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Chinese Tilapia in Kisumu City & President Obama


My home town is Kisumu, on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria – for those who do not know, L. Victoria is in Eastern Africa in spite of its Victorian English name.

Our city’s heart beats to geopolitical developments worldwide for reasons demonstrated by panic over our favourite fish, tilapia (the common name for nearly a hundred species of cichlid fish from the tilapiine cichlid tribe) and the fact that President Barack Obama of the United States’ term is soon coming to an end.

Obama is one of our own.

The relationship between tilapia and Obama’s near exit is, at a glance, not discernible. Yet there are several big Sino-American considerations involved;  issues which also encompass the fact that as President Barack Obama’s kinsfolk through paternal ancestry, we have little to show for his headship of the most powerful nation in the world, by way of sharing his largesse.

You see, in our Luo culture when one of us is blessed in worldly ways, a trickle down is expected to be enjoyed by the rest of the community. This is why this story about the tilapia is poignant with ramifications for future generations. It demonstrates what has gone wrong in our once great community where the hunger in your brother’s or sister’s house would be a source of your sleeplessness.

Trending in our beloved Kisumu City is the story of Chinese fish-farmed tilapia being marketed cheaply in the area; a development argued to be disastrous for the fishery in the region (although one would imagine that if we consume fish from China, we would not be depleting the stocks in the lake, which as we have demonstrated below should be declared an environmenta disaster). The Luo people who reside in these parts are historically a fish people.

The Luo boast – and science seems to be on their side – that fish has contributed to enhancing their intellectual prowess.

Lake Victoria fish eat lake plants and algae, resulting in healthy fish oil in Lake Victoria tilapia. Omega-3 fatty acid from the fish oil in tilapia, for example, reduces the risk of heart attacks, among many other health benefits that come with eating tilapia.

It has been suggested that Luo brainiacs like Barack Obama Snr., the father of President Obama, had fish to thank. Their healthy brains led them to study in the U.S. of America to study, and by default Obama fathered the current president of the U.S.

Like every ‘good story’, there are always many sides to the fishiness of the developments in Kisumu’s tilapia business. As John Ziegler has pointed out, if there is one thing one learns about media blitzkriegs in the modern age of one-hour news cycles and 15-second attention spans, it’s that whoever tells the first story which the news media likes is the “winner.” Once the narrative is set in stone (when the news media works in unison), the truth will face a battle that is severely uphill, into the wind, on ice, and will almost never prevail. So what is the truth about the fish story of Barack Obama’s ancestral home town?

Fact one: The fish stocks in L. Victoria are at an all time low

This resulted from the repeated secretive introduction of the invasive Nile perch species (Lates niloticus) into the lake in the mid-1950s by the colonial Uganda Game and Fisheries Department as part of a bifurcated effort to improve sport fishing on the one hand and to bolster fisheries on the other.

The consequence was that there was an explosion of the lake’s Nile perch population in the 1980s. This coincided both with a fivefold increase in the economic value of the fishery and with a halving of the lake’s 500-species haplochromine cichlid flock (of which the tilapia is a part).

This reduction in species and functional diversity restructured the lake’s ecology; for example, the disappearance of zooplanktivorous haplochromines coincided with a dramatic sixfold increase in biomass of the zooplanktivorous cyprinid Rastrineobola argentea. By the early 1990s, what had been a diverse multispecies fishery rested on only three species: the non-indigenous Nile perch and Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), and the diminutive silver cyprinid Rastrineobola argentea (a species of ray-finned fish found in the Lake Victoria. Its local names are omena [Kenya], dagaa [Tanzania], and mukene [Uganda]).

Although some of the blame for the cichlid extinction spasm has been shifted from the Nile perch to other anthropogenic factors, such as overfishing and eutrophication, the Nile perch was certainly a major contributor.

The lucrative fishery that developed for Nile perch has itself had diverse impacts. Around the lakeshore, enthusiasm over the increase in the value of the fishery has been tempered by concerns about species loss, increased economic stratification, and the fact that most Nile perch is exported and locally unaffordable. Ecologically, the intense fishing pressure on Nile perch has in turn depressed its populations.

This leads us to fact two:

Whereas the fish stocks in L. Victoria have crushed in recent years, the population expansion in the littoral communities has grown in the thousands, and fish (eaten with ugali or kuon, both local names for gruel) continues to be one of their staples. The bulk of the remaining Nile perch harvested from the lake are transported to processing plants in Nairobi environs for the export market. In the meantime, efforts by Kenya’s Lake Basin Development Authority to encourage fish farming in the region have more or less failed for various reasons, chief amongst which is poor planning.

Elsewhere in central Kenya, tilapia became readily available and is cheaper than in Kisumu for two reasons: fish farming initiatives there have been more successful given that farmers have had financial support. Secondly, imported tilapia from China found a ready market there among the less discerning consumers that are the Nairobi city population (as compared to the choosey fish connoisseurs in Kisumu for whom lake tilapia has been a preference).

It is then that information started seeping into Kenya from Obama’s America that farmed tilapia could be dangerous, because farm-bred tilapia is fed on soy pellets and GMO corn, and (in China and Far Eastern countries) raised under poor aquaculture practices like feeding salmonella-laden pig and geese manure to the fish. In addition, healthy fish oil in wild tilapia is said to be basically lacking in farm-bred ones.

Studies in the US have suggested that consuming farm-bred tilapia can lead to and worsen already existing inflammation caused by a number of health issues including asthma, heart disease, and arthritis. It ends up that farmed tilapia is a much more serious risk factor for inflammation than bacon or hamburgers.

Secondly, farm-raised fish is generally exposed to cancerous organic pollutants 10 times more than wild tilapia. Moreover, one of the main ingredients in the feed is chicken poop. And, pig and duck waste processed into fish food is also quite common.

Thirdly, farm-bred fish generally pack higher content of pesticides and antibiotics. This basically comes down to the fact that farm fish are bred in a crowd, which makes them more susceptible to diseases. That’s why they’re often given antibiotics so as to keep them healthy.

Pesticides are also part of their menu in order to kill sea lice. These pesticides are in fact so strong that they can kill wild salmon when exposed to them accidentally. This is not all, because these pesticides are then released into the sea, which then produces toxic effects on other marine life when ingested.

Fourth, farm-raised tilapia packs less healthy nutrients than the wild. For one thing, the omega 3 fatty acids in farm-bred tilapia are not as beneficial as opposed to the omega fatty acids in wild tilapia. Plus, farm-raised tilapia also contains less protein. The fish are raised in pools, which makes them fattier and they often contain more omega 6 fatty acids. Over consumption of omega 6 fatty acids makes humans more prone to inflammation. In farm-bred tilapia the omega 3 to omega 6 ratios are misbalanced, which in turn negatively impacts human bodies.

Last, but not least, farm-bred tilapia also contains higher dioxin levels. They actually pack 11 times more dioxins than wild tilapia. Dioxins are not only toxic, but can also affect your proper body and can even trigger cancer development. The worst thing is that as soon as dioxins get into the body, they take a long time to get out – around 7-11 years is half of what it takes for dioxin to be removed from the body.  All in all, farm-bred tilapia is deficient in the vital nutrients the human body needs and it is recommended that consumers should opt for wild tilapia.

This information has come to Kisumu residents as a major shock and conspiracy theories abound. This is to the effect that because Kisumu is the heartland of opposition politics in Kenya, mischief by the central government is being read into the importation of tilapia from China into the city. They are amazed that farm raised tilapia from China manages to pass through customs and phytosanitary controls at Kenya’s import inlets ports, given that it is just recently that the U.S. banned farm raised fish and shrimp imports from China allegedly due to drug residues and poor aquaculture practices.

Kisumians see Chinese fish getting past veterinary control services at the port of entry in Kenya, then finding its way onto dinner tables in Kisumu puzzling. To them, it smacks of border control officials corrupt to a point where they can pass Chinese snake venom as human food as long as the Chinese can part with the right amount of money. If they are made to eat farm-raised tilapia from China, despite the ongoing health concerns, then they consider Kenya’s phytosanitary standards a joke.

Kisumu County Governor, Jack Ranguma had proceeded to petition the national government to impose a 100 percent ban on Chinese fish imports.

He said that there is no logical rationale for allowing importation of fish – an act that is already distorting the local fish market and increasing unemployment, poverty and inequality in the economies of counties like Kisumu that have traditionally depended on the fish industry.

Ranguma reiterated that Kisumu being a key player in the fisheries sub sector, his government will initiate consultations with relevant local and national players in the fisheries sub sector to discuss the matter and to put in place a framework for protection of the local fisher folk. As a first step, the Kisumu county government’s Health department is set to conduct tests to establish whether fish imported from China is fit for consumption.

This an interesting take by Kisumu people and its leaders on the Chinese, given that the population of the Chinese in the town has visibly increased in recent years, and there are several on-going Chinese developments in the area.

They are everywhere engaged in infrastructure development under the China-Kenya governments’ cooperation. And this is where there is a catch. The county government has tried to support the local fishing industry through improvement of infrastructure that supports the fisheries sub sector.

This has involved opening up and graveling of hitherto dilapidated rural roads linking the beaches to market places; provision of electricity supply and lighting of local beaches and fish market places; provision of cold storage cooler boxes to the beaches; establishment and improvement of well-equipped and staffed health facilities at or near the beaches; flood mitigation along the fish landing beaches; and strengthening of cooperative movement amongst the fisher folk. The catch is that the Chinese have been very visible in the development of some of the above mentioned infrastructure. One is left wondering if they will take kindly to the county government proposing a ban of Chinese produce.

All sorts of Chinese goods have penetrated the local market as is epitomized by the ubiquitous words ‘peng’ (a brand of motorcycles) and ‘tuk tuk’ (the three wheeler car-motorcycle hybrid), have come to represent all that is wrong with the informal public transport sector. The local hospital, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital, is daily filling with accident victims of these products of questionable pedigree from China.

Juxtapose this with the fact that Kisumu had very high hopes when Obama became the president of the U.S. that the city would be ‘Little America’ rather than ‘Little China’, now that one of their own was at the American White House. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital, being filled by accident victims of Chinese products, was a major part of President Barack Obama itinerary when he last visited Kisumu. He was tested for HIV-AIDS there and a children’s wing of the hospital is named after him to commemorate the day.

Anyway, the expectation that America would ‘pour’ development into Kisumu has come a cropper and Obama is to shortly exit the presidency of the United States. In fact, there is very little of America in the city. In its place, the residents find themselves fed fish from China which the Americans have rejected!

The Kisumu peoples’ rejection of tilapia from China – although the lake apparently cannot provide them with adequate supplies and the central Kenyan government is loathe to initiate fisheries development initiatives in the area – can therefore also be seen as part of their struggle between their pro-Americanism, and having to accept development aid cum cheap products of questionable pedigree from China. China and the U.S., as is well known, are locked in a war over global economic domination.

The ‘cold war’ between the U.S. and China – whose main theatre is the trending U.S. support for the Philippines in the latter’s struggle with China over some pieces of rock in South China Seas – is therefore being fought at a small scale in Kisumu. The rejection of the Chinese tilapia can be seen as a local theatre of the global struggle between China and the U.S. over who calls the shots in Kenya despite the fact that the president of America has his roots in Kenya’s fish-land, Kisumu.

Latest reports are that the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which both China and the Philippines have signed has ruled against Chinese claims to rights in the South China Sea, backing a case brought by the Philippines.

Given the above, arguments by Kisumu fish traders and leaders that “importing fish from China will kill business around Lake Victoria which is relied on by thousands of people” are true; but only to an extent. From another perspective, they are a reaction to the fact that China is slowly taking over the city.

The unhealthiness of the Chinese fish in Kenya is yet to be verified.

Nevertheless, the fish story is feeding two things:

  1. Is the emerging anti-Chinese sentiment in Kisumu.
  2. It is further feeding the perceptible fear in the region that the national government of Kenya wants to kill the fish industry just like sugar and cotton collapsed in Western Kenya; and that the national government is now using imports from China to facilitate this.


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