One fish, two fish, black fish, blue fish(ermen)

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by Cynthia Vukets on October 22, 2009

oil

Menza Bechaka sifts through an oily substance found on the beach near Tsunza, a fishing village near Mombasa.

When my friend Meghan called me with a story tip about toxic waste washing up on the shores of a tiny fishing village near Mombasa I couldn’t help but hope it would be my “big break.”

I pictured oozing barrels of possibly radioactive material and wheezing fishermen with open sores from handling it. Very Erin Brockovich.

Alas, the waste turned out to be only a few sacks of some sketchy-looking grey powder. But the day turned into one of my favourites in Africa so far.

I went to Tsunza, a hot, dry village up on a hill surrounded by mangroves. It happens to be right across a creek (where the ocean comes inland and meets with freshwater from a river) from the Kenya Port Authority. Tankers moor less than a kilometre from the community’s traditional fishing ground.

To get there, we have to take a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) down a steep, winding dirt track to the water. Then we hop into a boat so laden down with people, bicycles, crates of vegetables, barrels of cooking oil and sacks of maize meal that when a wave hits it sheer panic comes onto the faces of the women seated closest to the edge. My colleague comments that, although this is a fishing village, entirely dependent on the sea for survival, most of the women probably don’t know how to swim.

As we near the Tsunza dock we come across half a dozen old, skinny men clad only in

Saidi Shaban indicates a patch of oily sand where all the mangroves have died. The mangroves are an important breeding ground for the fish that fishermen like Shaban depend on in Tsunza village.

Saidi Shaban indicates a patch of oily sand where all the mangroves have died. The mangroves are an important breeding ground for the fish that fishermen like Shaban depend on in Tsunza village.

cutoffs. They are pushing their dugout canoes out to the creek, on their way to fish.

We continue putting along in the motorboat, on a tour of the beaches and mangroves where the community fishes. Members of “Community Touch” – a small, volunteer-only, totally un-funded but amazingly organized and hardworking community organization – are taking us on a tour of the dumping that they say is ruining their livelihood.

Saidi Shaban points out broken glass nestled amongst seedlings in the mangrove swamp. This area is covered in water at high tide and is where Tsunza’s men come to fish. He shakes his head.

“As you know, fishermen don’t wear shoes to fish,” he says. “This is very dangerous.”

We also see plastic, clothing, shoes, medical waste like syringes and medicine bottles, garbage and oily sludge. The view from the beach is of tankers and behind them, the Port Authority and an oil refinery. It’s not tough to put two and two together here to figure out where the garbage is coming from.

Community Touch organizes beach clean-ups twice a month, but it seems they are fighting a losing battle. Still, the members are hopeful and eloquent. They talk to us at length and in detail about fish habitats, mangrove degradation, plans for “livelihood alternatives” like crab farming, and their struggle to get national environmental regulating

Juma Mashanga stands in front of a stack of mangroves that have been harvested in Tsunza, Coast Province.

Juma Mashanga stands in front of a stack of mangroves that have been harvested in Tsunza, Coast Province.

bodies to come to Tsunza.

Back at the village, one of the guys climbs a tree and throws down a bunch of green coconuts. We all drink coconut milk in the shade surrounded by clucking chickens and laughing kids.


To read the Daily Nation story on dumping in Tsunza, visit: http://www.nation.co.ke/News/-/1056/675254/-/uo2b73/-/index.html