Turkana by Night: dreams of past and future in Kenya

Photo: Alejandro Chaskielberg/Oxfam

Alejandro Chaskielberg travelled to Turkana, Kenya with Oxfam to take photographs using moonlight supplemented with artificial lighting, showing snapshots of everyday life. While he was there, he met Peter Abwell, a former pastoralist who became a fisherman before starting his own business.

Peter’s shop is bustling with activity when we arrive. Clearly a central hub of the village and community, a group of men are chatting animatedly outside while Peter discusses business with a local fisherman inside.

I introduce myself and the team to Peter and he is at once telling us how happy he is to have more guests visiting him. “I am a celebrity here now,” he laughs. “Didn’t you know that Scarlett Johansson came here a few weeks ago?”

Peter shows us around his shop. The shelves contain everything from maize flour to ball point pens. Hanging centre stage are two photographs, one of Peter looking very stern and proud and another of the president of Kenya. Next door is his fish store. Outside he shows us the solar drier installed by Oxfam.

As the light starts to fade we prepare to take Peter’s photo. There must be at least 50 people quietly watching from the sidelines, giggling and pointing as Peter stands completely still holding up a fish, as if frozen. After each photo he grins back at us in the dark.

“People in this village see me as a role model as I gave birth to a new idea here of being a trader. Before my shop there were no other shops in the village and now when you look around you can see many. Twelve shops have opened here because I have shown them and taught them. People come to me for advice all the time and I help them. I am a pioneer and am proud to see that I have helped this village to start growing. I am happy that all of this has come from my idea of owning a business.”

From pastoralist to fisherman

“I was born into a poor family and I grew up without going to school. Everything I have learned has been from others. My family were pure pastoralists but they were not always poor; my grandparents started experiencing difficulties when I was young. There was a lot of death in the livestock and people started becoming very poor, conflict started between pastoralists and that way of life became very dangerous. Slowly the pastoralist life has started disappearing because of the persistent droughts in this area. People must start to adapt.

“When I was young I started dreaming about owning my own business. I wanted to learn a new way of life and move to the lake. Many pastoralists came from the hills and settled here near Lake Turkana. At first this village was very small but over time it grew and grew. When I came here I had nothing and I didn’t know how to fish. I had to learn from other fishermen on the lake. I used to go to the lake and work on other fishermen’s boats. They would take me out on the lake and show me how to fish and how to use the nets. Eventually I saved enough for my own boat and my own nets.

“All of the fishermen used to wait until they had 3 bails of fish and then they would take them to the town. I remember doing this nine times and I nearly had enough money saved to open my business and stop fishing. When I went to the town for the tenth time I was really happy, all of my money was waiting for me there and I laughed so hard as I knew I could open up my business.

“But my happiness did not last. On the way home that day I was stopped by bandits and they took all of my money. It is the only time I can remember laughing and crying so much on the same day. I cried a lot as I knew I would have to continue fishing on the lake until I could save the money again. Eventually I managed to save it all again and I opened my business.”

Learning new trades

“Now I want to support others and help them learn. I lend new fishermen nets and boats so that they can fish on the lake. Pastoralist families here are now adapting to a new way of life, they are fishing and learning new trades, and are starting to see the importance of education. They are sending their children to school so that they can improve their lives.

“If my wife was still here she would have been very supportive and given me lots of ideas, she was an enterprising woman. My wife helped me a lot in the beginning; we set up the shop from scratch.

“Sometimes when I go to sleep at night I dream that my wife is still here with us, of our family life before she died. I dream about her telling off the children and talking to me about the business. I have these dreams because I miss what used to be. When I wake up I realise it was just a dream and that she is gone. She died of Malaria in February this year. She was very sick and when I took her to hospital there was nothing they could do to help her. I cried all the time when she died. The whole family misses her.”

Fewer nightmares, but worries persist

“Two of my children start high school next year and I am currently preparing for the battle to find money to send them to university after that. I don’t want my children to be traders or fishermen. It was the best I could do for myself without an education but I want them to have good jobs elsewhere and live good lives.

“I used to dream that an enemy was coming from across the border and they were attacking the house. In the dream they broke my fence and stole all of my goats. A few months later nearly all of my goats died and I remembered this dream. I think my dream was a warning that my goats were going to die. I sometimes dream about lots of rain. That there are streams flowing and everything is washed away. I dream that I am on Lake Turkana. The winds are strong and my boat capsizes. Then suddenly I wake up and my heart is beating fast. If I dream about the winds being so strong I don’t go fishing the next day.

“I don’t have so many bad dreams now; I usually sleep and wake up without any dreams. Sometimes I dream about catching lots of fish and about my family. I worry a lot about my children and their future. I worry that the lake will become exhausted with too many fishermen.”

Fish from Lake Turkana: “Better than goat meat”

“In the past traders used to come to the lake with their fish and sell it for very high prices and then they stopped coming altogether. That is when Oxfam really helped to stabilise the market again. The prices started to stay at a good level. Oxfam has really empowered our community and I would like Oxfam to continue supporting us so we can grow and our businesses can grow.

“I love fish. My son brings me fresh fish from the lake, it is much better than goat meat, fish is healthy and fresh.”

Read more

View Alejandro’s photo series, Turkana by Night

Find out more about the humanitarian crisis in East Africa