Disaster deepens at Lake Ngami

Lake Ngami is dying again, but fishermen are reaping the last value available PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Lake Ngami is dying again, but fishermen are reaping the last value available PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

Still on a series of reports of the drying of the Okavango Delta, Mmegi Staff writer THALEFANG CHARLES arrives to a shocking and depressing drought scene at Lake Ngami: intrepid fishermen salvaging catfish from the mud

It is like a scene in a disaster film but this is a real life and death situation. From a distance and approaching from the southwestern side of the dry bed of the expansive lake, are silhouetted figures of humans, vehicles, and livestock, all seemingly floating on a huge body of water. Closer inspection shows that this is just a shimmering mirage because there is no water.

A mud puddle (called xhobo in the local lingua) at the northeastern side of Lake Ngami is all that is left of the vast Lake. This must be the deepest side of the Lake Ngami and the puddle is receding very fast. A strong stench of death (of rotting fish mixed with decomposed meat) hangs thick in the air and it can be smelt from miles away.

There are vultures circling around the mud pot. Marabou storks, the birds dubbed ‘undertakers’ have also congregated around.

Around the puddle there are dozens of livestock stuck in the mud. These are mostly cattle, donkeys and horses. It is a distressing sight because a number of them are still alive but are just there helplessly waiting to die. Others keep trying to lift themselves up from the mud trap but in vain. Many have lost strength and given up on trying.

Many have died. Some carcasses are still bloated, others have already inflated and are decomposing. Smelling. Maggots are on a feeding frenzy. Yet other carcasses are just bones with ribcages exposed and gory-looking skulls.

On the other side of the lake there is huge float of about 60 hippos. The competition for water has led to deadly fights and there are casualties belly up on the mud.The humans, mostly men, all of them covered in mud, do not have time for the dying animals.

"Nna re bata se eleng twini hela mister,” (We are only here for the catfish) says Kabelo Barelwa (36) from Gumare. He adds that he has been camping out on the lake for a couple of weeks digging out catfish from the mud.

‘Why can’t they help the cattle dying in the mud?’ one of the men who is struggling to drive his mokoro into the mud shouts a response.

“Beng ba tsone ba nwa khoto ko Maun mister. Re theohetse goo ha” (The owners are drinking beer in Maun. We are working).  The men say the trapped livestock is mostly stray cattle that were not taken care of by their owners.

They also say that they are afraid to touch anyone’s cattle because of the dreaded Police anti-livestock theft operation named “Kgomo-khumo”.

Mmegi also learnt that rescuing the stuck cattle is a difficult and delicate process that could lead to the animals breaking their bones if it is not done well. The fishermen do not have the time and tools for the rescue.

They are busy salvaging the catfish from the mud and they boldly say they do not have time to rescue other people’s cattle. Their focus is only on catching the lucrative fish and they are on a race against time to catch as much fish as possible before the lake completely dries.

Interestingly most of these people do not even eat catfish. We learnt that the bulk of the fish is exported to Zambia. The process of catching the fish is a messy affair that requires dedicated men.

It starts with strong men who have to move a mokoro through the mud to where there are wetter and more fish. These men then have to push their mokoro fully loaded with catfish out of the mud.

The sticky mud makes it so hard that the men have to seek assistance, at fee, from another entrepreneur with a vehicle. Everything is a barter system around here.

It costs three catfish to pull a mokoro out of the mud. Once the fish loot is outside the mud, it will then be taken to the cleaners. They kill, scale, and open the fish to remove the intestines. After the catfish is washed, it will be either be salt-dried or preserved in a freezer. There are agents ready to pay, in cash at this stage, for every fish ready for export to Zambia.

The men doing this dirty fishing job are not very happy about their looks while deep in the mud, but they are proud of their trade.

“O seka wa nkapa ke ntse jaana swaare, kana ha ke ja madi ko Maun ke ba raya kere ke lesole,” (Please do not take a picture of me like this because when I am eating my money in Maun I tell them that I am soldier) says one fisherman while waist-deep in a black mud.

Gaenakgosi Njekwa from Legotlhwane, also covered in mud like he is from some mud wrestling game, tells us that we would not even recognise him when he has cleaned up and eating his catfish money in Maun.

“Oka se dumele gore ke nna ha kese moxhobong ko Maun kwa” (You won’t believe it’s me when I am in Maun) Njekwa has even brought his girlfriend to come and assist. During weekends she camps out at Lake Ngami with her man amidst the stench of decomposition.

Lake Ngami is part of the Okavango River system that is reeling from one of its worst drought cycles. Thaoge and Nhabe Rivers as well as other small drainage rivers feed the Lake from the Okavango Delta. The phenomenon was caused by the weak flood push from the Angolan highlands.

Historical records interestingly show that the Lake dried exactly a decade ago in 1819.  In 1820 (long before David Livingstone reached there) Kwebe, the first capital of Batawana, located on the foothill of Kwebe Hills and peripheries of Lake Ngami, dried up forcing the then Kgosi Moremi to move to Namanyana, which is the current day Toteng.

The most recent dry spell of the lake was from the 1990s and it lasted for over a decade. In 2010, Lake Ngami was swollen to its glory days and sustained life around the area.

Today as the vultures, Marabou storks and fearless fishermen salvage the end of the glory years, everyone knows that it will be long before the waters return and breathe life again to the Lake.

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