By Rupi Mangat

Esther Kajos describes the water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) using body language — her lithe torso creating a wave-like action.

“The plants move with the waves like this,” she says. Other women nod in agreement.

The women dressed in tattered rags are of the ll Chamus tribe on the island of Ol Kokwe in the middle of the fresh water, Lake Baringo, one of the chain of lakes on the floor of the Great Rift Valley. The Il Chamus is amongst the smallest tribes in Kenya, with few resources and historically known as the fish-eating Nilotes famously seen fishing on the il-kadish, a buoyant raft.

In the Il Chamus language there is no word for the insidious water hyacinth — a fresh water plant from the Amazon in South America that was introduced in the early 1900s in African freshwaters as an ornamental plant.

Free from any pests on a new continent, the ornamental plant has turned into an invasive that threatens all fresh water bodies in Kenya and beyond. It has already created havoc in Lake Victoria including destroying the Nairobi Dam. It doubles its mass every 14 days in optimum condition and the danger is not in what you see — but what you don’t see. The seeds of the water hyacinth burst out with such force that they lie buried underground — and germinate — even after 30 years when conditions are right.

“We’re seeing it for the first time,” adds on Lois Lesiita, the first women to start fishing using the il kadish a few years ago. “We’ve been told it will cover the lake and we will not be able to fish anymore because our boats will not be able to sail through.” This is the information the women say was given to them by the county fisheries department in April 2016.

What the women seem to be unaware of is that the water hyacinth starves the water of oxygen which in turn will kill the fish.

But it’s not the only thing the fisherwoman has to worry about. In the last four years the balsam shrub from where the Il Chamus fashion their il kadish has disappeared from the lake. “With no ambach (balsam) we can’t make the il kadish. There’s no work for me,” she says. Hiring motor boats is too expensive for most local fishers and there’s very little fish in the lake.

Levels of the lake

Lake Baringo has been in the limelight since 2013 when all the rivers flowed into the lake in full spate. Suddenly the lake that seemed to be on its death bed with only a few inches of water rose up to 40 feet, enough to flood all the lakeshore buildings displacing hundreds of people.

“The water level then went down to 38 feet,” says Dr Bonnie Dunbar, a veteran research

scientist with patented vaccines to her name. “It’s a good level for the sunlight to penetrate deep enough for the phyto-plankton to reproduce and the indigenous tilapia to multiply.”

Sailing to the southern end of the lake, patches of lush green appear with the unmistakable lilac flowers. It is the water hyacinth drifting on the waves, where the Molo River drains in from the Mau escarpment. With the heavy rains the rivers are pouring water again into the lake which has seen it rise by another two feet in two months.

The water hyacinth was reported in April 2016 by Brandon Lenariach of Omega Farms when restocking the lake with tilapia fingerlings. Now Dunbar is as concerned as the local women for she’s also an entrepreneur starting Omega Farms to produce healthy tilapia fingerlings and high-quality fish food high in Omega 3, the healthy fat necessary for human development.

The Molo River flows via Lake 94, an ox-bow lake separated from the Molo in 1994 — hence the name. When the river floods it runs its course through Lake 94. “It’s where the water hyacinth incubates,” reasons the researcher.

As the crow flies, Lake 94 is 20 kilometers from Baringo, but we have to take the road to Bogoria via the Lorwai Swamp and then the rough murram road up the Saracho escarpment past an irrigation scheme with fields of maize between tracts of land filled with another invasive — the Prosopis juliflora nicknamed mathenge. It’s more than 50 kilometers.

Ninety minutes later, it’s impossible to reach the shores of Lake 94. It’s flooded and the path almost five kilometres long is full of the thorny mathenge. We can only see the lake shimmer and the brown flow of the Molo.

“It’s difficult to get to the maji (water),” says the young shop keeper Alice Lekateiya, also an Il Chamus standing by her tin-shack. “It’s covered with grass and the tilapia and mud fish have gone to the big lake (meaning Baringo).”

I show her pictures of the water hyacinth on the camera and she exclaims, “that’s the nyasi (grass) in the lake. Very early in the morning you can’t see the water because the lake is covered with it. The wind blows it.”

The boda-boda (motor-cycle taxi) men join in. Samuel Lentupuru asks “Can it affect the fish?”

Nobody has told them anything about the water hyacinth. The community is completely unaware of the damage the weed can unleash.

Between the boda-boda guys, a fisherman and the women, they first saw the water hyacinth between one year and half year ago to two years. They thought it was like the water cabbage, another invasive weed which blooms and dies and has not caused much trouble. But since the water hyacinth has been in the lake, the lake dries faster and the dry mass of water hyacinth has silted the lake, says Lentupuru. They have nicknamed it kuku maji or the water chicken as it ‘drinks’ so much water.

“We have just been seeing fishermen going to fish but not coming back with fish,” adds on William Lekimit, another boda-boda operator. Could it be the effect of the water weed?

Water hyacinth is known to very quickly destroy fish-breeding grounds.

Fighting the weed – too little too late?

In mid-April, the county fisheries organized an awareness workshop with the six beach management units around the lake, the communities and conservancies, chiefs and local boat operators.

“We have asked them to collect the water hyacinth and bring it to us,” says Dickson Ogwai, the county director of fisheries in Baringo. “We then dry and burn it.”

“We are already collecting the water hyacinth, drying it and burning it ourselves,” say the fisher women of Ol Kokwe. “But the problem is that in our il kadish, we cannot go far or collect it all. We need help from the government.”

It’s a complex issue. The water hyacinth has been known to be around in the nearby Lake 94 for more than a year. It’s now in Lake Baringo and in the one month from when it was first sighted, it’s increased manifold.

It was first sighted in Lake Victoria in 1988 having made its way from Rwanda where it was introduced by the Belgian colonialists. In the absence of natural enemies, it has become an ecological plague, suffocating the lake and diminishing the fish reservoirs and hence killing the once thriving fishing industry in tilapia and the Nile perch (another introduced species) of the lake.

In the ensuing years, billions of shillings were spent in an effort to eradicate it with no success despite the introduction of weevils to devour it to mechanical harvesters to harvest it for cottage industries. Knowing the biology of the plant that’s in our midst, it is here to stay.

It’s a management issue, agrees Ogwai.

In a country that’s listed water-stressed by the Water Resources Management Authority and according to the World Bank, its yearly renewable freshwater supply less than that of Somalia in 2011, the urgency to halt the invasion of the weed is NOW.