“The lake was an ecological marvel. The evolutionary biologist Tijs Goldschmidt, who on one occasion grew so bored with discovering new fish that he dropped an unnamed purple and black specimen back into the water whose like would never be caught again, dubbed the lake Darwin’s Dreampond.”
At first, I found the level of detail and description dragged a little, but once Weston and his wife Ebru start meeting people, the account becomes more lively; first during their boat trip to the island, when they go to visit the departing teacher trainer, Gloria, and when they go to visit the immigration official the following morning. Only then does Weston start to write about the scant information about the island he has found online, none of it good. Previous foreigners, colonial and commercial, have come to a sticky end. Mark and Ebru are the only white people on the island, which was previously used as a prison island by the surrounding countries. It’s where civil servants are sent if they are out of favour. There are tales of witchcraft, but the island has also been a sanctuary for albinos; elsewhere they are in danger of being killed and their bones used in magic.
Finally the couple start to meet the locals. The first is Mabiba (real name Vincent), a man who has worked in Australia and returned to found a branch of the Winner’s Chapel International, a mega-church started in Nigeria that promotes ambition: faith, determination and patience. Mabiba’s church is built on the site of a bar where customers were being slapped by demons, highly reminiscent of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.
As I was reading, I was reminded of another book I read last year which also featured a couple moving to a remote island, one as an educator, one a writer. The stories of power cuts, water saved in tanks, food shipped in and the lack of modern medical facilities are the same. In both cases, the woman is the one employed to teach, the man faces the prospect of long days at home, expecting to spend his time writing a masterpiece. The other book was Maarten Troost’s The Sex Life of Cannibals, set in the remote Pacific island of Kiribati.
“When travelling around a country you can move on if there are difficulties, but being forced to stay in a place for many months gives you no choice but to find strength in your own resources.”
Lake Victoria is so big that it creates its own weather systems and the wind can whip up terrifying 6-foot waves (that’s 1.83 metres for the metrically-minded). Not surprisingly, 4,000 people a year drown there. It’s around half the size of England or twice the size of the Netherlands. Search your own meaningful comparison here.
It is fascinating to read about how accurate oral histories have proved to be when archeological and other evidence is examined. The region’s omwanzuzi, the oral historians were not just tellers of tales, but passed on the equivalent of western case law by their recall of historical precedent. Ironically, since they have disappeared, we only know this due to a western anthropologist who wrote down one old man’s knowledge.
Life expectancy on the island is 48, so ties with extended family are important. Orphaned children are often adopted by other relatives. Parents have extra children to compensate for the high infant mortality rate and make the grief more manageable. Parents have little time to spare for their children, which explains why Mark and Ebru are frequently surrounded by small children.
“Three children quickly become ten and then fifteen, draping themselves over my chair, resting their elbows on my knees, touching and commenting on the white skin of my arms, or simply sitting on the step and smiling, content to be near me. The spectre of loneliness fades.”
Fishermen spend 3 weeks away, in the deep waters or based on smaller islands, attracting fish to their nets with kerosene lamps. On the fourth week, the lamps are unable to compete with the brightness of the full moon, so the men return to their wives. Instead of going to bed early, the women take advantage of the light of the moon to stay up and chat.
It is not unusual for men to have more than one wife. This is legal, but the churches don’t approve. First wives theoretically have the right to veto the choice of subsequent wives, but in reality, this does not always happen. In spite of church disapproval, one in four women in Tanzania is in such a relationship. It is now also more common for men to take a mistress rather than an official second wife.
For centuries, the people of Ukerewe lived in harmony with Lake Victoria. Once western colonists arrived, the balance was disturbed as they wanted to commercialise fishing for profit. Their solution was to introduce a large predator, the Nile perch, the sangara, nicknamed the ‘Saviour Fish’.
In the boom times after the sangara became plentiful, around 20,000 people were directly or indirectly involved in the fishing industry, or providing services for those who were.
The figures are staggering, with numbers of fishermen increasing from under 60 thousand in the mid-1980s to 200 thousand by 2010. More environmentally damaging ways of fishing, with smaller mesh sizes and monofilament gillnets made it more difficult for fish to escape. Nature tried to fight back with fish adapting to reach sexual maturity when they are smaller. Of course, this means the fish caught are smaller, making them less interesting for export markets. Fishing is no longer profitable. The island is back to subsistence farming and fishing.
The introduction of the Nile perch changed not only the local economy, it completely changed the local ecosystem in sometimes unexpected ways. Weston goes into this in fascinating detail, in particular relating to the demise of the hugely diverse species of chiclid fish which originally inhabited the lake. Who would have thought that it would result in lowering life expectancy? However, there is a glimmer of hope as nature seems able to cope in unexpected ways.
The consequences for the local economy but also for the ecology of the lake were catastrophic. Mark Weston describes this in fascinating detail. In short, farmers from the mainland arrived to take advantage of the easy pickings and the industrial processing of the fish. This led to overpopulation, deforestation, pollution and overfishing. To add insult to injury, the famous biodiversity of the lake was destroyed as the smaller chiclid fish were decimated by the invaders, leading to increasing numbers of freshwater snails. As these carry the bilharzia parasite, 80% of people living near the lake are infected. Life expectancy in Tanzania has increased by 15 years, but the incidence of bilharzia has sky-rocketed.
Approximately a quarter of adults in the archipelago are estimated to have HIV. In the fishing season, prostitutes are numerous and cheap. On the small fishing island of Kwero Mto, the population swells during the three weeks of the month when it is not full moon, when most of the dagaa fisherman go home to their families. When on the island, some sleep in tiny straw huts like single person tents. Some of the women on the island work as cooks for the fishermen. This reminds me of a book I read last year about Swedish fishermen, living together in a dormitory with a woman to cook for them, Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. Or even the cowboys in the USA in TV shows like The Virginian or Bonanza.
When they visit a previously sacred island, there are several teams of young men hauling in illegal kokoro nets from the beach, a type of trawling using vertical nets arranged in a horseshoe; beach seining. The nets target the feeding grounds of younger fish and catch many juveniles, storing up problems for the future. The word kokoro reminds me of something I have noticed before when reading books about East Africa, i.e. the similarity to Japanese, in the way vowels are used between each consonant.
Health, disease and curses
HIV is common, as are accidents and tropical illnesses. Payment for treatment can cripple even those who have a reasonable income and can change an entire family’s fortunes for ever. Such misfortune is often attributed to curses. One disease that is less severe than it once was is malaria due to improved medicine and the distribution of sleeping nets impregnated with insecticide. I remember reading a book by a Dutch journalist (Julia Samuël) who was on a mission to distribute these. I’m glad to hear such measures really do have an effect. Weston mentions that the worldwide death rate from malaria has more than halved since the start of 2000, yet 500,000 people still die of it every year, and most of the people behind that statistic are African children. If it isn’t fatal, it can cause brain damage. The previous medicine was based on Donald Trump’s favourite drug, chloroquine, but the malaria parasite has become immune, so the latest treatment is derived from the plant artemisia. It makes you wonder if Trump’s campaign wasn’t being paid by chloroquine manufacturers to promote it after it lost its original market. The impact of malaria on the island of Ukerewe itself is huge, with tens of thousands falling ill and it kills 70 per year. Testing kits are cheap, but treatment isn’t, so the temptation is to assume an illness is malaria and spend precious funds on that, wasting valuable time if the problem is one of the other myriads of tropical diseases.
The people are firm believers in witches who can be paid to curse others with bad fortune or illness. Witches are invisible, but you may see the signs: bats and owls. Flaunting your own good fortune is cause enough for someone else to buy a curse. Weston says that the superstitions make you feel nervous, even if you don’t really believe in them; I imagine it’s like that feeling of tempting fate if you walk under a ladder. As things so often go wrong in Tanzania, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There has been a progression in who was allowed to practice witchcraft. Before the start of the 19th century, only chiefs could do so, but as the island had more contact with the outside world, death rates rose and witches were given the blame. Witch doctors then began to take on the role of healers of curses. There was also reportedly a mysterious killer on the loose, possibly a lion or a man dressed up as one, leaving telltale scars on its victims; Graham Greene mentioned something similar on his trip to West Africa.
Two thirds of Tanzanians are Christian, the rest is mostly Moslim. Christian churches are as evangelical and restrictive as Moslim teachings, but they coexist peacefully, some people ignoring the parts that are too difficult to live by. Traditional belief in witchcraft and traditional cures run in parallel with these imported religions.
It strikes me how generous the locals are. They show their friendship by sharing their good fortune with their friends, and that includes Weston and his wife. One touching instance is the little boy who crushes the sweet he was given to share with his friends, but there are many occasions where Weston’s friends and even strangers offer hospitality, even when they have almost nothing themselves.
“A further unexpected benefit of our long stay was the opportunity to learn more about the lives of women. […] Most women are either too busy to waste time chatting to foreigners or too worried by what their families and friends will think.”
Women have to carry water in 18-litre buckets on their heads. N.B. A typical bucket here is only 10 litres. As a consequence, their spines are compressed, causing back pain and they shrink as they age. I realise how much better those rolling water caddies would be, but proper plumbing would be infinitely better. Or this project, ‘reinventing the wheel’.
As they do all around the world, children always find ways to play. One of the amusements mentioned in this book is tying a thread to tether dragonflies so they can be flown like kites. This lends more credibility to the story I was reading recently about a man who could lasso flies. This was in Stephen King’s The Death of Jack Hamilton, a short story about Dillinger’s gang I recently read in the anthology Everything’s Eventual, in which gang member Homer van Meter catches flies to distract the dying Hamilton.
Parents believe education is important so they will sell possessions or go without so they can afford for their children to go to school. They have to pay for uniforms and materials like exercise books and pencils, yet the education is extremely basic. If they are unable to buy these things, their children have to stay at home until the money is available. One of the Westons’ neighbours teaches rudimentary reading and writing to his pupils. As there is absolutely no source of entertainment on the island, the Westons spend a lot of time talking to these local children, building up a close bond.
Having foreign people in your town to educate locals is prestigious. Sometimes those who stay for an extended period of time like the Westons can help in some small way by teaching English or raising money back home for a local project like building a school. But Weston is dismissive of those such as the small group of men from the Rotary Club who visit every year to paint the hospital and do menial jobs, whilst spending the evening in the bars with local women. The work should be given to locals who could benefit from the wages.
The locals drink mainly beer or rum in sachets, or a combination of both. A local drink is made from fermented millet and maize porridge, kinti. It seems like every society has, or used to have, something similar, often brewed communally by the women. I am reminded of the alcoholic beverage brewed from maize in remote Mexican villages by the Tarahumara, tesgüino. They make it even more potent by adding the hallucinogen datura. I read about this in Dutch traveller Karin Anema’s book Mexicaanse sneeuw (Mexican snow). She also spent many months living together with the local people. Mark Weston knew about yet another alcoholic beverage from Tanzania, banana beer, mpahe, but virtually nobody on the island knew how to make it as most prefer mass-produced drinks. There are also few banana trees on the island due to a disease. However, Weston eventually managed to see the Labour-intensive process, the last stages of which are speeded up by adding a few grains of roasted millet; much more wholesome than the spit or baby poop the Tarahumara use for the same purpose.
Book serendipity: ice in the tropics
The one thing I knew about Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast before I read it was that it was about an inventor who wanted to bring ice to the jungles of Honduras. So it was amusing to read about how much the local children enjoyed visiting Mark Weston’s house, first to cool water in their fridge, then to produce ice in their freezer for the amusement of the local children.
“Anything that can be repaired is taken to a fundi, a job title that seems to cover anyone who can fix or make anything. Torn plastic buckets are sewn up with wires, flip-flops with glue or string. Shattered mobile phone screens are patched with sellotape or sticking plasters. Children wear their T-shirts until the holes are bigger than the fabric.”
Climate change and hope
Annual rainfall has dropped by a fifth. Crops fail, food prices rise, nobody can pay workmen like Weston’s friend Joshua, a house painter.
“The African informal sector is idealised by many economists, who regard it as an enterprising, resilient system that compensates for the continent’s lack of formal sector jobs. But working in the black market is fraught with risk.”
With the breakdown of traditional society, people no longer trust each other and there is more criminality. As far as fishing is concerned, colonialism brought competition and industrialised fishing, rather than traditional distribution by community leaders. The resulting distrust makes western-backed cooperative ventures such as fish farms unlikely to succeed.
For many years, there has been an economic theory that says that farming on common land or fishing in common waters is doomed as individuals fail to restrict grazing/fishing as they would if they were limited to their own property. The overfishing of Lake Victoria seems to bear this out. And yet, in the epilogue, Weston gives us hope as more recent research has found that local communities, if allowed to make their own rules, can fish sustainably. And there is even hope for the resilient little fish of Lake Victoria which, against all the odds, seem to be fighting back.
My first impressions of the book were disappointing because Weston’s writing style was initially oddly static, with short sentences, oddly constructed. I can’t put my finger on why it seems so stilted. It’s probably the lack of flowing sentences and connections between each sentence. This may work in a short news report, but soon becomes wearing in a book. There is also too much description of unimportant things. He refers to the curtains in his hotel room twice, for instance. Only once he is well into chapter two, does the writing start to flow. If I was a prospective reader checking out the preview online, the first pages would have put me off. However, after this slow start, I found the book so fascinating that I was swept along and I found it flowed well. It’s amazing how much information he managed to pack into such a short book.
Disclaimer: I received a free review copy as an ebook via Book Sirens. It is available in paperback and ebook formats, according to Goodreads.