I love fish. I love deep-fried whole-African-tilapia, the one that’s fried by the lake-side in metallic pans similar to those used at construction sites, and then served to you with tomatoes and onions on a large plastic tray, with trappings of dust on top making up part of the ingredients.
And that love for fish always made me wonder just where the fish came from. Of course, it came from the lake, duh! But that was not answer enough. I wanted to know more, like how the fish comes to leave the lake, before it arrives at the marketplace for you and me to spend a leg and an arm, just to get one.
Of course, somebody like a fisherman has to go to the lake and get the fish. So it was that I chose to go spend a night on Lake Victoria in the company of trans-night fishermen, to experience first-hand what it is to deliver fish to the consumer.
It was not easy getting trans-night fishermen.
Most fishermen do their thing at night, true, but they only drop the nets in the evening, then head home to the more comforting warmth of their beddings. They then return to the deeps early in the morning to see if luck has smiled their way, and the nets have a few contents.
But I soon got hold of one, actually two, who weather the bitterly cold winds of the lake every night to get fish. Naturally, you can understand why they were apprehensive, why they treated every single word I spoke with suspicion because. Well, who ever wants to go spend a whole night fishing? Not even many fishermen do that.
But I haggled my way into their trust, which in practical terms, in case you just landed on earth from some far off planet, means that I parted with some fuel, also known as money.
Off to “sea”
And so we set off to go catch some fish from one of the many landing sites in Kampala. What lay ahead of me were a few of life’s most meaningful lessons – that there is no easy job, that even some of the most despised job do indeed pay, and that life is not straight forward, for on the night we went fishing, we caught just one fish.
We delayed to set off and I was to blame. Being the in-experienced naïve fisherman for a day, there I was stocking a polythene bag with bottled soda, packs of chips, mineral water and chewing gum – as if I was headed for picnic. The two fishermen, who I will name Fisherman A and Fisherman B, did well to hide their disappointment, and at 7.17p.m, we sailed out of the “port”.
The sun was somewhere behind the hills now, but it was still bright enough to see clearly. The after-sun-set glow from the horizon gave off one of those rare showpieces of nature at its most beautiful. I sat at the front of the canoe, a leaking 50-metre-long wooden vessel that I will call MV Fish-Career.
My minders sat at the back, with the confusing network of genetic-sisal threads that made up the nets, sitting in between.
We sailed off with the engine-enabled canoe tossing on and off the waves. And we did not seem to notice that none of us had life jackets. It never occurred to either Fisherman A or B that I may actually not know how to swim, and that as we headed further towards the entrance of Murchison bay, and into the open sea, we could easily have a scenario that may require more than natural forms of safety.
But on we moved, and at about 7.55pm, we arrived where the two minders said was where we would cast our nets. It was just a few hundred metres out of Murchison bay, at a place they said was called Kyaggwe, in Mukono. I will understand if you are slightly confused there, like I was. How can I leave Kampala by boat, and within a few minutes, I am in Mukono?
I decided not to let that bother me, as the effect of sea-sickness was starting to take its toll, choosing instead to watch my mates go about throwing their nets at sea.
One end of the fishing nets had floaters like plastic bottles and jerrycans tied fastened, while the other end had weights like stones fastened. The side with weights is the one that sank to the bottom, while the one with floaters stuck to the top, allowing for a trap for fish in the middle.
Fisherman A sat on one side and started throwing his weights to the sea, while his colleague did so on his end too. Much as I wanted to help with the fish-net casting, you know, to look and act useful, there was just nothing for me to do, except draw out water that had leaked into the canoe.
The two fishermen had three nets to cast, with each stressing across a length of more than 100 metres. It took nearly two hours for this exercise to end. And by the end, it had become a long and drab exercise, which my minders had to endure with conversations about their cheating wives, and how they had paid their wives back in similar currency. At times, I chipped in a little with my less flowery experiences, which no doubt, impressed them little.
The long wait
So for long spells in those two hours, I was relegated to playing with my phone, logging on to Facebook and twitter, to let the world know just how much fun I was having out at “sea”. I totally looked out of place.
Sometime after 10pm, Fisher man B, now using a paddle, rowed the boat towards an island that stood another 100 metres away. The moon was now up in the sky, a well-lit full moon that on a more romantic errand, would make for the most perfect scene. A shadow from the trees off the island fell onto the sea. And as we sailed on through that shadow, a white bird flew from the branches. “Ah, it’s that bird,” exclaimed Fisherman A, “it loves eating snakes,” he added.
It took just a few minutes. And then, in what seemed like a scene straight out of a horror movie, Fisherman B shouted on top of his voice, “There is a snake, there is a snake. There is a snake in the water.” “Where, show me,” replied Fisherman B.
“I have seen it, here, let me hit you so you go tell your children,” added Fisherman B, as he furiously pounded into the water with his paddle.
“It’s gone. Huh, we survived that one. My, that snake was big,” Fisherman A exclaimed. I did not see the snake, as it was said to be on the other side of the canoe. I thus sat transfixed on my seat, dreading the very worst. Fisherman A then dropped into conversations about other fishermen who had battled snakes while out at “sea”, and that made for some eerie excitement. When our hearts finally regained their steady heart beats, we headed further up stream, where we dropped anchor a few metres away from a shore. It was now supper time.
The fishermen pulled out of their black polythene bag, a type of fried fish that did not look like any I had ever seen before. I shared my chips and samosas with them, but you could tell it did not measure up with the fish they ate.
And when it came to what drinks they had carried, the difference between a novice fisherman and his seasoned colleagues became apparent. While I had yoghurts and sodas, the fishermen had something that could drive the chilling cold of the sea away – half a litre of strong, locally brewed liquor. They passed the bottle to each other. And when their nerves had taken a good enough beating, they rested the bottle.
Catching slumber on the lake
It was now racing towards 12am, and it was time to sleep. The fishermen reached out and pulled two long planks of wood from the front of the canoe, which acted as the cargo section. They were about one and a half foot wide. They placed them across the seats on the canoe and then the bed was done.
We somehow managed to squeeze ourselves on the wood.
I had no jacket, or any warm clothing, clearly a suicide act on such an excursion. I lay on the right hand side, and as the fishermen snored fast to sleep (thanks in part to the liquor), I struggled to fight off the cold and get sleep at the same time. All that while, the venue where the snake had appeared was only a few hundred metres away. The waves made the canoe toss a little. But the fishermen slept soundly.
I dozed off as well, and was startled at a few minutes past 2a.m, to find the fishermen raising anchor and rowing back to where they had left their nets and check if they are still in place. Satisfied, they returned to their resting place, and after a few more swipes at the liquor, dropped off to sleep again.
This time round, it took nearly an hour for me to sleep. It must have been the fatigue that sent me crumbling under the weight of sleep at about 4a.m.
I was awakened at 6a.m, with the sun yet to rise, as the fishermen readied themselves to go get their loot. There was no brushing teeth, only wiping of the face with the lake’s water. We then rowed our way back to where the nets were.
A small trophy
The men pulled off their trousers, staying in underwear. They grabbed the floaters and weights, and while standing, started pulling the nets out. Slowly, Fisherman A muttered under his breath, “Oh I wish there is something in these nets. I wish.”
Until then, it had not occurred to me that it was possible for one to go fishing and return empty handed. But two minutes after they started pulling out the nets, and with nothing forthcoming, the fear started occurring to me.
Two, three, five, seven minutes passed and still nothing. I wondered to myself whether this was usually the case, or whether it was me, whose unwelcome presence had somehow scared the fish away. Just before the first net was done, a life form, twisting and turning in the nets appeared, as it fell into the canoe. This brought a sense of relief.
But the fishermen were sad. This was their best net, they told me. If it had only one fish, they did not expect the rest to have any. And true to their word, none of the remaining nets had any fish. For two extra hours, they pulled and pulled at nets with ever flickering hope that somehow a life form would appear from the nets, but none did.
I looked in their eyes to see if there was something worse than sadness, a tinge of bitterness, even frustration, something that would make them choose never to return to “sea”. Instead, Fisherman A told me that last time round, they had actually left the sea without any fish at all. This was thus better than they had performed before.
At 9.42am, we were sailing back to the mainland, with a 40cm long fish as the only trophy from the night’s troubles. The beauty of the freshly risen sun’s glow was totally lost on them. Fisherman A then told me of how this is all about a chance, about how if one was lucky, they could catch just one Nile Perch, which if it weighed more than 100kgs (and this happens regularly), one could go away with over Shs1m.
“But now,” he added, “we will go to the shore, head to the restaurant, order for breakfast, and after eating, tell the waitress that we do not have money – we call it dropping bullets.”
Fisherman A and his colleague came across as a weird bunch of people to me, in the same way I am sure I came across as a weird person to them. They said their fish would earn them about Shs8,000. It cost Shs12000 to buy fuel for the expedition.
And the fact that such disappointment did not frustrate them, instead leaving them looking forward to the evening when they would return to sea, was a key fisherman quality that impressed me more than anything else on that trip.