Justice for Lake Victoria

It’s a hot Monday afternoon in Nairobi. I am in town to meet Dave Ojay, who is the founder of an organisation called Naam Festival. I get to our rendezvous point before Dave. When he arrives, I am standing on the kerb, leaning on one of those short concrete barrier pillars, partly shaded from the afternoon sun by a shrivelling tree. He sees me before I do him, and gives me a comfortable bro hug before I am aware he is there.

He looks wirier than I expected, and has a beard that will be a veritable bush soon. He has quick eyes, and a disarming smile. His movements are deliberate, and when he talks, he enunciates each word. As we pass through the side-gate into Jevanjee Gardens, looking for a place to sit and talk, Dave pauses and takes a deep breath. He seems to relish the fresh, earthy smell in the air. I am in the company of a man in love with nature.

I first got in touch with Dave through Twitter when his organisation shared the article I recently wrote lamenting the situation Lake Victoria has been brought to by pollution, overfishing and an obdurate water hyacinth infestation. For Naam Festival, this is an issue that has been at the fore since the organisation was started.

See, Naam, apart from being Kiswahili for “I agree,” is also a soft way to say “Lake” or just “Lake Victoria” in Dholuo. So Naam Festival is just that, a festival celebrating the lake. For the longest time, the organisation has been trying to raise awareness of the lake’s dire situation, and spark a conversation that could eventually bring about a change in the way the lake is treated and used, exactly what I wanted to do with that article.

Dave says he started Naam Festival because when, in 2009, he went to Kisumu and saw the lake, he couldn’t reconcile what he saw with the what he remembered from his childhood days in Siaya, when the lake was blue and teemed with fish. The water had become brown. The fishermen hauled in meagre catches. Hyacinth choked every available space. Mounds of trash lined the shores. Countless cars were driven into the lake to be washed. The water’s surface was coated with foam and films of oil.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he says. “I felt like crying.”

He had a strong urge to do something about it, immediately. But what? The answer took time to come, but when it did, he realised it had been staring him in the face for the longest time. Dave is an artist. He has worked with famous musicians and photographers in Kenya and around the world. And he emcees events up and down this city. He would use art, he decided. And that’s just as well, because art is powerful. Art moves the soul. And when you combine it with a cause as potent as nursing the monolithic Lolwe back to health, art gains the power to rend hearts asunder, to wake from sleep consciences dulled by indifference.

So Naam Festival came to be. The organisation tells the story of the lake through photo exhibitions, music camps and the like. Over the years, it has orchestrated a moving repertoire of powerful plays, expressive dances and vibrant images of various facets of the lake.

“We did a photo exhibition last year in Kisumu,” Dave tells me, eyes wistful. He remembers that lawyers came, politicians, students, academics, even the governor of Kisumu was there. There was music and panel discussions. “We had such a great conversation.”

He was planning to do similar exhibitions in Entebbe and Mwanza (Dave calls them “the Kisumus of Uganda and Tanzania”). However, a funding shortfall made that impossible. But Dave doesn’t think this cause can afford to wait for funds. He wants to spread the word wider, until it falls on the ears of people who really want to do something about it. They decided to go online, to put up the exhibition on Twitter.

So on World Water Day, 22nd March 2017, to launch the online exhibition, Naam Festival held an event at Jevanjee Gardens in Nairobi; it was a contemporary dance extravaganza. The theme was “Stories of a Dead Lake.” And the chief guest was Boniface Mwangi, the outspoken Kenyan activist, photographer and, since a few months ago, politician. Thereafter, the images started going up on Twitter, hash-tagged #JusticeforLakeVictoria. And man, are they powerful!

Each image is a poignant moment on the lake frozen in high resolution. A man walking in chest deep water, fishing net clutched in hand. A giraffe standing on the shores, its slender hind legs framing the horizon. The sun sinking behind the hills, the halo around it turning the lake into a sea of red. There is beauty, there is movement in the images. They pull the strings of the heart, make it sing of memories it never knew were there.

But there’s more. Alongside the beauty one sees with a sense of dread the depravity of what man can do to nature if he stops to care. The wading man finds his path blocked by hyacinth. The giraffe seems unwilling to drink of the water, hinting at its pollution. And the colours of the lake in the sunset make it seem as if it is on fire, burning away all the life it once had. The invisible hand of destruction seems to poke its ugly fingers into every spot of beauty. Below are the images that have been posted online at the time of this writing:

You can follow the exhibition here. Naam Festival will keep the images dripping, one a day, onto Twitter until April 12th. Dave hopes the conversation doesn’t die down until more resolute measures are taken to rehabilitate the lake. Researchers from universities within the lake basin, government people in charge of creating and enforcing regulations, ordinary people… everyone, really. He wants everyone to realise that the lake can be beautiful again. And he wants everyone to realise that if the lake is not brought back to health, the livelihoods of 70 million people remain teetering on the brink of upheaval.

“In the end, what do you want to see?” I ask Dave towards the end of our conversation.

He pauses and looks at up at the sky, a dreamy look on his face. Then, more deliberate than usual, he brings his face level and turns to me.

“You know agwata?”

My mind goes back to the last thing an aunt did for me before she died. I had accompanied my dad to visit her at her tailoring shop. Her health was then starting to wane, but she kept working to feed her children. Her husband had died years before.

To keep me occupied while she talked to my dad, she bought me porridge and chapatti from a lady who sold snacks nearby. The brown porridge came in the dried half of a calabash. Agwata.

I nod to Dave.

And he says every word as if it’s the last one he will ever say: “In the end… I want to walk down to the lake, scoop water with an agwata and drink it.”

Then he stops for effect, his eyes boring into mine.

Feature image: NAAM Festival.

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