There Is A Lot Of Money In The Lake

There Is A Lot Of Money In The Lake
by Kirby Erlandson

There is a lot of money in the lake. Several fishermen in Muhuru Bay, Kenya—a small fishing village on Lake Victoria—imparted these words to me as though it was an old proverb, expressing a sense of reverent fascination for the great lake while at the same time hinting at its disappointments, and even its dangers. 

Lake Victoria yields more than more than 6 billion KSH (nearly 70 million USD) per year—that’s 165,000 metric tons of fish. Despite the wealth dredged up from Lake Victoria’s depths by countless fishermen each morning, residents of many fishing communities like Muhuru Bay still rally against devastating poverty and malnutrition on a daily basis. Young boys may drop out of school and enter into fishing to support their families, only to earn a marginal cut compared to the international distribution companies who run the industry. With poverty and poor access to education, it is not uncommon for relationships to take on a transactional nature—young girls finding older boyfriends to pay their school fees or widows trading sex for fish that they can then sell at the market. Girls can get pregnant and leave school as young as 12, and rates of HIV/AIDS infection in fishing communities like Muhuru Bay are among the steepest in Kenya, at an estimated 40%. Some women face violence for asking their husbands to get an HIV test or to use a condom.

I was in Muhuru Bay in the summer of 2009, working with a non-governmental organization focused on girls’ education. Hoping to better understand the community I was living in, I began asking friends, colleagues, and acquaintances about their lives in Muhuru Bay and recording their answers. Casual inquiries grew into a large collection of stories and photographs that were eventually translated into the works displayed here. 

Victoria by Kirby Erlandson

Victoria by Kirby Erlandson

While studying the intersection of the arts and human rights in college, I was taught how art has historically been utilized as a way to “speak truth to power” in movements for social change. Following this framework, I wondered, who or what is ultimately responsible for such poverty and injustice? Who has the power to either deepen or lessen these inequalities? This inquiry led me to immerse myself in the stories of the community members I met, which in turn shifted my questions slightly. In the art and expression that follows, I ask you to consider: What truth can we find in someone’s story?  And when we speak truth to power, to whom or what should we be speaking?

For me, some of the most salient, commanding examples of true power I’ve been able to identify lie within people like Judith, Fred, Mary, Agent, Emily, and Queen. These people I met in Muhuru Bay taught me about the human spirit’s enormous recuperative capacity, and about finding a path of resilience, courage, and action in the face of hardship and suffering. I carry these lessons, and the requisite gratitude, with me always.

Emily by Kirby Erlandson

EMILY

“My father was the first one to come, then my mother. My father came for fishing. When he made one net for catching fish, then my mother also came so that they would work together. She doesn’t go to the lake, but she takes omena from the boat, and then she sells. 

"I joined Rabwao in [grade 10], I was in the top position. But that gave me a lot of quarrels with all the boys. They were used to girls getting the lowest spots. And now they were saying there was a teacher that was adding me some marks. They were saying that I had a relationship with him. Now, you see I was being discouraged. They could start laughing at you and even say some filthy words towards you. They could even tell you, ‘do you really think you will make it to university?’  To be a girl in Muhuru is so much difficult. 

"When it reached December I became pregnant, and I just stayed. And when it became July last year, I gave birth. I had finished secondary by then. When it reached April this year, I applied to teaching college, and I am waiting for the calling letter.

"It is very hard to find jobs here. The only job you can get is just teaching in the private schools here. And you will only get 2000 KSH (23 USD) a month. Some are even 1200 (14 USD). That is how it is. If they pay 2000 that is great. It is very, very difficult. No jobs for learned people.”


FRED

“Me, I am just a fisherman. Every day when I wake up in the morning and I make sure that I come into the beach to prepare for fishing. This is usually at about 5:00 AM. I collect all my tools that I use, and I come to the beach. There is a lot of work there. If there is a very little catch, then we can work very fast. If there is a large catch, then we work slowly by slow. Me, I am fishing on my own boat. I get a crew and make a very good use of it.

"I was born in a poor family. That is what I know. When I was growing up, I wished to be a doctor, in fact, but, of course, I did not reach. We lacked clothing. You see, we could not even eat. When I was in [grade 11], my mother died. There was no money in the family. There was nothing for me to go further with my studies, so I left school at that point. I trained to become a fisherman, and now, I am still a fisherman. I was trying to make my brothers and sisters get what they can eat. There is my sister is now in [10th grade], and I’m trying to pay for it. I’ve tried, and I think I’ve become successful. I wish her success, and I think she will finish her school. She will be a doctor or a lecturer at a university. 

"I have a baby girl. God can try to make her so good in school. I think she could become a lawyer. And I think, if not a lawyer, then a doctor. When I feel difficult in my life, I pray  to God. So, for me, myself, I like God. I have a lot of hopes for my future.” 


AGENT

“To save fuel, I come to Migingo and stay and fish. Another boat will come and pick up fish and take to the mainlands. Fishing is better in the deep water. In the deep water, you can catch Nile Perch. But mostly I stay at Muhuru, I don’t stay in Migingo. Migingo is just a place I do business. The land isn’t safe. We only have only one toilet on the whole island. There are some women at Migingo who help us with cooking, but there are others who come there—they are prostitutes, most of them. The women, they have to use that prostitution as a way of getting money. If you have not reached a certain age, your parents will not allow you to come to Migingo. 

"The fishermen, they get the fish, they sell it, they get a lot of money. They drink all the night, they dance, they buy the girls things. Some people sell condoms, but few use them.” 


JUDITH

“My name is Judith. I have five children: two boys and three girls. I finished primary school up to class eight, and then I married. Eight months ago, my husband died, so I support my children myself. I like to have a business. Without business, I can’t get food for my children. My last born son is Gideon. He is just seven months. He comes to the market with me every day. My husband’s mother taught me how to run business in the market. I sell beans, green grams, groundnuts, bananas from Kisii, butter from a factory in Nairobi, and rice from Tanzania—it’s the sweetest. I can get 100-250 KSH profit from a bucket of butter, but it takes weeks to sell. Business is not always good. It can be up and down... I chose the rice, beans, and nut market because it is much easier to store when business is slow. Produce goes bad if not sold fast. I like having business more than relaxing at home. I want to make a profit.”


Mary

“When I was still young, I went up to grade five, then my mother passed away. After my mother passed away in class five, I continued in schooling to grade eight. My father also passed away when I was in grade eight. I wanted to study up to secondary. But because my parents had passed away, I was not able to make it to secondary school. But I wanted to. I had that goal. But because now I had nowhere to go—no one to stay with—I decided to get married, maybe to have a place to stay. If I could have gone to school, I would not be here where I am right now. I would not have been married at an early age. I could have gotten training to be a nurse. My dream when I was in class eight was to be a nurse.

"I had two children, but my firstborn child has died. My firstborn child died of Malaria. He was vomiting and had diarrhea. He died in May of this year. He was just one year old when he died. I would like to have more children.

"My husband keeps most of the amount he is getting from the lake. After my husband gets money from the lake, he removes money for food. The rest is for the other women. If I demanded that my husband save money or demanded that he stay with me at night, he would beat me. If I demanded my rights, my husband would beat me. Your husband is beating you to the extent that you are saying—why was I born a girl?  

"Now, I am selling fish and groundnuts to get money. I was very proud to start because I was able to sell and get a lot of money to buy some things for the children and home. It is important—money—to me because when I make money for myself, I know how to use it and how to control it. 

"Women don’t fish because they can’t go deep into water to fish. They also don’t know how to control that boat, which the men use for fishing. But if there could be someone to train women on how to control that boat then they could fish. If women could fish, I would fish too.”


Queen

"The following are my strengths. First, I am a disciplined girl. Also, I am wise enough to judge people. More so, I am good in class activities. Furthermore, I am a good footballer... I am also clever. I was proud of myself when I participated up to nationals in reciting a poem. And I was given some present by our former president Honorable Daniel Arup Moi. By then, I was seven years old.

"I like touring with my friends because as we tour we watch beautiful things such as flamingos. And lastly, I like making my body clean and pretty because if I make my body pretty, I appear smart.

"I was angry when I found my mum beaten up by thieves. Also, I was angry when I came from school but there was no lunch for me. I was angry when teacher caned me. Furthermore, I was sad when my grandmother died. Also, I was sad when I was chased away from school.

"In the future, I would like to do my exams and pass. Second, I would like to pass my KCPE [Kenya Certificate of Primary Education] with flying colours so I go to WISER school." 


If you are interested in supporting change makers in the community of Muhuru, you may purchase one of these paintings by visiting kerlandson.com (the full purchase amount will go directly to WISER, a non-profit improving educational opportunities for girls in Muhuru) or you may donate directly at wisergirls.org. §


Kirby Erlandson graduated from Duke University with a degree in Global Health Politics & Policy in 2011. She currently works with the organization Last Mile Health to improve health care access in remote areas of Liberia. She enjoys exploring how the arts can best be utilized to promote social justice and equality.

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