Growing up with earthworms


She spent her youth as an avid student of Mother Nature. Today, she gives back to her childhood teacher by looking out for the earth’s marine life. By Mariam Mokhtar.

WP earthwormsThe inland villages of Kenya’s semi-arid Makueni County seem a world away from the vast expanse of fresh water that is Lake Victoria, the second-largest lake in the world by surface area. For Halinishi Yusuf, who grew up in the village of Kiu, 100km from Nairobi, it was the land of her childhood that led to the career she finds herself in today.

After graduating she worked with farmers, focusing on forestry, alternative energy and climate change. Two years later she embarked on a rather different career path, one that would involve boat trips out onto the open waters of the Indian Ocean and Lake Victoria.

“In 2009 I worked on a fisheries conservation project,” she recalls. “It was new and exciting. I spent many hours in the deep sea with fishermen, demarcating community-conserved areas [marine parks] for ecotourism. I loved it!”

The youngest of six children, Halinishi graduated in environmental studies from Kenyatta University in Nairobi. Her exposure to marine conservation encouraged her to pursue her post-graduate studies, leading to a master’s degree in development studies from the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Holland. Her passion for nature and environmental conservation stems from her rural upbringing in Kiu.

“Being a daughter of a peasant farmer, our mainstay was farming. My parents cultivate maize, beans and vegetables, and horticultural crops like mangoes, paw-paws, bananas, tangerines and lemons. My mum grows dhania [coriander] year-round and hot chilli peppers in her kitchen garden.”

Of Kenya’s 44 million citizens, around 11 percent are Muslim; they tend to reside in the coastal areas and the country’s northeast. Thirty-year-old Halinishi, who is an ethnic Kamba, is fluent in written and spoken English, Swahili and Kamba. She has fond memories of her childhood, and says her family remains supportive and proud of her efforts.

“As children, we did not till the land but had little plots to weed. I would play with earthworms and other burrowing insects.

We would catch grasshoppers to check the colours underneath their wings; we used to call these their ‘petticoats’. I was fascinated by watching ants at work, and weaver birds building their nests. These activities lit the passion burning in me, but my education and work made me aware of my environment, my role and my responsibility.”

After returning from The Hague, Halinishi went on to manage a fisheries conservation project in Lake Victoria. Her work now covers both aquatic and marine fisheries.

Her drive to make a positive impact on people’s lives is evident, though she acknowledges that things haven’t always gone according to plan. She recalls the impression she created the first time she saw a lobster being landed.

“It was still alive, and I screamed and dashed away. A disgusted fisherman calmly asked, ‘How will you work in fisheries if you are afraid of the product you are developing?’”

As part of the Environment Liaison Centre International (ELCI), an organisation focusing on natural resource management and sustainable development, Halinishi describes her role as being a watchdog of the government.

“ELCI is actively involved in coordinating the civil-society voice on fisheries issues. We ensure sound policies are passed and we do a lot of research and evidence collection.”

She travels widely, making monthly visits to the coastal regions and Lake Victoria to assess the progress of various projects.

In Busia County, northeast of Lake Victoria, she works with the fishermen and fisheries office to pilot a conservation area that protects fish breeding areas. She also raises awareness of the effects of pollution in Lake Victoria, whose vast waters are shared by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.

As she serves as an intermediary between nature and people, her biggest challenge is to grapple with fisheries biology to support her work as a social scientist.

She shares the first problem she encountered along the coast: “The coastal fishermen are predominantly Muslim. They do not appreciate a Muslim woman wearing jeans and a t-shirt, yet these are practical when working on a boat.

“In a closed and reserved Muslim community, I was viewed as Westernised, which is not necessarily a good thing. The Westernisation was defined by my mode of dressing and the perceived free interaction with the opposite sex. People probably think I am too free a spirit to be a Muslimah.”

The men have since got used to her wearing jeans, however conservative views remain prevalent. “These attitudes exist in most Muslim-dominated areas. No problems exist with a non-Muslim woman not wearing the hijab, but Muslim women are condemned or reminded about hijab.”

Very few women are involved in the fisheries industry here, apart from “mama karanga” – women who fry fish for sale. Halinishi concedes the on-site conditions can be demanding, yet she finds some enjoyment in them at the same time.

“Fieldwork is tough, especially going to very remote areas with basic facilities. In many places, the accommodation is in a sad state. There are issues with food and the long hours. There may be other women in environmental protection, but being out in the field, soiling your hands and burning in the sun are unappealing. I enjoy fieldwork. This makes me different.”

Along the coast of Kenya many fishing communities perform sadaka. The practice combines a local Mijikenda tradition of offering material items like food to appease the spirits, and the Islamic practice of voluntary charity which is accompanied by a prayer for a particular cause. Sadaka helps conserve marine resources with regulations, such as the prohibition of fishing in certain periods and areas.

As a development practitioner, Halinishi aims to engage with the older generation who are steeped in their cultural beliefs, as well as women and the more modern younger generation. She denies that being a Muslim and a woman in a male-dominated environment has been an obstacle.

Weighing a Nile perch at Usoma beach on Lake Victoria
Weighing a Nile perch at Usoma beach on Lake Victoria

“Working in a Muslim-dominated area is easy because I understand the social dynamics shaped by Islam, such as timing meetings so that they don’t clash with religious events or prayer.”

With ambitions to land a senior decision-making position in the Kenya fisheries sector, she hopes to help influence policies on developing artisanal fishing and move from traditional fishing to the sustainable commercial variety.

Her advice to schoolchildren is to nurture environmental consideration and learn about the relationship between humans and the environment.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would still choose to do what I do. It’s exciting to be an agent of change, even in small ways. I travel locally and regionally – what more can I ask for?”

Although Halinishi enjoys her exciting adventures on water, she shares a trait with many mariners. “I cannot float, let alone swim. Yet I am happy to go into deep water on the lake or the sea!”


Photos courtesy of Environment Liaison Centre International

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 Eid issue of Aquila Style magazine. For a superior and interactive reading experience, you can get the entire issue, free of charge, on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone at Google Play

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