|Fishermen on Long’ech Island, Lake Turkana. [Photo: Lucas Ng’asike/Standard]|
By Joe Ombuor
Turkana, Kenya: To reach Kenya’s little known island of sand, fish and romance is like walking the biblical narrow path to heaven.
From Kalokol, a trading centre built on the fish business 50km north of Lodwar, the dusty headquarters of oil-rich Turkana County, the only access to Long’ech Island is via tortuous sandy paths and ruts manoeuvrable only by two-wheeled contraptions.
The rough ride that shakes your bones to the core ends abruptly on the shallow shores of the algae-choked Ferguson’s Gulf of Lake Turkana.
Not openly visible are the teeming fish for which the gulf is famous and the many crocodiles, alligators, snakes and myriad other cold blooded crawling and slithering creatures that trigger an adrenaline rush down one’s spine.
The sandy heaven, dotted with innumerable igloo and loaf-shaped structures of dry grass and reeds, is reached by a canoe ride that takes approximately one hour.
Armed with radios
No sooner do you step ashore than a world of fish opens before your eyes. Many fish varieties. From the highly popular tilapia or ngege to Nile perch (mbuta), carp (ningu) and the spiked okoko that the Turkana call tir, to dog fish with their seriously sharp teeth. The Turkana call these finned canines lokel.
The sun overhead is blazing hot. The white sand dazzles your eyes as it simmers in the intense heat from clear blue skies. No grass seems to survive on these shores. Only a few stunted growths here and there.
Hardened residents toil undaunted by the heat. Either they are out in the water fishing or they are busy sunning, smoking or cleaning their white gold for the market.
Among the busy residents is beach chairman John Muga Okwara and his two wives, Akong’o and Awiti.
A native of Kano Kabonyo, Kisumu County, Okwara, who claims to be descended from a long line of fisherfolk from the shores of Lake Victoria, says he came to Long’ech a decade ago “in search of greener pastures”.
With a contented grin that exposes white teeth on a face much darkened by the heat, Okwara notes proudly: “We are the face of Kenya here. We have Luos and Luhyas who do most of the smoking and sunning of the fish. Kikuyus and Somalis are largely in transport. Kambas run shops and fishing is left to the native Turkana and El Molo communities.
“We live in harmony and even play games after work. Young men play football as you can see from those goal posts. We have netball and volleyball too, from time to time. And Ajua is increasingly popular among the youth and aged alike.”
Okwaro says the nights are lovely, with ever-clear skies.
“It is even lovelier on those days when the full moon is out. We literally pour on the sand armed with our radios. Occasionally, we have discos and are joined by people from Kalokol and beyond,” he says.
Okwara chuckles rather mischievously as we prod him for more. “Of course, people dance and carouse on the warm sand. Lovebirds meet. They flock and drift together on the sand,” he continues.
Okwara takes a deep breath and loudly clears his throat, deliberately yanking my colleague and I from a heat-induced nap.
He is keen to ensure his next point sinks home: “We have terrible problems here. We have no toilets and have to relieve ourselves in the sand with nowhere to hide. Fortunately, the sun dries up the waste fast and any foul smell is minimal.
“But things turn really ugly when it rains. We have been telling the authorities to no avail, even after a cholera epidemic cleared many people a few years ago.
“Portable water is found nowhere on this island and Lake Turkana water is not fit for human consumption. Besides a mild brackish taste, the water is full of fluorine that is detrimental to the bones. Those who drink it out of ignorance come down with scurvy and rickets. It also causes teeth to turn brown.”
He continues, the look on his face reflecting the concern shared by all the islanders: “Wholesome water is nearly 10km away from Kalokol and costs as much as Sh100 for a 20-litre jerrican.
“Transport bites us hard. Access to the markets is a nightmare because no proper road connects Kalokol to the lakeshore.”
And like many other parts of the country, security is a challenge here.
“This is especially so for our fishermen, who are often attacked and killed in the open lake by Shangila tribesmen from Ethiopia. The attackers rob the fishermen of food that they carry for sustenance.
“Our pleas for armed security to accompany the fishermen into the open lake have fallen on deaf ears,” he says.
And the woes go on. Okwara says the area dispensary is understaffed and lacks drugs.
Emergencies such as snake, scorpion and crocodile bites – which are numerous here – can only be handled in Kalokol, he says, adding that they have lost many people including pregnant women in labour before getting there for treatment.
“As they say, every cloud has a silver lining. Our local school – Long’ech Primary School – complete with a school boat to ferry children to and from the mainland, is something to take pride in,” he says.
He adds that the boat from time to time converts into a passenger vessel to earn the school some much-needed income.