How fishermen use charms, juju and suicide ropes to catch fish for Nairobians

Fishermen believe that a boat has to be ‘cleansed’ to ward off evil spirits and attract more fish Photo: Courtesy

At 8pm, a ghostly stillness settles over the waters of Lake Victoria. A gentle breeze wafts along the beaches, the air fragrant with pine, grass and the sharp, pungent smell of fish as crickets and croaking frogs lull residents to sleep.

But for fishermen, bells toll, signaling a new ‘day’ in office. Far away in Nairobi, mama samaki is keeping vigil at Gikomba, Marikiti and City Market, awaiting trucks piled with tilapia to arrive at dawn from the lake’s landing beaches for Nairobi’s urban population.

But unknown to urbanites who devour the ngege with relish, fish does not stagger into the net like drunken louts. Most fishermen (and women) use witchcraft to ensure a bountiful catch!

From naming boats after dead relatives, scrambling for ‘suicide ropes’ and seeking the services of witchdoctors for protection and good tidings, fishing in the lake region is not for the fainthearted  or the ‘Amen!’ brigade.

“Times have changed. Fish have become elusive, which is why some of us have resorted to using witchcraft to ward off competition and increase our catch when we sail deep into the waters,” says Ogweno Jaleny from Liunda beach in Siaya County.

Incredibly, even tragic boat accidents come with a silver lining for those who eke a living from fishing.

“Accidents are common in the lake. Lives get lost. But whenever a boat capsizes and kills those on board, you will find boat owners and fishermen flocking the shores as they wait for the rescue teams to retrieve the drowned bodies. Their mission is to lay their hands on the rope that was used to pull the drowned bodies to the shore. They say it has magical powers and can bring good tidings for those fishing in the lake,” adds Ogweno.

This might sound like fiction to town folk, but for thousands of fisher people

— from Liunda beach in the far end of Siaya County, to Luang’ni beach in Kisumu, and the many beaches in Mbita in Homa Bay and Muhuru and Sori in Migori

— for whom fishing is not only a major economic activity but a cultural heritage, it is just a way of life.

How much fish one catches is predetermined right from when the boat is made and named. To those with degrees in fisheries and management, they are fishing vessels, but to boat owners and traditional fishermen of Lake Victoria, many mythical layers surround every fishing boat.

Just like a mother names her child when it is born, Nyanza fishermen also name their boats, often after an ancestor, parent or close relative, usually departed. In the old days, the naming was a big ceremony that involved the slaughter of livestock and feasting.

According to Mzee Ochiel, the ceremonies were elaborate, with plenty of food and drink, not only to celebrate the building of a boat, but also to ‘beckon’ one of the respected and departed souls in the family to manifest himself or herself in a dream so that the boat could be named after them.

Tom Wigina, a 50-year-old fisherman and boat owner in Sumba beach, Muhuru Bay in Migori County, says naming a boat is very significant in a fisherman’s life and trade, since the name can either bring good tidings or disaster.

“Whoever you choose to name is paramount. It is best if they are deceased because Luos believe the dead can see things we cannot,” he explained.

Wigina says that if you name your boat after your grandmother, she can talk to you through different and strange signs.

“Let’s say you want to push the boat from the pier into the waters when going for your expedition and the boat suddenly just can’t move! If it normally takes three or four people to push it into the waters, but then it suddenly gets heavier, even when the number of those pushing it increases, please, do not insist. Abort the mission and go home,” Wigina advised.

According to Wigina, this could mean that the grandmother you named the boat after is warning you of danger ahead. Ignoring her warnings can lead to the boat capsizing. Alternatively, one could end up toiling the whole night only to come back home empty handed.

Those who consistently fail to make a catch can appease the angry relative he named the boat after by asking them to be lenient. For instance, he explains, the fisherman can chant: “My grandmother, why are you doing this to me? Your grandchildren are starving. Come on, I know this year we did not celebrate your memory, but please open up the lake and I’ll get money to organise your ceremony.” Following the verbal appeal, the boat is likely to be successful in its fishing expeditions!

Ogweno Jaleny from Liunda beach in Siaya County says that apart from the naming rituals, a rope that has been used to tie the body of a person who drowned in the lake is considered a ‘blessing’ for fishermen.

“People literally scramble and can kill for it,” he claimed. When someone drowns, they are given three to four days, after which they are expected to float to the surface

— from where they can be spotted. The rope used to pull their remains to the shore can turn around a fisherman’s fortunes. Equally, a rope used by a suicide victim when ‘treated’ by a witchdoctor and tied to a boat improves the catch many times over.

While young fishermen go fishing when high on chang’aa or bangi, elderly fishermen, who are masters of the game, prefer charms to protect them from misfortunes like drowning and spells cast by colleagues. Janet Akoth, a fishmonger at Sori beach in Migori, says fishermen and boat owners throng Tanzania for charms to fortify themselves and their boats.

“You know, fishing at night is risky. Anything can happen in the middle of the lake in the dead of the night,” Akoth explains. Others go for charms to get an edge in business since buyers throng the boat that catches the most and best fish.

“The charms work. That is what has kept some of us in the lake for years,” admits Ogolla, a fisherman at Mbita beach in Homa Bay.

He says it is a risky job and every day can be your last. When the tides are too high, or when the waters are enraged, Ogolla says the charms can prevent the boat from capsizing. He says he has been a witness but refuses to divulge more information on what the charm is or how it is administered.

According to Ogolla, the risks associated with fishing make them lead carefree lives of sex and booze.