Kenya: Seems Like There's Something in Lake Victoria Worth Killing for

(file photo).

On Tuesday night, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni held his 19th Covid-19 briefing since March.

It had things that Tanzanians and Kenyans should be quite interested in.

After opening with a series of scary news clips from around the world, of countries being laid to waste by the new coronavirus, it seemed like he was preparing to bring back stringent lockdown. Unlike Kenya, which is shortly reopening the airport for international travel, and Tanzania and Rwanda that have already done so, Museveni brushed off the prospect of that with a barrage of proverbs.

And the sheikhs, priests and prosperity gospel pastors, too, will have to wait a while before they can hold court again before packed worship houses.


Otherwise, Museveni, who a day earlier picked up presidential nomination papers to officially begin his run at 40 years in power, was generally upbeat and did offer more than many had bargained for.

He seemed buoyed by a report from the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development that, despite the slowdown in international trade due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Uganda had recorded a trade surplus with the European Union and the Middle East.

Export earnings increased by 40.4 per cent in May to $290.93 million (Sh29 billion) from $207.15 million in the previous month. He said data showed that agricultural production was sharply up, with the country drowning in maize and other surpluses.

The success story he came fully armed to tell, though, was about the Nile Perch in Lake Nalubaale (aka Lake Victoria).

As he told it, after years of overfishing and bad fishing practices that hovered up all the tiny fish too, his government got the fisheries authorities to stop it. They failed. Then it threw the police at the problem. They failed.

It resorted to a very Museveni solution, which President Uhuru Kenyatta, too, has now fallen in love with: He unleashed the Uganda People's Defence Forces on the lake.

The military brought the hammer down and miracles seem to be happening on the Ugandan side of the lake.

Museveni then whipped out a photograph of a recent Nile Perch catch, which he said weighed all of 86 kilogrammes, and added, drawing attention to his bid over the past year to cut weight, that it was about 10 kilogrammes heavier than him.


The real wealth in the Nile Perch though, he said, wasn't in its meat; it was in its swim bladder.

He had beside him a report that, he said, suggest that with a healthy fish stock, on the Ugandan side of the lake alone, Nile Perch swim bladder could earn the country $156 billion in exports a year, adding, for effect, that it would be more than the about the $116 billion Saudi Arabia made from oil last year.

By the way, the swim bladder from the gigantic fish in the photo, he said, was worth about $9,000.

Basically, a fisherman has to catch about four giant Nile Perch and he can retire to the satisfied life of a polygamist in his village near the lake shore.

When money like that is mentioned, and it is right in a lake you think at best produces only scrawny fish these days, you just have to sit up and pay attention.

Perhaps because I am a vegetarian, I don't pay too much attention to meat-eating ways and had not heard of this swim bladder business, so I looked it up.


A report in The Monitor, the Daily Nation's sister paper in Uganda, said that Uganda had signed a deal for Nile Perch swim bladder, known as "fish maw" with China.

Apparently, some fellows have already been cashing in, with the paper reporting that trade in the bladders from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda is estimated to be worth $86 million a year.

If Museveni is right, then Nile Perch swim bladder must be like timber in Angola and The Gambia, whose earnings are dramatically under-reported.

Fish maw is big in many parts of the world and a report said in China, where it is used as an aphrodisiac (what is it about Chinese and aphrodisiacs?), wedding gift or investment, a dried one from the endangered totoaba macdonaldi fish can fetch $20,000 to $80,000 per kilogramme on the black market.

The Nile Perch fish maw is not premium but its value is rising, in part because totoaba macdonaldi is banned from international trade and its stock has dwindled.

It might well be that Nile Perch fish maw is the reason we have seen the increasing East African interstate scuffle over Lake Victoria -- you know, the arrests of Kenyan fishermen who allegedly stray on the Ugandan and Tanzanian side of the lake.

It also might finally shed light on Museveni's mysterious statement some time back that the disputed little Migingo Island is in Kenya but the water around it belongs to Uganda.

Whatever the case, it is hard to look at Lake Victoria the same away again.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3

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