Since 1902

One man's effort to save traditional boat manufacturing industry

Jack Osetwa repairs a boat at Goye beach in West Yimbo, Siaya County. [Isaiah Gwengi].

It's a breezy afternoon at Goye beach on the shores of Lake Victoria, and the scene is typical for an area that runs on the fishing industry.

Men are repairing their nets while others are setting off for their next catch. A group of women are offloading sand from boats.

Next to a collapsed building, about 20 metres from the shore is an informal workshop where new boats are built and old ones are repaired.

Unlike most men working on the shores of Lake Victoria, who make their money through fishing, 60-year-old Jack Osweta is carving a niche for himself in boat making.

The idea came to Osweta more than three decades ago after hustling in the urban centres for many years. He trained his hands on all types of jobs, including tailoring.

“I returned home in 1989 when my mother died in a boat accident and I never went back to town,” narrates Osweta.

God-given gift

The boat maker, who is sought after by many in his home village and beyond, tells The Standard that his is a God-given gift.

As he assembles all tools, the wood and appliances he needs for his work, Osweta says working on boats has become his full-time job.

He explains, “No one taught me how to make boats. I taught myself by assembling used timber to make my first boat which I used for fishing.”

Jack Osetwa repairs a boat at Goye beach in West Yimbo, Siaya County. [Isaiah Gwengi]

Osweta, who took five months to build his first boat, says that he has mastered the art and currently takes at least three days to build a smaller boat measuring 15 feet.

The boats are being made to order, with the bigger one going for approximately Sh1 million, and the smaller one around Sh100,000.

However, the art of designing and building these vessels, done entirely by hand, is under threat.

Fewer people order wooden boats since plastic and fibreglass ones are cheaper to maintain.

“Young people aren't also as interested in joining a profession that they say requires years of apprenticeship and has an uncertain future,” he says.

The time and effort that goes into production mean boat builders often form a bond with their creations, and eventually delivering them to their owners is often bittersweet.

"When the boat leaves, I'm somehow sad. Yes, I'll be happy when I see it in the water and I see everything is fine, but it's like a piece of me has left," he chuckles.

Complications

Solomon Olum, a long time fisherman and one of Osweta's clients, says the rapid increase in wood prices and the recommended size of boats required to fish in the deep waters has complicated matters for the boat makers and users.

"Boat making is a traditional craft which is slowly dying, and yet it's treated as if it were a simple manufacturing or supply business. There is no support from the government," he told The Standard.

Unlike most men working on the shores of Lake Victoria, who make their money through fishing, Jack Osweta is carving a niche for himself in boat making. [Isaiah Gwengi]

Even though Osweta's is a self-taught craft, he says people take more than one year to learn the craft that involves creating a masterpiece from wood.

He says that his connection with the craft always makes him eager to finish each boat and start the next.

Osweta, who is not planning to quit the trade any soon, cites the lack of any formal education as another contributing factor to the dwindling number of wooden boat makers.

"Young people have to go learn beside the old craftsmen, often for five or six years, for them to be able to make a small boat," he says, arguing that there is no boat building school.

With about three decades in the industry, Osweta says it is important to have someone experienced because if you make one mistake, especially in the first stages of (building) the boat, it might end up being more of a basin than a boat.

Despite the bleak outlook for his profession's future, he remains hopeful.

"I believe that people will return to the wooden boat because of their affordability," he argues, adding that not many fishermen in his village can afford fibreglass boats.