Wednesday May 4, 2005
Two years after the fall of Idi Amin, I found myself, a disoriented teenager, wandering through western Uganda. Amin's departing army had destroyed everything. I walked through the Murchison Falls national park to a deserted game lodge on the banks of the Nile and camped in one of the rooms. I spent my evenings with the staff, who now survived on what they could grow and catch.
One morning they took me down to the river and gave me a hand-line with a small fish on the end. I fed it out around an eddy, and soon pulled in a monster: black and silver, with a great crested fin and a mouth into which my head could have fitted.
It was inevitable that a European adventurer would, as "a small experiment", think of moving a bucketful of baby Nile Perch upstream and into Lake Victoria. One bucket, apparently, was all it took. The predator proliferated, wiping out hundreds of endemic species, and generating a $1bn industry.
The lives now built around it have been brilliantly captured in a documentary, Darwin's Nightmare (released on Friday), by the Austrian film-maker Hubert Sauper.
Sauper lived with the fishermen, prostitutes, street children, businessmen and pilots in the Tanzanian town of Mwanza, on the shore of Lake Victoria. He builds a story that could have been told about almost any African commodity: of the enrichment of foreign businessmen and impoverishment of everyone else. We slowly discover that the Russian planes flying out the fish are bringing in arms for the conflicts in Congo, Angola, Liberia and Sudan. We find that the fish are being caught only for foreigners: the heads and skeletons, soon heaving with maggots, are left for the locals. Otherwise, the only benefit the locals receive from the industry is the broken packaging, which the street children melt down and sniff. A night watchman armed with a bow and arrows tells Sauper that he hopes for war, as it offers the best chance for men like him to make a decent living.
This predatory, commodity-based capitalism, like the Nile perch, devours everything: the thousands of lives around the lake destroyed by Aids and poverty, the prostitutes killed by foreign businessmen, the millions sucked into civil war. Darwin's Nightmare is an allegorical tale of the exploitation of Africa, and a moving and beautifully filmed portrait of the little fish living in the global pond.