Regions can turn dwindling fish, miraa fortunes into revival miracles

Death of fishing in Lake Victoria and loss of markets for khat should signal a coming-to-age season, where respective communities let go and get innovative

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Fishing is a major income provider at the shores of Lake Victoria.

By Kenyatta Otieno

There is a verse in the Bible that says that for a grain of wheat to bring up new life, it has to fall into the ground and die. That sometimes it takes the death of National Development Party for National Rainbow Coalition to take shape. This phrase has always come to mind whenever I encounter ventures that are struggling or simply not working out.

The number of pick-up trucks and small vans being driven at dare devil speeds from Meru through Thika Road to Nairobi has reduced in the recent past. The green gold from the eastern slopes of Mt Kenya is no longer ferried to Europe as fast as possible before it withers out of flavour. Chewing miraa, also known as khat, is a common pass time for Kenyan urban youth. It is also popular among the Somalis of Kenya and Somalia.

Since the UK, the biggest importer of miraa, blacklisted it, Meru farmers have been left to contend with Somalia and Middle East market. Miraa, once a priced commodity even among local vendors, has seen its prices drop locally due to increase in supply. People can now afford versions of miraa that a few years ago only surfaced in London fresh from Maua in Meru.

There has been push and pull between Nairobi and Meru on how to go about reviving khat industry. The government promised miraa farmers Sh1 billion to revive the sector. This money has raised political temperatures in Meru where farmers and local leaders are trading exchanges on how best to utilise the funds.

When all this is going on, the Somalia Transitional Government recently came out with plans to proscribe miraa. According to them, the mild drug has several negative social effects. County Governments in the former Northern Frontier District have also begun sensitising locals on the negative effects of consuming miraa. The writing is on the wall; there are one billion reasons why it is time to forget about miraa.

A friend of mine from Meru spoke passionately about miraa a few years ago. He proudly stated how some churches in Meru accept the green twigs as offering. He explained to me that miraa was to Ameru what omena is to Luos. On my trip to Rusinga Island recently, I realised how fish stocks from Lake Victoria have dwindled. A few weeks later, one local daily reported that Kenya imports fresh fish from China.

Growing up, whenever we visited upcountry, the smell of fish met you a kilometre away. The air in our shags used to smell of a combination of several types of fish undergoing different types of preservation. Most of my age mates did not make it to graduate from primary school. There was easy money from picking “our coffee and tea” as they called fishing then. They dropped out of school, got married young and settled to a known way of life.

Whenever we arrived home, relatives never felt the pinch to give us fish to eat – free of charge. Today I can land home with some money and leave a few days later without eating fish. If I am lucky, what I end up with is nothing compared to what I can eat in Nairobi. The best catch is shipped out while the locals remain with left overs for their meals. As they say down there, the lake is fed up, so it is drying up.

Growing up, Migingo Island was a myth we heard people mention whenever a roaring sound like thunder was heard from the direction of Mfang’ano Island. It was believed that spirits lived on the rocky island. A few years later, people started by stopping over the island as they ventured deeper into the lake in search of the elusive fish. To fishermen, boundaries are imaginary lines that cannot be fixed in water. Uganda reminded them of the boundary and to date, the conflict has never been resolved.

These two stories can look themselves in the mirror and smile. They diverge where Meru produces miraa that does not have a market while fish stocks have dwindled but the market has to import fish to bridge the demand. The point of convergence is that there are people who know no other way to earn a living.

Such stories are not strange. Gold rush towns have turned into ghost towns overnight. Sisal farms were left to grow into decay when some people decided to import synthetic gunny bags. Nyanza was once a cotton hub and coffee farmers in central made good money from their berries… once upon a time.

Politics of economy

It is unfortunate that the economy is always left in the hands of politicians or on the dictates of politics. Since Jubilee came to power, Mumias Sugar was given a publicised Sh1 billion cheque. The money turned out not even enough to pay accrued electricity bills. Then the same amount of money has been given to miraa. What troubles me is that the money was given before somebody thought through what it should do. Local leaders are now going for each other trying to return the cart behind the horse.

Recently when Opposition leader Raila Odinga visited Meru, typical of politicians he also had a solution. If the Meru elect him, he will lobby European nations to reverse the ban on miraa imports. His words sound romantic until you revisit the reasons and processes that led to the ban. It is easier said than done.

Ecosystem

Meanwhile, for the people down at the lake, someone convinced them that replacing the causeway between Rusinga and Mbita Point with a bridge will solve the problem of dwindling fish stocks. This will have effects on the flow of currents and the general ecosystem of the gulf but with rise in population hence overfishing, I doubt if it will have substantial effects on fish stocks.

The situation we find ourselves in in regard to miraa is not new. Neither does it warrant a billion-shilling resuscitation plan. Like a grain of wheat, I believe the death of miraa will be the beginning of something better. If the government insists on disbursing the money for political expediency, then it should be used to nurture the new life rather than saving miraa. The time for miraa to go home in peace has come.

This is the best time to come of age around Lake Victoria and Meru. Necessity is the mother of invention. School dropout rates will reduce in both areas in a bid to escape the economic adversity. In a bid to make a living, these new generations will have no option but to be creative enough so as to thrive. The death of miraa and commercial fishing as they are known today will soon give rise to new industries.

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