Boat makers’ trade slowly dying as clients prefer modern ones

Leonard Otieno, a boat maker at Dunga beach, Kisumu. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

On the shores of Lake Victoria at Dunga Beach, Leonard Otieno is busy making a boat using timber.

The boatyard in an open area is one of the few remaining traditional yards in Nyanza. With the use of traditional boats slowly ending with the onset of fibre made boats, Otieno remains true to his work.

He sailed as a child, spent years learning from his father who was a boat maker 20 years ago, and over the years, Otieno has mastered the skill.

“When my father chose to teach me, I embraced it with passion,” narrates Otieno, who now sees a bleak future.

At his workshop, he assembles all tools, the wood and appliances he needs for his work. He has made hundreds of boats in previous years.

“I started working on boats and eventually it became my full-time job,” he said.

However, due to the shrinking market, he says some of his colleagues have abandoned the boat making job and shifted to other ventures. “Ten years ago, we were about 10 here, but now we have remained just two of us.”

The 35-year-old father of three said in the past he could make about five boats for clients weekly but lately, he makes only one or none, making it difficult to raise enough money to fend for his family.

He complained the rapid increase in wood prices was also a challenge. He acquires the hardwood from Uganda. Wood from Uganda that would make a 22 feet boat costs Sh70,000 while boats made from blue gum costs Sh35,000 for a similar size.

He says the most expensive boat he makes goes for Sh120,000 used for ferrying passengers while the cheapest goes for Sh35,000 used for fishing.

He cited the Covid-19 pandemic as a major blow to the business: “With the lockdown in Uganda, we cannot get the quality wood.”

He said the cost of appliances has also doubled. And with the introduction of fibre made boats in the lake, he says many clients are shifting to modern boats for fishing and transport.

Otieno said many of the fibre boats which are sourced from Mombasa are expensive, with a small-sized one going for Sh500,000.

He noted that the boats made from fibre are mostly bought by the rich who later employ the fishermen to operate them at a fee.

At the shores of Dunga, there are six fibre boats and he says the number is increasing while demand for traditional boats is steadily decreasing.

He admits that currently, he doesn’t have the skills to make a modern boat but he is willing to learn. “I already have basic skills that need to be advanced in order to remain relevant.” 

After the boat is ready, Otieno paints it and writes a name for identification.

A fisherman, Maurice Okoth, who has been in the trade for the last 40 years, says the modern boats are lighter than the traditional ones.

“Most of us would have liked to own the modern fibre boats but we cannot afford them. That is why we are still using the wooden ones. Boat operators who can afford are slowly shifting,” Okoth said.

Okoth, 58, said most boats were named after deceased relatives of the owners as a way of remembering them.

“The naming depends on the person. You can name a boat after your grandmother, father, brother or any other relative. Only a few boats are named after other things,” said Okoth. “Many people say the names protect the boats from ghosts but that is not true,” Okoth said.

He said fishermen slaughter goats, sheep or cows to inaugurate a new boat, but others prefer prayers before they start operations.

Okoth further regretted that fish harvests in Lake Victoria had dwindled due to over-fishing and the use of illegal fishing gear.

“For instance, some years back I could get 100kg of Nile Perch in one fishing expedition but now it is so difficult to get even 30kg. In the past, you could just count a few boats in the lake but now they are so many,” he said.