Kenya: How We Did It - The Story Behind 'Rotting From the Deep'

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

Boat rides to the mouth of a river can get scary. Not just because of the prospect of running out of fuel or swept off course by tides, but you can be trapped for hours by the unforgiving, thick, interwoven hyacinth carpet.

But nothing was scarier than when a giant hippo kicked up a storm in the water in front of us. With their ears and nostrils perched on top of their heads, with large teeth and tusks, most would jerk their heads out of the water, as if to warn us of what would happen if we got any closer than we already were.

Every time this happened, our experienced boat riders would swerve to the opposite side of the river and ride on until the next family of hippos decided to rear their heads up again. At one point, I was sure this was the way we were going to die.

Then we had this confident guide who threw his legs out into the boat with aggressive confidence and the gait of a person who would not ask for directions but remained sure that he would somehow get us to the mouth of the river. When his boat went off in the middle of nowhere, we all said a silent prayer.

As we quickly learnt, we had not fully planned for what we would go through to get this story. After several weeks of planning, we finally packed our bags in October last year and set out to Lake Victoria.

Our first point of call was Migori, where all the action started. First, we took a boat ride along river Migori to its mouth. It was the first time our lead investigator, Prof James Mbaria, was getting on a boat. He panicked. This was an old handmade boat. It was also slightly leaking. But there was no other boat.

We then travelled to Migori Mines and finished the day at the mouth of Kuja River where we took samples of water at various points as well as fish samples fresh from the lake.

We then travelled to Homa Bay where we took samples of sediments along the lake and ventured deeper into the lake by boat to collect more water and fish samples.

We then set out to river Awach and river Sondu before heading to Dunga Beach in Kisumu to collect Samples. It is in Kisumu city where most of the action lied. We took samples at River Kisat where we came face to face with poison in all shapes and forms flowing with all the stink into the lake.

We then did one of the scariest samplings in this project by tapping Kisumu Water and Sanitation Company (Kiwasco) discharge point, whose results shocked us.

The next stop was Nyanza Golf Club, where we met with the wrath of Kisat River. Getting samples at the Kibos factory discharge point needed more creativity. We had to hire the services of a diver, to get us across Kibos River, before getting our coveted samples. We then went to Usoma Beach as well as Lake Victoria near Kisumu Beach Resort.

It was from here that we drove to Kodiaga prison, where we found raw sewage from the prison that is home to 3,000 inmates and remandees being diverted into the nearby river Saka, unrepentantly.  Residents fetch drinking water from the same river downstream.

If the colour did not convince you what is was, then the smell would without doubt tell you that the river was inmates’ toilet.

We then travelled to river Nyando to pick up samples of what really flows in the river and into the lake.

After securing  an import permit that allowed us to bring in fresh samples as specimen, we hit the road to Kampala where we collected samples from Nakivubo channel.

We then went to Kampala beach market. We also travelled back to Jinja, where the Nile River starts, and the famous Masese beach where we took more fish and water samples.

Upon returning to the country, we went to Pan-paper effluent on Nzoia River, took samples of a Webuye-based jaggery plant, and then drove all the way to Marenga beach, where we completed the sample collection on the lake.

At the end of this process, we had collected at least 54 samples at 28 locations on Lake Victoria and the rivers that drain into it. We also had samples of the water flowing out of the lake at the source of Nile in Jinja.

Our samples included water, sediments and fish, where available. We picked them at the shores of the lake, near discharge points, in the deep parts of the lake as well as the bottom of the lake.

But we were not done with the sampling process until we bought a box of fish imported from China—which have become popular in Kisumu and are sold to towns as far away as Nakuru, Kisii, Bungoma and Kitale—and whose findings will shock you.

We were shipping the samples to the lab in Nairobi both by road and air depending on where we collected them. Some of the tests were done instantly, others later in the evening using mobile test kits. But some had to be taken to the University of Nairobi lab for detailed analysis.

We tested for bacteria, pesticides and heavy metals.

We analysed the water samples for microbial quality according to the Kenya Standard 05-45: 1996. Parameters tested were total coliforms and Escherichia coli. These two are useful in determining the bacterial quantity of effluent discharged to the environment.

Their presence in water is an indication of the possibility of there being other highly pathogenic (disease causing) micro-organisms transmittable through faecal contaminated water.

The bacteria was cultured and identified using morphological and biochemical reactions. These techniques are well established and routinely used at the University of Nairobi PHPT Lab.

We looked for the presence of 12 different substances of toxicological importance using the East African standard procedure number 67.

Heavy metals tested include mercury, chromium, arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium, copper, zinc and manganese. These were analysed using Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometric (AAS) technique while the other chemicals were analysed as recommended by Nema standards using the spectrophotometry methods.

For pesticides, the samples were prepared using the AOAC official method 2007.01 and analysed for commonly used pesticide groups using Gas Chromatography (GC) fitted with the appropriate detectors for each type of pesticide. These include organochlorines, organophosphates and pyrethroids.

The lead scientist for the project was Prof James Mbaria, a toxicologist from the University of Nairobi. Dr Nduhiu Gitahi, a medical microbiologist assisted him.


The experts

Prof James Mbaria, Lead researcher, Toxic flow series
Prof James Mbaria holds a PhD in pharmacology and toxicology awarded in 1999. He also holds bachelor of veterinary medicine and master of science degrees.

Currently he is the chairman, department of public health pharmacology and toxicology and professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the department of public health, faculty of veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi.

Prof Mbaria has 26 years of professional experience in university teaching, research and consultancy in the disciplines of pharmacology and toxicology. He has supervised 20 master’s degree and six doctorate students to completion and currently he is supervising projects of several postgraduate students.

Prof Mbaria has published over 50 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, books and conference proceedings.

He is currently involved in several ongoing projects funded by both local and international agencies. He is a member of the Kenya Veterinary Association and is registered with the Kenya Veterinary Board.

Dr Nduhiu Gitahi, assistant researcher, Toxic Flow series

Dr Nduhiu Gitahi holds a PhD in immunology and is currently the principal technologist in charge of laboratories in the department of Public Health Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Nairobi.

He has 15 years of professional experience in laboratory consultancy and is currently supervising five master’s degree students drawn from Kenya and Sweden.

Dr Gitahi has been very instrumental in the establishment of the Mycotoxin Research Centre at PHPT, a regional laboratory at the tail end of ISO 17025 certification for research and testing of mycotoxins in food and feeds.

His research interests are in the area of bacteriology and molecular immunology. He has worked with research projects in the areas of human waste management, food safety, water quality, antimicrobial resistance, and human wildlife conflict and consulted on various aspects of food safety and domestic water quality.

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