Kenya: Why Lake Victoria Fishing Boats Are Named After Women

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Superstition and sailors, or in our case, fishermen, are like two sides of a coin. A tour of the shores of Lake Victoria will offer you not only picturesque scenes but a rich culture and traditions that the people have clung to over the years.

Fishermen, much like vehicle owners, have a special attachment to their boats. This is evident in the naming.

On the shores of Koginga Beach in Homa Bay town, most of the wooden boats are docked on sand. Others are anchored in the water.

At the bow of every boat is a name that fishermen use to identify their vessels. On closer examination, you notice that the names are — almost always — of women.

There is a belief that a boat should be named after a woman. There are exceptions of course, but those are few and far between.

Siprina Nyar Okumu, Beldina Semeji, Obora Mama and Doris Yiengo are some of the names we spot on fishing boats at Koginga Beach.

Caregivers

“These names are dear to us. They are people who were very special in our lives,” Mr Rogers Onyango, a fisherman, tells the Nation.

Lake Victoria has tens of thousands of fishing boats currently floating on water.

From the smallest boat that can only take one person, to larger vessels that can stay in the water for a week as more than 10 men engage in fishing.

Mr Onyango says most boats are named after women because they are caregivers. The fishermen name their boats after their mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers.

They believe that naming a boat after someone who did good to you is advantageous. Accidents, they say, are caused by wrong naming of fishing vessels.

“Low fish catch is attributed to wrong naming of boats,” Mr Onyango says.

Good luck

At Dunga beach — one of the fish landing sites in Kisumu, it is the same.

The fishermen believe women are lucky and industrious — the two attributes they need as they cast their nets in Africa’s largest lake.

Mr Victor Didi, a boat owner and a fisherman, says a woman is a responsible being and he believes that naming his boat after his wife, mother or grandmother will bring him good luck and ensure he gets a good catch.

“Just like a woman fends for her family, the boat also fends for the owner and naming it after a lady will automatically yield the same fruits through hard work. My boat is named after my mother Rosa Akinyi,” says Mr Didi.

So attached is the fisherman to his boat, that he sometimes speaks to it.

Other names

“Any time I feel like I have had a bad day at work, I speak to my boat as if I am addressing my grandmother or mother, asking her why she is allowing my children to go hungry. After this, I get a good catch when I go on my fishing expedition.”

His father John Didi Omulo named his boat Nyathi Punda — a foal, the young one of a donkey. This was because of the traits of the donkey, which is good at sensing danger and strong, he explains.

“My brother’s boat is named Israel, to show the journey he has had since he built the vessel, just like the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan,” he offers.

Apart from women, those who are religious name their boats after saints or Christian values for instance Tumaini (hope), Shalom, Jehova Jireh or Emmanuel.

Boats are also named after heroes and memorable events in the history of the region.

Naming process

“Some have named their boats Agwambo after Opposition chief Raila Odinga, who is regarded a hero, while others have named theirs Moreno Ocampo or Kofi Annan owing to his mediation that led to a coalition government,” says Mr Didi.

There is, however, a caveat to the naming process.

You have to do a background check on whoever you are naming your boat after, lest the vessel take after their character.

“For instance if you name your boat after your grandmother yet she was a murderer, it will be full of misfortunes until you change the name. It could capsize and kill the occupants, because of the blood on your grandparent’s hands,” he says.

Another system of naming boats is based on family lineage.

Fishermen whose boats are named after them would like to have their children who will engage in fishing name their boats after them.

Monstrous benefits

“My great grandfather got the name from his father. It is a name that has been passed down for generations,” he says.

Naming a fishing vessel is, however, not a must, according to county Beach Management Unit (BMU) chairman Edward Oremo.

He says boats are like vehicles.

“Some cars have names while others do not. It is believed that naming a boat has monstrous benefits,” Mr Oremo says.

Not unique to Kenya

Boat-naming is not unique to Kenya or Africa. In Europe and America, the renaming of a boat is usually a big ceremony with rituals followed step by step to ward off any calamities or bad luck.

The ceremony is not usually complete before champagne is popped and there is a celebration. A bell is also rung to signal the beginning and the end of the ceremony.

The first step is to remove the old metal name tag, which is usually dropped into the sea or lake. This is to ask the gods of the sea to remove the old name from their records.

One would then call out the names of the sea gods facing all the four directions of the compass and pour wine in all the directions.

In libation, at least half a bottle of red wine is poured into the sea from east to west.

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