The untold cruelty of life as a fisherman

Saturday February 26 2011

VAIN WAIT: It is common for women at Bugonga

VAIN WAIT: It is common for women at Bugonga Landing Site to wait the whole day for fish from fishermen. PHOTO BY NELSON WESONGA. 

By Harriet Anena

Its 4am and Christine Akoth is already on her way to Bugonga Landing Site in Entebbe. Her steps are brisk but the early morning darkness casts a cloud of fear around her. “What if someone robs me? What if I get raped?” she often asks herself. But reaching the landing site early means Akoth will probably be able to buy better and more fish from the fishermen before her colleagues arrive. She has been in this business for the last three years and the 30 minutes’ walk from her home in Kitoro to the landing site, has become a daily routine.

Akoth has been able to sustain her family with the money she gets from the sale of the fish. Even when she insists the profits are minimal, it is clear that the fish trade has become an enviable source of income to thousands of people in the country.

As she nears the landing site, Akoth wonders whether she will find fish to buy today. “Sometimes we reach here and wait in vain. The fishermen don’t catch any fish,” she later explains.

So when the day is bad, like it was on January 28, Akoth goes to Nakiogo Landing Site and buys tomatoes and onions brought by traders from Mbale and sells them in Kampala. She has to make ends meet otherwise her children will not go back to school or even eat.

Raids, beatings
But unlike Akoth who waits for fish from the shores, the fishermen who traverse the water night and day have more daunting stories to tell. Raids, beatings and impoundment of fish, nets and boats by the police, are common roadblocks the fishermen have to face. Ichili Mwajid and 13 colleagues were the latest victims of beatings and gunshots by the police for allegedly using illegal fishing gears on January 9.

Being the leader of the group, Ichili was tied up and beaten as some of his colleagues jumped out of the boat and called for help. When the police learnt that some fishermen had been called to help, they waited for the rescue boat and engaged the fishermen in running battles. Ochili was shot in the process and one of his colleagues died on the spot. He was detained at Kigungu Police Post and released only after the intervention of police chief Kale Kayihura.

Mr Geoffrey Sserugunda, the beach management unit chairman, who led the operation was subsequently arrested and is still in detention. Maj. Gen. Kayihura said the use of force by all security agents should be regulated by the Constitution. “The officers were not under the Police Marine Unit to mount a crackdown on illegal fishing and had not been authorised by any head of department,” Gen. Kayihura said during a meeting with families of aggrieved families at Bugonga Landing Site.

Kennedy Tamil, one of the fishermen who went to rescue Ochili and his colleagues, is still nursing bullet wounds on the neck and shoulders. What he remembers of the incident is that, when the police saw them, they began shooting at them and he passed out when the bullets hit him.

“We had gone to rescue our colleagues but the police shot at us,” says Tamil. “One of our colleagues died in the boat and instead of us being the rescuers, we had to be rescued,” he adds. “The police had stones, pangas and stick in their boat, which means they had ill intentions,” Tamil adds. But even with the arrest of Mr Sserugunda, fear of attacks, which has become a common occurrence on the lake, still lurks among the fishermen.

“We are scared. We fear we might be tortured again,” says Yusuf Buga, whose boat of Shs1 million, net Shs1.3 million and boat engine of Shs5 million, was impounded by the police after the operation. He added: “We were told that Sserugunda’s group was planning to attack us again but one of the fishermen they tortured died a day before and they aborted the operation.”

The attack caused animosity among the fishing community and they had planned to hit back the officials. But the intervention of Maj. Gen. Kayihura calmed the fishermen down.

Police operation on the lake is supposed to be a normal procedure but the relationship between the fishermen and police have become that of a cat and mouse. “When we see the police, we just take off because we can’t tell what they will accuse us of,” says Ochili, adding “today they can accuse you of not having a life jacket, tomorrow they will say your boat is small and the next day they will blame you of using illegal fishing nets.” For Tamil, every minute spent on the lake has to be divided between looking out for the police and catching fish.

Police involvement
“Some police officers are good but others are really bad,” he says “sometimes they even beat you when you don’t have fish in the boat.” Other than the beatings, several truckloads of fish have also been impounded by the police and the fishermen wonder who benefits from it later on. “We learnt that the police officers sell the fish and divide the money among themselves,” says Mr Buga as he stares at his bullet-ridden boat by the lake shore.

As fishermen complain of their fish being impounded, it is also crucial that the fish stock be protected from extinction. This perhaps explains the crackdown on illegal fishing gears.

Although Mr Buga feigns knowledge of the required size of fishing nets, the area chairman, Mr Stephen Ssebugwaawo says, “They know the nets are illegal but just pretend they don’t know,” adding “All of them know that nets smaller than five inches are illegal.”

Even when Mr Ssebugwaawo admits most nets used by most fishermen are illegal, he says the government cannot ban fishing on the lake because about five million Ugandans depend on the fish resources. Then why do the police continue impounding fish and illegal fishing nets if they want Ugandans to survive? Could the government be playing a double standard?

Mr Ssebugwaawo is quick to confirm that “the problem is with the government,” “it has failed to invest in marine and fisheries department so that corruption is eradicated.”

So the as much as the government is trying to curb illegal fishing, Mr Ssebugwaawo says, some fish guards and district fisheries officials, are condoning the vice. This explains why fishermen spend hours on the lake without making any catch.

Overused lake
“We have overused our lake. If you use big nets, you don’t catch any fish. Because the fish don’t get mature, sometimes fishermen hunt for two weeks without catching any fish,” says Mr Mr Ssebugwaawo, adding “But if you tell them to stop fishing, you will make so many people to starve.”

For now, the crackdown on illegal fishing has been stopped until the government comes up with a decision on whether to ban fishing for some time or impound all illegal fishing gears. Another sustainable solution, according to Mr Ssebugwaawo, is a plan by the government to provide loans to fishermen for buying legal fishing gears. Until that happens, the fish population can in the meantime dwindle, regardless of their size.