Turkana - Feature Articles - Frozen Fish

A visit to Lake Turkana, by Justina Hart

During my second visit to Lake Turkana, in 1996, I was accompanied by my good English friend, Justina Hart. This is her take about the village of Kalokol, near the western shore of Lake Turkana. Copyright Justina Hart, 1997. You can get in touch with her through

Frozen Fish, by Justina Hart

   A fly was floating on the surface of my 500ml bottle of warm coke. I wanted that coke; it made a change from the cloudy water we had to sterilise with iodine to make it less harmful but consequently more revolting. Having failed in the attempt, I asked one of the young touts who was hanging around us if he knew how to remove it. He tilted the bottle carefully until the fly was stranded on the glass above the meniscus, and pulled it out with his forefinger. I drank the whole of the liquid so fast that my stomach swelled, and pushed the empty bottle to one side. It acted as a decoy for the flies that persisted in buzzing around human sweat.
   Children craned their necks round the bar doors to stare at the two white people, alternating their giggles with scowls. An old man got up to chase them away with a broom and they ran, their faces paling as they were swallowed by sunlight. An adolescent Turkana boy wearing a tartan robe halted for a few moments in passing, a single ostrich feather sticking out from the back of his head like an antenna. On the flat, sandy boulevard which stretched between two rows of corrugated iron huts, tribeswomen walked, balancing jerry cans of water and charcoal, on their heads. Beyond the yellow, blue and red painted shacks and shops, there were a couple of soporific goats tethered to poles and a blistered fish factory. The village then gave way to acacia trees, thorn scrub and desert. It was the last outpost in the north you could reach without falling prey to bandits or gunmen and we were trying hard to leave.
   We looked with awe at the people who moved with ease outside. By contrast, we drew shallow breaths of hot air as sweat ran from our foreheads, from the hollows beneath our eyes and from between our legs. It was hard to believe that human skin could be adapted to endure the harshness of that sun. We wore hats, sunglasses and long-sleeved shirts. Between the hem of my dress and the top of my socks, I had tied a second pair of used socks like black ribbons to cover a band of exposed, already burnt flesh. The people would stare anyway; we were past caring. When I hitched my skirt into my knickers to check on my bandaged knee, there were streaks of desert stuck to my thighs that looked like dirty plasters.
   The manager of the one remaining 'hotel' had tried to bribe us with free cokes so that we wouldn't pass on what we had learned about the place to other foreigners. His advertising leaflet consisted of a photocopied, hand-written inventory of each room: "two beds, two pillows, two bed sheets, one table, one candle", and at the bottom he had typed, "Jesus Christ be with you". It also said that from the rooms there were great panaramic (sic) views of the lake. He was not only a liar but a hypocrite to boot. Each year evaporation caused the lake to contract and it could definitely not have been seen from the hotel for several years. Tourists used to come because it was within easy walking distance of the lake, but now they came by mistake, were offered absurd prices by guides, and escaped to find an alternative route before they were robbed and stranded.
   The hotel manager owned the local bus and employed a couple of touts who spoke good English to round up any tourists in the larger administrative town further south and escort them to the village. This was how we had ended up there. A barman in the village whose place was being forced to close as a result of this monopoly, told us conspiratorially that these touts had been beaten by police for stealing from foreigners. He, like the other inhabitants, was scared. The bible-clutching hotel manager was growing rich whilst everyone else either left or grew hungry and thirsty as their livelihood literally dried up a little more each year.
   A fish filleting and freezing co-operative had been set up on the edge of the village a few years back by a Scandinavian company, which had drawn thousands of tribespeople who had migrated with their animals to look for work. The factory was a flop. The wacky idea of trying to freeze fish in temperatures of 40 or 45ºC failed as the village could not supply nearly enough electricity to meet demands. The cold room remained cold for just a couple of days. The problem was compounded when a new diversion of water for irrigation decreased the lake's supply, leaving the jetty hundreds of metres from the shore. By quirk of fate, fish stocks dropped radically whilst the employees' animals overgrazed the land. Ecological disaster, unemployment and water shortage followed. Those residents who were able to leave did so, and those that remained became desperately poor.
   In spite of this, we could not muster up much sympathy for the people. We tried to be as polite and kind as possible, but did not feel welcome. The village's collective obsession seemed to be staring at strangers. We were not at this stage particularly attractive specimens - hot, tired, hungry, thirsty, dirty and our clothes were beginning to fall apart like everyone else's - but people stared rudely for minutes at a time. When you stared back, they looked you straight in the eye, unblinking. We let them stare whilst we observed quietly, trying to keep ourselves to ourselves against the odds.
   There were two minibuses per day, one at 5am and one at 5pm. We had stayed the night but having not slept the night before, didn't manage to get up in time to catch the early one. There had been no water for a shower, and we bought sweet milky tea, chapatis and boiled eggs to assuage our hunger. The menu chalked up on the bar blackboard read 'large fish, medium fish, small fish, smaller fish', but no fish of any size was available.
   All evening we had had to play a game of bluff and double bluff with the touts who wanted us to buy their expensive services. We warned that we would check their prices with the local policeman. They wouldn't let us go to his hut, but said that one of the boys would run to fetch him. Naturally they didn't keep this promise. Eventually we told them, without naming names, that we had heard bad reports further south about certain tour guides in the village. This didn't get them off our backs, but they didn't try to steal from us, so they must have understood our counter-threat. So that we would be allowed to leave the next day, we told them that we needed to get money from the bank in the main town. You promise to come back, my friends? They asked. You must tell everyone what a good place this is. Yes, we answered in unison, tired by their unimaginative drill, and they finally drifted off into the darkness.
   At night we stubbed our cigarettes out on the sand-covered floor of the tiny room which resembled a prison cell. Occasionally one of the touts pulled the thin curtains that shrouded a grille in the door to check up on us, but we had locked it so he could see but not get inside. At the back of the room there was a small, open window. The melodic sound of a girls' choir coming from the hut directly behind us filled the room, and for a few minutes our paranoia subsided. We slept fitfully, distracted by the files of ants running around the bed frames and the snake holes in the floor. Our bodies remained clammy with sweat.
   When the minibus which turned out to be an old van, finally came at 6pm, we were sitting lethargically in the bar, watching flies swooping onto tea that had slopped out into the saucers from our now empty cups. Beneath the overhanging roof a woman was sitting with a pile of raffia baskets for sale. People were still leaning against poles staring at us, some wearing T-shirts and shorts with their backsides half-exposed through the holes, some wearing tribal dress. I hovered outside the van, hoping to be the last to board and so avoid an unnecessary half hour of claustrophobia. Two beautiful young girls watched me curiously; I tried to glance surreptitiously at their faces which looked blacker against the heavy ropes of green and red beads that hung around their necks. They turned away shyly. The green beads represented grass, symbolising peace, whilst the red stood for the rich soil of their country beyond the infertile desert.
   I ended up sitting next to a man with extremely bony knees who balanced a carton of eggs on his lap. Although I thought I had waited until the last moment to climb aboard, the bus continued to wait whilst sacks were piled and tied onto the roof. A crowd buzzed around the bus. A child touched my hair through the window and ran away in peals of laughter. There was a pungent smell which emanated from some of the tribespeople, different from white body odour, like hot, rancid earth. I felt nauseous and tired, but there was a sense of camaraderie among the passengers which came from having to put up with each other in cramped space for two hours. We smiled and squeezed up even further to allow for late arrivals.
   An elderly man who had mad, milky eyes kept trying to grab my attention by prodding me with his stick. His T-shirt contained just about enough cloth to stay on his upper body, but not to provide protection from the sun. For once I did not respond but looked away and ignored him. He wanted my address. I told him I did not want to give him my address. My companion, embarrassed by this display of Englishness, scribbled his work address on a piece of paper and handed it to me. The man tore off half of this piece of paper and carefully wrote his name and a partially legible religious message, probably learned from a missionary. 'I am a child of God', we deciphered. The rest of it boiled down to 'have a safe journey - I am hungry - send me money'. I felt ashamed, but he had frightened me.
   The van set off into the desert, swirls of dust choking the little view we had through the open doors to which boys clung, trying not to fall off. A little girl with a yellow ribbon in her hair put her hand on my knee and clutched tightly. Opposite, a Turkana woman, old enough to be a grandmother, suckled a baby to her withered breast. She had lines of scars where her flesh had been deliberately nicked on her arms, chest and cheeks. She had a silver plug through her chin and the thick ropes of beads she wore proudly around her neck were engrained with years of dirt. The bold colours of the passengers' clothes contrasted strongly with the bleached beige of the desert. We caught glimpses of termite hills that looked like chimneys, and of the flat tops of acacias.
   The people laughed. A goat was stumbling amongst legs between the facing benches, not realising that its most sensible option was to sit down. It pissed against a man's leg. He kicked it and it cowered behind his legs, now and then trying to stand and butting him in the backs of his knees with its horns. They were also amused by the sound of a heavy object that hung down over the side of the bus which clanked against the vehicle body every few seconds. It reminded me of the jangling of a tin can. My eyes were closing. I rocked with the motion of the bus and with the rhythmic percussion of the clanking. I felt all eyes on me although my own were shut. I didn't mind them staring at me when I was half-asleep. They could look at my silly cap which inflated like a soufflé when it was filled by the wind. Someone tapped my head and I realised that I had been falling forwards, drifting into dream and the lap of the woman with the baby, who was glowering at me.
   The road looked the same as it had done before, apart from some grey hillocks and there were also more manyattas or settlements. I shifted my legs further from the bony man who took up a fraction of the space of a couple of big women wearing constricting, knee-length stockings, who had their legs splayed selfishly. The boys were still clinging to the back. The bus was moving at an even pace over the bumpy track. The goat was behaving itself.
   We all flew to one side and then the other, falling against our neighbours in a muddle of arms and legs, as the van screeched to a halt in the middle of nowhere. There seemed to be no reason to stop as no-one disembarked and there hadn't been a landslide or flash flood. The bony man raised his eggs in the air for protection. Before anyone could jump out to stretch their legs or inspect the van for the cause of the breakdown, it reversed fast, wavering from right to left.
   Craning my neck, I saw a small greyish object on the sand that looked like road kill. I thought it strange that the driver should care so much for a wounded bird or squirrel out in the desert. The van stopped next to the object and we waited to see what would happen. Everybody turned to lean out of the open windows. The driver got out and walked over to the object. He picked it up and walked back. I asked what was going on. He's tying it to the roof, someone said. Having completed his task we drove on without further delay. The clanging noise resumed.
   We didn't know what this precious object was or why it had to be tied on the roof until we arrived at the town, and everyone piled out. Met by the throng of children shouting as usual, 'give me sweets, give me money', we pushed through and walked round to the side of the van. People were hauling sacks from the top and shouting. I stood on tiptoe to see. Suspended on a long piece of string from the roof was a single, still-frozen tilapia fish, which the driver was taking to market.

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