What would you do if you came across the body of a person who has just committed suicide, the lifeless frame hanging limply from a tree? You would scream your lungs out, that is what you would do. Or take off. Or just collapse in shock.
If you are a savvy fisherman in Lake Victoria, however, you would probably look into the high heavens and thank your gods for the fortune before you, then do all you can to free the rope from the pestilent grip of the body.
That is because here, the suicide rope is a hot cake, even though the fisherfolk would not readily admit it. Many people here believe in the mythical power of a line by which someone has ended his or her life to lure fish into their nets, and so whenever somebody commits suicide, the rope becomes an invaluable part of fishing gear.
John Ligolo, the Nyamware beach management unit secretary, has known that little secret for decades, and even though he is reluctant to discuss the nitty-gritty of the thinking of his people, he says it is difficult to understand why such ropes are so important to the fishermen he oversees if you are not one of them.
Whenever they are tipped about a suicide by hanging, he explains, some people go for the rope at night, which they then incorporate into their fishing gear and head out for the night. The results, he hints, are never disappointing.
“Fishermen here have done this for a very long time and they believe that the rope will always bring them good fortune. I doubt whether there is anything you can do now to change their minds,” he says, adding that, even though the macabre belief is so common among the fisherfolk of Lake Victoria, it is always shrouded in secrecy.
A PIECE OF JESUS’ CLOTH
But how can a rope whose only claim to fame is being tied around the neck of a suicidal human being be such an attractive proposition? Is death, in its most cruel, dastardly form, not repulsive enough?
Not by a long shot, says Raphael Akuku, the village elder and secretary of the Ogenya beach management unit. “Where did Jesus’ clothes go after he was crucified?” he asks, somehow managing to find a connection between the suicide ropes on the shores of Lake Victoria and the loin cloth of the world’s most famous man who ever lived. “His clothes were torn and people fought for them… why do you think all those people wanted a piece of Jesus’ death cloth?”
The question is rhetorical, but the piercing, interrogative manner in which it is delivered makes you want to shoot back something in response. Maybe the Son of Man was no commoner, and so his followers wanted a piece of anything he had owned. And, remember, he did not meet his death by the noose of a suicide rope, but through crucifixion, so this historical connection, this attempt to explain away the beliefs of Akuku’s men, seems too fallible. Too weak. Or is it?
“I have done this on several occasions and it has helped me a lot,” he informs us. “Because of this rope I have been able to grow my daily catch, send my children to school, and generally live a comfortable, well-provided life.”
The mythical power of the suicide rope is passed down through generations, so even though Akuku and Ligolo may soon exit the fishing stage, the belief will remain active here. The young men who follow in their footsteps, however, are not as open about the subject as the old ones, and so talk only on condition of anonymity.
Henry, one of those young men, says he got into fishing after Standard Eight because his parents could not afford secondary school fees. “We would wake up as early as 4am, stay in the lake the whole day, but still come out with little to show for the effort,” he says. “One day I asked my dad how come the other fishermen always had their nets full but he shrugged me off, telling me that one day I would learn how to do it.”
The answer to his question came in the form of a suicide. They rushed to the scene, him to condole with the family of the departed, his fellow fishermen to grab the rope and turn around their fortunes.
“Even before the body was taken away by the police, two of my friends were fighting for the rope. I could not understand what that was all about and thought they were the first people who had first broken the news of the suicide to the village. (According to Luo traditions and customs, when you are the first one to spot a man who has committed suicide, you take the rope for cleansing purposes, to scare the ill fortune that might come your way).”
He would later learn that his friends were scrambling for the biggest break of their lives, that the rope they were fighting for meant the world to them.
And then, on 27 January, 2004, his big break came too. He was on his way home after another not-so-fruitful fishing expedition when he remembered that he had left his jacket at the landing beach and turned back.
“On reaching the shores, I saw a white cloth floating on the water a few metres away. I moved closer, only to find a body tied several times with a rope. We pulled it to the shore, removed the rope, divided it among the four of us, then called the police to the scene.
At home, he informed his father about the body and the rope. The old man beamed his approval, telling him that he had not only graduated into a real fisherman, but had also quickly learnt the secrets of the trade. It is now 10 years since then, and that piece of rope he untied from the floating body has accompanied him on every voyage into the lake.
Dr Charles Muga, a behavioural scientist based in Kisumu, says this tradition goes beyond the fishing fortunes the fishermen seek to the cleansing ceremonies of traditional Africa. The rope represents the dead man, who has sacrificed himself for his ill fortune and the fishermen believe that through using it, their bad luck would be gone as well. This, he explains, is the same reasoning that accompanies animal sacrifices.
It may not work, but those who practise it swear by its efficacy. “Good catches may be as a result of other factors, including rainfall that leads to faster regeneration of the fish, but to the fisherman all that is nonsense. Any abundant catch must somehow be linked to the suicide rope tied to his net.”