Strange Things You Don't Know About The World's Most Crowded Island, Migingo Island

Migingo Island, a minuscule African destination in the waters of Lake Victoria, is a place that defies expectations. This rocky outcrop, measuring just about half an acre, is home to a fluctuating population of around 500 people. The island's density is so extreme that it has earned the title of the world's most crowded island. 

Beyond its staggering population density, Migingo Island harbors many peculiarities that anyone outside of its immediate geographical context may not know. Before the 1990s, Migingo was underwater. Only when Lake Victoria started receding did the outcrop of today's Migingo Island see the light of day.

The island's location in a lake shared by three countries makes it a hotbed of territorial disputes between Kenya and Uganda, as it emerged on the border between the two. Both nations claim ownership, leading to a geopolitical tug-of-war that has seen an increased presence of security forces from both countries on the island and in the surrounding waters. "They haven't decided who owns this island. It's no man's land," explains Ugandan fisherman Eddison Ouma (via AlJazeera).

The history of who first settled in Migingo is contradictory. Uganda claims that in 2004, Joseph Nsubuga, a Ugandan fisherman, was the first inhabitant, while Kenya claims two Kenyan fishermen settled there first in 1991. Regardless of whichever story is "true," today, 80% of the population is Kenyan, and 20% is Ugandan. Another contributing factor to the territorial dispute is that it takes two hours to get to Migingo from Kenya by speedboat, while from Uganda, it takes six hours. 

Nile perch, pirates, and countless fishing boats

Despite Migingo Island's small size (you can walk around it in less than 10 minutes!), its value lies beneath the waves — the waters are a goldmine for Nile perch. This has turned the island into a fishing hub. Over the past five years, prices of this fish have surged by 50%, with premium catches costing around $300 for 2 pounds — a lucrative income for local fishers.

However, the Nile perch goldrush has also brought some trouble. Residents on the island are constantly under threat from pirates who steal fish, cash, engines, and anything they can find. Yes, pirates still exist; some that come to Migingo are armed (and dangerous). Locals have to pay protection taxes to maritime police to defend themselves.

The law is lawless on Migingo, and corruption abounds. Fines, tithes, and ransoms are part of daily life here, especially as fishers try to come to cash in. Some get violently arrested or tortured (by pirates or representatives of the conflicting countries), others flee, and some people go missing, never to be seen again. Lake Victoria also happens to be one of the world's most dangerous places to swim. With its limited land area and a population density three times that of Hong Kong, Migingo Island has nonetheless developed into a microcosm of urban life. The island is a tight maze of corrugated metal houses, along with four bars, one beauty salon, one pharmacy, an open-air casino, and several brothels.

Environmental trouble on Lake Victoria

The high population density, limited space, and lack of facilities have led to significant environmental and health concerns. There is no natural vegetation on the rocky island. Waste disposal and functioning management are ongoing issues, with the lake's waters bearing the brunt of pollution and the dumping of plastic waste.

Lake Victoria is Africa's largest lake and the world's second-largest freshwater lake. It's a lifeline for 2 million fishers and 30 million dependants from Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, the three surrounding nations. Overfishing, hazardous sewage, invasive species, and other dire problems are putting that lifeline in jeopardy.

Changing PH values indicate that the water is becoming dangerously acidic, and some fish populations have shrunk by 80% over three years alone. Professor Godfrey Ogonda, an environmental expert with OSIENALA (Friends of Lake Victoria), says that the problem comes down to poverty. "Everyone wants their share. People do not understand they are killing their life source," he explains (via The Independent). 

Travel to Migingo Island isn't for everyone. The island can be reached by boat from towns in Kenya or Uganda after a transfer to the nearby Usingo Island. Getting in touch with the Africa Fishermen Foundation can help you get your trip sorted. You'll likely have to negotiate with boat captains, talk to island authorities, and pass an interrogation with the local police. After all is said and done, you'll be one of very few foreign visitors to set foot on the world's most crowded island.