As the sun sets over the waters of Lake Victoria in Kenya, the soft sound of the waves is drowned out by the hum of the motors. Squinting, I see them on the horizon, the tiny boats that split the oranges and the blue of the twilight sky.
Only one or two appear at first, but soon the few become many, a fleet that sprawls across the water and seems to chase the horizon. The vastness of the lake, the largest in Africa, seems to swallow the boats when it gets dark. But I know their aim and destination: the fishing grounds and the silver cyprinids – known as Omena in Luo, the national language in this part of Kenya – that move under the windswept water at night.
Omena is a type of bait fish, less than two inches long, and these fishermen work the night shift to catch them under a blanket of stars. But as the boats settle for the night, the stars are outshone by the lanterns that the fishermen float on the water to lure the fish to their nets.
On Mfangano, a Kenyan island in Lake Victoria where many fishermen live, the collecting lanterns on the water are known as a town. Hundreds of lights shimmer and merge into a sparkling series of luminous spheres. The casual observer would see a city or a highway in the distance. And it is only when you are among them and propelled by a fishing boat that the true nature and purpose of these lanterns will be revealed.
I go with two local fishermen, brothers Mike and Robinson Okeyo. They have targeted omens for five years, but the practice of lantern fishing has stretched as long as anyone on the island can remember. In the past, most used paraffin lanterns, but many are now switching to using portable (and rechargeable) lights powered by small solar panels.
When looking at the city from the lakeshore, it is easy to tell the difference between the two types of light. Paraffin lanterns glow orange, in stark contrast to the metallic blue of the rechargeable lights.
But it’s not the kind of light on the lake that is causing a problem. Instead, it’s sheer volume: the number of fishermen continues to grow.
I first heard of the lantern fishing tradition while working as a consultant for NGOs in Kisumu, Kenya. While Kisumu is also on the shores of Lake Victoria, it takes a three-hour drive and a ferry ride to reach Mfangano Island.
For me, the long journey in a narrow matatu was worth it – a common form of local transport where 12 people often pack in a van for nine people. The idea of fishermen throwing lamps into the water as the sky changes from orange to blue was too much to resist. But the reality on the lake is far less peaceful than I imagined.
Robinson Okeyo estimates there are now more than 400 boats fishing for Omen every night. While in the past many fishermen lived and worked on the island of Mfangano, more and more are coming from the surrounding towns on the shores of the lake.
The draw of omens is obvious. Despite the large number of fishermen, it is still much easier to catch fish compared to Nile Perch or Tilapia, which have been chronically overfished despite restrictions on the size of fishing nets. “It’s the only reliable fish because it’s so easy to catch,” says Mike Okeyo. And to emphasize the point he adds, “Tilapia and Nile Perch absorb too much sweat to catch.”
The ease of catching omens, however, could be relative as fishermen have to spend the whole night on small boats with crews of up to five people. The nights are long and clothes get wet despite the homemade waterproof jackets the fishermen wear. No catch is guaranteed. The competition has increased so much that violence has occasionally broken out on the lake – which, in the worst case, led to drowning.
In other cases, Kenyan fishermen have problems with the Ugandan authorities as the Uganda-Kenya border is less than a mile from the tip of the westernmost point on Mfangano Island. The penalty for crossing the unmarked water line can be very severe and can be a fine or equipment confiscation.
But at the end of each night, crews of omena fishermen retract their lanterns and head ashore, where the price of omena is higher than it has been in the past. Fishermen typically sell to two types of customers: locals who dry the fish and sell it to consumers, or companies who use the fish to make animal feed.
Regardless of the customer, the wages earned help almost everyone in the community. “The fishing industry has had a positive impact on the lives of fishermen and people on Mfangano Island,” said Robinson Okeyo. “Several youngsters are investing in the business, which in turn creates employment opportunities.”
The fishery also supports other ancillary businesses: shops, restaurants, boat builders, and outboard mechanics.
When I watch the fishermen sell their catch in the morning light, I notice the difference in the size of each omen compared to the hands of the locals who use them to feed their families. So many people – entire communities in this case – rely on the ecological balance of a tiny fish. The situation is delicate. But when I remember my view from the water and see the lanterns glow on the horizon, I can’t help but feel that this unstable balance between people and their ecosystem remains a beautiful dance.