This little island doesn’t look like much.
It’s a slab of rock, about half a hectacre large, packed with rusty metal shacks, heaps of garbage, glassy-eyed fishermen and squads of prostitutes — essentially a microslum bathing in the middle of Africa’s greatest lake.
But baby Migingo is creating a huge fuss.
The island happens to lie right along the disputed watery border between Kenya and Uganda, and politicians have even threatened to go to war over it.
Fish. Lots of them, but maybe not enough. The island is an angler’s paradise, surrounded by schools of tasty — and exportable — Nile perch. But Lake Victoria, one of the world’s biggest bodies of fresh water, which 30 million impoverished Africans depend on for their survival, may be running out of these fish. According to a recent study, Nile perch stocks are down by nearly 70 percent, threatening a crucial industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But there may be an even bigger issue here — the rapidly receding lake itself.
Water levels have dropped more than 90cm in the last 10 years and explosive algae blooms, which cover the lake’s surface like a coat of thick green paint, are choking off the fish.
It is irrefutable evidence, environmentalists say, of climate change, overpopulation, pollution, deforestation and other modern ills coming to a head in a part of Africa that is unprepared to deal with it.
“You’ve got an ecosystem that is totally out of balance now,” said Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the UN Environment Program, which has been closely watching Lake Victoria. “It should be an extreme concern for anybody who cares about the future of 30 million people. The pressures on this huge natural asset in East Africa are increasing.”
And so are the passions about Migingo. At a recent rugby match between Kenya and Uganda, Kenyan fans chanted: “Migingo, united, can never be defeated.”
In April, Kenyan hooligans got so worked up about the islet that they ripped up the railway line to Uganda. Fishermen on Migingo said that the Ugandan police officers prowling around the island have been dishing out beatings lately — and worse, stealing their catch.
A bilateral border commission is poring over dusty colonial documents, trying to figure out if Migingo is in Kenya or Uganda, but the group itself has been beset by cash woes and rival patriotic feelings.
The dispute heated up this year when Uganda sent soldiers to claim the island. To Kenya’s ire, the Ugandans even planted a flag. Before the lake levels dropped a few years ago, Migingo was little more than a rock sticking out of the water and nobody gave a hoot. Today, it is still just a hazy bump on the horizon when gazing from shore, though more than 300 people live there, mostly Kenyan fishermen.
But the Ugandan government claims that Migingo is in Ugandan waters and that it is illegal for Kenyans to fish there. The subtext is that fish are essential to Uganda’s economy, which does not have the manufacturing or tourism industries that Kenya has. Uganda’s 200 shilling coin (worth about US$0.10) has the national seal on one side and a scaly fish on the other. Each year, Uganda earns more than US$100 million exporting Nile perch, though overfishing and environmental mismanagement are imperiling that.
Most of Uganda’s fish processing factories — the ones that are not shuttered — are down to 25 percent capacity because of the lack of fish, the Ugandan Fish Processors and Exporters Association said.
But one thing is clear, at least according to the experts.
“Migingo is within Kenya’s borders,” said John Donaldson, a research associate at the International Boundaries Research Unit, a British institute that studies border disputes.
It is close, he said, but documents from 1926 clearly place the island a few hundred meters inside Kenya.
Even without the old maps, Kenyan fishermen feel entitled to stray into Uganda’s waters. They say — and scientists back this up, to a certain extent — that the swampy lakeshore on the Kenyan side is where the perch breed, and therefore the fish, even if they grow up to be caught in Ugandan waters, are Kenyan by birth.
But even this is changing, for the worse. Henry Aryamanya-Mugisha, director of Uganda’s environmental protection agency, said overpopulation and overfarming on the Kenyan side of the lake are decimating these wetlands where the fish spawn. At the same time, rapid deforestation is reducing the amount of rainfall that flows into the lake, and all the new development in the area is pumping fertilizer, industrial pollutants and even raw sewage into the water, catalyzing the algae blooms that block sun and oxygen penetration.
“It’s very, very sad,” Aryamanya-Mugisha said. “It’s happening so fast. Five years ago there were plenty of fish.”
That is why Migingo is so ideal. The water around it is relatively deep and filled with perch, and once there, fishermen do not spend as much on fuel, because they basically cast a line and pull up dinner.
“It’s like no other place,” said Charles Okumu Chambu, a Migingo angler.
Granted, Migingo, with its shantytown skyline, may not be everyone’s dream of a tropical isle. But there is a lot of life packed onto that tiny lump of lava.
The other day at sunset, fishermen gathered at the water’s edge, singing, laughing and smacking each other on the back as they worked together to haul in their boats. The minute they were done, the dice came out. Skillets sizzled with greasy potato slices. Hip-hop music blasted in the tin-walled discos — Migingo may be smaller than a football field but it boasts half a dozen bars, discos and brothels.
Men danced with women. Men danced with men. The rocky footpaths snaking up the island were littered with cookie wrappers, bottle caps and other distinctive leftovers crumpled up on the ground from long, steamy nights.
“Ah, Migingo,” remembered Yasinbogere Kataike, a shore-bound Ugandan fisherman, with a twinkle in his rheumy eye. “Everything is there. It’s a good place to be a young man.”
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