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Message in a Dhow: The Flipflopi Expedition

Saving Lake Victoria
Photo Credit: ThisNairobi
The Flipflopi at Dunga Hill Camp, Kisumu, Kenya

Come to the outer edges of Kisumu, Kenya and you‘ll meet Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake. At roughly 60,000 square kilometers, Lake Victoria serves as a vital lifeforce for communities in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Home to hippos, otters, crocodiles, turtles, and a rich tapestry of fish and plants, it’s also an ecological gold mine.

Over half of the lake’s native fish species have gone extinct in the past 50 years. Pollution, plastics, and overfishing have degraded an invaluable resource. At present, experts predict that Lake Victoria has a mere 40 years left to save.  

A major contributor to the lake’s degradation is single-use plastics. According to UNEP only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. 79% is accumulated in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment.

The Flipflopi Movement envisions a future without single-use plastic. On the outside, the Flipflopi appears to be an eclectic dhow. But run your hands along the rainbow-colored deck, and you’ll feel the ever-familiar spongey texture of a fresh pair of flip-flops.

Journey to the Flipflopir

Flipflops are one of the most popular forms of shoes around the world.  Come to Kenya and you’ll see anyone from children playing along the beach to fashionable young women out for a good time in the city sporting them with pride. 

But like so many things, flip-flops are not built to last. They break, degrade in quality, and often end up thrown aside when no longer useful.

Ben Morison took note of this in 2015 while walking along the beach on Kenya’s Lamu Island. Struck by the number of disused flip-flops strewn about, he felt inspired to make a change. Morison then began to look at alternative uses for plastic.

In 2016, Morrison partnered up with sailor, craftsman, and Lamu Island native, Captain Ali. The pair began to brainstorm new ways to repurpose plastic for a fully usable sailing vessel.

Equipped with plastics and 30,000 flipflops, they began to construct a dhow, a classic East African sailboat. By 2017, the Flipflopi and its crew had already embarked on their first expedition from Lamu to Zanzibar, visiting community leaders, policymakers, and schools along the way. 

Traversing Lake Victoria

In March 2021, they continued their journey and hit Lake Victoria, making stops at Kisumu’s Dunga Hill Camp, Homa Bay, and Rusinga Island.

Photo Credit: ThisNairobi
The Flipflopi at a jetty in Homa Bay

Each location examined the vitality of the lake from a new angle. In Kisumu, the boat and its crew took part in the Naam Festival at Kisumu’s Dunga Hill Camp. In Homa Bay, the dhow docked at the town’s jetty and was greeted by the community and County Government Environment Office. On Rusinga Island, the crew disembarked at the Wayando Beach Ecolodge, attended a local women’s canoe race, and held workshops on recycling and drowning prevention. 

According to Morison, the Flipflopi is a dhow like any other. But what’s unique is its message; one that is built into its very core.

“The message is obvious,” said Morison in an interview with CGTN. “…that plastic can be reused and recycled into really really useful things ”.

The Flipflopi has already had an impact. Since it first set sail, a large dumpsite in Mombasa was closed repurposed into a public park.

 The crew also told ThisNairobi that policy leaders throughout East Africa have taken a personal interest in the dhow, attracting attention from the likes of Kisumu County Minister for Tourism, Sports, Arts, and Culture Madam Achieng Alai.

Message in a Dhow

Dhows have a long history in East Africa. For centuries, they’ve been used by sailors to traverse new waters and trade goods. In many ways, they are a symbol of the region and its rich tapestry of culture and people. 

Over the past ten years, single-use plastics have become a major source of environmental and ecological damage, particularly in East Africa’s water-side communities.

Photo Credit: ThisNairobi
A recycling demo with Plastiki Rafiki on Rusinga Island

Major battles have been won in the struggle to ban single-use plastics in East Africa. 

Kenya outlawed single-use plastic bags in 2017. The policy failed multiple times at its inception, but its success is clear to those on the ground. 

“Plastic was everywhere,” said James Wakibia, the campaigner behind Kenya’s plastic ban. “Now the environment looks much cleaner”.

But what is really needed is a Pan-African approach to waste management, claims Wakibia. 

“It’s not just a Kenyan problem, it’s a regional problem,” he said onboard the Flipflopi on its voyage from Homa Bay to Rusinga Island. 

A Pan-African Approach

Saving Lake Victoria requires consensus at all levels; a conscious decision to protect and preserve natural resources. Multiple narratives about Lake Victoria’s history exist throughout its communities, but one story is the same, what’s being put into the lake has a circulatory effect.

 At present 1 out of 5 fish that come from Lake Victoria have remnants of plastic in their guts. Lake Victoria’s communities, who make their income and get their dinner from the lake, ingest these plastics. The fish are then sold in and around East Africa, going into the bellies of the community at large.

Photo Credit: ThisNairobi
A fishing community in Kisumu

In order to tackle the problem, the extent of the damage must be fully understood. Onboard the Filp Fliopi is Tanzanian aquatic ecology and pollution management researcher, Bahati Mayoma. 

According to Bahati most of the research done on Lake Victoria tests the surface of the lake. But, the Flipflopi crew wants to dig deeper. 

Armed with test tubes and kits, Bahati plans to take water samples that will enable the group to understand the verticle distribution of microplastics pollution. 

“We want to have an understanding of what is floating on the water and what is submerged in the water from the surface to the bottom of the lake,” said Bahati “We are worried that we might be underestimating the problem”.

Onward

Though its Lake Victoria voyage is off to a monumental start, there is still work the be done. In the wee hours of March 11th, the crew left Rusinga Island and set sail for Uganda. In Uganda, the vessel will be featured for Water and Environment Week. They will then continue to Tanzania, facilitating a connection to a full range of East African communities. 

Though the Flipflopi seems light-hearted and innocent on the surface, just like the waters of Lake Victoria, its potential holds untold depths. Whatever the crew may find on its journey, the message is clear, single-use plastics are not an issue we can afford to ignore. More than just trash, plastic is becoming part of our diet, water, and environment. It’s up to us to put an end to single-use plastic and forge a cleaner, brighter, future. 

Learn more about the Flipflopi’s Lake Victoria voyage here

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