A tribute to Paul Onyango

This April, the SSF community lost a dear friend and colleague, Paul Onyango. A warm and spirited person, with an infectious smile, Paul was a passionate campaigner for the rights of small-scale fishing communities who believed in the power of “invisible presences” in dealing with poverty. He was a founding member of TBTI and we will be forever thankful for the invaluable insights he provided in his role as the TBTI regional coordinator for Africa. To pay a homage to Paul, we prepared a special tribute written by his supervisor, Prof. Svein Jentoft, who will, just as many of us, remember Paul for his friendliness, kindness, humour, and wisdom. 

Paul Onyango (1970 - 2022)

By Svein Jentoft

Old professors like me should not have to see their students pass away before they do. We all have our time, but it should not be shorter than it could be. And yet we know that it is not for everyone to reach old age. Some die when at their prime, when they still have many things undone, plans to realize, and dreams to fulfill. Then, life is unfair.

Paul, my student through the masters and PhD, died on April 10. His son Bill texted during the night, and I woke up to the devastating news. Paul had been very sick for a while, not so long though, and it was known to me and all his friends that it was serious. He went for surgery to Bangalore, India, where he was well taken care of by friends. If not unexpected, it still came as a shock. One can never be fully prepared, it is simply too painful to think about. There is always a glimmer of hope, even when we deep down carry doubts. The doctors had not given Paul positive prospects.

As all of us experience, things often happen coincidentally. You meet someone by chance, and your life takes a turn. It happened to both of us when we met in Amsterdam during a Mare Conference I cannot remember when. He said that he was looking for a university that would welcome him, and I told him about our International Fisheries Management master course. When he got back home, he applied and was accepted. It takes some courage to leave home in Africa for the long, cold, and dark winters that we have. But he arrived here in the summer, and adapted to the gradual change of weather.  

Paul graduated as planned after two years of study, and then returned home to his native Tanzania. After a couple of years, he came back for his PhD, on a project on poverty alleviation in small-scale fisheries (The PovFish project). This time he brought his family, his wife Parpetua (Petty) and his four sons Bill, Nelson, Samuel and Michael. The wife and children arrived one miserable day in November in clothes unfit for our climate. In four years, however, they became totally acclimatized. The whole family got well integrated in our community. They had many friends when they left for home. The boys learned to speak Norwegian perfectly, with the Tromsø dialect. When they did not want their parents to listen to their conversation, like at the dinner table, they just switched language.

Paul’s thesis research brought him back to Tanzania, to Lake Victoria for fieldwork. He worked in two small-scale fisheries communities, which displayed all the signs of poverty. Despite this, he did not find people in despair and unhappy as one might have expected. He wondered how come, that people who have so little of worldly goods “could wake up every morning with a smile on their face”, as he phrased it? Therefore, he shifted his perspective from what people were missing in their communities to what they were having. They had each other, their social relations, and they had their community. Economists call this ‘social capital’, but it goes deeper than that. It is also about identity, belonging, togetherness, and a sense of home. With that, people have a basis on which they can build a better life for themselves.

Poverty alleviation, he argued, should therefore start with the “invisible presences” rather than the “visible absences”, which together with his PhD thesis was the focus of a documentary film he made from his communities. I always found this an important lesson. So much of our efforts in fisheries development are concentrated on the visible absences, which of course are important, but then we tend to forget about the invisible presences and possibilities that do not immediately catch the eye because they require more than a rapid appraisal.

Paul doing a key informant interview with a village member as part of his doctoral research.

During the Povfish project, he hosted a workshop in Mwanza and brought us to his fieldwork communities. After his return to Tanzania we met at conferences, at FAO workshops in Rome. He was a close friend of TBTI and hosted several meetings for us. He was also in the organizing committee of the IIFET conference in Dar in 2012, where TBTI had workshops. Paul also came to my valedictory workshop in 2018 and gave a warm speech for me. We have published together on issues that were interesting to both of us, such as community development, gender, small-scale fisheries governance, and poverty eradication.

Paul returned home and began a successful career as a social science professor at the Department of Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries Technology and the Centre for Climate Change Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam. He invited Prof. Ratana Chuenpagdee and me to give presentations at his university in 2020. We met his colleagues, and he proudly showed us his office. I also got to meet his sons again. They had grown into young men since I saw them last. I used to show up at their home on Christmas Eve as Santa. My white beard made me look like the real thing, but I am not sure that I was able to convince them.

When visiting at his university, it was nice to see how he had flourished as a professor. It is a great thing to see your old students succeeding in building a career for themselves. You feel your work has mattered after all. But then it is similarly heartbreaking to learn that he is no more, other than in our memories and in the legacy he left. I am sure that he would have accomplished more great things if he had been given the opportunity to live.

Now our thoughts go to his family, to his wife who has lost a dear husband, and to his sons who have lost their loving father. We all get to feel the pain when we lose someone close to us, and the older we get, the more losses we experience. It is sad but inevitable. It is part of what life brings, and we must try to live on as best as we can. With time, however, the grief tends to fade. We will never forget them and always miss them while the fond memories persist. Now and then they pop up in our dreams, and we wake up with a smile. Paul will be remembered for his friendliness, kindness, humour, and wisdom – and for his own smiles. Let his gentle soul rest in peace.

Svein Jentoft

Svein Jentoft is Professor Emeritus at the Norwegian College of Fishery Science, UiT - The Arctic University of Norway. His long career as a social scientist specializing on fisheries management and fisheries communities has yielded numerous articles and books. He has been involved in and led many international projects in both the Global South and North. Jentoft is a founding member of TBTI, and has been leading a working group on ʻGoverning the Governanceʼ and a research cluster related to the ʻSSF Guidelinesʼ. He has edited and authored several TBTI books including ʻLife Above Waterʼ (published 2019).