BUT FIRST, A LITTLE (MAYBE FALSE) HISTORY.
There are times in history in which I wish I had lived. Times so old you cannot even imagine them in sepia memories. Olden times when the world was young and naive. When people were identified by just one name. Magunga ma K’Oduor was all I needed to say and whomever I reported that name to could trace my heritage all the way to the lips of Nyasaye Nyakalaga. The days of a Ker Sinakuru. Sinakuru the father of Podho I who in turn fathered Ringruok, who is the father of Owat. Owat the father of Twaifo, the father of Jok I . Jok the father of Nayo, Nayo father to Jok II who finally gave us Ramogi. Yes. The dude whose name is nowadays a radio station and a chant for Gor Mahia fans. The reason why I think about myself in these days is because I wonder what I would be had I been born then.Would I have been a warrior, or a musician, or a farmer? Or would I have been born into the royal family – just one step closer to the spirits – a person whose blood was so regal, my own blood cells wore leopard skin? You should hear how Mother Karua used to pako me when I was younger. She would call me mand kwach, a leopard’s balls, and mean it in the most praiseworthy way imaginable. Oking’ koko wuod Aboge (I have no idea who Aboge is, hopefully not her boyfriend before my dad).
The days in which these men lived have long since passed into songs and legend. One of these legends I came across was that of the sons of Ramogi. Aruwa and Podho. As the old wives like to beat this sigana, there was a herd of elephants that used to invade the family farm of bel. One afternoon, when the herd came, Podho, fearless like sibuor, picked up Aruwa’s spear and charged at them in an attempt to scare them away. As he did, mirima climbed his system and got the better of him, and he threw the spear which landed right into the belly of a liech in the herd. Scared, the liech ran away with the spear into the forest.
Now, Aruwa must have liked this spear. Must have been a birthday gift or some shit like that. He demanded it back. He insisted that he be given that very same spear that had disappeared into the thick forest in the belly of a wounded liech. Of course there was no way of getting it back. The issue was near impossible. The present day version of this scenario would be you and your brother sitting in a matatu, and then he borrows your phone to play Subway Surfers. It is a spanking new Samsung S7 Edge, fresh from the box. A gadget as gorgeous as dawn. Then some ragamuffin snatches it from the window and disappears into the bowels of Tom Mboya street, heading downtown. Of course you would be mad. Hell, I would be too. But then after a while you’d understand that it was just a bloody phone then you let it go, donge?
But nooooooo. Aruwa would not let it go. He swelled like a whiny little bitch, and when the matter could bot be settled, the two brothers decided to part ways.
Aruwa went westwards and is descendants are these days scattered somewhere in Central and West Africa. Podho, the mighty Podho, Podho sibuor mang’ang’a, Podho- the tusk of the elephant, chose to go East. Many tribes spilled from his magnificent seed, and one amongst them was the Luo of Kenya, who trailed River Nile all the way up to its head. This tribe would then go on to become who we are today; beautiful heartbeats of the sun’s flames who do not take shit from anybody. A people who swear by the Lake, walk around with shoulders pushed back, heads held high to the heavens, the weight of their pride hung around their necks, shining with an unapologetic glory. Men in green and white t-shirts that sing the praises of their women and grandmothers, and women with asses as profound as the very hands of the God who moulded them.
Somewhere in between the legend of Podho and the birth of the insolent blogger overstating his importance, the Luo colonized a small tribe called Abasuba. And just the same way other similar stories of conquest go, the Abasuba are now a diminishing nation living in the Islands of Lake Victoria to the South. Their tongue spoken in Rusinga and Mfangano for the largest part, and the spaces between surrounding islands. When Tom Mboya, a Subanese, came along in the 90s, seeking political mileage, he came up with the phrase Luo-Abasuba to refer to the community living in loka.
As he did so, it never occurred to him (or anyone else for that matter) that someday, a little over half a century later, a young lady from Western would come to cook in Rusinga. This young lady, who responds to the name Anne Eboso, would come up with a festival to celebrate Suba Culture and try undo the myth that Tom Mboya all those many years ago. Abasuba are not Luos. They never have been.
Hence, Rusinga Cultural Festival.
Kibz and Jemo are persons of the house who make me envy okuyus, what with the way their shagz is just here. Whenever Jemo says he is going to see his grandmother, I find myself bidding him farewell and wishing him safe journey mercies – which always surprises him. He does not get it. Then I remember his shagz is 20 mins away from tao, and that gives me potatoes in my throat. Dude leaves for dala in the morning and by 3pm, he is back to tao. HOW? As for Kibz, there was this one time in campo, a Sunday. He came to my room and asked if I wanted to go to their ocha. At first I looked at him, shocked, because it is not everyday that my own people ask me to take them to their shagz. I said sawa. “So I should pack clothes for how many days?” I asked, already trying to think if I had lent out my bag, and what outfit I should wear for the journey.
He laughed and asked why.
I will tell you why. We Luos of Narobi only go to other people’s dala when there is either a wedding or a funeral. Not because we are horrible comrades, but because traveling has always been an event for us. Akina Kibz, his ocha is just here on Thika Road. He could leave campo at 10am, go chill with his grandmother, and then be back before the first EPL kickoff. Luos and Lunjes can’t do that shit.
Me my shagz is in Rabar Market – Alego Komenya, Siaya interior. If a jeng’ from my place wants to see his grandmother, he has to plan months in advance. Apply for a passport, get a yellow fever card from kanjo office, swallow anti-malaria drugs and then get a letter from his local chief. He then has to cosy up to his boss, be on stellar behaviour so that he he can get off days approved, save money for fare and for gifts to his dana, figure out which night bus to take – Guardian or Easy Coach – or if he is in a hurry, then a matatu will do. If he decides to take Otange, he has to prepare psychologically to share his journey with chicken and a woman chewing boiled maize. He needs to pick out which clothes to wear for the journey and which ones will be for chilling in the dala and which ones will be worn on the way back. In case he is middle management, he will most likely be driving his Premio down, and that needs service and safari check. But if he is a jatelo in a big corporation, and to him pesa otas, then he still has to book a flight to Kisumu, then hire a car to Siaya.
Either way, a Luo cannot just bukre abuka abaramach one afternoon at the drop of a hat ati he wants to go to shagz. But okuyus have that luxury.
Last December we were back on the road to chula for the Rusinga Cultural Festival. In 2015, we’d driven down, but last year, neither I nor Jaber was wiling to take that 13 hour drive again. So we put some cash aside and booked a flight to Kisumu, thinking that that would easen the trip. Where?
To get to Rusinga via public means from Kisumu means you have to get a jav going to Luanda Kotieno at the stend. Stend is what jang’os call Bus Stop. Well, it used to be called Bus Stand, but then the cool cats of Kisumo decided to that Stand is too pedestrian. So Stend. At Stend, conductors haggle for prices and passengers’ bags. If you are not careful, you might be headed for Luanda K’otieno, but you will end up getting into a Muhoroni matatu and your bag in a Busia jav.
If you are lucky, you sit in a mat to Luanda K’otieno, tightly packed with other passengers like matchsticks in a box. “Madam chor ri ne wadu,” the conductor told Jaber, who had never been in a matatu like this before, “Mkae kama Arsenal, wanne wanne.” Windows closed. Heat rising like Millie Odhiambo’s temper. Armpits leaking. Ngware riders chasing after you. You, holding your breath and trying to remember what sunflowers smell like. Somewhere along the way, many things will happen that you need to watch out for. First, you need to figure out who is your conductor, because there are like a million of them hanging at the door. Second, if the car starts screeching like it has a rumbling stomach, like its insides are going to explode the next minute, keep your prayers to yourself. This is not Kingdom come. And that matatu has seen more conceited people than you, and any attempts to complain about the status of the car will be answered by bumper stickers like these.
Third, when you get to Holo, the man next to you will buy bananas and he will offer you one. He is well advanced in his age. You cannot say no. Take the banana. Do not say you are an apples person. Take it and eat it. Or at the very least, keep it in your bag. This is Nyanza, you do not refuse gifts here.
Fourth, somewhere along the way, everyone will alight and only a handful of you will be left. Meaning, when the matatu reaches Uyoma, you will be transferred to another matatu. This matatu may or may not be too full. You may or may not be told by the new conductor, “Nyon na kanyo wuod omera mondo walier” so that you hang by the door. I hope it happens, though. Everyone needs to hang from a matatu heading to Luanda Kotieno, the wind splashing on your face, making your eyes squint, and your arms’ fortitude being put to the test.
Luanda K’otieno is where the road from Kisumo ends, and the water begins. Nam Lolwe stands between you and Rusinga. Now, from here you have three options.
1.) take the ferry.
The ferry leaves Luanda K’otieno for Rusinga at certain times. 8am, 10am, 3pm and 6pm. Your whole trip from Kisumu should be planned to agree with these times. If you have to take this, I advise you take the 6pm one, so that you can experience how Rusinga sunsets proclaim the work of God’s hands. How the sun turns its shade from orange, then in the final minutes of its descent, it turns into a magnificent red ball of fire.
2.) or take a chopper.
We had intended to take the 3pm ferry, but we missed it. We could either sit at the Luanda K’otieno pier for 2 hours till 6pm or get a chopper. The second option may get you too excited until you realize that in this neck of the woods chopper refers to something completely different.
This photo shows a fleet of the so-called choppers. A chopper is a speedboat that will take you to Rusinga in like half the time the ferry takes. The one we climbed is named Mamra. Aboard this flight is several humans and bodaboda. In the middle of the lake, the chopper is operated by two people. One steers it, while the other scoops tins of water leaking into the boat. Yeah, the boat leaks, and everyone but you seems unbothered about it.
3.) you can also swim.
Nobody will judge you. Nobody will stop you. Feeling like a hero? Go for it.
RUSINGA FESTIVAL IN WORDS AND PICTURES
When Mamra’s nose ground upon the coarse Mbita pier and brought all of us to a wet halt, we had no idea what was coming next. Perhaps things would have been different, had I only answered Anne Eboso’s question differently. She asked Jaber and I, “Where do you want to stay this time? Blue Ridge or Safari Village?”
“Where is everyone else staying?”
The moment she said “Blue Ridge,” she noticed the cringe on my face. That is the same place we’d stayed at last year and it was not that good. They had this band that played horrible jingles throughout the night and their showers hadn’t felt warm water. Teething problems for a fairly new hotel then.
But still, I did not want to go there. I wanted to try out the Safari Village Resort. Only that it was too far from the festival venue and other folks who had come for this festival with Kenya Tourism Board, were staying in Blue Ridge. So what the hell, we went there.
That evening we met downstairs for dinner. The plan was to lay some foundation before hitting the bar. After all, we had a lot to celebrate. It was Rayhab Gachango and Leah Kanda’s first time in Nyanza. Kasichana had just been admitted to the bar the previous day, Jaber and I had just survived a leaking boat ride across Lake Victoria, and Owaahh, well, if you know that chap like we do, you’d know he needs no reason to celebrate.
— Magunga (@theMagunga) December 24, 2016
But trouble started after dinner, when Rayhab went back to her room to collect her phone and did not find it. Her laptop, gone. Her money, gone, all of it, except a 50 bob. Some sort of courtesy. She raised alarm. Every one of us went to check their shit. Nothing. Kasichana’s money and iPod gone. Leah Kanda’s camera gone with the wind. Mark, a photographer in our midst, lost photography equipment worth almost 2 million. Jaber and I did not lose anything. We only had clothes and books. The devils of Rusinga hate to read.
The night took a different turn from there. Hotel management refused to cooperate. They could not tell us who had accessed our rooms, even though anyone who enters and leaves the rooms MUST pass through the reception area. The building did not even have CCTV.
I would recount exactly how that night went from there, but I do not feel like reliving it. Especially now that, even to date, Blue Ridge people have refused to take any responsibility. The matter is not going to court. Anne Eboso, who started this festival and hosted it from her own pockets with very little help, is now collapsing under the weight of guilt. The cost of the stuff lost is even more than her yearly budget for the festival. Men plan and the gods laugh indeed. Tough luck.
What I would tell you though, is that despite that first night, a festival still went on. Of course morale was down, but anyone who says the festival did not go through would be lying through his teeth.
After that incident, Anne moved East like Podho of old and took her people with her. We settled where we were supposed to have been in the first place – Safari Village Resort – a little heaven right by the lake. And on that night, chilling in front of Owaahh’s tent, opened botis of rum and vodka sat next to us, patiently waiting to be sipped . Jaber played Stromae from her phone and mosquitoes joined us as we danced.
Sometimes, I stared at the starry sky above. And for a brief instant, exhale in wonder at how looking at heavens above Safari Village Resort are be a bold testament of how beautiful endings usually are, regardless.
Photos by Anthony Ochieng’ + Fifi Fiona + Afro Trip and Magunga