On Lake Victoria, Women Fishers Lose Livelihood to Police Harassment

Just when the Kenyan women of Lake Victoria were able to shake off the threat of sexual assault and join the fishing trade, a conflict with Ugandan authorities has stripped them of their hard-earned savings.

Written by Mary Mwendwa Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Most of the boats moored here along the shores of Lake Victoria are owned by widows. But it’s getting too dangerous to fish the waters. Mary Mwendwa

BUSIA COUNTY, KENYA – Lake Victoria, the largest of Africa’s Great Lakes, straddles the borders between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. It provides food, employment and water for the millions people who live around its shores.

But Lake Victoria has never been a safe place for women. Today, Kenyan women who previously had to enter the sex trade to access the lake’s resources are facing a new threat: intimidation by Ugandan authorities.

When women first tried to break into the fishing industry in the 1980s, men who fished the waters forced them to perform sexual favors before selling them fish for trade.

Beatrice Oloo recalls how hard it was for her as recently as 2000. “I was a beautiful young woman when l ventured into the fish trade. Every fisherman wanted to sleep with me so as to get fish. I declined all their advances and ended up with no fish,” she recalls.

Left without cargo, Oloo was forced to start collecting sardines that had spilled onto the ground along the lake, selling them all for a total of $1 a day.

With the small amount she was making from collecting sardines, Oloo joined other women in table banking – a process where a local group gets together to provide and receive loans – and started saving.

“On a good day, l would make two dollars and save one, after paying school fees for my children,” she says.

After saving for three years, she took out a loan of $2,500. She invested the money in a boat, employing three people to help with her fishing activities. In 2010, she began to fish. Oloo says the business was good: Every time she went out she made $250, after paying three employees and buying petrol.

Because she finally had her own boat, she did not have to trade sex for fish, though other women still do.

“After two years, l had bought two more boats, which would provide me with at least $800,” she says.

Then, without warning, new problems arose. Ugandan authorities started detaining boats belonging to Kenyans and demanding bribes of up to $200 a time.

Kenya has the smallest share of Lake Victoria’s waters, totaling 6 percent. This forces Oloo and others to move to Ugandan waters to fish.

The East African Community Treaty states that locals of the three countries – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania – are granted free movement for goods and businesses across borders, including Lake Victoria. But that has not stopped Ugandan authorities destroying boats and other fishing gear belonging to Kenyans.

Omondi Ndeke, secretary of the Marenga Beach Management Unit, which represents the Kenyan fishers in the dispute, says Ugandan authorities have said that to fish in Ugandan waters, the Kenyan fishers had to purchase engines from Uganda.

It’s had a huge impact on Kenyan fishers, Ndeke says. “Our people had no choice but to comply by buying new engines from Uganda. A new boat engine costs between $230 and $250. Some have changed their engines; others have not.”

Even those who have engines from Uganda have been harassed and ended up abandoning fishing activities.

“I am tired of my boats being [seized] by Ugandan police demanding money,” says Caroline Akinyi, who owns 13 fishing boats. “Recently, they [took] three of my boats and I had to pay $600 before they were released. This was a big loss to me.”

Akinyi, widowed and a mother of three in her early 30s, started in the fishing industry in 2002. She took out a loan and started with one boat which later provided the income that bought the others.

Before the conflicts in the water started, Akinyi was making a profit of between $300 and $400 per fishing trip.

“Although l am not schooled well, l knew how to manage the boat fishing business and income from it has made me stable. All my children are in school and I have also invested in real estate,” she says.

“Unfortunately, this has now changed. I fear sending my boats into the water because they will be detained.” She says she’s willing to give up and sell her boats to the highest bidder.

Women dry fish on the shores of Lake Victoria. (Mary Mwendwa)

Hundreds of other women have now stopped fishing for a living. Many are contemplating venturing into other businesses. They claim Ugandan law enforcers are taking advantage of the strong currency in Kenya by demanding huge amounts in bribes.

It is difficult situation for those who are still servicing loans. “I took a loan of $2,500 early last year and invested in a boat,” Ruth Wanyama, another Lake Victoria fisher, tells News Deeply. “So far, l have only paid [back] $1,000. Following reduced fishing activities, l cannot make any money. My biggest fear is how to settle the debt.”

Efforts to intervene in the situation have proved fruitless. Ndeke says the Marenga Beach Management Unit has held several peace meetings with their Ugandan counterparts, without success.

“Every time we meet, they demand we pay a particular amount to be allowed to fish in their waters. After we agree and pay, they come up with different amount or rules,” he says.

“Last year, they demanded each boat owner pay $20 tax per month. We have been paying and they still confiscate our boats and steal fish.”

Meanwhile, Kenya’s Marine Police are not well-equipped to undertake patrols. “Ugandans have good speed boats which our people do not have, making it difficult to do surveillance on the waters.”

Several efforts by News Deeply to reach Oongo Hisa, the chairman of the council in neighboring Sugulu, who represents Uganda in this dispute, have gone unanswered.

For the women fishers of Lake Victoria, who have saved for so long and worked so hard to become economically independent, it’s a disaster.

After years of struggle and, for some, suffering through sexual exploitation, these women were finally able to invest in boat fishing and stand on their own. But, as several of them told News Deeply, they now feel they’re back where they started.

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