Kenya: The 'Floating Village' of Lake Victoria - This Environment Needs Survivors

Water testing at the source of River Nile on Lake Victoria in Jinja, Uganda (file photo).
16 February 2020

There is a small village that ‘floats’ on Lake Victoria. After years of standing strong against being swept away by Nzoia River, Sango Nang’anda village defiantly stands, desolate and forgotten, tucked besides one of the three mouths of River Nzoia as it enters Lake Victoria.

About 30 houses, whose walls are made of river reeds and sticks, still stand. Their roofs are nylon sheets and any tough pieces of clothes. These roofs also serve as places to dry laundry, fish and anything else that needs the sun.

There are no floors. Just water and some loose sandy ground formed through years of siltation. Houses line up in two rows facing each other, shaped like a thin elongated boat. They are surrounded by thick overgrown reeds, which also provide cover against windstorms from the lake.

Residents say the village is home to a population of about 200 adults.

“We were more than this, but as you can see for yourself, this environment needs survivors,” Kanutu Omalo, one of the residents says when we visited. Omalo is among members of Nyumba Kumi initiative in the village, the only visible sign of government. The village is in Namabusi sub-location, Bunyala South. Omalo took us round the village and in one of the houses where we saw just how the basic things that a majority of Kenyans take for granted, are precious here. They have a few solar panels perched on the rickety roofs for electricity.

“Water took away our land. Life is hard. Now we have to buy everything. Sleeping at night is a nightmare. There are so many mosquitoes. We also have nowhere to rest. If you are tired, you can only rest on your boat,” he said.

Omalo says the population of the village was more than 300 people but children and women have been evacuated to higher grounds for safety.

You walk around in gumboots. Inside the houses, residents have built makeshift beds that float on water. Some are tied to the ‘walls’. They also have mosquito nets. But it is difficult to tell if the nets will be effective given that their beds are on water.

They cook. But you will need to know how to light a fire, where to put the jiko and ensure your food cooks with as little firewood as possible.

Somewhere in between these structures is a bar, with music beaming from a radio that hangs on the walls. The waiters are kind and speak almost all East African languages.

For your trouble, the beer is cheap. And they do not just sell local beer, they have brands shipped from Uganda as well. No need of a fridge here, the environment keeps it cold, naturally. For Sh100, you can have your bottle of beer. You can also pay in Ugandan shillings and for USh2200, you can get a bottle of Eagle beer. However, they prefer Kenyan currency. There is no taxman here. No schools. No playing fields. If you want to bask in the sun, then you will have to do that on your wooden boat.

Their main source of income is fishing. Residents also provide transport services across the lake. There are as many boats as there are houses. A few of the boats have diesel pumps, but a majority are hand-propelled.

The villagers have also come up with an ingenious way of growing bananas. Though they were mostly yellow and we saw no fruit, the stems still stand. Where their toilets are, or what they do when one falls sick in the dead of the night, remains a mystery.

Apart from the regulars who go in and out by boat, they hardly receive visitors and when we arrived, the entire village gathered for an evening chit-chat. The other visitors are the hippos, which roam the river at night.

River Nzoia is a 257km-long river, rising from Mt Elgon and is one of the most destructive rivers that drain in Lake Victoria. It flows south and then west, eventually flowing into the lake near the town of Port Victoria.

Before the government intervened to build dykes and move residents of Budalang’i far away from its banks, the river had caused untold pain and suffering to residents.

When full, it bulges and spreads onto the land and this is how it displaced thousands of villagers to higher ground. But a small number remained put, and held onto what was left of their land.

After years of struggle, they found a small spot near the lake, where they got marooned and here, is where Sango village is.

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