Oli Otya, Lake Nabugabo! (Fishy Ugandan Tales: Episode 1)

Uganda equator sign
Arriving to Uganda, my research team and I headed towards the capitol, Kampala, where we spent an evening resting from our long journey to the African continent. We woke up early the next day to head straight to our first
study site: Lake Nabubago.

This lake is a small satellite lake of Lake Victoria, where hundreds of fishers come daily to feed themselves, their families and supply fish mongers. The mongers then sell the fish in the larger centers surrounding the lake.  The biggest fish are often brought up to an hour drive away from Nabugabo, were they are sold to businesses for international export.

Although Lake Nabugabo is little compared to Lake Victoria, this lake not only feeds many mouths but can also serve as an interesting study model of the larger Lake Victoria, from which tons of fish are caught and sold annually,
both locally and internationally.

And this is exactly why I am here at Nabugabo… Little is known about mercury contamination in the Lake Victoria basin.  But this potent neurotoxin has the potential to seriously harm both human and wildlife health, and it is mainly exposed to humans via fish consumption. So as part of my Masters degree, which I am completing at McGill University in Canada, I have come here to study the hows and whys of mercury of the fish of this lake.

Early on my first morning at Lake Nabugabo, a team of Ugandan research assistants arrived to camp to give us a hand. “Oli Otya” they said as they waved hello to me and flashed their enormous smiles my way.  In Luganda, one of the many languages spoken in Uganda, this means something along the lines of “Hello”.

Together, we set our beautiful blue research boat  in the water at 6h30am sharp, the sky was just waking up and the sun had not yet pierced the horizon.

Picture of research boat

It wasn’t long before the sky began to fill itself with an incredible pink and the sun showed its way into the sky lighting up
the wetlands that surround a great portion of this lake.  Hidden along the shores of these wetlands, many fishermen are out early every morning in their hand made plank boats.

Early morning fishing on Lake Nabugabo, Uganda

As we advanced our boat along the shore of these wetlands, looking for a good spot to set our nets, I spotted what looked like a strange pile of dry grass hidden among the very alive hippograss.  I asked my research supervisor, Lauren Chapman, who’s been working in Uganda for over 20 years now, what this was.  I was surprised to discover that I was no more than 20 meters away from a fishing hut!

Fishing hut!
Fishing hut!

Hidden in the grass, at the very edge of the water, this little hut is home to some fishermen for months at a time, allowing them to catch and sell fish daily for long periods in order to assure their livelihoods.

We then stopped our boat and set our nets for the first time.  Keep posted for my next story to hear about some of the interesting tropical fish we caught!



Meet the Author
Since as far as I can remember I've spent my time outside attempting to understand and connect with the natural world that surrounds us. When it came time to make a career choice, this lead me toward research in ecology and conservation, topics that are of fundamental importance to me. I completed a Bachelors degree in Environmental Sciences at the University of Ottawa in 2011, during which I studied the effects anthropogenic traffic noise on birdsong; discovering the impacts human activity has on even the most unexpected aspects of animal life! I then completed a cross-Canada canoe journey in partnership with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society & the Ottawa Riverkeeper Alliance raising funds and awareness for watershed conservation. Between 2012 & 2014 I studied mercury contamination in African freshwater fish as part of a Masters degree in Biology at McGill University. (The stories in this blog series are from my field work in Uganda!) Following this, I spent time developing Science Faction, a podcast all about unbelievable discoveries and creating an urban beekeeping collective in Montreal, Canada, with which we teach locals about beekeeping and pollinator gardens. Today, I'm working on a PhD in the department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University, during which I will explore questions related to riverine ecosystem service conservation.