A three-hour drive along more than 50 miles of bumpy roads north of the South Sudanese capital Juba takes you into the heart of Terekeka State, home to the Mundari, one of South Sudan’s 64 ethnic groups.
Mundaris are predominantly cattle keepers but also practice small scale agriculture and fishing in The Nile that meanders through their land on its way to Jonglei State.
Terekeka is one of the additional 18 administrative states controversially added by President Salva Kiir Mayardit in 2015, boosting the total number of states from 10 to 28.
Former Governor, Juma Ali Malou, heads the new state, which is home to around 140,000 people, according to a disputed 2008 census.
Unusually its swathes of land, which cover just over 10,000 square kilometres, includes five natural lakes, Muni, Jor, Bayak, Jolori and Juarin. This means Terekeka, which translates as “forgotten” in the local dialect, is considered unique.
According to locals, the water level reduces during the dry season and rises with the flow of seasonal streams and tributaries of The Nile when it rains.
As early as 7:30am, women, men and children congregate at the river bank with big baskets, plastic basins and polythene sacks as canoes trickle in from down and upstream. Fishermen admiringly check their catch from the nets they laid in the slow-flowing river overnight.
The water is home to a wide range of fish, including the popular Nile Perch (Lates niloticus), Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), the Cat- and Mudfish. Some weigh around five kilos each and jump and wriggle in the wooden canoes, opening and closing their gills to catch a last breath.
“I am not selling. All this fish is already booked. It is going to Juba,” one of the fishermen shouts at a group surging towards his canoe on arrival.
He squints his eyes, trying to fight back a thick cloud of smoke from a burning roll of tobacco at the corner of his lips as he sorts the fish into different sizes and species.
The waiting group rushes towards every canoe that comes ashore. There are scuffles as restaurant owners struggle to source enough fish to feature it on their day’s menu.
“Kine somot akwe, Kine somot akwe,” or, this is my fish, this is my fish, insists a middleaged woman who owns a local restaurant.
The fresh fish, stored in the polythene sacks, big baskets and wooden boxes, is loaded onto small pickup vehicles heading to Juba and local markets within the state. Some is consumed fresh while the rest is preserved by smoking and drying in traditional kilns.
Authorities and traders say Terekeka is the major producer of fish locally. As well as exporting to Juba, its fish is also transported to Bor in the neighbouring Jonglei State.
There is stiff competition among the fresh fish importers in their refrigerated trucks. At Customs fish market, a businesswoman who declines to be named says she no longer imports dry fish from Uganda due to the economic crisis and has resorted to buying her supplies from Terekeka.
Next to the woman is a stall which charges 100 SSP, or 3.30 U.S. dollars, for a kilogram of fresh fish, just 20 SSP less than a kilogram of meat from the nearby butchers’ stand. Sometimes traders face losses due to delayed deliveries because of poor roads, especially during the rainy season.
Richard Khamis, the Director for Commerce, Industry, Mining and Investment, says the fishing industry, although it is not well established, is a leading source of income for locals.
Khamis explains that fishermen use small nets and traditional hooks but are able to maintain a steady supply for Juba’s major markets of Konyokonyo, Gudele, Munuki, Jebel, Customs and Sherikat, among others.
“If we can get somebody to invest in the industry, he will buy from all the fishermen and transport the fish to Juba,” says the official, adding that over time, he expects the fishing activities will be regulated and monitored.
That would enable authorities to track how much fish was harvested and exported within and beyond the state, Khamis says. He is optimistic that fishing would emerge as one of the top income earners for the state, once it implements levies on fishing canoes and traders.
Revenue collection from the sector, however, remains meagre as traders only pay low taxes at road checkpoints and market dues in Juba. According to the director, Terekeka State lies in the oil belt and there are visible signs of floating oil on the lakes, suggesting potential opportunities for crude oil exploration.
However, fishing is not as widespread as it could be, according to the former State Minister for Information, Broadcasting, Tourism and Antiquities, Modi Lomindi Ajuangich. He says the Mundaris, a pastoralist community, focus on their cattle while fishing is often disparaged.
The impact of these cultural attitudes was confirmed on a trip by a The Niles correspondent to Bayak, one of the five lakes in the area, which had very few fishermen compared with the Nile. The lake was calm and practically empty with a lone fishing canoe visible in the far distance. A heap of two-inch fishing nets lay nearby, looking abandoned.
At slightly after 3:00 pm, rays of sun bounced on the water surface and a multitude of bird species flew across the lake, sometimes ducking into the water to feed. Fish of varying sizes jumped to catch dragon flies above the water surface.
A straight line of floating objects revealed the position of a long stretch of nets that lay in wait. “You see. No people are fishing at such a time. Our people have a lot of pride in cows and look at those who fish as a poorer class,” explains Modi.
He adds that the sector will be developed by authorities in the future, through sensitisation and training on poverty alleviation initiatives. The state official stresses that the water bodies should be used to boost tourism, once infrastructure is built up.
The lakes are also useful for local agriculture in the area, through the provision of water for irrigation and domestic animals. But right now the authorities’ aspirations for these natural resources remain on the drawing board. Progress can only be made if the poor road network is improved to ease transport and to link “forgotten” Terekeka to the rest of the country.