Karibu Migingo: The most crowded island on the planet
Finally, my first sight! After three days travelling, one-day negotiating and about 2.5 hours by boat, The Urban Detective gets his first glimpse of Migingo. Coming out of the water like a giant armour plated turtle, this rocky dome in the middle of Africa’s biggest lake is quite a view. In 2009 this tiny rock - which now inhabits hundreds of residents - almost brought Kenya and Uganda to war! Migingo – oddly enough ‘abandoned’ in Luo (West-Kenyan language) – has become one of the most contested and densely populated places of East-Africa. Welcome to (possibly) the most crowded island on the planet.
After a long and classic Kenyan negotiation ritual, we (me and my captains) are on the boat and on our way to Migingo. Not long after, The Urban Detective finally gets his first glimpse of the island.
It reminds me of Kibera: Africa’s biggest slum, located in Nairobi, Kenya. Never in my life had I seen so many people living on such little amount of space. Thousands of tiny iron plated houses, thriving business on every square centimetre, people on the move everywhere.
It’s almost as if one acre of this notorious slum has been cut out and transported to a rocky dome in the middle of Lake Victoria. Over 500 people, dozens of bars and small shops, several brothels, two police stations, a hotel, casino, hair saloon, mosque, church and pharmacy are all located in the middle of Africa’s biggest lake - on an island the size of half a football field!
Karibu Migingo! Welcome to Migingo.
The rise and fall of the Nile perch
I can hear you thinking: “Why for god sake!?”
Fish is the answer.
Migingo is one of the few places in Lake Victoria where the Nile perch - a freshwater giant worth millions in export – can still be found extensively. At least until recently.
When I reach the island chairman David tells me that most of the houses are actually vacant due to a low catch. “A lot of Kenyan fishermen - the biggest population on the island – have returned to the mainland to make ends meet”, David explains.
But back in the day, this place was a goldmine! Although it’s hard to believe, some people say that boats were landing more than 100kg of fish a day; fishermen were earning up to 200$; and the island hosted more than 1000 people!
Side note: For a grimy but powerful documentary about the Nile Perch and Lake Victoria, check out Darwin’s Nightmare.
Instead of wasting fuel (Migingo is located 2.5 hours from the Kenyan Coast and about 5 hours from Uganda) fishermen started to settle on the island in the early 2000s!
This didn’t only save time and fuel, it also boosted an entire city industry. Fishermen and traders had to eat, drink, shave, shop, fuck (excuse my language), pray and (some) confess for their sins on this upcoming ‘amusement’ island.
When chairman David takes me on a small tour, I’m amazed by all the facilities and scale of this organically grown place. This once ‘abandoned’ island in the middle of the lake now has all kinds of bars, brothels and other businesses.
Who owns Migingo?
This interesting and profitable development attracted a lot of newcomers and didn’t stay unnoticed by the authorities. Both the Ugandan and Kenyan government soon claimed Migingo was theirs and tried to establish their presence over the years.
Because, who actually owns this tiny island? Who owns the gold waters surrounding it?
Maybe the 1926 British colonial demarcations can help? No. Although coordinates show the island is in Kenyan territory, Uganda claims the Nile Perch is mostly caught in the nearby Ugandan waters. Tensions kept rising, which created a violent and hostile environment on Migingo.
In 2009 this dispute even almost triggered a full-blown conflict over the resources of the once-abundant Lake Victoria (The independent, 2009).
But fish decreased and so did the relevance of the island. Yet, until today both authorities are very present, I found that out myself.
Reporting to the police
My unexpected arrival caused some panic with the authorities. It results in a small interrogation in the Kenyan police station – a one by one wooden structure on the right side of the island – after which I’m directed to their Ugandan counterparts – an open space without a roof, located on the left side on the island.
Kenyan Inspector James and Officer Commander of the Ugandan Police Department Robert explain to me that it is absolutely vital that both parties are informed of the arrival and intentions of visitors. “For your safety and to avoid underlying tensions”.
After a passport check and some explaining from my side, the panic makes room for laughter. They actually seem quite pleased with my arrival. If you’re living on half a football field in the middle of nowhere, I guess it must be exciting to have a foreign visitor.
The ambiance is easy-going. Drinking is tempting. With a low catch and almost nothing to do, the bars seem to become a bigger business than the original fishing industry. Also me and the captains eventually take part in this type of business. After meeting half the island, it’s time to eat fish, drink and dance in one of the many bars.
While at first most ‘Migingo’s’ seem poor and asking me for favours several times, they keep buying me beers and convincing me to stay a little longer after we are all a bit tipsy. They open up and tell me they are struggling but it’s still one love on the island.
A difficult, poor, but peaceful way of living, with an unhealthy dosis of alcohol to fill the gaps of loneliness, boredom and the absence of privacy and space.
Although I’ve heard stories of ongoing suppression between Ugandans and Kenyans, conflict and tensions seem pretty far away as I’m standing hand in hand with both Ugandan and Kenyan’s chief of police. As we get back to the boat, I enjoy my last steps on this crazy but pleasant and exciting island. An experience I will never forget.