Catch of the Night

The sun sets on Rusinga at about 7pm. There are no streets lamps on the island and few families can afford the expensive fee to connect to the electricity mains. So, at night, with light pollution minimal, the sky is a deep, dark black. As a result, the stars are impressive. Yet it’s not the stars that hold your eyes captive here. It’s the lake. The ‘city of the night’ as the locals calls it.

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Terrible as my photography is, at night hundreds of men go out to fish by the light of kerosene lamps which make the lake twinkle brighter than any night sky I’ve ever seen.

The lights attract flies which in turn attract tiny silver fish called Omena. By dawn the boats will return to shore and the catch passed to waiting women who spread them out over the land to dry in the sun. Once evening falls again, trucks will have arrived from across Kenya to distribute the fish to places as near by as neighbouring Kisumu and as far as Mombasa on the other side of the country.

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But while the “city of the night” is strikingly beautiful, the lights hide – rather than illuminate – a multitude of problems.

Overfishing and pollution of the lake due to chemical run-off from farms has dramatically reduced the fish population in Rusinga. Not just of the night time Omena, but also of the larger fish, Nile Perch and Tilapia. As a result the price of fish has soared in recent years leaving many families unable to afford their staple food; one of the reasons why the RIOFA project is trying to encourage a move to farming on the island.

But it’s not simply less money in the pocket and fewer favourite meals on the table. ‘Jaboya’ – or ‘sex for fish’ – is the practice of women trading their bodies in return for the first and freshest catch of the day; the fish that will earn them the most at the market that day (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-26186194). The result is a soaring rate of HIV prevalence, estimated to be between 15 – 30%. Two or three times higher than the national average of 6%.

Like most of Kenya, Rusinga is packed with development initiatives run by community groups, international NGOs and government agencies trying to tackle complex challenges like ‘jaboya’ with multiple causes and effects. Roadsides are crammed with signs alerting passersby to the presence of funding from foreign embassies and schemes with good intentions, yet it’s impossible to find a road sign directing you to any of the Island’s landmarks (including the mausoleum of Tom Mboya, one of the most prominent individuals involved in Kenya’s fight for independence).

Despite the high visibility of hard work and genuine effort, it’s more difficult to see what progress is being made. When you ask about some of the projects on display, locals will sigh and go on to explain what went wrong or how funds were misspent. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about the development industry, it’s failings and it’s successes. And places like Rusinga truly show the interconnectedness of social, economic and environmental issues, and how vital holistic solutions are.

Luckily, even if at times pessimism got the better of me, Rusingan’s are a sturdier bunch. Each new initiative is met with open arms. The levels of engagement in community development are impressively high. People will discuss politics for hours and hours and, from my experience, the chats down at the pub are far better informed about detailed policy initiatives than ours are in the UK!

If the development industry needs a motivational motto, there’s always the trusty “Rome wasn’t built in a day” I suppose…

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