Secondhand books and yellowfin tuna

East of the dry savannahs and herds of wildebeest that populate them sits a side of Kenya that is rarely explored. Here the Indian Ocean meets coral rock and a delicate ecosystem wrestles against the corrupting influence of human beings. Benn Jeffries travels the coastline in search of a balance.

By Benn Jeffries

Featured in Capital #69
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It’s a struggle to find a traditional book store in Mombasa, but wander the old town and you’ll find towers of second-hand books lining the streets. I was sorting through a stack a good head taller than myself when a familiar title caught my eye. Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider. I tugged it free and bought the book for a hundred shillings – about a dollar fifty. It was a battered, dog-eared copy with a large stamp from a local school library on the first page. The woman who sold it to me watched as I turned it over in my hands.

“We read that book in school,” she said.


“All of Kenya does. It’s part of the curriculum.”

This was my fourth visit to Kenya. I’d fallen in love with the country during a rather lost year I’d spent travelling the area after university. While I was living on the Kwale coast just south of Mombasa, I developed a coping mechanism for the times when homesickness struck. The ocean was one of the few things that reminded me of home, so I’d take my rod and reel and wade into the warm waters. Despite the lack of any real fisheries regulation, East African waters are fairly healthy. Giant trevally patrol the reefs that extend from the Red Sea south to Madagascar. Further out you’ll find pelagic species like sailfish, tuna, and marlin. On my first trip to Kenya I’d spotted a solid-looking game boat moored out on the edge of the reef. I asked around town and found Captain Gitau asleep under a palm tree. He was mistrustful of me at first, but when he learned I was a Kiwi his eyes lit up and he asked if I knew the famous New Zealand fisherman Matt Watson.

“How the hell do you know who Matt Watson is?”

“Everyone knows Matt; that guy understands the ocean. Did you see that episode when he rugby tackled that marlin?”

Gitau was my first port of call on returning. We met early one morning on the golden sand beach of Diani and took a skiff out to his game boat, the M.V. White Dove. Beyond the narrow gap in the reef the ocean gained depth and flattened off.

“It’s the healthiest I’ve seen it in a decade,” Gitau said, pointing to a boil of yellowfin and skipjack tuna. Flying fish sailed past all around us and sea birds dove into the ocean like torpedoes. Our first catch of the day, however, was a large sheet of plastic debris. One of the crew pulled in the line and freed the hook. I watched what he did next carefully, because I’ve found the New Zealand mindset of protecting our environment is rare outside our waters. The crewmen looked around unsure for a moment before Gitau yelled at him to stuff it into a rubbish bag.

“It’s getting better,” Gitau said, “people are starting to realise we’ve got to look after this resource. I think those who live on the coast are more aware, I mean locals are doing beach clean-ups. Admittedly, they do it because they know the tourists won’t come if the beaches aren’t clean, but it’s a start.”

When I first went out with Gitau he told me upfront that his boat ran on a strict no billfish aboard policy. That means all sailfish and marlin species were catch and release. Gitau understood the ocean needed to be looked after.

At the end of the day we return to Diani with sore arms and a feed of yellowfin tuna. As we picked up the mooring Gitau started telling me about a little town in the far north where the fishing was meant to be unparalleled. A few days later I left Mombasa and followed his advice to the Lamu archipelago on the border of Somalia. The fishing industry here was split in two about a decade ago when a Jihadist terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, began harassing and kidnapping local fishermen. The Kenyan government banned all night fishing in an attempt to protect their citizens, but the new law meant that close to three thousand fishermen had to find a new source of income. Things have quietened down in recent years and the industry is beginning to recover. I spoke to a boatbuilder sanding a fibreglass skiff, who said they even trade with Somalia now. I asked if he thought pirates might be buying his skiffs. He shrugged his shoulders and went back to work.

There’s a US military base not far from Lamu. Helicopters buzz back and forth and floodlights light the sky at night. The town itself is majority Muslim and one of the safest places in Kenya. The old town is a UNESCO world heritage site and for good reason; the coral stone streets transport you to another time. There are no cars on the island. Goods are moved about by donkey and skiff. Seafood dominates the diet and the turquoise ocean every aspect of life. While things have quieted down with Al-Shabaab, new threats are facing the fishing industry in Lamu. Foreign fishing vessels have moved into Kenyan waters and while the government tries to police their activity, illegal boats and fishing methods are still common. China alone takes over three million tonnes of fish each year from African waters. The continent has become their largest distant source of fish, overtaking Asian waters by almost two million tonnes.

I went out hand-line fishing with a local captain named Mohammed whose father was among the fishermen caught up in the troubles with Al-Shabaab.

“The trawlers are the problem now. Soon the local fishermen won’t be able to compete. The deep-sea guys already have to leave Lamu at 2:00 am to get out to where the fish are.”

A large percentage of major infrastructure projects in East Africa, like the new port just out of Lamu or the railway between Nairobi and Mombasa, are Chinese funded. The projects are pumping money into the economy – but it comes at a price.

I spent a day on the roof of my guest house and read The Whale Rider. It left me feeling sentimental and missing home. 

I first read the narrative as distinctly Māori and thought it an odd book for Kenyan school children to read, but its ideas are universal. There are forty-two different tribes in Kenya; for the most part it’s their relationship with the land and the sea that shapes them.


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