I almost returned to bed to wait for rain to subside, when it started raining. But what a weak excuse that would be, standing someone up because of rain. I got an umbrella and walked through it, to the taxi stage.
I was bound for Gaba landing site to find out what a day in the life of a fisherman was like. Often we imagine what the days of successful businessmen, politicians and celebrities, are like. But never the days of fishermen.
I arrived at Gaba landing site shortly after nine O’clock in the morning, to meet Musisi John, a fisherman at the site. I had met him while carrying out research on fishing in Uganda. He was the perfect choice since he resided near Kampala.
He was mending a fish net when I arrived.
‘This is what most fishermen do during day,’ he told me, ‘especially when the fish nets get damaged during fishing trips. Fishermen do not fish during day. Those who do not have nets to repair either go and rest or relax by drinking or playing pool.’
He told me that some people, like the police, take the life of fishermen for idleness and yet when other people are sleeping, fishermen are working.
‘We spend nights at the lake,’ he said. ‘We would return after casting the nets but that would mean using more fuel. If we sleep at the lake, we make two trips instead of four. We move from the site to the lake, in the evening, and come back with the fish in the morning.’
I asked him what they do while at the lake.
‘We sleep,’ he said. ‘We wear jackets to stay warm. There are boards we put in the boats, on which we sleep. Some fishermen even go with mattresses.’
The fishermen return to the landing site from 11:00 am in the morning to sell the fish. Sometimes they do not catch any fish after spending the entire night on the lake.
Musisi took me around the site, showing me what different fishermen were doing. A number of them were mending nets. There are those who were walking around the site, and some who were in bars.
All fish that is delivered at the landing site is auctioned by a selected group of people. They are the only ones who have the right to do this according to the laws on the landing site. Once the fishermen deliver fish, these men who wear white overcoats, begin the job of selling the fish. The fishermen do not sell fish to individuals.
The auctioning takes place at the auction table. Fish like tilapia, lung fish, and clarias locally known as “emalle”, are auctioned mostly. The Nile perch is weighed before it is sold. The more kilograms it has, the higher the price.
If the fishermen return to the site before dawn, the fish is put in freezers. The fishermen are either paid in full for all the fish or in part. They receive the balance later.
Seeing them smile back home after payment would give one the impression that they are enjoying a windfall.
‘It is not all rosy out there,’ Musisi told me. ‘Some times we encounter harsh weather out there. Other times, ships and boats tear our nets. All the fish run away. Some fishermen even steal our nets with all the catch because there is no one to monitor all the nets.’
Fishermen are resilient. They can spend two weeks on the lake, going in the evening and returning in the morning, with empty nets. But they don’t give up. They are always hopeful that the next day will bring something.
Musisi stays with his family in Bunga, Kampala. He arrives at Gaba landing site at 7:00am to begin work. He told me how the lives of fishermen have changed tremendously over time.
‘Being a fisherman is a job these days,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t always the case. Fishermen used to live unsettled lives. It was rare to find one with a permanent home. They would move from one landing site to another. But this has changed. There are more people engaged in fishing now. The landing sites have also grown. They are towns now with a number of services. There is no need for a fisherman to relocate from one landing site or island to another looking for services they can get at their landing site or island.’
When I asked him how they fund their activities, he said that they use their earnings and savings or work for some people. It is not easy for a fisherman to access credit.
‘Bankers do not understand this business,’ he said. ‘If you tell one that you might not catch fish in two weeks and yet you go to the lake each night, he will withhold the funding and channel it somewhere else. This business always needs a cash injection. A net might cost five hundred thousand Uganda shillings. If you need thirty fish nets, then that is fifteen million. A banker would not release such an amount easily. But still, we work with what we have.’
A day in the life of a fisherman revolves around a lake. Take away the lake and he will look for another water source. Fishermen are survivors. They tame the lake to earn a living. When the lake is polluted or has no fish, they will look for a cleaner water source. But with such measures, the fish become more expensive for us the buyers. That is why we have to be mindful about what we dump in water bodies.
Mulumba Ivan Matthias