Jacob Ajwang, whose brother —Born Ajwang — perished after their boat capsized last month while on a fishing expedition in Remba Island, Homa Bay, is a bitter man.
Born, 36, was in the company of another fisherman, Mr Joseph Odhiambo, 28, when they drowned in Lake Victoria.
Jacob squarely blames officials of Remba beach for his brother’s death.
“If my brother, who was drunk, could have been denied access to his fishing boat, he could be alive today. I blame beach officials and police over his death,” says Ajwang.
Odhiambo’s sister, Lilian Miser, blames the lethal liquor for her brother’s death. “We did not know that our brother had gone to Remba Island for fishing,” says Ms Miser.
Odhiambo and Born are among several fishermen who have perished in the last two months while on fishing expedition in the lake.
While locals may not agree on who is to blame for the deaths of their kin, they agree on one thing; that in all the cases, their relatives met their deaths while drunk on some cheap but highly potent liquor smuggled from the neighbouring Uganda.
Local fishermen operating on the island told Nation that they had lost at least 12 of their colleagues due to the illicit liquor locally known as yath (medicine), and which the fishermen enjoy imbibing before going on fishing expeditions.
A 300ml bottle of the liquor, which is normally packaged in bottles of other brands such as Richot, Viceroy or Legend, sells at Sh100.
Only last week, a fisherman who is yet to be identified because he is not from the island died when he fell off his boat in the lake.
Authorities said the fisherman had consumed the illicit liquor before embarking on the fishing expedition.
Mr Tobias Okwiri, a fisherman from Ugina Beach in Mfangano Island, says the number of fishermen who die in the lake as a result of consuming liquor is high but many such deaths go unreported.
“I have witnessed my colleagues die in the lake because of the illicit liquor. Most of the deaths are not recorded because the identities of the fishermen remain unknown as not all those who fish here are locals,” Okwiri said..
Remba Beach Management officials share Okwiri’s view, saying several fishermen who have lost their lives in the island cannot be accounted for due to lack of proper identification.
The illicit liquor has also affected fishermen in the neighbouring Kiwa and Ringiti islands.
The rise in the number of deaths on the islands has attracted the attention of Lake Victoria Beach Management Network, with its chairman Edward Oremo attributing the trend to failure by police to stop the illegal liquor trade.
He is now calling on Homa Bay County Commissioner Kassim Farah to order the transfer of officers stationed at Remba and Ringiti islands for condoning the illegal trade.
“They have turned a deaf ear on the illicit alcohol smuggled from Uganda, which is killing our people,” said Mr Oremo.
He said he had lodged several complaints over the illegal trade without any success. “I have made complaints to police bosses in Suba North but I have not succeeded,” he said.
Homa Bay OCPD Essau Ochorokodi, however, challenged beach officials to identify traders who are smuggling the alcohol to the islands to enable them to take action. “We shall not hesitate to arrest the smugglers once the beach officials give us their identities,” said Mr Ochorokodi.
He also urged the beach management officials to advise fishermen to stop getting into the lake while drunk.
Homa Bay County Director of Medical Services Kevin Osuri attributed the deaths of the fishermen to the depression of their central nervous system due to consumption of the illegal alcohol.
“The illegal alcohol has a high methanol content that depresses the central nervous system. This makes it extremely dangerous for the fishermen to row boats and operate other machines while in the waters,” he said.
Remba chief Alice Otieno said they are losing fishermen to the alcohol due to a well-coordinated network of smugglers who have managed to beat the security system.
She said administration police officers stationed on the island are usually reluctant to accompany her on raids targeting the drinking dens.
She also accused officers at Remba police post of collaborating with the importers.
Homa Bay police boss Marius Tum said a security meeting has been scheduled in the area this month to discuss ways of stopping the illegal trade.
Suba North MP Millie Odhiambo has accused the government of laxity in getting rid of the illegal alcohol.
“The government should care about the welfare of fishermen in Remba Island because it draws revenue from fishing activities,” said Ms Odhiambo.
“I have tried to talk to fishermen around the island to stop taking the liquor so that the importers do not get a ready market. However my interventions have not been fruitful,” she added.
The administrator added that her attempts to talk to security officers on the island to arrest the smugglers have also failed because administration police officers stationed on the island are usually reluctant to accompany her on raids targeting the drinking dens.
The chief has also accused police officers at Remba police post of collaborating with the importers. “The products brought by the importers are illegal in our country.
Ironically police officers on the island have never seized boats found ferrying the illegal brews,” said Ms Otieno.