Building an Empire, A Fish at a Time

When Mama Sylvia started fishing 27 years ago, all she had was a small canoe, which she paddled with an oar. PHOTO: BBC

When Mama Sylvia started fishing 27 years ago, all she had was a small canoe, which she paddled with an oar. PHOTO: BBC

We talk about sustainable development. Often, the definition is relegated to the environment domain alone and does not cover social and human capital. The United Nations has identified gender equality as one of the key Millennium Development Goals, validating the fact that every small victory is a step forward for the larger good. Like Mama Sylvia’s story.

Gertrude Nabukeera, or Mama Sylvia as she is usually known, stands with her arms resting on her hips as she supervises a handful of men unloading the catch from a fishing boat. It’s early in the morning and the boats are bringing their night’s catch in at the Nakatiba landing site, on the island of Bugala in Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest expanse of fresh water. More than 400m long and lined with motor-driven boats, this landing site is owned and run by Mama Sylvia.There are concrete stalls from which she sells the catch of the day, and to the right an icebox the size of a freight container in which she stores the fish.

It’s unusual for a woman to be the boss of a fishing business in Uganda, or anywhere else for that matter, but even more surprising is the fact that she herself was once a fisherwoman – one fisherwoman among many, many fishermen.

“I was born right by the lakeside,” she says remembering her early years on the mainland. “Throughout my childhood all I saw around me was fishermen and the business of fishing. I also noticed that it was the fishermen that were the most well off in the community. So I decided I was going to give it a go.”

Mama Sylvia

At the age of 25, in 1989, she started going out on the lake at night to fish.

Later she moved over to Bugala, the largest of the 84 Ssese islands, because the waters there were teeming with fish. But it was a jungle at the time. “This entire place only had four houses,” she says. “We were sharing this place with snakes and there was no electricity. Now the entire island is powered by solar, we’ve started getting piped water and roads are being constructed.”

How come she was the only fisherwoman, I ask her.

“It is a tough and dangerous job” she replies. “When the weather is bad, the lake is a scary place to be with the raging wind and frighteningly high waves.”

When Mama Sylvia started fishing 27 years ago, all she had was a small canoe, which she paddled with an oar. But in 1994 she had saved up enough to buy an engine, and four years later she bought three more. She paid part of the money up front and promised to pay the rest in four months, but cleared the debt in half the time.

Read more here.

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