The Frozen Dreams of Wasini Island's Fishermen Photo by Cathy Keya

The Frozen Dreams of Wasini Island's Fishermen

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Hashim stood at the front of his dhow and surveyed the vast mass of blue water in front of him. He reached out and patted the thick round, wooden mast, as if it was a humanWasini Dhow being. Flapping gently above the smooth mast was the triangular white sail itself. Seated behind him, in their own deep contemplation of the vast ocean were Musa and Omar, two other fishermen.

The three often fished together, usually at night when it was cool and fish could be found in greater abundance than daytime.

Hashim guided the mashua (Swahili for dhow) into one of Wasini island’s several lagoons. With the speed of seasoned fishermen, they set up a gillnet and sailed back into the wider sea armed with three hooks and lines and one big basket trap. After whispering a dua (Islamic prayer), they threw the basket trap and hook and lines into the swooshing waters, hoping that the fish would come in plenty. 

What followed was a night of shimmering stars and shivering fishermen as they waited patiently for fish to swim into their traps. Hashim had three children with the youngest being two weeks old. He desperately needed a good catch tonight so that he could earn at least five hundred shillings ($5) the following day and take his wife to Msambweni hospital for the first post-natal check-up.

Things were much better the previous year when tourists were flocking the island. He always worked as a part time waiter at Wasini Mpunguti Lodge during the tourism peak season when the tourists flocked the lodge for sunset seafood dinner. But ever since the terrorist attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi and several terrorist attacks in Mombasa, tourists had all but disappeared. 

Wasini Mpunguti TouristsWasini Mpunguti Lodge is the Island's oldest Restaurant and Hotel

The hotel bed occupancy in Kenya’s beach hotels in 2010 was more than three million.  This was the highest occupancy in years, leaving Kenya’s coast as the most popular destination for both domestic and foreign tourists. Ironically, less than one percent of this bed occupancy was in Wasini, despite the hundreds of visitors who frequented the island that year. This left Kassim Mwadui, the hotel manager of Wasini Mpunguti Lodge with meager revenue that could barely sustain the hotel, which is the biggest in Wasini Island.

Later in 2012, the hotels and restaurants sector expanded thrice as slowly as the previous year, dealing Mwadui and Wasini’s few other hoteliers an even bigger blow. Nearly ten years later in 2020 when Covid-19 struck, tourism literally sank into a coma, leaving the cash-strapped island even more penniless than before. Women were particularly hard hit, considering that they barely earn any direct revenue from fishing and tourism since the two sectors are male dominated.

Swabra, is the Chairlady of Wasini Women Group. She talks about the chronic effects of Covid-19 on the women of Wasini, “Ever since Covid-19 struck, our women have been leftSwabra Smaller ImageSwabra, Wasini Women Group Chairlady stranded, wondering how to put sufficient food on their tables.”

She pauses and gazes to the heavens, “we have left everything to Allah.”

As the world learns to cope better with lingering effects of the corona virus pandemic, the resilience of communities like Wasini’s will be severely tested. They must recalibrate and adapt accordingly. Towards this end, there are three magical words that can unleash Wasini’s enormous potential – domestic marine ecotourism. Pardon me, there are three additional words that can similarly tap into this potential – better fish storage. These six words all embrace the blue economy with a tight grip that can inject more resilience into the livelihoods of Wasini residents.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that frozen storage of fish can grant fish storage life of more than a year. If fishermen in Wasini Island will be able to store their fish for months as opposed to hours, they can be able to sell their fish more profitably to both local and foreign markets. However, they cannot explore highly efficient storage options without reliable energy. Currently, the island is not connected to the national grid, which means that large scale frozen storage of fish is practically impossible. There is therefore an urgent need for Wasini and other coastal communities in Kenya to be granted sustainable and reliable energy solutions.

Such energy solutions will greatly benefit fishermen like Hashim. Stocky and 5.6 feet tall and wearing white shorts plus a Barcelona T-shirt, Hashim has an easy smile and a quiet personality. He is a high school dropout but highly experienced and knowledgeable in fishing.

‘I have been fishing ever since I started walking,’ he says quietly, ‘my favorite fish are the little mackerels. I just love them!’

The day that frozen fish storage will become a reality for Hashim is the day that his artisanal fishery will begin to give him much better revenue. He will no longer have to sell fish within hours of catching them, at throw-away prices.

Even better would be the availability of a deep-sea fishing vessel for Wasini. It would capture incomparably more fish than those captured by artisanal fishers like Hashim.

Hopefully, such a vessel will dock on Wasini’s shores during Hashim’s lifetime. But in case that doesn’t happen, the frozen fish storage should become a reality before his two-week-old daughter turns one. Meanwhile, he prays every day for tourists to start pouring again into Wasini so that his part time job as a waiter at Wasini Mpunguto Lodge can stretch into life. 

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