High Tides and High Fives

It was a breezy morning at Lake Nabugabo, as I left my cabin to join the team as we were to head off to the lake wetlands. Our goal this morning: to get a glimpse of the fish ecosystem and to discover the RAMSAR wetlands that could be a major research focus for next year’s students.

We met our Captain, Matebe, as we set off on the McGill/Nabugabo Reseach boat deeper into the lake. Lake Nabugabo is a satellite lake of the vast Lake Victoria, sharing similar features which we hope to see on our arrival in Jinja on Thursday. Our first sighting upon departure was a built-up beach that appeared to be incomplete; it was built to lure tourists and weekend beach-goers to develop the tourism side of Lake Nabugabo. Alas, it never had traction and the money spent on a sand landing and prim and proper trees at least add some décor to the surroundings.

Lake Nabugabo has thus far remained removed from tourist activity at all, with the only accommodation being the Nabugabo Holiday Centre and the research centre next door. The positives to this were apparent: small-scale fishermen greeted us as we headed towards the swamp junction to enter a fish landing. With small nets and respectable boats, these fishermen each were allocated by unspoken rule and family ties a small area of the lake to do their fishing, which ties deeply into the communal use of the local resources and a market created by tradition rather than economic powers.

RAMSAR sites like the wetlands here were designated as crucial areas for environmental sustainability and for their importance in the local ecosystem.

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We entered into the tall grass, paddling as we headed into the fish landing where the locals ended their day, either to buy fish or to transport it back to town. The area was as picturesque as you can imagine a hidden paradise. With bikes scattered and the clouds gliding in the distance it was only natural that this would be the end of a very hard day’s work. These fishermen could spend an entire day, or for many, an entire night, simply to catch a few fish, which could add up to $5, or sometimes nothing at all. The local fisherman who finished early showed us his haul; with around 5 fish, one of which a Nile tilapia, he had an average day at work. At least the peace of the area and its mango trees can brighten a slow day.

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Upon our return to shore, we had the opportunity to speak with Matebe about the situation and livelihood of locals working around Lake Nabugabo. As he put it, there are three areas which take up the vast amount of the issues in the area: healthcare, fishing and agriculture. Hm, healthcare has returned yet again as an elephant in the room. Matebe spoke about how there simply wasn’t enough money at the clinic to purchase any specialized equipment, with victims of more severe illnesses sent over to nearby Masaka, at their own expense. He mentioned that the money from fishing and agriculture, both of which are the major employers in the area, simply do not make enough money to pay the bills beyond subsistence. With fishing, one can earn a great deal if the catch consisted of many Nile Perch but nowadays that’s become a faraway dream with declining fish populations. Agriculture-wise, he stated that the Buganda Kingdom (Province of the area) has helped locals by supplying seeds for coffee, lemon/oranges and other plants upon request to rejuvenate the sector and its income potential.

Hitting right on the Millenium Development Goals, he said that poverty created this cycle where the money made from agriculture and fishing wouldn’t be able to pay for hospital bills, and the sick either asked friends and family for funds, even using the radio for a call to the community, or simply played their luck. That begs the question: if the root problem is poverty, and almost the entire population is stuck in this endless loop, how does one lift themselves up to break the chain?

It’s a question that we hope to answer through the Master’s program, albeit a grandiose problem that requires knowledge from the bottom up at the grassroots level, and top-down from the policy and administration level. The latter, we were privileged to have heard news, would be making his presence just after our conversation with Matebe.

The landowner of much of the grounds was hosting a commemorative event for the Prime Minister of the Buganda Kingdom, which marked a very special occasion for the locals to see him for the very first time. With decorations set in place and many locals dressed to the nines to see him firsthand, we were invited to his welcoming as special guests.

The two hour wait was compensated by an extremely brief, 30 minute reception, which celebrated Dr. Lauren Chapman’s work with the aquaculture and promotion of conservation of Lake Nabugabo. His enthusiasm and intrigue in the project was mirrored by the landlord, who was cheering in the back as Dr. Chapman and the Prime Minister exchanged words. He gave a high five to his colleague to express his joy, which truly speaks to the impact Dr. Chapman’s work has done in the region.

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The quick ceremony ended as the Prime Minister and his entourage came to greet our group, thanking us for taking a genuine interest in the long-term sustainability and implications of Lake Nabugabo for his people and for the betterment of biology research. He made a quick departure, and within minutes, it was almost a mirage how quickly the event unfolded.

Today was a prime example of the magic that can occur so poignantly with little prior notice. With power knocked out by a felled tree and getting our heads wrapped around the privilege it was to be special guests at the Prime Minister’s event, today brought the best of Uganda together. From exploring such a crucial ecosystem to the crucial role money has on a community’s daily life cycle, to the crucial commemoration we had with the Prime Minister, officially thanking her for her work and us for wanting to contribute even further. You can say it was our third celebrity encounter, and once again a chance to take their call to action and bring it to life.

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