migingo_280Migingo Island may be the size of a football field, but it’s a major hub of the lake’s fishing industry. Kenyans, Ugandans and Tanzanians can be found here, sharing its cramped quarters and untaxed profits. This strategic fishing base is currently the region’s most hotly disputed territory.

Migingo is awkwardly located in an area where colonial-era borders meet and divide the lake into its Tanzanian, Ugandan and Kenyan shares. Both Kenyan and Ugandan governments lay claim to the island, and neither seem willing to back down and lose control of this dwindling yet valuable resource.

The waters surrounding Migingo are deep, a condition favoured by the principal catch, the hefty and lucrative Nile Perch. Each morning boats transport the catch to the Kenyan shore to be processed and flown out.

The Nile Perch enjoys a position of comfortable dominance above all other species found in Lake Victoria’s food chain. Without any prey, the perch, introduced to the lake sometime in the 1950s, thrived at the expense of the lake’s native species. The untipping of the original balance of the lake’s ecosystem, and the establishment of an export business has deprived locals of a great source of protein.

The fact that the Nile perch finds an international market means that profits on the island are good, and residents enjoy a relative wealth. That wealth is relative to the local economy, and despite allowing workers a margin to spend or to save, living conditions on the island are hard. There is no running water so men and women descend to bathe in the open at segregated spots where necessity trumps modesty.

A boisterous nightlife, hard drinking and prostitution are part of the island’s character. “The prostitutes here don’t fear HIV,” the island’s nurse tells me. “They say ‘If you use condoms the price is 500 [Kenyan] shillings. If you don’t use them it’s a thousand.’ [The rate of] HIV is high because there’s a lot of prostitution here. People get money and don’t know how to spend it, they don’t think about their future.”

Whatever workers on Migingo choose to do with their earnings, their fate depends on rowing politicians and fluctuating fish stocks. Nobody is idly waiting for resolution. Business continues on Migingo.

One thing that is clearly illustrated on Migingo is that while the means of earning a decent living is as scarce as they are in Uganda and Kenya, individuals will accept risks, will relocate, and will struggle and endure in order to meet their needs.

Gethyn Rees.