The pier at the Homa Bay dock provided a startlingly arresting view of Lake Victoria, the whole sweep of it. It was early morning, the sun yet to stir from its pocket and in the hazy light, the hills in the far distance appeared blue, a ghostly blue, eerie in a peaceful kind of way. A light breeze touched the surface of the water, rustling the reeds fringing part of the lake.
In the distance, a vessel was making its way to the shore, a tiny insignificant object amid the vast waters, growing bigger as it neared the jetty. As the boat drifted home to the dock and sputtered to a stop, it was easy to conclude that one was in the very presence of wonder. That the dinghy had made its way across the lake could only be attributed to magic. The engine-powered boat was a patched-up rickety contraption so ancient that it might as well have been Noah’s Ark.
It sagged under the sheer weight of its cargo: tens of bags of charcoal, bunches of raw banana, jerrycans, bucketfuls of fish among other items. As soon as the vessel moored, life kicked in a flurry. A group of men, who were waiting nearby, waded into the lake and began offloading the luggage.
They were stevedores — workers tasked to unload cargo and ferry it ashore. Back and forth they went — a routine they must have mastered over the years. They heaved the bags of charcoal first, expertly carrying the cargo to the shore in the waist-deep waters. There was a certain rhythm, choreography even, to the work. But in the air was also an unmistakable feeling of quiet desperation. It took the men about two hours to clear the boat then waited for their wage: a paltry Sh150 for the back-breaking work.
“This is what we do daily,” one of the men told me. “It is hard work, but we have families to feed, children to take to school,” he said.
RHYTHMS OF LIFE
The boat had arrived from one of the several islands not too far from Homa Bay town. There exists a symbiotic relationship between the mainland and the islands: boats deliver commodities not readily available in Homa Bay town while ferrying items — clothes and food from the mainland to these islands.
This particular crew had left the previous afternoon. “We can no longer depend on fishing, the fish are meagre here,” Shadrack Omollo, one of the crew members, explained. “Ferrying these commodities is more profitable. Yes, it’s hard work but what else can I do? I have a family.”
Omollo, a wiry man with a knack for storytelling, narrated life out there in the middle of the lake. Adrift in the lake, removed from dry land, with the hum of the ripped vessel the only sound, the men ponder life, he said, the future and inevitably, death.
He is well aware of a peculiar transaction prevalent in the area: fish for sex, where women, desperate for fish agree to sexual relations with the fisherfolk. “Over-fishing has depleted the lake,” Omollo said. And so women who need fish go to all lengths to acquire the commodity.
The stevedores and boat operators like him are the biggest targets, he explained. “You get your pay, no matter how little, and it’s gone,” he said impishly and added, “You know what I mean?”
Homa Bay County is singular among the 47 counties in one category: Life expectancy — 40 years, is the lowest in the country. The disturbing statistic has been occasioned by the HIV and Aids scourge, which, with a 26 per cent prevalence rate, according to the National Aids Control Council, is the highest among the counties.
Over the years, efforts have been made to staunch the tide. Recently, authorities proscribed night carnivals known as “disco matanga” prevalent in the region during which mourners spend the night dancing. Such events, leaders argued, are fertile ground for misconduct especially by the youth leading to increased cases of HIV/Aids infections.
Located 420km southwest of Nairobi, Homa Bay town was originally known as Chich Owuno but was renamed by the British because of the Huma Hills that overlook the town. The colonialists mispronounced Huma as Homa then added Bay to the name and it lived on.
Despite it being the county headquarters, Homa Bay is an unassuming but neat town with an easy soul to it. We had arrived the day before; getting into town — the suddenness of the arrival felt like an ambush. The road zipping across the town gives one the disquieting feeling that you could drive right down into Lake Victoria which shimmers just outside town. The day of my arrival was stifling hot, but later a light, unexpected shower had refrigerated the town.
I had wanted very much to see the stevedores, whose fame and expertise a friend had extolled at length, pencilling it in the itinerary. That is why dawn had found me at the dock the morning after arrival.
In the evening I walked back to the wharf. The sun had already dipped into the horizon and dusk was settling in quick. Standing dockside, I took in the sweeping view of the lake, now turning inky. In the distance light from a tall mast, a lighthouse blinked bravely against the darkness.
The squawk of the friendly bird Agak — named so because of its distinct call — could be heard. The boats sat anchored, waiting for tomorrow, waiting for the dance of the stevedores. The air carried the smell of reeds, and also of the lake. It was pleasantly balmy. I imagined Rusinga Island, 48km from Homa Bay town, and the other lesser islands that kept the soul of Homa Bay beating.
But now, in the dark were voices; female voices, male voices and I remembered Omollo’s words, and also the meagre allotment of 40 years. I turned and walked up the road into town. There was tomorrow, and I wanted to see the stevedores one more time, witness the choreography of life, the ripples fraught with consequences.