Waiting for lunch one afternoon in Bulyahelu village, I was sitting with a group of men in their shack of a church building. Somehow the conversation turned to fishing (Lake Victoria is nearby), and I was privy to a disagreement concerning the different species of fish in the lake. After some discussion, one of the church elders said, “Let’s ask Brett; he probably knows.”
All eyes turned to me, as I was expected to settle their dispute. Each man leaned in, eyebrows furled — not in anger, but in eager anticipation — as the elder asked, “Brett, are there 17 kinds of fish? Or 18?”
At first I was confused. I quickly considered the possible options: In Lake Victoria? In Tanzania? In the world? None of the possibilities allowed for such a small number, so I asked, “In the world?”
“Yes, in all the world. We know there are tilapia, Nile perch, catfish…” — they began to name the 17 they’d apparently agreed on.
Now… I didn’t know how many types of fish there are in the world; I hated to even venture a guess. Though I knew it was surely in the thousands (I’ve since looked it up: 31,900 species*). I decided that, to these Sukuma men, thousands were not much different than hundreds — and I might seem more believable if I used a smaller number. [Is it ever right to lie?] So I responded with, “I think there are more than 500 kinds of fish.”
Eyes grew wide and bodies leaned backwards in unison, as if there’d been an explosion in the center of our little circle. I felt I should justify my answer… and give them a good excuse for not knowing so many fish existed in the world. So I began explaining that usually ponds have the least number of fish species. And that lakes and rivers have more. But in the ocean — something none of them have ever seen — “In the ocean there are more kinds of fish than you could ever imagine,” I stated in my best exaggerated children’s storybook voice.
That’s when talk turned to Dar es Salaam and how the Tanzanians on the coast probably see lots of fish not in Lake Victoria. “And they’ll eat any kind of fish they catch. They don’t care; they eat anything!” one of the men cried out, almost in disgust.
Another older man was deep in thought. He wanted to know if people in Dar ate this one particular kind of fish that he’d seen only in pictures. He began to describe it:
“Well, these fish are really big — the size of a person! And they look like any other fish on the bottom half… with tails and scales and everything else. But at the top — up top they’ve got a woman’s head and lady boobies!”
I didn’t say a word. And fortunately no one asked me for clarification on that one.