Victoria: The Lake That Wasn't There
By Luke Armstrong

One would naturally assume that a trip to Lake Victoria would involve seeing a grand expanse of water. These days it takes a lot of work to find a distant patch of blue.

Lake Victoria travel

Occupying 26,560 square miles, few would argue that Eastern Africa's Lake Victoria is anything less than a giant body of water. But when I went to go see it for the first time, it was as if an alien spacecraft had sent down an enormous straw and slurped the whole thing up. My brother and I stood on its banks, but instead of seeing a lake we saw a green meadow extending out to the horizon.

Bullshit, we coughed into our map where the lake had been rendered with a large blotch of blue. Blue it was not. As tends to be the case, the lake-less lake was apparently the result of humans doing what we have been doing ever since we slapped some animal skins across our loins ran out of the cave to make fire—ruining nature.

The plant covering the lake is the hyacinth plant, or water lily. The lily is native to South America, where it is kept in check by natural predators. In Kenya, it has no predators to keep it in check and it has gone, as they say, wildebeest wild. There is a consensus that the water lily was brought to Lake Victoria sometime in the 1980s, where it was not a huge problem until a giant outbreak between 1992-1998. This was reduced by 2001, but now 2013, it is flaring up again worse than acne on prom night.

hyacinth flower

One Plant's Havoc on Lake Victoria
A fisherman we met along the way complained that his business was being sunk by the plant. It strands a boatload of ships upon whose people's livelihood depends. More, it creates an increase in diseases, provides a great breeding area for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, increases encephalitis, bilharzia, gastro intestinal disorders and schistomsomiasi (which, let's face it, neither you nor I can pronounce). The plant smothers aquatic life by deoxygenating the water, reduces nutrients for young fish, blocks the intake supplies for hydroelectric plants, and limits access to tourist attracting beaches. It also ruined our Facebook photos of the lake.

Lake Victoria, while one of the larger lakes suffering from water lilies, is not the only one. In lakes ranging from North America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Louisiana and the Kerlala Backwaters of India, the water lily has arrived.

There are three control methods to fight the water lily invasion: physical, chemical and biological control. Physical control, which uses land based machines like bucket cranes and draglines, has been the method primarily employed on Lake Victoria. While these efforts have made a difference, they are costly and work best as a short term solution to save particular areas of infestation.

So why in the name of all that is holy would anyone bring this plant to Eastern Africa in the first place? Well, you see, the hyacinth plant it has a very attractive flower. It's pretty—its stacked lavender petals border fulvous stamens that appear as organic poetry bursting with lush fecundity.

That is the consensus as to how it became introduced: to titivate someone's beachfront property. There is a prevalent hope that this person drowned while taking in his gussied view.


Meeting Titus, Our Luo Guide
Despite the initial setback, my brother and I were determined to see some water during our day in the lake city of Kisumu, Kenya. So we continued to walk along its nothing-to-see-here shores seeking something blue. That is when we met Titus.

We didn't ask him to join us, but we were not hostile to the idea of it either. Titus was a 13-year-old Luo boy who had been standing along the road as if he was supposed to meet us there. When we passed by, he simply started walking with us. He carried himself confidently and had a gleeful smile that seemed to revel in the fact that we had not rejected his company. We exchanged names and places of origins.

Formalities out of the way, he asked us in Hairy Potter-esque British accent, "How do people serve you here? Are they very harsh with you?"

"Everyone has been very welcoming," said my brother.

"Let me tell you something," he addressed my brother, "50% of people are good and 50% not so good."

The road led us past lavish estates looming over well-kept gardens. It was probably on an estate like this where a flower-loving cad had hosted the ancestor of the empire of water hyacinth now dominating the lake.

Titus noticed us noticing the mansions. "Most are the dwellings of Indian merchants," he told us. I like the way this kid talked—like a character from 19th century British literature.

"Wow," I said admiring the affluence, "do any of them have single daughters we can marry?"

"Perhaps," he said, "in every market there are mad people."

A Maasai warrior, wearing a red and purple robe and carrying a spear, crossed our path and Titus offered, "People pay the Maasai to protect their houses. They know how to use a weapon and can defeat ten men." I made a mental not to mess with the Maasai.

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