Some of you have not taken an open bath in a freshwater lake, and it clearly shows. It shows because you walk around Nairobi, like you know things, but you do not know this one. There’s only one kind of cleanliness in life. And it comes from bathing clean in Lake Victoria. I am not sure it still does, but if you ever did it, you would stroll the streets of Nairobi as liberated as that water makes you.

The first time I took an open bath in Lake Victoria, I was in Form 1, third trimester. Nyanza schools don’t have terms, just trimesters. It was then that I saw a bit of the infamous water hyacinth I had heard about so much. By then I was already used to showering openly; because of that Our Sekondri School.

Our school had the most decent bathrooms, but they were as useful as the holes at the center of donuts. They were 6 same size cubicles, made of concrete walls. They had big shower heads. Only that 9 out of 10 times, it did not have water. And that one time, we had to bring that water in for ourselves. We considered it part of entertainment.

They had a raised platform on the opposite wall, just in case you wanted to do your laundry and your back was aching. Or you just wanted to sit there and talk to your boys as they showered.

Because we had zero water, we had to walk a good short distance out of the school carrying metal pails to fetch water for our school use; cooking, cleaning teachers’ use, our cloth and dorm washing, and then to bath. Or shower.

That small pool of water was nicknamed Lake Victoria. It was not even a pool. It was a pond, next to a seasonal stream. (You can imagine my excitement when I got to see the actual real Lake Victoria). We get to the stream and boys nonchalantly strip and take quick baths, with little care. Or what they called it, ‘showers.’

***

BACK STORY:

When you are born and bred in Nairobi, and only get to go to your shags past Kisumu occasionally when your living relatives’ livestock summon you, or your ancestors demand an audience with one of your relatives, the your world is the whole of Nairobi, really.

And then your parents discuss amongst themselves and without consulting you, they decide you are going to the village posho mill called Sawagongo High School (or Maliera secondary school) somewhere in the vicinity of K’Odiaga, in Yala, Siaya.

When you leave the stony forests of Nairobi and land squarely in the greater Nyanza for your post primary education, a few things get very clear, very fast.  First, as soon as you land, you realize that your mother tongue, Luo for me, is insufficient and there is no equivalent to shower or bath. And so it clusters it all together, and calls it Luok. Luok is funny. Luok is a demand for outcome without direction for procedure. It is simply, ‘Go. Use water. Be clean.’ It does not specify if it is to shower, or just a bath.

Luok is very contextual. If you are from Nairobi, it is shower. Any other place outside Nairobi, it is bath.

Look, there is a big difference between a shower, and a bath.

In a shower, you just stand there inside the bathroom, turn on some water, run some soap and ‘ssshhhhh’ you are done. If it’s a cold one, you can ducu once or twice, but eventually, you will stand and be counted under that shower. Showers lie to you. They lie to you that you are brand new, sparkling, even shining. Nothing is further from the truth. They make you walk out of the bathroom thinking that you look like Alejandro, just because you saw him walk out of the shower somewhere, in La Mujer De whatever. And you think that that is how showers look like. You forget that. One, he did not shower, and two, he is acting. Showers also make you think you are legendary, but in essence, you just let water flow through your body to the ground.

A bath, however, is a whole different ball game altogether. Unlike the shower, it demands full on involvement. You have a slice of bar soap. Kipande, they call it. And it is accompanied by a piece a gunia for scrubbing. Or a plant that produces a bathing towel famously called Suthru or Spanj. Spanj is Luo tweng’ for Sponge. That Suthru gadget is at the top of the body scrubbing food chain. It is the boss.

That Luok, in high school, was the liberty license to be mischievous, so long as you come back clean. But that mischief is costly. In was mostly going to a pond along a flowing stream. There is, of course, designated locations for males and females. It would be in your eternal best interest not to breach the allocated areas. Along the same stream, cows will come to drink water, t is deep enough just for you to float and flap your legs. You can not just stand there and expect water to come to you. You have to do some aerobics. You have to scoop water in your hands, and send it to the intended area of your body.

The first day I got into secondary school, a teacher, who was in charge of making sure boys are asleep in their beds when it was time for sleeping, is holding a briefing. He is reminding the whole lot of boys why personal hygiene is important, and saying things like,

‘Ukishawa Kila Kitu Kitakuwa Sawa. Usipo-shower, huo ivivu itauwawa.’ I am like the boarding master also doubles up as Tupac.

So it’s after dinner, and its time to ‘shower.’ The older student quickly immersed us in the bathing process that they still called a shower.

***

Back to Lake Victoria.

So I go visiting my cousins, Ouma Chege, named after the famous footballer, and Onyango Soja, in Usoma just out of Kisumu Town; it was not named a City by then. Evening time, they say, let’s go shower. Me I already know there is not showering taking place. People are going to take a bath. So I follow. Mos mos.

Because I am used to these shenanigans, I do what you do when you visit Rome. I take a quick bath, kienyeji style, and then I am out.  I need to make it clear that I am afraid of water. Anything greater than a water basin must be approached with utmost caution.

Cousins are wilding. Laughing, telling jokes. Then guys start jumping into the pool, one by one. And they are having a time of their life. Now me I can’t swim yet, so I just touch the water with my feet, and boom, I am done. Si that is the new normal.

A couple of years later, I go back to Usoma. Things are much better because of development; Pipeline, Mollases, Kenya Power. I can already float, so I want to go show my cousins how Jo Nairobi do it.

I say, ‘let’s go shower’. They say, ‘we will put some water for you in the bathroom’. I tell them, ‘let’s go to the Lake, and swim.’ Soja’s heads is downcast. He tells me, ‘you just take a bath in the house, and then we can stroll to the lake.’ I know something is up, because if there is anyone who would not give up an opportunity to swim, it was Soja.

We get to the edge of the lake, and as far as my eyes could see, the lake is covered in green. It is no longer the big beauty it once was; you throw your eyes all around it honestly looks like the tea plantations in Kericho. Some may even say it looks like a scratch card, and they would not be entirely wrong. There was not an inch on the lake at that front that you could comfortably walk on.

Soja tells me even going into the lake is forbidden because a young lad got trapped in the hyacinth and almost drowned to death. It’s almost a daily occurrence now.

I am still amazed and shocked at how the hyacinth stole the joy from Soja. And not just his, the hyacinth has been a thorn in the flesh for most people who live along the lake. Fishermen lost their livelihoods, with nowhere to turn to.  Others moved inland for sustenance getting into farming, and charcoal burning. Getting rid of hyacinth is an ongoing conversation for the communities along the lake.

While a solution is being sought, Donald Agwenge from Kanyadhian area of  Homabay, wanted to make a difference. Because most of the people in his area use charcoal or firewood to cook, the environment is greatly strained. Tree felling for charcoal has been fueling deforestation, which means even subsistence crops are threatened.  Donald sought help from the Safaricom Ndoto Zetu Campaign, to help convert hyacinth into domestic fuel thereby creating employment, as well as preserve the environment.

Safaricom responded to his wish by providing a Water Hyacinth Briquetting Machine & Recarboniser at the cost of KS. 135,000.00. The community is being trained on using hyacinth briquettes as an alternative to trees. And it is for the better.

The water hyacinth menace may not go away overnight, but families are now able to conserve their environment. Hopefully soon, someone will enjoy safe swimming in Lake Victoria. Maybe that person will even be me. I can only hope.

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Noise maker. Storyteller. Photographer.

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