Now, there seems to be an unwritten edict: a festival without food is no festival at all. And since we were here to celebrate Suba culture, it would have been disappointing to find nothing which could quell my riotous stomach. Definitely, my first stop is at the food tent, where I find all these people with whom we starve in Nairobi. They were all eating mixed grills, let them not lie to you. The only way to describe western Kenya foods is by sampling them and letting the stomach do the talking, otherwise you’d just bite your tongue. Sample all of them if possible, and you’ll still live to sing the praises of Suba cookery.
Be careful with the dried fish though especially when a tug of war is taking place just across the field. Yaani these women can tug, none of the teams moving an inch and you’d think they were statues were it not for the oomphs and uuumphs and their sweating foreheads. One little mistake, a slide or an effort to take a breather by one of the team members and it’s all over! The crowds go wild. Wilder than their reaction after the men’s contest which takes a while longer. You remember the fights between Bret Hitman Hart vs Shawn Michaels, or the Ultimate Warrior vs Macho Man? Where they fight for so long until you forget there was a fight going on? That’s how the men’s tug-of-war went. About ten minutes. Ten whole minutes! That’s a long time to pull at each other, right?
It’s after the injury-less war that I notice all the international organisations and representations of governments such as the US Embassy. They are all here to experience this fun. I explore the display of medicinal concoctions; powders, leaves, roots and barks (you don’t have to go to Babu wa Loliondo). Aren’t these the same things we import raw from China and India, or some lab takes them and brings them back to sell at exorbitant prices in sachets? Don’t worry about sickness here, the traditional dance troops will cure you, looking all Edenic in their regalia of skin and fur and head gear made from a long-extinct animal. Well, to say the truth you can barely keep touch with everything that is going on here.
My contact proposes a short walk across the island to the Tom Mboya Memorial Mausoleum. The mausoleum is a bullet-shaped dome, that keeps the memory of one of Kenya’s most sung heroes. Though felled by a bullet on the streets of Nairobi hundreds of kilometres away, his spirit still hovers over the land and the Nam Lolwe. You should visit this place, meet Tom Mboya’s brothers who are all too willing to tell his story again and again to every visitor to the compound.
While we lose ourselves in this piece of history that precariously hangs in the memories of those who have had opportunity to interrogate it but never did, a chopper suddenly appears above us. If I were talking about politics, I would write about the cultic following Rt Hon Raila Odinga has, a reality no one can dispute in this part of the world. His arrival is somehow disruptive to the programme, and momentous at the same time.
The sun goes down majestically. Word has it that the hotel rooms are fully booked apparently. How did we not think about it before? We go back all the way to Mbita Town, and suddenly discover a new artificial town has just been erected on the waters of the Nam Lolwe, glittering lights bouncing over the calm waters. What a glorious sight! You could just sleep out here and behold the marvels of Rusinga Island. But our bodies cannot allow, so we go hotel by motel, looking for rooms, until we find one with a view of the lake.
The first thing we do in the morning when we hear a ferry blow its horn is to manoeuvre through the alleys asking every passerby for the direction to the ferry station. We get lost once, but we finally get there before it anchors. We are hitting Mfangano, the largest of the Suba people’s islandic paradise: A thirty-minute ride. Let me tell you something about Mfangano. The population here is sparse. The island is mountainous and lush. There were milk and bread and butter lorries waiting to board the ferry together with us, because that is how these people get their food from the mainland. I’m surprised that there is only one ferry here. What if it broke down? The gods forbid. I chat with a guy who seems so enthusiastic to get to the island.
You are a backpacker like us?
No, Mfangano is my home.
Oh, yeah? You work there?
No, I’m a student. KU.
How did you get to KU? (Silly question from me. He chuckles)
I went to Kisumu Boys. It was my first time to go past Mbita, of course, when I was joining Form 1.
Wow! I wouldn’t want to leave the Island even if I was joining form one. (A lie. I hadn’t even set foot on Mfangano to know whether I would never leave. He throws me this look that says, ignorant idiot.)
But immediately I set foot on Mfangano, I don’t want to leave. We don’t even know where we are going to, just exploring around like Livingstone. Then we remember there is a museum. There is a young man there, having all of Eden for himself. He takes us through the history of the Suba people, and how they came to occupy the three main Islands. (Did you know Rusinga is the anglicized version of Eruzinga which means Island? Now you know.) And when these guys speak, I swear I can understand. This is the nineteenth group of the Luyia people, only that the Luo created a buffer between them and the rest of us. They even call their Bible, Endagano! And all you Luyias know the engata? (or e/ingara) And they refer to village as Omugizi! So possibly, the Luyia word for Island is definitely eruzinga.
By now, my contact is calling us and asking where we have disappeared to. The events are at their peak and the boat race is about to begin. Time to rush back, but at the speed of the ferry! See the pictures below, they are worth more than a million words. (All photos from last year’s festival, courtesy of Rusinga Cultural Festival. They can only be reused with written permission.)