By Joe Ombuor
Tall as a lone steeple and un-cowed by the afflictions of longevity, 74 year old Dalmas Otieno tiptoes into his sunset a hero, proud to have pioneered human settlement on Migingo Island by putting up the first house there.
But he candidly scoffs at the slogan ‘proud to be a Kenyan’ because, in his words, "one cannot be proud of a father who bolts at the sight of an enemy, leaving his children in the lurch".
Focusing his bitter eyes on the waters of Lake Victoria, he says: "That is what this Government and the Nyayo one before it did to us. They abandoned us at our hour of need." Mr Dalmas Otieno during the interview. Fishermen on Migingo Island. Photos: James Keyi/Standard
Mr Dalmas Otieno during the interview. Fishermen on Migingo Island. Photos: James Keyi/Standard
"The Moi Government left us at the mercy of lake pirates. The Kibaki regime acted the cowardly parent, leaving us to crash into the atrocious jaws of Ugandans. Our Government that we proudly voted into power surrendered us into slavery. What a shame!" He narrates in a crackly voice.
The pain of betrayal, neglect and spurn by a government he loved permeates his wrinkly face, leaving it darker than its usual hue as he yarns his traumatic walk into and out of Migingo. It all started in 1992 when then casual labourer in sisal plantations at the Coast decided to detour into the career of his ancestors.
"I suddenly discovered that my future lay in fishing and headed right there after a thorny life inside sisal plantations since the colonial days," he says.
Back at home in Muhuru Bay, Otieno convinced a group of his fellow fishermen to explore new grounds deeper in the lake and settled for the three Islands collectively called Migingo that resembled dwarf hills across the lake.
"We needed permission from the Fisheries Department and the Provincial Administration to settle there. I personally obtained a permit from then Assistant Director of Fisheries in charge of Nyanza and Western Province, J O Arunga and the Migori DC. Our Chief also endorsed the idea of physically re-locating to then Island. Then Officer in charge of Macaldar Police Station gave us four police officers for security.
"The place was nothing but a lonely bush of grass and cactus where dark, poisonous snakes slivered on the rocks ready to sink their fangs into any intruder.
"We battled the snakes as we cleared a patch to put up a shelter on the smaller Island that looked less formidable. We were 20 and one of us succumbed to snakebite.
"It was a risk worth taking, as the catches were good. Money flowed and I soon had a fleet of boats. The fish we caught was sold to the Muhuru Bay Fishermen’s Co-Operative society of which I was a member.
"Things started looking gloomy two years later when two of the four policemen were recalled to the main land for unclear reasons. The remaining two followed shortly afterwards, leaving us at the mercy of heavily armed pirates who roamed the lake in powerful boats to steal," he recalls.
The old man’s waterloo came one day in the late 1990s when pirates made away with his 18 boats and fishing gear including engines worth Sh1.5 million.
Says Otieno: "It was devastating. But I quickly recouped when Ugandan forces brought a semblance of order and later restored security, albeit at a price. Unfortunately, things were to get worse later, forcing me to leave in 2004.
The acknowledged father of Migingo Island, who today plants tomatoes and sells firewood for a living at his ancestral Muhuru Bay home west of Migori town, describes as obscene the flagrant enslavement of Kenyans in their own territory by Ugandans.
I chose to be poor but free than to be wealthy in serfdom where all the earning from my sweat went to enrich another country," he says.
The final straw for Otieno came in 2005 when Ugandans threw him out of the house that he built in 1992 at a cost of Sh60,000 and confiscated three of his boats without compensation. He had to pay Sh87,000 to retrieve two of the boats as the third one worth Sh130,000 went missing.
Reflecting back, he recounts: "Ugandan forces made their debut on the island in 2004, more than a decade after we first set foot there and their coming brought relief from the menace of marauding pirates who had overran the lake. We welcomed them with open arms because our Government had ignored our pleas for security.
"But the relief was short lived. The Ugandans to whom we willingly paid a token of appreciation in the form of a few kilogrammes of fish started demanding weekly payments of as much as Sh4,000 for every fishing boat.
"Those who failed to pay the money had their boats, engine and fishing gear confiscated on sight in the lake and a Sh60,000 fine imposed. Life became unbearable in such exploitative circumstances.
"We complained to the PC and DCs and all that we got in return were empty assurances that all would be well. They urged us to keep quiet as a solution was being sought.
That went on until Ugandans occupied my house and planted the Ugandan flag on its roof.
The flag was pulled down recently in demonstration of a false truce when confrontation reached fever pitch. My house remains Uganda’s force headquarters to this day. Who will compensate me?
"Unable to bear it any more, I brought my remaining fleet of boats home to Muhuru Bay and decided to have a fresh start in life, hence the tomato and firewood business that I depend on with my three wives.
Otieno’s boats, now weather beaten, resemble junk at a small beach next to his home.
In retrospect, he talks nostalgically of his days as a millionaire on Migingo Island before his fortunes came tumbling down, first to pirates and later, to Ugandan security forces that call the shots on the island today.
"I would not have relapsed into poverty if our Government cared," he ruefully states.
"The colonial Government under which I worked before independence seemed to have been more caring and responsible to the citizens than post independence ones.
"To us, the older generation who had a taste of colonial life, independence is but a shell."