This area of the stend is where the ‘about to leave’ matatus for Bondo are. I do not know why we keep falling for this old trick over and over. Those matatus that have someone, usually a conductor acting as a driver, revving the engine, pretending to be in a hurry to depart. Another one hurries you to climb the matatu, and then just when it is about to fill up, half of the people who were inside alight, and you have to sit there for another 40 minutes. There is really no difference between these matatus and the ones at the main stage for matatus. There is only an illusion of haste.
Here is the thing though. This matatu will not get you to Bondo. At Holo, you will be passed over to another matatu, which will also pass you over to another one when you get to Ndori. If at a particular time in all this you feel unwanted, nobody will blame you. But also, nobody will care. Only consolation is that your new Ndori bae will get you to Bondo. In one piece, if you have never used tithe money to buy KC Coconut.
I have used tithe money to buy KC Coconut. Which is why by the time I alighted from the 14 seater matatu together with the rest of Siaya County residents, it was such a relief to recall the sweet taste of fresh oxygen. I was heading to Mageta Island. An island of which little is known, or given, yet whose significance is as important as a full load of bread to our Kenyan government. Mageta is further down the road – until the tarmac meets the water, and then further into Lake Victoria for another one hour.
I was not ready for that kind journey, which is why I had to take a breather at Bondo Pride Hotel for a night before proceeding to the chula in the morning. Chula, for those who are not adept in High Valyrian is what my people of the great lake call an island.
The best time to get this particular chula is in the morning. It will not be easy to find a ride before the sun has opened the world, but just try. Get to Usenge Town Center at 6 am, and follow the stream of women and girls carrying baskets to wherever they are going. You will end up, as I did, at Usenge Beach (coastarians, keep your heads away from the dustbin tafadhali) just in time to catch one of the least documented yet superlative moments of the world. Stranding on the ragged stony pier, the next few moments will remind you why we once thought the Sun was a god. And then make you question why we discarded it.
The first ride out to Mageta Island, The Mageta Waterbus, comes at 7.30 and leaves and 8.00 on the dot. You do not want to miss it. If you do, you will need to spend another two hours at the beach for a speedboat. I missed the 8.00am one and ended up on the 10.00am speedboat together with other locals (a couple of whom were on their way to Uganda), gunias of ice, and a pig whose unexpected grunts and sudden movements never seemed to jolt anyone other than me.
The head of the boat, raised in front of us as if to point us in the right direction, pierces through the horizon past another chula to our left.
“Mano Sirigombe,” the boat conductor tells me of the island that looks like the head of an old man peeping above water. It is where people take cows to graze (no relation to the name whatsoever), but he also adds that cows from that island are mad.
“So, like Mad Cow disease?”
He does not get it. And a pun that does not explain itself is a wasted pun. Lakini he goes ahead to say that cows who graze that island are easily agitated and cannot even be transported by boat. To move them, they tie ropes on their horns, tether them to the boats and drag them across water.
Do not ask, even me I do not know.A telecom mast appears in the distance, almost as if poking at the heavens. This is the first thing I notice as we approach Chula Mageta. I look at my phone. Battery is running out of juice, but my connection bars are still stacked in fours. Which is a relief because before setting out for Mageta, I read somewhere that there is no local network connection, and that the locals there sometimes have to use MTN. I imagine Ajwalla Jamaranda trying to call his bae in Bondo for the full scoop on that eye witness guy, only to hear a strange Ugandan woman saying, “Essente zoolina ku ssimu tezimala kububa. Sorry, but is de mane on yowa phonii enough for you to make a call?”
The boat eases itself into the pier. Wood touches tyre. Robust men with arms big enough to carry all of Kenya’s recent problems to the Lord without breaking a sweat, approach. They come, one after another, block the sun for a few minutes as they pick up goods and then take them off to dry land. Goddamn! For a moment there I want to ask these Luanda Mageres what their workout routine is – but then rule against it, because 1.) I just witnessed it, actually and 2.) that’s…weird.
A boda boda jamaa called Otis Jakanyawegi agrees to show me around the whole chula. He is not really a tour guide. He rides his apiko for a living, but also tops up his daily earnings as the resident DJ. He owns a sound system for hire to both the church and those who are yet to see the light. And when times are hard, he can always join the rest of the Mageta men in the Lake to lupo (i.e. fishing, catch up!) and then sell the catch to the market women of Mageta, Usenge Beach, or Osieko Beach. Anything for a coin. Which is why, for the right price, he agrees to take me for a spin around the chula.Lake Victoria is about 400,000 years old – or so the people who have eaten book insist. They also say that some 17, 300 years ago, this lake completely dried up. The refilled again. This we do not know for sure really. What we know for certain is that when they say the Lake is shared amongst the three main East African countries, they lie. Look at the portions. Kenya got a raw deal with that brokership. We should demand our money back from whoever negotiated this thing for us.
If we are to be honest with one another, we will agree that of the over 3,000 rocks that stand in the waters of Nam Lolwe, Mageta does not come highly recommended on the list of islands to visit as a tourist. I mean, if you had some loose change and you are looking for an island to spend it on, I would say go to Rusinga or Mfangano or the white sandy beaches of Takawiri. But not Mageta. At least not yet. But if you are curious about what else this lake has to offer, if you want to see resilience in people and beauty that lies in the stories of overcoming struggle and hardship, then Mageta is the place you are looking for.
Because this chula’s potential still remains untapped for tourism. It can do with visitors, but what it needs more is development. Structures. A facelift. For now, Mageta remains more of an acquired taste.
It is almost as if the rest of the world moved on and forgot to bring Mageta along. Can you believe that, not until the other day – sometime in June or July – there was no vehicle that had ever touched its shores? Mid this year, I was told, there is a tractor that was shipped in by one of the ferries from Mbita, that landed here and cleared roads. That was the first automobile to have ridden those lands. There is no electricity. Not the state provided kind, anyway. Kenya Power keeps talking about connecting this place to the grid, but seems like mangoes will fall from Coconut tree. Many of the shops use those M-Kopa Solar Panels while others depend on generators.
Then there is communication. Remember that iconic booster that I told you about before? The one poking the sky? Well, earlier this year, Safaricom brought that to the area. So at least the mobile phones network story was sorted. No more ‘Welcome to Uganda’ roaming messages pop up on your handset when you get to Mageta. While there, I was on 3G, yet once in a while, I got 4G on my phone. Making calls? No problem. Sending a text? Sorted. Internet? Good. Smash the Instagrams with photos of fish the size of a Twitter bigwig’s ego, the white egrets, fishermen casting their nets and stunning sunsets.
There is an investor who the jogweng’ call Sonko. Not to be mistaken with the governor. He threw cash onto Mageta – building a Mageta Island Resort, a Sir Henrys Primary School and a Health Center. Listening to my guide speak about how the resort is now on its deathbed, almost following the Dispensary (a dead medical center – oh, the irony!), broke my heart. Good old mismanagement. My guide said that perhaps Sonko’s idea for a resort was way before its time. I do not agree. Other stakeholders let him down. One person cannot do everything. It is only when everyone comes together that great things happen.
The other thing I do not agree with is the constant notion that Mageta is an abandoned island. Yes, it did not catch the bus with the rest of the country. But it is not abandoned. There are people who live there and even despite the hardships, they have refused to leave. You cannot call a place abandoned when it is someone else’s home. Can you? While the Mageta clock seemed to have stopped working in the 50s, a broken clock still tells the correct time at least twice a day.
And perhaps that is the charm of Mageta. An island whose character is uninterrupted by modernity. A place in which humble lifestyles is complimented, not replaced, by recent technologies. Men and women who still value the ancient traditions of hard work and providence. Armed with lamps, nets and hope in their hearts they set sail at dusk from the beaches of Manga, Wakawaka, Sika, Kibarua and Kwoyo, and let the waters ease boats named in praise of their mothers and grandmothers into the Nam Lolwe. They survive the dregs of the night and come back home with a bounty. During they day, they air out their fishes to dry. Women and children stand guard to shoo away notorious Okok, the White Egret bird, from plundering their loot. Later on, they measure the scoop by the kilo, and then trade it off.
Children stand on the rocks of the shoreline, as naked as God’s honest truth, lather themselves with soap and then, with eyes shut and without a care in the universe, jump into the waters to rinse off.The reddening of the skies in the evening signals the time to retire to their houses. Sometimes, they gather together and pass on stories of Mageta that were also passed on to them. About how this chula was first used as some form of Alcatraz by the white man. Legend tells of Mau Mau detainees locked up here for their defiance, how they forged friendships with the locals who later on helped these strange people escape, and how that prison break turned messy.
And when the darkness crawls in, houses light up from M-Kopa Solar Panels, generators, pressure lamps or nyangile. They turn on radios or TVs (yes, these exist here too) to find out what is happening on the other side of the millennium. I can only imagine how they sigh listening about what is happening to others in other places, while nobody tells of what happens to them here. Nobody tells of how sometimes Ugandan officials harass them on the lake for crossing borders they cannot see and breaking their fishing laws. Sometimes, even taking them to the neighboring Hama and Wayasi islands that are Ugandan territories and shaking them down for bribes they cannot afford.
The rest of the JoMageta switch on their Safaricom data bundles and those ‘forwarded as received’ messages trickle in, mostly about politics, strange diseases, updates on when Emma Jalamo will be throwing a bash in Osieko next, or how Bondo University students painted Mombasa Raha Resort with the colours of their exuberance. Though I also suspect that once in a while when they watch one of those music TV programs, they wonder why this man people call Timmy Tdat does not seem to own a T-shirt.