It is 6 pm and I am sailing on the mighty Lake Victoria, the largest freshwater lake in the world.
The huge waves keep flapping against the local man-made boat, I arrive ashore on Myende Island at 8 pm. I brave the last-minute moments of being carried off the boat. Uganda’s water industry is a developing one, the piers here are not yet developed so you can only swim or be carried by some energetic people to the shore.
Dawn broke and, and I couldn’t wait to get off the floor where I slept. I am now relaxed after my 4-kilometre jog. Ahead are some makeshift houses. Strolling through the few makeshift wooden houses that seem like the island trading centre, I see a group of women seated having a meal. The air here is different, filled with cigarette fumes mixed with marijuana fumes. Most of the youth I see seem to be intoxicated.
It is midday now and I enter a makeshift restaurant. On sitting I pick a conversation with one Nakachwa who then tells me that most women in the Myende-Ngaga fishing village struggle and face sexual exploitation as the lake gets depleted of fish due to improper disposal of waste particularly plastic.
Islands in Uganda are silently facing similar environmental degradation.
Myende is an island in Koome, this is a group of Islands in Uganda surrounded by Lake Victoria. It is located off the coast of Entebbe City.
The Island with its beautiful rocky scenery is just a few minutes away from Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary. It is home to quite a several species of birds.
“We are facing sexual exploitation as we do not know our rights. We have not undergone any formal education and neither can we speak out for ourselves or speak back to these men to fight sexual exploitation, a man will abuse you in whichever way he wants without any support until you manage to escape,” says Nakachwa
This includes rape, early marriage, forceful childbearing after child marriage and prostitution.
“Because we have to fend for ourselves and the children as the men are involved in alcoholism and drugs, we don’t deny that we are greatly contributing to the endangering of the freshwater lake. The dumping of plastic bottles in which the alcohol, energy-giving beverages and sodas are packed is such a challenge. These are dropped by everyone. Women enjoy alcohol too. It kills our stress and for now, it is the only solution we have. The other alternative is to escape and go to Kimi or Ngamba island,” says Nakachwa.
The plastic bottles then end up in Lake Victoria and interfere with fish reproduction cycle of fish as fish like tilapia lay their eggs close to the shores.
Tilapia which is a common delicacy on the island is getting rare. This has contributed greatly to the lack of employment of both men and women as fishing is the main source of income on the island.
This has therefore resulted in unwanted pregnancies and thus making Myende Island inhabitable. They then move from island to island and the circle continues. But clearly, it is not a safe haven for women as their peace and security are compromised.
As I look across the island it is so clear, the indigenous tree species on the island are disappearing, this is due to illegal logging for charcoal burning and firewood . She goes on further to explain to me that this is contributing to the general erosion of the island and the soil is getting infertile.
Different projects are coming up to improve habitat conditions and enhance its population using the establishment of community tree nursery beds, training and deployment of tree conservation volunteers.
Conservation education and the establishment of village environment conservation committees enforced by peacebuilders, voluntary organisations like the Rotary International that plan on planting trees, proper waste management, and maternal and child care, safe water and basic education for all. One of the main focus areas of Rotary is peace-building all over the world.
There is an urgent call for a sustainable solution to waste management. How to transport the plastic bottles and transport them ashore is still a puzzle. The Uganda Government is still researching to find a sustainable solution by setting up a recycling plant for plastic bottles so that the lake is not endangered by plastic pollution from the used plastic bottles.
Other projects under Africa Institute for Energy Governance are also developing Uganda’s political strategy for combatting pollution in lake Victoria.
AFIEGO’s Communication officer Diana Nabiruma affirms that they together with other organisations like Global Water Partnership are strategizing on how to finance projects and distribute knowledge and advice across islands to save the lake from pollution and encourage livelihood.
The local village council on Myende Island is setting up alternative incomes, through private investors for the islanders such as beekeeping as a contribution to species survival both on land and the lake. Beekeeping is such a sustainable project as the bees help in the pollination of flowers and thus continuing the tree cycle of multiplication.
On speaking to the headmaster of the only school on the Island Omeriket Alonso says that education should be a solution to the environmental degradation and female sexual exploitation on the island.
However, since the outbreak of Covid-19, 13 of the girl from his school got pregnant, 3 were married off by their guardians and 30 boys left school for fishing.
“I realised I was headed for a crisis when only seven pupils reported to the school,” he says.
“The pupils whose parents live on the island are as nomadic as their parents. They keep moving from island to island looking for fish. When Myende gets depleted they go to the next island. In this way, I fail to retain them in class. They are looking for money along with their parents.”
The Islanders need sensitisation on the benefits of education and also exposure to different UNESCO programmes education and the environment.
UNESCO calls for attention to gender equality throughout the education system in relation to access to teaching and learning contexts as guided by the UNESCO strategy for gender equality.
In addition to this, apiary lessons being introduced as beekeeping could be an alternative source of income. These are being encouraged at a child’s lower level of learning as children learn from their parents.
The call for girl child education enhancement is crucial as when you educate a girl you are educating nations.
UNESCO content with the environment curriculum should be emphasised along with education for sustainable development in response to the urgent dramatic challenges the island faces. This is to enable quality environment change education.
Another option is enforcing family planning methods. This will control young girls from getting early pregnancies and as well prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Furthermore, the rules by the UNESCO health and education sector on a minimum age in marriage for girls which is eighteen years should be taught and enforced.
Other sources of fuel such as solar and electricity should be introduced on the island. This would reduce deforestation, overfishing and nomadism thus enhancing industrialisation.
With the situation on the island, different organisations need to come up to sensitise residents on vocational skills development and also educate them on environmental laws if they are to make Myende a habitable place and a haven for women and girls.
This story is part of African Women in Media ( AWiM)/UNESCO Peace and Security Journalism Programme