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.