When his wife took a job training teachers for a British government aid programme, Mark Weston had expected somewhere less remote. Somewhere more accessible, more connected. Instead, they got a placement on Ukerewe, a remote island on Tanzania’s Lake Victoria. While his wife teaches, Mark observes and writes, and the result of their two year stay is the rather special The Saviour Fish.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the book, and the opening chapter or two seemed to be fairly familiar ‘white man in Africa’ territory. Uncomfortable public transport, language barriers, unreliable power supply. But the book finds its feet as Weston does, turning from his own experience to the people around him.
We meet the children first, who adopt the foreigners and hang out on their front steps. Through the children we then meet the adults and various important characters in the area – shopkeepers, pastors, fishermen. We hear their stories and share in their struggles.
Some of what follows is more adventurous, as Weston follows his curiosity and joins illegal fishing expeditions at night, or goes in search of local hooch. But most of it is very ordinary. “There was little to do but get to know the neighbours, and we had two years in which to do so” writes Weston. “Along with time spent with the children, these afternoon conversations with our neighbours would become the most treasured moments of my time on Ukerewe.” As readers meet the neighbours too, through walks to the market, and conversations with children on the porch, the book unfolds into a beautiful portrait of a community on the margins.
In between these encounters, Weston describes the location and its history. We learn about the colonial legacy of the lake and the island, and the enduring impact of colonial decisions – with one particular decision looming larger than the others. In search of more commercial fishing opportunities, the non-native Nile Perch was introduced to the lake. It took many years to get established, but in time led to a boom (and the nickname ‘the saviour fish’). Processing factories sprung up and fish exports rose. Fortunes were made. And in the process, biodiversity in the lake collapsed.
Years later, the perch has been overfished, and what Weston writes about now is the aftermath of that boom. We see the conflict between fishermen struggling to make a living, and the need to regulate fishing to protect and restore fish stocks. The lake is also polluted, with very real consequences for people’s health, and climate change is another wildcard for the island as drought becomes more common. The book explores the repercussions of these challenges for the local economy, the pull towards the city for anyone with ambition, how limited prospects force women towards prostitution or early marriage – stories all told by real people.
I suppose I’m pre-disposed to like The Saviour Fish, which reflects some of my own experiences in East Africa. But I also liked the way that Ukerewe quietly serves as a microcosm of our current fossil-fuelled global predicament – how greed and environmental plunder unravels, and sweeps away innocent lives in the process.
That makes the book sound heavier than it is. There is tragedy and struggle here, but also joy and hope, curiosity and wonder, friendship and community. Overall I found it life-affirming, nicely observed and above all, wonderfully human.
- The Saviour Fish is available from Earthbound Books UK