I recently moved from England to the small island of Ukerewe in the Tanzanian half of Lake Victoria, a hazardous four-hour ferry ride from the nearest large town, the nearest adequate health center, and the nearest place where anyone has heard of cheese.
One can be forgiven for not knowing much about Ukerewe and its watery environs. It took the cream of the West’s explorers two thousand years to stumble upon Lake Victoria—Africa’s largest lake and the world’s second largest—and a little longer to identify it as the main source of the Nile. Having done so, however, John Speke, Henry Stanley and the rest of Europe and America decided that finding it was enough, that there was no strong reason to hang around. Although it lies only a few kilometers from the fabled grasslands of the Serengeti, the lake sees only a trickle of overseas visitors, few of whom loiter for more than a day or two. Today, my wife Ebru and I are the only westerners on its largest island, and possibly the only ones to have lived here in the past half-century.
Foreigners on Ukerewe, a thirty-mile long green strip ringed by sandy beaches and strewn with piles of ancient boulders, have historically met with mixed fates. In 1858 an Arab slaver warned Speke about the dangers posed by its unfriendly people (the irony of slavers warning about unfriendliness was presumably lost on both men). In the early twentieth century German missionaries were driven off the island and their mission burned to the ground in the battle to rid Tanzania of its first European colonizers. A few decades later, as the struggle to repulse a second colonial wave intensified, activists from the Tanganyika African Association chased away Indian traders who were thought to be defrauding the island’s cotton farmers, with the tacit blessing of their British overlords.
Ukerewe has also served as a refuge.
At the same time, Ukerewe has also served as a refuge. Its long and hard-to-police shoreline has provided shelter to smugglers and outlaws fleeing Uganda and Kenya, and the recent establishment of an immigration office attests to its continuing role as a staging-post for job-seeking migrants from central Africa who cannot enter mineral-rich Tanzania via legal channels.
Today’s visitors are not guaranteed a warm welcome. Public sector workers regard the island as a punishment posting (continuing the tradition whereby miscreants from around the shore of Lake Victoria were banished here to serve out their days in exile). Many immigrants from the mainland leave at the earliest opportunity, complaining that the Kikerewe people (who make up the bulk of the island’s 300,000 population) are hostile to strangers and snobbish towards other tribes. Others are repelled by Ukerewe’s remoteness, its lack of cultivable farmland (most Tanzanians grow their own food, but population growth and deforestation in Ukerewe have left little fertile soil for outsiders), and the absence of anything much to do.
Again, however, there is a Jekyll to the island’s Hyde. Fishermen come here from across east and central Africa to plunder the rich waters of the lake. Some stay all year. Others set up seasonal fishing camps. Many have grown wealthy and built smart homes on the mainland. Sex workers follow the fishermen, and make a steady living succoring them in their loneliness. People with albinism, persecuted elsewhere in Africa and sometimes killed or maimed so that their body parts can be used in witchcraft, find in Ukerewe a less dangerous, more accepting home.
We are repeatedly reminded of our status as outsiders
In our three months here so far (we plan to stay for a year or two), Ebru and I have seen both sides of the island’s character. On the ferry ride over, the other passengers sitting with us on the hot metal floor of the deck stared at us intensely, peppering their conversations with suspicious comments. “Why are they coming?” they asked one another in Kiswahili. “They must want something from us. They see some potential here. They never come for nothing.” (We came because Ebru was offered a teaching job here – she drew that straw in a project covering thirty schools across Tanzania – and because it seemed a good opportunity to get to know rural Africa.) The atmosphere thawed only towards the end of the journey when we asked them to teach us a few words of Kikerewe. Suspicion turned to surprise that we spoke some Kiswahili and were interested in their own little-known tongue.