04-07-2021 by Leni Frau
If you are a traveller in Kenya and you are used to wandering around markets or working-class neighbourhoods, you will often have noticed, among the fruit and vegetable stalls, the piles of small smoked fish, similar to our sardines, standing in plain sight. They are often pyramid-shaped piles and at the top is an aluminium cup. That's the size of a portion (about 300g) that sells for between 50 and 100 shillings.
You can find them at every latitude and longitude in the country, and although they are very popular (more so than other fish species) even on the coast, they are not marine fish but small freshwater creatures.
They are the 'omena', exported everywhere and never more than in pandemic times, due to the crisis, on the tables of many Kenyans, especially from the Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian basin of Africa's largest lake, hence the name 'Lake Victoria sardine'.
As the Kenyan Centre for Statistics has also pointed out, for many citizens who can no longer afford beef, goat or chicken every now and then, omena is becoming an important low-cost food and is now also sold in supermarkets, in bags or packets.
The 'silver cyprinid' is a small freshwater fish with a silvery colour and sheen that can grow to a maximum length of 9 cm.
The omena is the only native fish species that has remained abundant in Lake Victoria after the introduction of the Nile perch and tilapia. Its diet consists mainly of zooplankton and insects caught on the surface of the water. It reproduces throughout the year with two peaks, the first in August and the second in December-January.
The fishermen of Lake Victoria specialise in catching them: during moonless nights they travel in small boats in the darkness of the lake to the fishing grounds and attract their prey with the use of light sources. In the morning, the fish are sold to the women waiting on the banks and are spread out in the sun, often on sand, rocks or old nets laid on the grass for drying. This takes a day or more, depending on the weather.
Once dried, the minnows are packed in sacks and traders take them to various markets, including Kisumu one of the most important wholesale hubs where they are shipped all over Kenya and even to the coast and throughout Eastern and Southern Africa.
Dried omena has also become a popular food in the coastal resorts due to its long shelf life, the fact that it can be divided into small portions making it affordable and its high nutritional value, in fact it is rich in calcium because it is small enough to be eaten whole.
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