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Lake Victoria—Africa’s Great Inland Sea in Kenya

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DEEP in the heart of Africa, in the year 1858, a lone Englishman trekked through a wild and unexplored land. Traveling with only a handful of African porters and burdened by sickness, exhaustion, and uncertainty, he urged his men forward. John Hanning Speke was in search of an elusive prize—the source of the Nile.

Spurred on by stories of a great inland body of water that the Arab slave traders called Ukerewe, Speke struggled across the seemingly endless bush. Finally, after 25 days of marching, the small band of travelers were rewarded with a magnificent sight. There before them, stretching as far as the eye could see, was a vast inland sea of fresh water. Speke later wrote: “I no longer felt any doubt that the lake at my feet gave birth to that interesting river, the source of which has been the subject of so much speculation, and the object of so many explorers.” He named his discovery in honor of the then reigning queen of England—Victoria.

A Source of the Nile

Today the lake still bearing that name is famed as the second-largest freshwater lake in the world—only Lake Superior, in North America, is greater in size. Like a gigantic mirror glistening in the equatorial sun, the flat, glassy surface of Lake Victoria covers an area of 26,828 square miles. [69,484 sq km] Crossed by the equator at its northern end and situated between the eastern and western arms of the Great Rift Valley, it lies mostly in Tanzania and Uganda and borders on Kenya.

The lake’s main inlet is the Kagera River in Tanzania, which gathers its waters from the mountains of Rwanda. However, most of the water flowing into Victoria is from the rainfall that is collected in the huge surrounding catchment area, which amounts to over 90,000 square miles [200,000 sq km] of land surface. The only outlet of the lake is at Jinja, in Uganda. At this point the water rushes northward and gives birth to the White Nile. Although Lake Victoria is not the only source of the Nile River, it serves as a great reservoir that maintains a constant flow of fresh water and sustains life all the way to Egypt.

Life on the Lake

A sailing canoe, its billowing white sail resembling a single upright butterfly wing, glides across the lake’s surface. Carried by the daily winds that come up from the surrounding land, the tiny boat is swept out into the heart of the lake. By midday the wind changes and carries it back to the place from which it came. This routine has been repeated for thousands of years by the lake fishermen.

Villages and hamlets, with their brown thatched roofs, rim Victoria’s waters. For the Nilotic villagers, fish is a staple, and they look to the lake to provide their daily sustenance. A fisherman’s day starts before sunrise. The men bail water from their leaky canoes and set out across the misty water. Singing in unison, they paddle to deeper water and hoist their tattered sails. Women watch from the shore as the small boats disappear over the horizon. Soon they turn away, for there is much work to do.

While children splash and play in the shallow water, women wash clothing and draw drinking water from the lake. Finally, their work at the water’s edge is done. With clay pots of water balanced delicately on their heads, babies tied to their backs, and both hands carrying baskets of clean wash, the women slowly make their way home. There, they tend tiny gardens of corn and beans, gather firewood, and repair their earthen homes with a mixture of cow dung and ash. Farther along the shore, women skillfully weave sisal fibers together to form strong rope and beautiful baskets. The chop of the ax rings in the air as some men hollow out a huge log to form a canoe.

As the day begins to wane, the women’s eyes are again drawn toward the huge freshwater sea. The tips of the white sails on the horizon will herald the return of the men. This they look for with anticipation, eager to see their husbands and the fish that they will bring.

All along the lake’s shores and islands, these small communities are receiving visitors that bring a message of peace. By foot and by canoe, every village and hamlet is reached. The people are humble and eager to listen. They are especially excited to read Bible literature printed in their own Nilotic and Bantu languages.

Water Wildlife

Lake Victoria sustains over 400 species of fish, some of which are not found anywhere else in the world. The most common is a species called cichlid. These colorful little fish have descriptive names, such as flameback, pink flush, and Kisumu frogmouth. Some cichlids have an unusual way of protecting their young. When danger looms, the parent fish opens its mouth wide and its tiny young rush into the protection of the open cavity. After the danger passes, it simply spits them out again, and they resume their normal activity.

Lake Victoria is home to magnificent and varied water birds. Grebe, cormorants, and anhingas dive under the water and skillfully spear fish with their sharp beaks. Cranes, herons, storks, and spoonbills wade in the shallows, pausing motionless midstride, patiently waiting for an unsuspecting fish to swim within range. Overhead, flocks of pelicans cruise like large-bellied gliders. When swimming in groups, they encircle schools of fish and then scoop them up with their enormous basketlike bills. Supremacy of the sky belongs to the fish eagle, with its strong wings. Taking off from the limb of a tree high above the water, it swoops down in a powerful glide, the wind hissing through its stiff wings, and effortlessly snatches a fish from the lake’s surface. Brightly colored weaverbirds nest in the thick bands of papyrus reeds that fringe the lake, and the plaintive cry of the hornbill can be heard farther up on the shore in the acacia forests.

During the morning and evening hours, the deep bass grunts of the hippopotamuses carry far across the still lake. By midday they sleep along the shoreline, resembling smooth gray boulders half submerged in the shallow water. The lake people are ever wary of the dangerous Nile crocodile. A few of these fearsome reptiles still inhabit the more remote corners of Lake Victoria, although most of them have been eliminated by man.

Troubled Waters

Africa’s population has exploded since the days when John Speke first laid eyes on Victoria. Within the bounds of the lake’s shores live over 30 million people who now depend on its fresh waters for their very survival. In times past local fishermen relied on traditional methods of fishing. Equipped with woven fish traps, papyrus nets, hooks, and spears, they caught what they needed. Today, with the introduction of trawlers and nylon gill nets that can stretch for great distances and scoop up tons of fish in deeper waters, overfishing threatens the ecology of the lake.

The introduction of exotic fish species has caused an ecological imbalance that has disrupted local fishing. Adding to the lake’s woes is the water hyacinth, a floating weed that produces a beautiful purple flower. Introduced from South America, the weed grows so fast that it has clogged and suffocated large areas of the lake’s shores and inlets, preventing access to the beaches and piers by cargo boats, passenger ferries, and canoes of the local fishermen. Deforestation of the lake’s catchment area, sewage discharge, and industrialization have all put the lake’s future in doubt.

Will Lake Victoria survive? That question is being debated, and no one knows for sure how its many problems will be solved. However, Lake Victoria is a natural feature that will likely continue on the earth long after God’s Kingdom removes those who are “ruining the earth.”—Revelation 11:18.

The Fish That Is Swallowing the Lake

  It is oily, has a voracious appetite, multiplies quickly, and grows up to six feet in length. What is it? Lates niloticus! Commonly known as the Nile perch, this huge, ravenous fish, introduced into Lake Victoria in the 1950’s, has proved to be an ecological disaster. Within 40 years it has managed to devour nearly half of the lake’s 400 indigenous fish species.

This mass extinction has threatened the food source of millions of local people who depended on the smaller tilapia, cichlids, and other native fish to feed their families. These small fish are also responsible for the health of the lake. Some of them feed on the snail that causes the dreaded disease bilharzia, thus helping to keep the sickness in check. Others consume the algae and other aquatic plants that are now growing out of control.

This unchecked growth has produced a condition called eutrophication, in which the decay of rotting vegetation causes a depletion of oxygen in the water. With fewer native fish to clean up this mess, “dead zones,” areas of water without oxygen, have increased, killing even more fish. With fewer fish to eat, the ever-hungry Nile perch has turned to a new food source—its own young! The fish that is swallowing the lake now threatens to swallow itself!

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