If there have been efforts of resuscitating the Suba culture before six years ago, then none of them has been as consistent and engaging as #Rusinga Festival. And with each new year, come new experiences for cross-cultural tourists. No one would have guessed that the cultural celebration would survive this long, growing bigger and attracting thousands of people from all over Kenya. The resilience of the festival organizer, Anne Eboso, a Mandela Washington Fellow (for this effort) has seen the festival become a trademark in the Kenyan cultural festival scene. This year marks the sixth edition of the event and promises, as usual, not to disappoint.
I had always wanted to grace the festival, so two years ago after a draining year, I decided to give myself a short budget holiday. Rusinga Island presented the perfect getaway destination from the hassles of city life and the familiar surroundings of my hometown. Somewhere I had never been to, hence mixed expectations. With my small backpack, I jumped onto the next bodaboda and headed to Kakamega town from where I would take a matatu to Kisumu. My village is a little lush paradise bordering Kakamega Rainforest, where the sound of birds and crickets are carried by some light breeze in the evenings and many times interrupted by thunders of rain; otherwise, you would savour the dark cloudy nights in the company of glowworms and fireflies with their paradisical green flashlights. Unfortunately, these little creatures are disappearing at an astonishing rate. I guessed Rusinga would give me a different experience.
Kisumu is bubbly city, and everyone talks loudly. So when you order that tasty meal of ugali and the lake fish (lake fish does not taste the same as fish pond crisps-and-posho eating fish), make an effort of making your presence felt. Do not be offended when everyone talks to you in dholuo. Especially when you have my kind of skin, and head I guess; there is no way you’d escape that. There is this fellow who even calls his friends to come see the man who’d refused to speak dholuo just because he lives in Nairobi. He was disappointed, and I was amused and annoyed at the same time. I like people who are proud of their mother tongue though, a critical aspect of culture that should be protected with the ego of a Luo man.
There were two options for me to reach Rusinga from Kisumu according to my contact: Either, I could board the bus to Mbita, through Homa Bay town and do a distance of about 150KM. Boring! Or I could do some 90 or so kilometres to a place called Luanda.
Luanda is in Bunyore, that cannot be, I tell my contact.
There’s another Luanda, just ask the next manamba you see about Luanda K’Otieno, my contact says to my surprise. And then you will take a speedboat or ferry to … Yes! That’s the motivation I needed. I take the Luanda route.
As the matatu snakes it’s way along the C28, my travel companion and I cannot stop talking (but we would eventually stop after talking about everything several minutes later). In the near distance, I see the lake expanding into some hills in the horizon. That’s where we are going, I say.
D sniggers before saying, Kit Mikayi! The majestic boulders suddenly come between us and the lake. I can only marvel, and ask that silly question intelligent people ask time and again: How on earth did that happen? You should see Kit Mikayi and I assure you you’ll ask the silly question. The way those boulders have each other’s back, only the gods can explain. As we mull over these marvelous doings of nature, suddenly the lake reappears again. And it would play this hide and seek game with us as we roll on and on, the route tracing the borders of the Winam Gulf. And when our tracing was just getting more exciting and the waters so close by, we hit a dead end. Literally. The lake blocks us. So, the matatu has to u-turn and go back to Kisumu, and leave all this breathtaking aura for us. You feel like you have already inherited the earth.
D is amazed, just as I am. She is photographing everything: there’s a man pulling some fish the size of a six-year-old! A long wooden canoe arrives carrying a whole village, mostly women! I’m not boarding that, I say. The thing doesn’t even look like it would float or move forward, even though the water manambas try to convince us the thing is motorized. The women are already offloading their amazing amounts of luggage from the thing. I scratch my head, look at waters and decide that even if it was the last boat, I would never climb into it. A few steps away is the ferry services office. The schedule shows the ferry is expected in about an hour, before it makes the final journey to Mbita. We can’t wait for the ferry even though it sounds cheaper than the speedboat, which was our last option. I’ve never known why I don’t trust small things speeding on water with humans aboard. But I had never been on a speedboat, neither had I ever swam in a lake! The speedboat operators help convince my heart to stop beating like that.
We board, and select some better-looking lifejackets we think would float us should the speedboat hit an unmarked bump in the middle of Nam Lolwe. The captain insists we’ve to be twelve, but there are only eight of us so far and four other humans have refused to appear. Meanwhile, one of the canoes has again filled up with another village of luggage and women, crammed together like in Noah’s Ark. It reminds of the ogres that used to swallow a whole village then a little girl warior would trick it and cut its belly and the whole village would come out again, with their cows, goats, huts, and granaries all intact. I see the lake swallowing into the distance, and I can’t help uttering a dua.
They are going direct to Mfangano Island, someone answers my query, and it is the last boat.
What do you do if you are the last person and there is no last boat? I ask.
There is always a way out, someone says.
The waters are now darkening, and a breeze is creating some waves and I think of Rose Bukater and Jack Dawson! I hate to think that I’d be Jack, of course. Okay, the four humans are not coming and we are getting late, I say to the captain, and he hears me. He starts the boat and makes a whirl and for a moment, I seem lost, until we come back to where we had boarded. I snort. But when he gets convinced that no one else is coming, the real captain boards and the squad guy goes his way. So these things happen everywhere! We head into the waters, the small thing meeting waves and climbing over them like it were a hilly road. The experience turns out to be amazing and adventurous that I had imagined. Within a short time, we can only see the shows in the horizon, around us are dark greenish waters. You can’t see anything under the waters. I engage my seatmate in a conversation, totally taken by the easiness in her demeanour.
This is our way of life, she says. From water to land and back to water.
After about 30 minutes we meet the ferry, at least a sign of life besides us. Alone, I could never tell whether we were going east, west or south. We could possibly end up on Migingo or some other rock, then the Ugandan police would come and I would tell them I’m no fisherman, and they would deport me back to Kenya, hopefully. I see the shores almost twenty minutes later and it would take another fifteen minutes or so to anchor our boat. I whisper to my seatmate, That’s Mbita, as if she didn’t know. D has been taking photos all this while. A thrilling one hour in the waters!
I call my contact, Hey, here we are! Whoo hoo!
Alright. Take a motorbike and ask the rider to drop you at Kamasengre Primary School where the festival is happening. It’s 100 bob.
You know we just paid 250 a head on the boat for a one-hour ride?
Yeah, I know!
I hung up and summon a rider. Take us to Kamasengre primary school.
We jump on the motorbike, and after maneuvering through some narrow alley, we are on the main rough road. Mr Rider stops to fill his tank. He gives the woman 100 bob, and the woman returns 400 bob change.
You have to give back that money, I tell Mr Rider as we continue with our journey into Rusinga Island.
The woman knows me. She is a friend.
No, she’s not. You know what will happen when her employer notices the missing cash, right?
Yeah, I had already thought of returning the money, Mr Rider says.
A herd of fat cattle wobbles in front of us, and Mr Rider doesn’t bother honking. Instead, he slowly goes around the unfazed animals. Before long, we bump into another herd crouching and chewing cud in the middle of the road, and another that was just standing like those guys who stand outside Ambassedeur, doing nothing; and every time, Mr Rider goes around the indifferent animals.
Are we still on the island? I ask, because I can no longer see the lake.
Yes, deep into Rusinga. If we continue some little distance ahead, you will see the lake again, he assures.
But we don’t get the opportunity to cover that little distance because we’ve arrived at Kamasengre Primary School, the centre of action. The noise from the field suddenly pierces the grave silence that had enveloped us.
Hillary Namunyu is a writer, cultural and travel enthusiast, and literary editor based in Nairobi. He is an enthusiast of Early Chapter books and a student of international conflict management.