Usoma Beach in Kisumu
The Promise and the Travails of a Fishing Community

Fishing has been a major part of societies since time immemorial and continues to be an important commodity. The waters we used to fish, however, have changed over time, sometimes from natural changes, and other times via human intervention. These changes can have profound effects on those that rely on fishing and frequently these changes aren’t for the best. Usoma Beach is an example of this.

One of the most well-known beaches in Kisumu is Dunga Beach. This is the place you will most likely go when you want to sample some social life of Kisumu, take a leisurely boat ride, watch the local hippos frolicking in the evening breeze on the banks of Lake Victoria, fill your tummy with some freshly cooked delicious fish, or simply sit back and watch the dazzling evening rays hitting the beautiful lake as the sun gently sets in the west.

The other beach that has grown in popularity in Kisumu over the last few years is Lwang’ni Beach. Although the name “Lwang’ni,” which in Luo means “houseflies,” might put off the uninitiated traveler, it conceals more than it reveals about the beach bearing that name. Lwang’ni Beach has increasingly grown in popularity as another place hungry sojourners go looking to fill their stomachs with some hot servings of sumptuously prepared fresh tilapia fish, a local delicacy. But those are not the only beaches along the shores of Lake Victoria in Kisumu City.

If you travel about three kilometers away from Kisumu City as if you are going to the Kisumu International Airport on the main highway to Busia town, you turn left on the Airport Road taking you past the Nzanza Club golf course, and you will be heading to another Kisumu City beach—the Usoma Beach. Usoma Beach is not as well-known as Dunga or Lwang’ni Beach, much less Copacabana Beach in Brazil and Acapulco in Mexico. The question, then, is simple: why is Usoma Beach not as popular or well-known as Dunga or Lwang’ni Beach? What can be done to popularize this beach?

Unlike Dunga and Lwang’ni Beach, Usoma Beach is small, a little more rural, and has suffered neglect. The beach is littered with old, scattered buildings in different stages of disrepair. Paint on the old walls on many of the buildings is peeling off, and the roofs are turning rusty with age. A few rickety canoes lie idly by the banks of the beach. Although Usoma Beach is located not far away from the Kisumu International Airport, it is not easy to get there. The road to the beach is practically impassable. You have to be serious if you really want to go there. It costs around 100 Kenya shillings to get there by the local three-wheeled motorized rickshaws popularly known as “tuk tuks.” Usoma Beach’s location and transportation problems have had major ramifications for the local people and the local economy. The poor roads in particular have detered local tourism. Hoteliers and fish vendors complain constantly of lack of customers, tourists, visitors, revelers, and hungry guests to sample local offerings. It is important for local city officials to take advantage of Usoma Beach’s location near the well-known, busy Kisumu International Airport, and breathe more life into the beach.

Usoma Beach emerged around 1982, according to Mr. Ochanda, a fisherman and resident of Usoma Beach. Initially, the place served as a bay from which local fishermen and residents would sail while going fishing in Lake Victoria and dock their boats and canoes after completing their fishing sessions. Upon their return, the fishermen would be received by large numbers of men and women waiting to buy fish from them. Money would change hands, and the fish would leave boats and canoes for the baskets of enterprising fishmongers.

Soon watchful speculators realized that the fishermen fishing deep inside the lake and the fishmongers waiting for them at the bay would not cry if a few eating places were established to cater for their hungry palates after a hard day’s work. Hotels, restaurants, and other refreshment establishments started emerging around the bay. This was around 1982. Gradually, the bay expanded into a vibrant market place where the main commodities of fish, grains, animals and vegetables were sold and bought.

With a vibrant economy emerging organically, it was not long before Usoma Beach came to the attention of the government. The beach is now under the control of the local authority. In terms of administration, the Beach is in West Usoma Location and is under the chief of West Usoma, assisted by the assistant chief. These administrators are in charge of day-to-day routine activities such as conducting security operations. Security is provided by the police based at the Usoma Police Post. Apart from the administrators, the economic activities at the beach are managed by a Board of twelve directors. The Board consists of a chairman, a secretary, and a treasurer plus a multitude of other officials. The directors are elected by members of the Beach after two years of satisfactory performance. The members practice democracy in their elections and the gender balance in leadership is also observed.

The main economic activity at Usoma Beach is fishing. The fishermen from Usoma Beach mainly catch sardines [omena] and tilapia [ngege] fish. They use simple fishing methods like trawling, and fishing nets and hooks to catch fish. Apart from fishing, cattle rearing, crop cultivation and trade are also carried at the beach. Trade takes place locally at the Usoma market where local people buy and sell fish, cereals, cattle, and local vegetables among other things. Although the fishing industry is robust at Usoma, it does not go on without challenges, the greatest of which is conservation.

Conservation has become an issue of increasing importance across the world and actions have been taken to fight against it. While a majority of the efforts typically focus on pollution and destruction of habitats due to urban growth, there are other problems. The hyacinth weed has also been a problem. Overfishing is also another major problem as many people now rely on fishing to make a living.

Lake Victoria is actually far worse as far as overfishing is concerned because the use of banned fishing gear on the lake is rampant. When a survey of fishing on four beaches on Lake Victoria was done, it was discovered that not only were banned fishing gear in frequent use, but even more worryingly, many of those in charge of enforcing the ban were themselves in possession of and using them for fishing. In fact, may fishermen using the banned fishing gears said during interviews that they were not afraid of using the illegal fishing equipment because they knew that the enforcers were themselves breaking the law using the banned fishing equipment to fish on the lake.

While it may be easy to blame over-fishing at Usoma Beach on corruption and big business, there is another more local reason for this. Many of the local fishermen live in close-knit groups and among them are people who are supposed to be in charge of law enforcement. While strong communities are generally a good thing, it compounds the problem of handling over-fishing and other problems at the beach.

Some outside actors have tried to step in and provide the Usoma people with support. This support has come from organizations such as USAID from the United States. The beach has also received support from the Kenyan government through the Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources. Lake Victoria itself is also subject to the Lake Victoria Management Project program (LVEMP II – KENYA), which is funded by the World Bank and works to combine both economic and environmental interests in the community. The problem with such outside forces is that outside intervention, no matter how well intentioned, only further muddies things and is likely to be distorted, manipulated or dismantled by various economic interests.

Finally, the people of Usoma Beach face another threat: attack by wild animals such as crocodiles. In fact, recently there was a crocodile attack on two students of Maseno who were travelling back to school after lunch. The people are also faced with the struggle against climate change. During the dry season, the weather is unbearably hot and dry, and when it rains, it rains so much and so hard that it leads to destruction of property, and worsening of the conditions of the local infrastructure.

Despite these many challenges, struggles, and problems, the people of Usoma are resilient. They are productive and enterprising. All they need is a little support from the Kisumu County government and the Kisumu City authorities looking into ways in which Usoma Beach can take advantage of its proximity to the biggest airport in the region, the Kisumu International Airport, to make it into the league of Dunga Beach, if not that of Copacabana, Acapulco, and other well-known international beaches. They are waiting. In the words of the Usoma people: “Usoma residents are very friendly people.”

By Elija Onyango, James Mastandrea, Selina Auma, Nick Marshall, Michael Haburay, and Melan Koli

Images

Boats and Birds Along Shoreline

Boats and Birds Along Shoreline: Some of the typical boats around Usoma Beach.

Government Signpost

Government Signpost: This sign indicates that the Ministry of Environment, Water, and Natural Resources manages Usoma Beach as one of its Lake Victoria environmental management projects.

Usoma Beach Signpost

Usoma Beach Signpost: This signpost shows some of the groups trying to provide support social services to people living and doing business in Usoma beach

Grain Elevators Seen from Usoma Beach

Grain Elevators Seen from Usoma Beach

Fisherman at Usoma Beach

Fisherman at Usoma Beach

Livestock at Usoma Beach

Livestock at Usoma Beach

Shoreline at Usoma Beach

Shoreline at Usoma Beach

Structure at Usoma Beach

Structure at Usoma Beach

Omena (Sardines)

Omena (Sardines)

Freshly Caught Tilapia

Freshly Caught Tilapia

Fresh Tilapia on Rack at Lwang'ni Beach

Fresh Tilapia on Rack at Lwang'ni Beach: Hotels (as small restaurants are often called in Kenya) specialize in serving freshly caught fish. ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 9, 2018 | Kisumu Archive, http://archive.macleki.org/items/show/2527

Lwang'ni Beach

Lwang'ni Beach: Lwang'ni Beach has long been a favored spot for a free, do-it-yourself car wash. A tour boat is visible past the cars. A number of hotels (small restaurants) like the one at right serve fresh lake fish. ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 9, 2018

Queen Elizabeth Tours Boat

Queen Elizabeth Tours Boat: Lake tours are an important component of the Kisumu area's growing eco-tourism sector.

Map

Kisumu-Busia Highway, make a turn on Airport Road towards Usoma Beach