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Simon Bidandi a shell trader has lived and survived on Lake Albert (at Titye-Kaaro Landing site) in Western Uganda for over 23 years. The livelihood of his family depends on picking snail shells and silver fish from the water before he sells them to chicken and animal food processing investors in Uganda, Rwanda and DRC.

On a hot sunny morning, Bidandi dips a bucket into the mirrored waters of Lake Albert in the remote dried-vegetation of Bugungu low lands of the East African Western Rift Valley. He pulls it up, studies it, and then slowly tips the water out, looking for snail shells to spill over the bucket's rim.

Simon Bidandi picking up his snail shells for packing.Custodians of the lake say some years back these shells would be sitting on water
Simon Bidandi picking up his snail shells for packing.Custodians of the lake say some years back these shells would be sitting on water

His wife, Irene Namaganda, stands near the tarpaulin, spread on sand about 30 feet from the water’s edge to pour, select and sun-dry the snail shells. Fifteen years ago, it would’ve been sitting in the lake. But the lake has gradually dried up moving a distance of close to 100 meters inside.

In years past, fishing was not a hustle but now the fishermen say they have resorted to catching silver fish and collecting snail shells because all the breeding grounds for bigger fish(papyrus swamps) along Lake Albert shores have dried up and have been turned into grazing grounds for cattle. "And the lake has definitely been extended further deep for close to 100 meters from its original water edge. Some 30 years ago and before women were not allowed here at the landing site except some chosen few like me who were selected to perform rituals, but look now, everywhere women!!! Even me I wouldn’t be accepted here when am in my periods, the lake would swallow more than 10 people that night" says 52 year old Margaret Kagore a female custodian of the lake in Bullisa district.

The silver fish and snails, just smaller than a penny, are among the few living things that can tolerate Lake Albert’s severely hot water edge.

CUSTODIANS AT LAKE ALBERT
CUSTODIANS AT LAKE ALBERT

What are the causes?

Cultural leaders in charge of performing rituals at the lake believe the surging populations at the landing sites have misbehaved, defied the traditional customs throwing the second biggest lake in Uganda into misery. "We told new comers at the landing sites not to play sex near our potent sites but they defied our orders now the gods are unhappy and Lake Albert is slowly disappearing, killing fish and the eco-system stability. It's an environmental mystery: A 2,000 square-mile Lake is dying, and no one bothers to avert the situation even when some elderly people know exactly why the lake is drying up" says 83 year Alone Kiiza, another custodian of Waloiza sacred natural site near Kasemene oil well in Bulisa district.

Environmentalists though believe that as the livelihood and wellbeing of rural communities depends on the health of their ecosystems, the exercise and protection of human rights depends on the protection of the ecosystems of their ancestral lands, water bodies and other natural resources. Unfortunately it has not been the case with Lake Albert.

A survey conducted by an indigenous environmental NGO, the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) in Bonyoro sub-region last week, discovered that over 11 rivers, their tributaries and three swamps that flow into Lake Albert have also dried up completely with no sign that there was any water body. The rivers include River Titye Kaaro, River Kamonkole, Sambye , Wampulungulu, Wambabya and River Mutyooma among others. Swamps like Warukanga and Kigwera near Murchison falls have also dried up.

These rivers and swamps have been housing the sacred natural sites (traditional worshiping places) that played key roles in keeping the African culture moving while conserving nature as well

Margaret Kagole explaining the benefits of indigenous foods to human health
Margaret Kagole explaining the benefits of indigenous foods to human health

The sacred natural sites were governed by the custodians whose roles were and still are to guide communities not to tamper with the holly areas of Nature and as they do that, the ecosystems are conserved. But with the industrialization and people converting to Christianity, coupled with Uganda’s surging population figures, the custodians have been compromised and most of them backed off their roles.

According to the custodians of these sites, the rivers dried up because their spiritual powers were weakened by modern religions which discourage and demonise the custodians and their practices .As a result, people misbehaved and did what is not allowed around these power centres and there was a disconnection between the mother earth and the ancestors, affecting these eco-systems.

"One of the major tasks of a custodian is to visit the shrine embedded within that sacred natural site and ask the earth to forgive her people after for example, crop fields are attacked by pests and or when there is too much dry spell like today. We go and hold a traditional prayer near the lake so rain comes and rivers remain alive. A crucial part of this ceremony is that we take seeds there and use them to ask for multiplication of food in the coming season, pouring them in the water for the ancestors to receive and multiply them. But today we don't even have the real indigenous seeds to perfectly perform these rituals." Says Mzee Wendi Kazimula, another custodian at the lake.

The remaining custodians currently being revived with support from NAPE’s Community Ecological Governance program to strengthen their guaranteed practices and the local leaders in Bunyoro sub region believe that rivers, forests, and wetlands that surround Lake Albert have been adversely affected by the farming communities, forest degraders and oil companies who ignored the African Culture, thus annoying the ancestors.

Denis Tabaro Natukunda who heads the Community Ecological Governance Program (CEG) at NAPE says there is an urgent need to restore the vital role of custodians especially women, by supporting the revival and practice of customary governance systems which affirm their roles and rebalance the ecosystem dynamics. He says the European Union is currently supporting this work to get Lake Albert and Edward back to normal life.

Isaac Nkuba, the Bulisa sub county LCII1 chairman says that much as these Custodians who would be the guardians of these ecosystems, but their work is no longer recognized by the people, have had their morals questionable and thus can no longer command respect within the communities. This seem to have created a disconnection between their ancestors, nature and the community domain. Nkuba says besides the above, the lake has been overstressed by the herdsmen who directly push in their ever surging masses of cattle for drinking water after the rivers and swamps dried up, thus causing siltation. "As these cows get out of water they rest in the buffer zone of the lake, causing silting.I call on my colleagues in other sub county councils near the lake both in Uganda and DRC to pass ordinances blocking this."

After drinking water,these cows rest in the buffer zone causing siltation
After drinking water,these cows rest in the buffer zone causing siltation

What can be done?
The area local council one chairman for Kigwera south west village in Bulisa sub county Fred Baguma says plans are underway to plant broad-leaved trees in the Lake’s Buffer zone that was initially protected by custodians before the trees were cut down by charcoal burners.

Environmentalists advice that for such a lake to survive, a buffer zone of 200metres off the water-edge must be left protected from any activity because it is also a breeding area for the aquatic organisms.

The Hoima district Environment officer, Joseline Nyangoma, pledged support to the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) ,The Gaia Foundation and the European Union in spearheading a campaign to strengthen the traditional governance systems that call for conservation of ecosystems currently being threatened by the prevailing harsh climatic conditions.

Nyangoma says the current challenges facing environment in Uganda are caused by human activities hence resulting into climate change which has manipulated extinction of some wildlife species and catastrophes like floods landslides and lost water bodies.

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