Migingo is a tiny rock island, less than half-an-acre or about half the size of a football field, located in Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa and the largest tropical lake in the world. Although tiny in size, the island is home to 131 people (according to 2009 census) living in crammed huts made of corrugated sheets and wood. Despite shabby living conditions, Migingo Island boasts of five bars, a beauty salon, a pharmacy as well as several hotels and numerous brothels.
Most of island’s inhabitants are fishermen and fish traders. The first to arrive were two Kenyan fishermen, Dalmas Tembo and George Kibebe, who claimed to have settled there in 1991. At that time, the island was covered with weeds and infested with birds and snakes. They were later joined by 60 members of their fishing group who followed after receiving information that the area was rich with Nile Perch. Subsequently, other fishermen from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania came to the island turning it into a thriving commercial center.
Photo by Jesco Denzel
The island is a beehive of activities as more than 100 boats bring in their catch every morning for weighing and sale to buyers. After being bought by fish processing firms they are transported to the Kenyan mainland, from where it’s exported to the European Union and beyond. The coveted Nile Perch is central to a multi-million dollar fishing industry vital for the economy of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
The rich stock of Nile Perch in the waters around Migingo Island has lead to territorial dispute between the two countries – Uganda and Kenya, both of which lay claim to the island. Technically, Migingo Island belongs to Kenya, being inside the country’s international border and is also marked so on maps and official documents. In 2009, the Ugandan government claimed that Migingo Island is in Ugandan waters and that it is therefore illegal for Kenyans to fish there.
Trouble started when pirates first heard that fishermen were making $300 a day, which was approximately three or four times what many people in East Africa earn in an entire month on dry land, they flocked to the island and stole fish, cash and engines. The fishermen called upon their governments for help in 2009 with the Ugandans being first to respond by sending maritime police. Upon arrival, the Ugandans raised their flag and slowly began to exploit the fishermen who had made their home on the tiny island. Entry permits and taxes were introduced on fishermen that hoped to cash in on the newly discovered fishing grounds. Boats and fishing nets belonging to Kenyan fishermen are regularly confiscated by Ugandan forces for fishing on Uganda’s territorial waters.
The ownership dispute is yet to be resolved.