Mgongo Wazi

Ark of taste
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Mgongo wazi refers to the skeletal part of Nile perch (Lates niloticus) that remains after the fillets have been extracted—in other words, the head, spine, and tail. This byproduct is also referred to as Nile perch “frame.” Local fish traders process fish skeletons bought from fish processing and export factories: The frames are salted and then air dried—they are hung on wooden frames for a period that varies according to the season. Once dried, that fish frames are transported to the sales points where they are deep fried and then sold as a nutritional, affordable food (100 shillings buys enough to make a meal for a family of four). In the local cuisine, mgongo wazi is used to prepare a traditional soup: The bones are chopped into small pieces and boiled with vegetables and aromatic herbs. This dish is often given to sick people as a tonic.

Mgongo wazi is linked to Lake Victoria, whose natural resources provide livelihood to millions of people in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Since the mid-20th century, the lake has become an important place for the fishing of Nile perch. Nile perch, a predatory fish, was introduced into Lake Victoria in the mid-1950s to get rid of the small fish, also referred to as “trash fish.” Nile perch thrived and multiplied and have formed the basis of a massive commercial fishery in the countries around the lake for the last several decades. Fishing activities directed toward exports have led to an increase in the price of Nile perch, making it difficult for locals to buy it. As a result, local people have developed a strategy to compensate for the disappearance of native species caused by the introduction of Nile perch: They use the bony remains of fish as an easily accessible protein supply and a source of income to supplement fishing and other economic activities. In Obunga Beach, a densely populated informal settlement between Kisimu and the regional airport, a group of women buy Nile perch frames, process them, and sell the product locally. In this way they are able to make the income they need to buy food and educate their children.

The introduction of Nile perch into Lake Victoria, and the fishing industry that grew as a result, has had catastrophic ecological impacts, including pollution (from new settlements and agriculture) and the decline of many fish species endemic to the Lake Victoria basin. In addition, the rise of the fishing industry for export to the European market upset the traditional, small-scale fishing economy and the subsistence activities of local populations. Locals came to rely on the Nile perch industry and many people migrated to the lake to seek economic opportunities but, since the early 2000s, the Nile perch population has been declining. This has allowed many native species to rebound, but has also left countless people with less income or completely out of work. And now, even mgongo wazi—which locals depended on when fish became too expensive—has become hard to find because animal feed manufacturers buy up many of the frames to make fishmeal. This source of competition and the overall decline in Nile perch have driven the price of frames up. Once considered “poor man’s food,” mgongo wazi is now too expensive for many poor people to afford.

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