Slowly, they pace around as though patrolling the area, not concerned about the coming traffic. These marabou storks are the masters of the area before it gets into a frenzy of activities.
At the extreme end come murmurings and movement of shadows. I wouldn’t have been wrong to think the gods of the lake were still enjoying the breeze from the mainland before they go back to the water. Time check is 5:42am. Welcome to Ggaba Landing Site.
As I park, the inner me asks whether it is right for me to venture and see where the murmuring is coming from. On a closer look, they are young men offloading sand from boats. The boats are pretty huge; the men offloading are in their late teens or early twenties.
A few older men are watching, coiled in heavy jackets to warm up in the biting cold. They are the bosses.
5:57am: Some women with nylon sacks on their backs start arriving and open wooden kiosks. Whoever said water is life was very wrong. As soon as the men offloading see smoke from the lighting of a charcoal stove, they are energised.
Those pushing wheelbarrows in silence start yelling for those in the boat to speed up the loading process as others shout out orders of what they want to have for breakfast. One of the women with a child of about two years immediately takes to chasing the marabou storks around, as though they are playmates.
6:25am: A fight erupts between two boys over the use of a wheelbarrow. One who came late claims he booked the wheelbarrow his colleague is using the previous evening. They are separated and the latecomer has his way. The other now stands on the side and watches as the others work.
More kiosks have opened and the landing site comes to life.
6:30am: Young girls, who appear to be in their early teens, start ferrying trays with plastic cups and plates of food towards the sand offloading area.
6:42am: The gate to the main fish area of the landing site is opened. In enters four women dressed in white overcoats with brooms. They start sweeping.
6:45am: There is a change of guard at the fish market. The police woman who was on duty the previous night is replaced by a man, whose eyes are blood-red, and another young girl. As the women sweep, at the extreme end of the selling section is a fish cleaning point. A group of men/boys emerge from the boats that seemed to have anchored the previous night.
6:57am: Another big wooden boat, loaded with tonnes of sand, arrives from Kalangala.
“We get the sand from as far as Kalangala and other nearby islands. It takes more than five hours to load this boat and we travel mostly at night. We sleep as they offload and in the afternoon we go back. The return journey is faster because the boat is not heavy,” says a sand dealer who prefers to be called Salongo.
He says he has been in the sand business for more than seven years, but shifted to Ggaba Landing Site less than two years ago.
“I used to deal in sand in Entebbe, but the sand pits became dry and those available became costly,” he says.
7:10am: The area where makeshift restaurants are located is very busy with people preparing breakfast. The common food here is katogo, a mixture of Irish potatoes, matooke and rice.
However, everything is cooked separately. The sauce is poured on later to determine the price. It is either beef, offals, beans or ground nuts. As I wade through the area, I am offered a bench to be served. I hesitate. The stench from half dried fish causes nausea.
7:21am: Fishmongers start arriving. They slowly walk in, all standing by the rails to watch for any signs of fishing boats coming from the lake. The fishmongers come in all forms; young, old, men, women, on boda bodas, bicycles and vehicles.
However, these compete with residents who buy the fish from one end of the market and sell it fried on the other end.
As I wait for the boats to arrive, I take a walk to the other end of the landing site where other fish-related activities are taking place. The place is still deserted, save for wooden counters. Some are covered while the others are not. Dogs roam around, to them this is home.
8:13am: A different kind of fish enterprise is settling in to start the day. Bundles of blue tarpaulins are spread open, and 50kg sacks of salt placed around.
8:17am: A pick-up truck (Toyota Sahara) loaded, in fact overloaded, with fish remains – heads and the skeletons (mugongo wazi) – arrives. They are left overs of Nile perch whose fillets have been cut. I later realise that this is an industry on its own. It employs hundreds of people, some as young as four years and others as old as old 70.
8:23am: A white Isuzu truck arrives to ferry sand. It’s the first one for the day. Like a swarm of flies all over a carcass, sand touts swamp the truck, each claiming to have the best.
Besides each heap of sand are men standing with spades waiting to load the trucks once touts have convinced the buyer. The sand heaps make two rows creating something like a stretch of a road in between.
Different businesses start coming to life. Fruit vendors, airtime and mobile money kiosks have opened. Firewood dealers are also checking their ware, preparing for the day ahead.
9:37am: Two men who appear to be in their 30s set up two benches under a red umbrella close to the water barrier rail. They put down a big board and start tossing a white dice with black dots. They are playing ludo.
They are joined by three other men who were earlier offloading sand. They collect money and give it to one of the boys as they start gambling. In less than five minutes, another umbrella is set up just next to where I was standing. They stake Shs5,000 per game.
As the gambling continues, life is slowly picking up with those waiting for fish huddled in small groups. The conversation in one group is the good old days when fish was in plenty and boats would anchor much early.
But one man offers to explain the delay, “Empewe nyinji kunyanja ebyenyanja biba bitono temwewunya abavubi abamu okuja nga tebalina kyebalina.” (It’s a windy season; don’t be surprised when some boats dock empty)
Another group of women holding onto jute bags also seems to be waiting for fish. They discuss moral decay in society after a young girl passes them with a very short dress and more than half her breasts exposed. At the fish auctioning sheds, men and women in white overcoats are busy.
10:24am: The first fishing boat arrives. Only those with white gowns are allowed to enter the auctioning area. Majority fidget to get their gowns out and flock to the shed. As the fish is brought in, it is not taken to the fish inspection room; they are directly taken to the shades where the buyers are waiting.
With the auctioneer on the floor, he throws a number of fish strung together on pieces of grass and the buyers with money in the hands start making their offers.
Before they are finished, another round is brought in and the exercise goes on for four hours.
11am: In comes Nile perch, Tilapia in all sizes, including what would lead to arrest for illegal fishing, but they are sold in open air, including lungfish and mudfish.
Some of the buyers take their purchase from the auctioning section to an area a few meters away and sell by retail. A few meters away, young boys with knives warm up to clean the fish. However, close to them are the marabou storks waiting to take their share of the waste.
12:41pm: Passenger boats also double as cargo boats. They start arriving with all sorts of goods, ranging from matooke to bundles of smoked fish from the islands. A girl collecting tax with no identification tag walks over to watch people disembarking. She has a small light blue receipt book in hand.
A woman with a heap of smoked fish disembarks and walks over to the girl. After a short chat, the woman calls a boda boda man. He helps her get her luggage onto the motorcycle and goes back to the girl with the receipt book.
She opens her bag, folds some money in one hand and passes it on to the girl. She doesn’t issue a receipt and walks away.
A few metres away, as the bodaboda leaves, the girl is met by another elderly woman who she passes the money to. Watching them from a distance is a police woman.
The officer approaches the elderly woman who does not count what she has been given by the girl. She dips her hand in a black bag and pulls out a note which she passes to the officer. The whole episode lasts less than five minutes.
Into the Nile perch by product section
This section of the landing site probably employs more people than any other section. Once the Nile perch skeletons arrive, different people get into action. There are those who cut the lateral line off the head and split it open. This is a man’s job.
The woman and children wash the remains with floor-scrubbing brushes. There are those who collect the lateral line and take them for salting. Even the washed head is taken for salting and then put in the open to dry.
Mzee Sulaiman Kassujja says he has been dealing in split heads at Ggaba Landing Site for more than 25 years.
“I buy them in tonnes from Nakawa, Cape and industrial area where there are fish processing plants,” the old man who retired from the Prisons service in 1972, says.
Besides the split heads and lateral line, the Nile perch skin is cleaned, salted and then rolled to dry. The pieces of flesh cleaned from the Nile perch skins are not thrown away; they are either sold to people who make fried fish balls or salted and dried.
The dried remains are taken to DR Congo, Kasese and Rwanda where they are sold as a delicacy. The dried skin is soaked in water and it bulges. The scales are removed and cut o pieces. Its best served when mixed with Sombe for sauce.
“I buy them in tonnes. Each kilo is valued at Shs1,800 to Shs2,000, depending on the availability. Once they are dry, I sell each kilogramme at between Shs4,700 to Shs4,800,” says Kasujja.
The retired serviceman needs 200kgs of salt to dry one tonne. “It’s a production chain from the moment the remains reach Ggaba. From the splitting to the drying, the each stage costs the owner Shs15,000,” he says.
“Each group of men splitting, women washing and those salting takes Shs15, 000,” says a lady watching over her fish being processed. One tonne of fresh Nile perch heads is equivalent to 450kgs of dried split heads, with about 4 to 5 pieces making a kilogramme.
Besides the skin, head and the lateral line, the fats and intestines of the fish are processed separately. Strips of fat are removed from the intestines and are also sold separately to process cooking oil out of them. The sorted fat is fried to extract oil.
Joseph Lubowa, 20, has been processing Nile perch fat into cooking oil for the past one year.
“I buy a kilo of fat at Shs1,000 and it requires 20kgs to get 20 litres of cooking oil which I sell at Shs60,000 each. When it’s a good season, I can process up to four jerrycans a day,” he says.
The intestines are used for smoking the heads that are not salted. They are poured over the burning charcoal to create the smoke.
As evening sets in, cups of porridge start making rounds. Those who had been soaked in fish change and go home. However, like fishermen, they don’t see need to wash with soap as the smell of fish is part of their lives.
6:45pm: The gate to the main fish selling section is closed and there is change of guard. The policeman and woman who were on duty during the day retire.
Outside, people are still around. Plastic stools are brought and alcohol takes centre stage. It comes in all types; beers and crude alcohol measured in small glasses.
At different landing sites, life sets in as the sun sets. Young girls dressed provocatively start moving around as the men who had been busy during the day enjoy optical nutrition. The story ends in the dark alleys of the wooden stores.
8:45pm: Very few places are still open and the population around the site has thinned. As I leave, a lone boy approaches me and asks for parking fee.