Fishing minors from the Lake Victoria back to class

Children are often employed to help sort omena. They will put it out to dry, turn it over and drive birds away. PHOTO: RAY POLO


KISUMU: The sun slaps Lake Victoria’s waters with flashing orange rays as birds sing and flap their wings to salute the light of day. The soft blue ripples spread peacefully, but harbour the harsh lifestyle, death and destruction that engulf beaches around this lake.

Silver Cyprinid or omena as it is locally called, remains Lake Victoria’s mainstay, the staple food and the most affordable source of protein. However, its supply continues to dwindle as a result of over fishing, pollution and climate change. Illegal fishing gear works to deplete the lake’s treasured resource as countless fishermen resort to crude methods and tools at times risking their own lives.

Most of these cannot afford life jackets, valued at Sh2,500, and among them are children, some as young as 13, who have learned to sail boats, cast nets and catch fish. They wake up at dawn to accompany the older men in open boats for trawling voyages that last for hours, occasionally even days.

Armed with a hope and a boatload of instructions, such minors bravely battle waves, winds and fight strugging fish to pocket a penny. At times, they exchange their sapped energy for a piece of fish.

“I had to wake up at 4am every morning to the lake. The boatman would order me to sit at the rear of the boat and I literally became his wind shield. I rowed the boat and cast the nets as he puffed away the sway,” recounts Tommy, who began fishing at 14 years of age.

He continues: “On my first day I could not take in the wind. I felt nauseated but had to endure my trainer’s mockery to earn some money for food.”

The six-hour voyage would stop at Honge beach, yet presenting new roles to an already worn-out Tommy. He would oversee the fish net laundry and gather stones to anchor nets for subsequent fishing trips. This would earn him a maximum wage of Sh50 per day which was much less than ten per cent of the boatman’s profit.

With such chores; boat cleaning, omena drying and picking, such children hardly have enough time to rest or to attend classes. They go to the lake when their school-going counterparts are asleep and return way past the third school lesson, tired only craving for sleep. In fact, Honge beach is largely sleepy during the day, given that many households host fishermen.

“There was no break until all the fish were sold. On a good day, I would earn money - on other days I would be given one piece of fish, which was not enough to make a meal for my family of six. Sometimes the boatman would assign me so many duties that I would miss the free boatmen lunch,” Tommy says.

Tommy lost his dad to the migratory fishing business in years past. With his four sisters, they coil under the care of a mother who depends on Honge beach for a living. She dries, picks and helps to pack omena in sacks for market destinations. After sitting his KCPE exams and without fees for secondary school, Tommy joined in the trade, working from one boat to another, one drying space to another.

“There was a night when we experienced so much wind that our boat capsized. Luckily I clung to one end of the boat and swam blindly before help arrived,” he remembers in a shaken voice.

Atieno of Rapogi Primary School has also had some lake-life experience. With her mother’s untimely demise and a father’s constant ailment, Atieno had to tow dragnets every other afternoon even on a school day.

“I had to join my father and help him along as he had a festering wound in his hands. I would also help him sell the fish and that is how we took care of food and books. He has since died so I live with my grand mother,” she says.

“We are doing badly,” says Regan Odhiambo, an orphan and class eight leaver who is yet to join form one due to lack of school fees. “There is no money for anything. We hang around the beach to pick omena that drops off the drying nets. At home we partake the little pick, we share clothes with siblings and can only dream about shoes”.

Although his lucky classmates are in their first year in secondary school, 16-year-old Regan still hopes to get sponsorship that would thrust his dreams to life.

For Tommy, Atieno, Regan and many other children along the beaches, life has been a daily risk, a daily struggle. Food is gold and schooling, somewhat a luxury.

According to Billy Adera, a social worker with African Network for The Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) Kenya, adults engage children in fish business because they offer cheap labour. Further, they have quick hands needed for omena picking as well as swift legs to chase birds from omena spreads. Some local fishermen believe that children’s hands have bountiful luck so they employ children to clean their boats, in anticipation of a great catch.

Unfortunately many caregivers hardly know the difference between child work (which is acceptable) and child labour (which violates the right of the child).

While Government initiatives, such as free public primary education and subsidised public secondary education programmes have improved access to basic education, family needs swarmed in poverty, still keep many children out of school.

To address this, Terre des Hommes - Netherlands has funded ANPPCAN Kenya Chapter in a four year Elimination of Child Labour (ECL) project that began in 2012, in West Yimbo Ward. So far, 200 children have been reintegrated to primary schools and supported with school levies and educational materials.

More than 70 others have been supported with school fees, uniforms, and shoes in secondary schools, while 60 youth have been enrolled in vocational training.

Also courtesy of the ECL project, Tommy is now a form one student at Osieko Secondary School, while Atieno is catching up with class six syllabus at Rapogi Primary School. These and many more beneficiaries form part of Child Right Clubs through which they are enlightened about their rights and responsibilities.

Further, through the same initiative, 120 caregivers have been supported to establish and improve existing businesses to support their children through injection of start-up kits, training on business management skills, loaning and saving and further training and linkages with other sources of funding.

These success stories are a result of collaborative efforts between ANPPCAN Kenya’s initiative, village elders, chiefs, head teachers, school boards of management, beach management units (BMU) and the authorities.

“All area leaders now speak one language when it comes to child protection. Therefore no parent can hold it against any one of us when we are tough on them.

They now understand that what we are doing it for the common good of the child and the future of our community,” says Samson Oria, BMU Chairman Uhanya Beach.

This partnership has also established an effective referral system for handling child protection cases.