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Boat ride on Lake Kanyaboli

Named after a famous fisherman, this wetland is a rich fishing ground, home to unique sitatunga antelopes and a vital bird habitat   

Harriet James @harriet86jim

“There was a certain jalopo (fisherman) who the villagers used to buy fish from.  He was called kanyaboli, so when people were asked where they were going, they would say, Adhika Kanyaboli (I am heading to Kanyaboli).  That’s how the lake in Siaya county got its name,” began Richard Oyula, curator of the Kombo Beach Museum as he addressed visitors eager to know more about the museum and the lake.

It was World Wetland Day. Villagers were joined by staff of non-governmental organisations and county government representatives to commemorate the event and also look into ways they could help conserve the lake,    

Oyula, 75, has been around long enough to see Lake Kanyaboli experience great changes. He  took us round a mud house, which had various artifacts that depicted life around the lake. The diverse products are made from papyrus plant, a reed that grows freely in the marsh surrounding the lake in Alego Usonga sub-county, 90km north of Kisumu .

The locals make chairs, mats, beds, and in the past, fishermen made fishing traps using the reeds.  I was shocked to find out the roots of the papyrus are edible just like mhogo and are eaten during famines.

Shy sitatunga


The curator also showed us feathers of indigenous birds such as the shoebill —which has now relocated to Uganda and Lake Victoria following the diversion of River Yala— and Marabou stock. There were also parts of a skeleton of sitatunga, a rare antelope found here.

The short tour of the museum made me curious to find out more about the lake, the birds and the antelope. Together with my host Dr Ambrose Otieno, founder chairman of Seeds of Peace International (Sopa), we headed out to meet Ibrahim Onyango, our tour guide for the day.

Unfortunately, 11am wasn’t the right time for a boat ride. The weather was so hot one would think that the devil was having a party on earth.  Oyula recommended 7am or late in the evening at 6pm where we could have a chance to see the birds and the shy sitatunga.

A resident demonstrates activities the local community could be involved in to earn money and help conserve the lake. Photo/HARRIET JAMES

However, seeing the determination in my eyes, he dutifully took his boat and off we rowed deep into the water.

Tall papyrus reeds swayed in the breeze as birds fluttered around the bushes on the shores.

I was busy taking photos, trying to see the best shot but the bright sun was frustrating me. I prayed to see a sitatunga;  its presence in the area is one of the reasons why in 2010, the lake was gazetted as a national reserve.

“Lake Kanyaboli is a vital riparian satellite lake around Lake Victoria.  It is a freshwater, deltaic wetland created as a result of the backflow of water from Lake Victoria as well as the rivers’ floodwaters,” says Ibrahim  the tour guide.

Oxbow lake

The oxbow lake shimmered as the sun rose higher but there was peace and tranquillity. From far off we could hear sounds of Ohangla music— a party was underway somewhere.

An oxbow lake is formed when a river bursts during flooding and takes a new, meandering course after eroding its banks. After some time, a portion of the river is bypassed as water flows through this new channel and the sediment will form a new riverbank, cut off the old channel and an oxbow lake is formed.

Ibrahim says the waters of Lake Kanyaboli are clear because of the papyrus vegetation whose roots filter off the silt from the brown River Yala. Water hyacinth can’t grow in this lake, as the level of dissolved oxygen is high unlike in Lake Victoria where urbanisation and industrialisation has caused this level to decline due to the pollution.

Three lakes lie in the Yala Swamp.  Kanyaboli (15 square kilometres) is the largest, followed by Sare (5sqkm) then Namboyo (0.5sqkm). The locals here rely heavily on fishing since Kanyaboli is richer in fish than Lake Victoria, where people migrate from all over Kenya come to fish.

Kanyaboli has been illustrated as a ‘living museum’ of Lake Victoria by scientists who see it as a duplicate of the Lake Victoria situation before the introduction of Nile perch. It is said that this invasive species was responsible for doing away with indigenous fish such as Sire (Schilbe mystus); Okoko (synodontis affrofischeri) as well as Esculentus. About 90 per cent of the youth here fish for a living. The lake offers four types of tilapia not found in the other lakes.

Bird area

In addition, Lake Kanyaboli has been listed as a vital bird area (IBA) by Nature Kenya since it is home to Papyrus Gonolek. The bird can only be found in the wetlands around Lake Victoria, and has become an increasingly rare species as the swamps are being cleared for development. 

Other birds found here are the white wing wabler. Research on the lake has revealed that the almost extinct population of cichlids has made the lake turn into a great conservation interest too. There are also many species of swamp birds, amphibians, reptiles as well as invertebrates that could turn this magnificent lake into a tourist hot spot.

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