oxygen from the water, a process known as eutrophication. Combined with all the greedy, enormous Nile perch, this has proved too much for the cichlid, and numbers have dramatically fallen. More than 200 species have disappeared since the 1980s, prompting one marine biologist from Boston University to describe the events as “the greatest vertebrate mass extinction in recorded history”.
Notebook in hand, Weston joins such illegal fisherman on a night trip (travelling after daylight to avoid police patrols). He visits the even remoter neighbouring island of Kweru Mto, where fishermen live in “huts the size of dog kennels”, spending their cash during good fishing days at liquor stores frequented by prostitutes where “sex can be had for the price of a can of Coke”. It is estimated that one in four adults in the Ukerewe archipelago has HIV.
Alcoholism is commonplace, too — moonshine readily available — as is drug taking. On his visit to Kweru Mto, Weston asks a companion why one group of fishermen is laughing so much. “These men will smoke marijuana all night while they wait to pull in the nets,” he replies. “That’s why they are so happy.”
Other forays take Weston to a witch doctor for a consultation (he is surprisingly accurate about his family details when making his pronouncements; witch doctors are regularly consulted on all sorts of matters on Ukerewe) and a banana beer maker, who plods for hours on smoked bananas placed in an old canoe using an method passed down over the centuries by word-of-mouth. Yet it is Weston’s day-to-day life, befriending locals in his village that provides The Saviour Fish with its narrative drive and charm.
Ice is in short supply in the village and almost miraculous in the youngers’ eyes
On one occasion Weston assists a child who has been given drugs for malaria but is suffering from typhoid, having been misdiagnosed (a bribe at the hospital is required). On another he helps a down-on-his-luck friend set up a stall in the local market, which proves temporarily successful. Children come to practice English or simply play in the couple’s yard. When they learn of the outsiders’ freezer, queues line up by their doorstep after school; the kids bring plastic water bottles to be frozen (ice being in short supply in the village and almost miraculous in the youngsters’ eyes).
Henry Morton Stanley ventured to Ukerewe in 1875 to have canoes made for his exploration of Lake Victoria in search of the source of the Nile. At the time Islam was the main religion, although practiced by few, with the occasional Christian missionary including David Livingstone also not having much luck. Now the island is “like a spiritual Las Vegas” with all sorts of preachers, both Muslin and Christian, spreading the word alongside the parallel universe of witch-doctoring. Neighbours of the Westons are torn between beliefs.
On arrival, the couple had been cautious — nervous about their evident wealth. They decide not to hire a security guard for their house, which had been recommended, and are never burgled although “for the first few nights any interruption to silence alarms us… every bang on our tin roof, any unexplainable noise outside the bedroom window has us jumping up to check the house isn’t under attack”. One of their first experiences is of a naked man by the lake “wiggling his penis in our direction” and yelling a message that they cannot (and do not) want to make out. Meanwhile cries of “Myzungu!” (another term for “white person”) continue throughout their stay as they pass by.
This feeling of being a stranger, however, begins to fade thanks in part to Weston’s language endeavours and his inexhaustible curiosity about local culture. Weston touches on all aspects including the position of women — who are often deserted to bring up children alone — as well as the old tribal system. When Britain left in 1961, with Julius Nyerere becoming the first president of a democratic state, the place of local chiefs was taken by centraliseed government officials. The last chief of Ukerewe extraordinarily “moved to Vienna to become a subway train driver after his office was abolished”.
When Weston was in West Africa, he suffered a mental breakdown brought on by the “heat, hustlers, Christian proselytisers and phantom Colombian drug traffickers”, but by the end of his stay in Ukerewe he feels “at home” and able to cope with the stresses, having fallen into the rhythms of everyday life. The natural beauty of the surroundings has helped: the weaver birds, egrets and kingfishers, the sunsets and the calm when gazing across the water. As has a realization that the trouble caused by the gold rush of the “saviour fish” — an example of the American ecologist Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” theory that common land is eventually ruined by humans — could be undone, if only local communities were given back control of decision-making.
This is an evocative, erudite tale from a big lake in Africa, pleasing for its brevity (200 pages) and honesty — although unlikely perhaps to prompt a tourist stampede. When Weston and his wife return to Europe, he often feels a “heavy loneliness, a sense of loss, in environments in which I previously hadn’t noticed my solitude”. Lake Victoria seems to have entered his soul.
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