Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Living by the Lakeside

Lake Victoria - Part II 

Wanting to be alone with the elements, I stepped out of my tent early morning, only to find some local inhabitants already by the lake. That the resort did not block access to them and let them go about their activities (not unlike the hippos) of filling water or fishing was heartening. Yesterday’s darkening sunset lake now looked open and inviting. The burnished amber wash of yesterday was replaced by pleasing tones of grey and blue as the sun’s first rays lit up the skies. Dhows with white sails could be seen dotting the horizon like many giant pelicans floating on the surface. Nearby, Luo fishermen, their ebony bodies glistening, prepared to lay their nets with the Radio FM spewing news and songs, incongruously, in the background. That in no way diminished or detracted from the symphony of the birdsongs that filled the air.

Black-headed Gonoleck
I was contentedly watching waterbirds – the African pied wagtail, the pied kingfisher and egrets, when, seeing that I was the only “tourist” around, some local boys approached me promising boat rides on the lake. I tried to ward them off gently, but they persisted. Just then an unfamiliar harsh call arrested my attention, followed immediately by a melodious song. After a bit of find-me-if-you-can game, a black-and-crimson bird revealed itself in a tree, nearby. Seeing my interest in birds, one of the boatmen identified the songster as a Black-headed Gonoleck and went on to extend an invitation for a boat ride to Dunga wetlands, a bird haven and he had me.

The boat ride by the Luo duo - Michael and Peter - opened up a fascinating world of the Luo people, the Dunga fishing village, and flora and fauna of the wetlands. In a country where vegetables grow bountiful due to exceedingly fertile soil and yet meat is more popular, the Luos (the tribe that lives by the Lake) are faithful to their bony fish fare. There is a vast array of endemic fish species in the Lake among which tilapia and catfish are the local favourites. Few decades back, Nile perch was introduced in the waters as a solution to combat mosquito menace with disastrous effect. Today, the exotic Nile perch has become the dominant species at the cost of hundreds of local varieties upsetting the fine ecological balance of the water sere.  

Hamerkop of the hammer head
As we cruised past the papyrus- and reed-fringed lake we saw fisher-folk examining and sorting the catch they had netted. They gladly shared their spoils with the egrets and sacred ibises that were seen helping themselves from the nets. In contrast to these unfussy birds, the Hamerkop is quite demanding, or discerning, if you like. It goes for prize catch and is often willing to fly miles to distant waters to garner fresh fish. In Nairobi, I sometimes hear the hamerkop’s screechy trill as it flies high in the skies, though I rarely see it. It has always stirred my heart evoking romantic images of distant voyages – real and imagined. The fisher-folk have a special regard for this bird, almost as if it were their deity. 

Hamerkop nest
As we sail further leaving behind the fishing village with its denizens we can see Napier and Hippo grass by the edges and trees with Hamerkop nests, the latter found more commonly here than in Nairobi. Hamerkop nests are an architectural feat. Humungous for a bird the size of a fowl, it sits like an upside down pyramid, a mini-tent, in the crotch of a tree. As far as the fishermen are concerned, the hamerkop is a king among birds who is given to extravagance, though it also works king-size. The bird collects riff-raff - polythene bags, cotton, wool or other fabric fragments - and all manner of trash to bulk its nest which is primarily made of mud. Thus it also serves as garbage cleaner. Unlike other birds that start building nest towards the breeding season, the Hamerkop is at it daily. Michael tells us that the nest has three compartments, one of which is a guest room. Since the fastidious bird flies miles in search of fish, it often needs to rest and the guest room is that transit facility where any stranger Hamerkop is welcome to stay! Disused or abandoned nests are occupied by Egyptian Goose or even snakes, Michael adds.

Yellow weaver birds are weaving in and out of the rushes chattily, a yellow-billed stork is fishing in shallow waters in the privacy of the dense freshwater mangroves but it is the pint-sized malachite kingfisher that holds our attention. I have to tweak the telephoto to zoom in on the bird, iridescent in its purple-orange plumage. “It can’t get any bigger than this,” says Michael who is a fount of information on birds and whose sonar senses can pick up the slightest sign or sally to pinpoint a species. A sausage tree comes into view with its fruits dangling pendulously. This fruit is very useful to the Luos, but unlike the Maasai who brew beer from it, the Luos use it for medicinal purposes. Michael explains its symbolic significance to his tribe. He says: “when a fisherman dies at the lake and his body is not found within a week then a sausage is buried in lieu of the person, near his home, in a ritual.”

As I am listening in awe and admiring Michael’s anecdotes and stories, he starts grunting like a hippo. He is greeting the hippopotami huddled together – nostril, ears and eyes peering over the water surface – and after a brief interlude all of them grunt back in unison. Hippopotami are known to cause maximum human deaths in Africa and they often reside close to human habitation, so this proximity to them was worrying. But Michael dispels our fears and insists that these are “Happy Hippos” who do not harm the fisher-folk and that both live in harmony. Kenyans are known to relish hippo meat and when questioned about the delicacy, Michael had this to say: “We do not kill hippos; it is not even easy to do that because of their thick skin. But hippos fight amongst themselves and when an animal is injured it comes out of the water. When an injured hippo dies like this, the entire village has a feast.”

This is a tribe that is flamboyant, loves its football and fish, and takes immense pride in its culture and music. But above all, the Luos are very warm and friendly people. One boat ride seems to have brought me closer to them and their world than any guide book could have. This tribe has won my heart, for sure. 

The Luo duo -Michael and Peter
Peter making a papyrus basket

For more photographs check the following link:

Also read: Freshwater Lake that's a Sea - Lake Victoria - Part I

1 comment:

  1. Lovely article maam ... brought the vitality and beauty of the lake and its wildlife right to me. the combination of the words and the lovely photos rekindled my desire to one day take this tour through the african continent or atleast parts of it.