The fishermen begin their work at five a.m., before the sun illuminates the lake, immersing their woven basket traps below the surface. The men live on the steep hillsides around the warped edges of Lake Bunyonyi, a volcanic crater lake that cradles 29 rolling green islands. At nearly 150 feet deep, it’s the second-deepest lake on the African continent.
The folkloric history of Lake Bunyonyi is steeped in superstitious myth. There are legends of the water pulling greedy men below until their lungs burst, of islands suddenly flipping upside down and of neighbors taking revenge on one another through witchcraft. Young, unmarried women who could no longer hide their swollen, pregnant bodies were once sent to starve to death on “Punishment Island,” a desolate patch of reeds with only a single silver rotted tree. The practice ended long ago, but some locals believe the spirits of banished young women still linger on the lake, hungry for revenge.
Byabawe Epaphras, a 54-year-old fisherman dressed in an oversized trench coat, a yellow knit hat, and rubber boots, walks to the end of a long wooden dock that hovers over Lake Bunyonyi. Byabawe crouches low and peers down into the glassy black lake.
He was born in a farming village on the far side of the lake, but never cared much for swinging a hoe and sowing seed.
“I was never a very good farmer,” he admits. “So I became a fisherman.”
He plunges his hands into the lake and pulls on a green plastic line. A large cone-shaped basket, woven from papyrus reeds, rushes to the surface. Byabawe heaves the basket onto the dock and water spills out through the woven slats. He reaches his hand into the wide end of the basket and pulls out a bright red, wriggling catch: Louisiana crayfish. The freshwater shellfish originated far away, in the streams and rivers of the southeastern United States, but it is now plentiful here. The locals call it engara.
Forty years ago, the Bakiga had never laid eyes on a crayfish. Instead, they caught tiny, hardy fish and amphibians, including mudfish, minnow carp and frogs. In 1931, according to records from the Kabale District Fisheries Office, British colonial administrators attempted to introduce Niger tilapia, but due to the lake’s minimal levels of oxygen, the fish lasted a week before floating, belly up, to the surface. The Ugandan government tried to stock the lake with Nile tilapia in the 1960s, but, once again, was unsuccessful.
In the late 1970s, Byabawe was only sixteen when crayfish showed up at the reedy edges of Lake Bunyonyi. “I could never have imagined eating such a thing with red claws,” he recalls. “The only people who ate them were the abazungu – the white foreigners, the British missionaries and government officials.”
Initially, the Bakiga remained loyal to their traditional dishes of roasted sweet potatoes, groundnut sauce, steamed plantains, and stewed goat. “In the beginning,” says Byabawe, “we saw them as pests, not food.”
Then, throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Uganda’s political economy and security stabilized, and tourists began to flow into the Lake Bunyonyi area. Hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants mushroomed around the lake. Louisiana crayfish became the most lucrative, sought after “local food,” tempting some farmers like Byabawe to trade in their hoes for traps. Today, Louisiana crayfish is the most popular item on the menu at every restaurant around the lake: garlic crayfish pasta, fried crayfish and chips, crayfish tacos, and chile rellenos with crayfish. The cuisine is praised in Lonely Planet and Bradt travel guides, and extolled on TripAdvisor.
Byabawe began laying crayfish traps in 1985. Today, he baits baskets with sweet potato peels and white ants harvested from the massive anthills, and then submerges them in the reeds. He paddles the lake every morning, checking the traps, and selling his catch to restaurants for seven thousand shillings (roughly two American dollars) a kilogram – double what he could earn for the equivalent of beans, cabbages or cowpeas. “I’ll never go back to farming,” he says with assurance.
Few outsiders know the history of how Louisiana crayfish came to Lake Bunyonyi in the 1970s, and most locals repeat the same story: “It was Idi Amin who brought the crayfish in 1978,” recalls Byabawe.
Several local fishermen around the lake confirm the claim that Amin, the notoriously ruthless dictator who ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979, was responsible for sparking the crayfish phenomenon in Lake Bunyonyi. It seems bizarre connecting a murderous dictator to crayfish, but then again, Amin was known for acting on bizarre gut impulses. In 1972, he expelled 80,000 Asian Ugandans – most of Indian and Pakistani descent – from the country. “I have dreamt,” Amin professed in a speech given in northeastern Uganda, “that unless I take action, our economy will be taken over. The people who are not Ugandan should leave.” Amin claimed he was giving Uganda back to black, ethnic Ugandans. But his belligerent rule wreaked havoc on Uganda’s economy, which nosedived after Asian entrepreneurs, business owners, and industry leaders were forced to flee the country.
Amin either killed his political opponents or drove them into exile. “You cannot run faster than a bullet,” he once warned them. Amnesty International estimates nearly 500,000 people were killed throughout his decade-long rule. He targeted Uganda’s brightest academics and professionals, including Frank Kalimuzo, the Vice Chancellor of Makerere University, who had built the first hotel on the shores of Lake Bunyonyi. As a result of the mass killings, the world would come to know Idi Amin as “The Butcher of Uganda.”
The dictator also treated the national wildlife reserves like personal playgrounds. He halted all conservation efforts and granted his military officers the right to hunt for ivory. During Amin’s reign, hunting and poaching crippled the elephant and rhino populations.
Around Lake Bunyonyi, he is perhaps best remembered for Louisiana crayfish. According to Byabawe and several other Bakiga fishermen, Amin imported crate loads of Louisiana crayfish from Lake Naivasha in Kenya (where it was introduced in 1970) to Lake Bunyonyi in 1978.
Today, the Kabale District Fisheries Office can neither confirm nor deny the fishermen’s claim. It’s widely known that Amin’s tight control of all sectors of society, including fisheries and natural resources, resulted in high levels of disorganization. Some fish scientists refer back to Amin’s rule as the “Dark Period.” From 1974 to 1979, Amin abruptly shut down all fish monitoring research on Lake Victoria. He threatened and imprisoned Ugandan researchers, including Pereti Basasibwaki, a former biologist with the National Fisheries Research Institute (NaFIRRI). Given Amin’s bizarre rule over everything in Uganda and the disintegration of economy, natural resources and research, it’s easy to empathize with the Kabale District Fisheries Office’s difficulty in endorsing this bit of history. Local newspapers also report crayfish’s arrival in the late ’70s, although they don’t specifically tie the crustaceans to Amin.
In 1979, the dictator arrogantly attempted to annex the Kagera region of Tanzania – a supercilious move that led to his eventual defeat and exile to Saudi Arabia. When he died in exile in 2003, he was crowned with the title of “Confusion’s Masterpiece” in an obituary. Perhaps it’s not outrageous to wonder if Louisiana crayfish also came to Idi Amin in a dream.
Only one thing can be certain today: over four decades, the red crustaceans have proliferated at the lake’s marshy edges and changed the livelihood of more than a few local residents.
Eric Kasimbe, a 62-year old fisherman known as the “King of Crayfish” on Lake Bunyonyi, steers a skinny dugout canoe into a narrow opening in the swampy reeds. The canoe moves dangerously low along the lake’s surface, entering a buffering of papyrus reeds that trill noisily with insects and bird song. Yellow and black birds hang upside down on the long reeds, and using their beaks, weave circular nests out of green, ribbon-like grasses.
Along the wall of reeds, Kasimbe reaches a hand below the obsidian-colored water and pulls out three small traps tied together with twine. He smiles, revealing a black gap between his front teeth – a sign of success in Uganda – and pulls out the crayfish, one by one, dropping them into a yellow plastic container. The crayfish accumulate and crawl on top of one another, their red limbs and antennas moving all at once.
“I remember when Amin brought the engara to the lake,” says Kasimbe. “I was one of the first to try, although my friends and family thought I was crazy,” he laughs. “It was very easy work. I sold them to the white doctors who ran a hospital on one of the islands.”
In the late ’70s and ’80s, Kasimbe only set around ten or twenty traps in a single day, but today he lays hundreds. He’s become the main crayfish supplier on the lake. Kasimbe distributes woven basket traps to young men living in different villages around the lake, and pays them to check the traps every morning, harvest the catch, and re-set the traps. Twice a week, he supplies sixty kilograms of crayfish to upwards of twelve hotels. Although there are approximately fifty to sixty other fishermen around the lake, Kasimbe says he’s actually seen an increase in their population over the years.
“My biggest competition are otters,” he chuckles. “They destroy my traps.”
Over the years, Kasimbe and other fishermen have reported odd cases of hundreds of thousands of crayfish suddenly perishing and bobbing to the surface. The phenomenon occurs during July and August, corresponding with the hottest, driest months of the year. “This is a volcanic lake,” says Kasimbe. “We think their sudden deaths must have something to do with the warming of the waters. We cannot be certain, but the numbers of crayfish always come back again – they are not disappearing.”
Kasimbe’s observation is correct: the Louisiana crayfish population is definitely not disappearing in Lake Bunyonyi. It’s booming. In fact, the flourishing crayfish are spreading further into the rivers and streams that both empty into and flow out of Lake Bunyonyi. Several research institutions, including the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, are currently investigating the potential negative impact of the Louisiana crayfish on native plant species. In Kenya, the invasive crayfish has destroyed native vegetation in Lake Naivasha, threatening the local freshwater crab population.
Historically, the introduction of invasive aquatic species has taken a serious toll on Uganda’s freshwater ecosystems, nowhere more severely than Lake Victoria – one of the largest and most important freshwater lakes in East Africa. In the 1950s and ’60s, the British government introduced Nile perch, a large predator that some have called the “fish of doom,” for commercial fishing purposes. In the 1980s, scientists discovered the Nile perch had eaten practically all of the lake’s native fish species.
Scientists aren’t yet sure what kind of impact crayfish will have in the rivers and streams surrounding Lake Bunyonyi, but what is certain is that the number of locals laying traps is increasing, keeping pace with the new hotels, lodges and restaurants.
At Bugombe Gateway, a hotel abutting Lake Bunyonyi, the staff gathers around two large silver saucepans, shelling Louisiana crayfish. They converse and joke with one another using four different languages, as their fingers gently shuck the shells from the slimy, translucent bodies of the crayfish. The tourism industry lures Ugandans from all corners of the country, but the hotel staff here disagrees when it comes to crayfish.
“How can you eat this?” asks Sam, the security guard, a Lugbara man from northern Uganda. “It looks like a spider!”
“It is the most popular dish on the menu,” insists George, a 45-year old cook from Fort Portal in western Uganda.
“Do any of you like crayfish?” I ask them.
“That is like asking whether or not we like chicken,” laughs Marie, a Bakiga woman who grew up on the edges of Lake Bunyonyi. She tosses a handful of crayfish flesh into the clean bowl. In Bakiga culture, a chicken is considered a highly respected gift. Eating one is a blessing. “Engara is delicious,” vows Marie. “We’ve learned to prepare them in many different ways. Roasted…fried…boiled…mixed into groundnut sauce.” She rattled off the options. Perhaps the biggest crayfish myth on Lake Bunyonyi is that only tourists eat them.
George, the cook, waves me over to the kitchen area where he’s frying onions, garlic and tomatoes over a small charcoal-cooking stove. “Let me show you a traditional way of cooking crayfish,” he says, reaching for a small metal spice container whose label reads: CURRY POWDER. “Secret ingredient for our famous crayfish masala,” he explains, grinning happily.
What’s the most common way to eat crayfish on Lake Bunyonyi? Crayfish masala, of course. Despite Idi Amin’s best efforts to expel Asian-Ugandans from the country and stoke the coals of African nationalism, many Asians returned in the decades that followed Amin’s defeat. Today, nowhere can the Indian and Pakistani influences be observed more strongly than in the diverse culinary dishes adapted and popularized in Uganda: samosas, chapatti, and yes, even crayfish masala.
As George heaps a generous amount of bright yellow curry powder into the pan, the irony is not lost on me. I can’t help but laugh.
Surely, Idi Amin would be rolling in his grave.