Lake Victoria is one of the natural wonders of the world — and one committed artist is determined to make it even more wonderful.
For with more than 300 photographs and over 100 audio recordings plus sketches, mixed media works and sculptures, he is addressing a side of the Lake that few outsiders know but others see as its worst kept secret — Victoria as a centre of death and destruction with thousands of drownings each year.
His aim is to cut the toll: His project is called Buoyant.
At almost 60,000 square kilometres and touching three East African countries, Victoria is the second largest lake on the planet (only Lake Superior in the USA is bigger) and provides a living for an estimated 33 million people from fishing, transport and tourism.
The wider Lake Basin — at around 240,000 square kilometres — is home to some 40 million people in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Victoria is among the most beautiful of all lakes — but it is also one of the deadliest.
Five thousand people drown in its waters annually, according to a World Health Organisation report of 2017, which identified causes including, boating accidents, sudden storms, a lack of life saving equipment and rescue boats, drunkenness, crocodile and hippo attacks, fighting among the fishermen and suicides.
Many of the deaths go unreported while those that are notified show boating accidents a major cause, with 1,000 people drowning in the MV Bukoba in 1996 and, more recently (in 2018), 228 passengers and crew dying when the Nyerere sank off Mwanza and 31 losing their lives when a party boat went down off Kampala.
Aimed at increasing awareness and cutting the death toll, the project Buoyant was set up by the artist Wallace Juma, from Budalangi in Busia, who is steeped in the culture of the Lake.
Now aged 32 and based in Nairobi where he is a regular exhibitor at the Circle Art Gallery, in Lavington, Juma trained at the Buruburu Institute of Fine Art and is currently devoting himself to works informed by his own tragic experience of the Lake.
His cousin drowned while fishing, aged only 20 and Juma said, “I can count up to a dozen other cases of people who drowned before they reached 25; people I knew and some childhood friends.”
He set up Buoyant to give artistic input to discussions about the Lake.
Juma listens to stories from families, friends and the fishermen, making frequent trips to the Lake and its islands and spending days with the fishermen and their families, often staying as a guest in their homes.
Juma’s brother Daudi is a sardines fisherman based at Marenga beach in Busia — and the artist has spent many days with him and his friends listening to his stories and their life-threatening experiences both on the Lake and onshore.
The photographs, recordings and sketches he made inspire his artworks, revealing what he calls “alternative realities”… what he says are the true lives of fishermen, traders and their families living around the Lake.
This he hopes will ultimately bring improvements to their lives; more rescue boats, safety equipment like life jackets, and swimming lessons, for example.
One powerful work Juma made to stimulate debate is currently at the Circle gallery. I reviewed it a couple of weeks ago and was struck by the intensity of its message.
Called Bearer of Good News it has been made by fumage — smoking a sheet of PVC then scratching back the surface to create the image — and shows a foetus encircled by a school of fish. It recalls the story of a baby’s body being pulled from Lake Victoria, caught in a net and the title echoes the unfortunate truth that with drowned bodies come the fish.
Another pithy piece is of a cockerel and is called A Sorcerer’s Gem. In fiery red and a fierce yellow, the figure is covered in a mesh of lines representing a fishing net. It refers to the belief among some fishermen that the drownings and other deaths result from spiritual forces and witchcraft; from curses put on them in ceremonies that involve slaughtering a cock.
Juma is currently discussing plans to present Buoyant at the Circle Art Gallery sometime next year, with its photographs, sketches and finished pieces as a single powerful polemic.
To see Juma’s mixed media works is to be beguiled by their haunting beauty.
To understand their meaning is to be appalled that so little is being done to help those who bring us our fish.