Aziz Kidudu sits under the shade of a tree on a sunny afternoon weaving a basket. Using nylon and sisal fibres, the 39-year-old Ugandan is making dozens of baskets that he will use to catch fish in the River Nile. Yet, his way of life is under threat as the government seeks to crack down on illegal fishing.
Kidudu’s afternoons are usually reserved for making baskets or mending ones that have been damaged. He spends his mornings, evenings and sometimes nights dipping the fishing baskets into the river.
The baskets catch small species of fish. He uses the very smallest as bait for larger fish, mainly Nile perch locally known in Uganda as “Empuuta”, while he either sells the bigger ones or uses them to feed his family of 10.
Kidudu started fishing when he was just seven years. He recalls that he began to accompany his elder brother, Ashraf, after the death of their father who had been the family breadwinner. “I would only carry baskets or food to my brother and ended up learning from him,” he says of Ashraf, who was only 11 at the time.
The river became our next father.
His mother was ill and could not take care of them, so “the river became our next father”, he said. Since then, he has spent most of his life along the Nile, at the villages of Bujagali and Nalufenya.
Godfrey Kimbugu also earns his living fishing on the River Nile. “Whatever I earn has enabled me to send my children to school and also to buy other basic needs of life such as clothes and food,” Kimbugu said.
However, the 39-year-old father of seven says it has been challenging since last year when the government started a crackdown on illegal fishing activities on the rivers and lakes.
“When soldiers who are charged to prevent illegal fishing find us, they take all our catch even though we now respect the rules,” he said. He claims that the economic difficulties forced his 16-year-old daughter to drop out of school recently.
The new rules stipulate that fishermen only use canoes measuring 32 to 34 feet when sailing the river and they are also prohibited from catching young fish.
According to Vincent Sempiija, Uganda’s Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, illegal fishing and overfishing of immature fish leads to an estimated annual loss of US$ 429 million.
The Ugandan fisheries sector is a significant employer in the country and also a vital source of foreign currency. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the average annual haul of fish is about 461,000 tons. Fish exports in 2015 were 17,597 tons valued at US$ 134,791 million.
‘What else can we do?’
Both Kimbugu and Kidudu say that despite the increase in regulations they will never leave the only profession they have ever known. “Where else can we go, what else can we do apart from fishing here?” asks Kimbugu, who has been fishing on the River Nile for the last 20 years.
Another fisherman, Stephano Waiswa learned fishing from his late father, who along with his brothers made his living on the Nile. Now a 28-year-old married father of two, Waiswa started fishing when he was just nine years old.
Fishing is fun, but it can be challenging, he says. Sometimes you can fish for the whole day and fail to catch “anything”, by which he means no Nile Perch, his primary source of income.
What else can we do apart from fishing here?
A kilo of Nile Perch is sold for between 6,500 and 7,000 Ugandan shillings (around US$ 1.5-2) to businessmen who then sell it to restaurants, hotels and whole-sellers.
Apart from Nile Perch, other fish species in the Nile include the Bolti (a species of Tilapia), the Barbel, several species of Catfish, the Elephant-Snout-fish, and the Tiger-fish or Leopard-fish.
25-year-old Sadam Ziko is one of the merchants who buy fish from fishermen on both the River Nile and Lake Victoria. “Trading in fishing is very profitable but risky,” Ziko says, explaining that the primary challenge is the fluctuations of the price of fish.
Sometimes the prices can drop suddenly so that he ends up having to sell at a loss. Other risks include fish rotting if ice runs out or refrigerators lose electricity. Ziko says he usually makes a profit of 20,000 to 30,000 Uganda shillings a day. He has already bought a plot of land and hopes to build a house there in two year’s time.