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Migingo Island at center of border dispute

Kenya and Uganda vie over a tiny fishing center in Lake Victoria.

Migingo Island is less than an acre of land in the middle of Lake Victoria where 500 Kenyan and Ugandan fishermen work to catch the Nile Perch. Both Kenya and Uganda claim the small island. (Tristan McConnell/GlobalPost)

MIGINGO ISLAND, Lake Victoria — As the morning sun spreads across the inky waters of Lake Victoria one speck of an island glints in the early dawn light. Migingo is the only inhabited place in this part of Africa’s largest lake, a blip on the horizon coated in corrugated tin.

Around 500 fishermen, traders, police and prostitutes live on the island (see map below) that is less than an acre in size so almost every inch is covered in tin shacks.

They are here for one reason: fish, in particular the huge, heavy, silver-scaled Nile perch that lives in the deep waters around Migingo. It is a valuable but diminishing resource, and one worth fighting for.

A row between Kenya and Uganda over who owns the island led to threats of war this year as tiny contingents of armed security forces from each nation crowded onto Migingo claiming it as their own. Shots were never fired, although irate Kenyans did pull up a section of railway
that links landlocked Uganda to the Indian Ocean.

Instead of coming to blows the politicians came to an uneasy agreement: A joint border commission was to consult maps dating back to the 1920s and decide who owns the island and therefore the fish that swim around it. Months later the commission has not yet reported. Instead of clarity, there is an ominous silence.

Old men say that there used to be plenty of fish in Lake Victoria but now, with greater numbers of fishermen desperate to bring in bigger catches, with climate change causing the lake level to drop at an alarming rate, and with mushrooming lakeside communities and industries polluting the waters, the Nile perch is harder to catch. The fishing is best where the water is deepest, which is where Migingo is located. Closer to the shore the waters are fished out: at night hundreds of long wooden canoes with gas lamps burning on their prows bob on the water like Chinese funeral lanterns.

As a rooster crows its hoarse dawn call, John Obunge rubs sleepy eyes and swings his legs out of bed. The 34-year old Kenyan fisherman has lived on Migingo since 2004. “It is good fishing here because we save fuel and the tedious work of actually coming into the deep water to fish and then going back to the shore to deliver,” he explained.

Instead he lands his fish and middleman traders come out to buy from him. Although the waters here are still rich Obunge said, “We find the fish reducing in number day by day.” Catches of up to 450 pounds used to be common, now boats are coming back with a quarter of that.