Someday you will be as lucky as I was, and when that day comes, if that day ever comes, you will be staring in wonder at the magnificence of the floating Ghost City. When you stand at Kolunga Beach under the cover of nightfall, you will see lights everywhere, and by Jove I swear it looks like a major city skyline. Make no mistake though; the Ghost City is not a city city. The disappointing truth is that what you will be seeing are not neon signs, but pressure lamps.  Those are actually fishermen on Lake Victoria.

To witness this spectacle, you will you need to be on Rusinga Island because that is where you find Kolunga Beach. And to get to Rusinga, you have three options. First, you can hire a chopper, easy. Second, you make your way to Luanda Kotieno, which is 90 kilometers from Kisumu. It is where the road ends and Lake Victoria begins.  Here you take a ferry across the lake. If you miss the ferry, you can catch an overloaded, leaking boat that you might have to share with some livestock. Whatever water vessel you use, it will come to a grinding halt at Mbita then you connect via boda boda to Rusinga.

Third option is to go all the way around through Kisumu-Ahero-Katito-Kendu-Bay-Homa Bay then on to Mbita.  A long and hectic journey full of many perils, the least of which being enduring the Nyanza heat that makes you sweat everywhere such that your arse feels watery, almost as if you have just released what sick people often mistake for a fart.

If you are cheapskating, then you might want to lodge at Blue Ridge. The rooms here will not impress you that much, but they will do. They are not like the ones in Mtito Andei that smell of unprotected sex and other stories. It will be a kawaida room, even though you will soon notice how hard Blue Ridge Hotel is trying to impress you with a neatly spread bed that has blindingly white bed sheets, and a small flat screen TV pinned on the wall which you don’t intend to watch anyway. Your bags will be zipped open and ransacked in search of your phone charger. I am almost certain you will arrive there in the evening when your smartphone has also run out of juice.

You will turn on the switch for heating water, stand confidently under the showerhead and wait for hot water, only for a flood of cold to sting your unsuspecting back, rudely reminding you, in case it had slipped your mind, that this is not Nairobi. This is Homabay County. Instant hot showers were left behind in Nairobi together with the stagnant traffic and Artcaffe homefries. Here, when you switch on that water heater, you have to wait for at least 45 minutes for the water to heat up before you step in. You will tremble to the tune of a cold shower as you speedily wash yourself passport, i.e. the essential parts only; face, armpits, crotch, and the fetid moist valley between the buttocks.

the Magunga

Blue Ridge Hotel

Now, there is a variable in this journey that depends on what time of the year you decide to visit. Every December, Blue Ridge hires some Congolese-looking chaps to come perform live. You must know the kind; they wear baggy trousers that are worn high waist, and sometimes when they dance, they do not really move. They just swing from side to side, as they sing slow lingala with their eyes closed – as if they’re reading lyrics from the inside walls of their eyelids.

Blue Ridge is the middle class chill-out joint in Rusinga. It is here that men come to impress women with difficult English. It is where people come to be seen, now that they cannot afford to be seen at Rusinga Island Lodge. Here, men bring women to eat fish, to wash down the white meat with Guinness beer that has been mixed with Coca Cola and talk of Eurobond. Local socialites mill around, looking for sponsors. Then with the accompaniment of chirping crickets, they listen to the Congolese band sing in and out of tongues that they can understand.

The band that will be playing during your stay is an all-male band that does not have any original compositions. They sing covers of ancient rhumba songs, mostly by Franco and then once in a while, they remember that they are performing deep inside Nyanza province, so they switch to a Luo favorite; Maselina by Musa Juma.

Ya wuoyi ma kare ema sero nyiri bila gari
Ya wuoyi ma kare ema sero nyiri bila pesa
Ya wuoyi ma kare ema sero nyiri bila uwongo
Ya wuoyi ma kare ema sero nyiri bila korapson

At this point they will get your attention. Not because of their surprising fluency in Dholuo, but because of the irony of the moment. To understand that irony, you must first understand what Musa Juma was saying to his Maselina;

A gentleman is the one who seduces women with no car
A gentleman is the one who seduces women without money
A gentleman is the one who seduces women with no lies
A gentleman is the one who seduces women without corruption

*

When I said that you will be lucky to be in Rusinga Island, I assumed that you will be coming down South to witness what Anne Eboso (the organizer of the Rusinga Cultural Festival) calls The Jaboya Concept. A Jaboya could be loosely translated to what Nairobians call ‘sponsor’.

Strictly speaking Jaboya is coined from the word boya, which in Luo means a floater used by fishermen to help them remember where they have cast their nets. But in true Luo fashion, we add Ja to when referring to a person. So you would say that Jaboya is essentially a fisherman. However, in Rusinga Island, it is an open secret that Jaboya is not fishing equipment, but a man who uses bait to fish. Bait here is not earthworms, uh-uh. Bait here is fish. Because a Jaboya in Rusinga Island does not fish for fish. He is a fisher of (wo)men, so to speak.

Catch my drift? No? OK, let me break it down for you with some perspective.

the Magunga

The coloured items on the net are the ‘Boya’ (however, the locals use improvised items like jerrycans and bottles instead.) – photo by Kenyan documentary photographer, Kevin Ouma

For the sake of argument, let’s say you are a widow who responds to the name Min Otoyo. You are a market woman at Kolunga Beach. Onyango, the man who ploughs you every so often is a fisherman. You let him plough you, not because his tight muscles make you wet and hot at the junction of your thighs, but because you want an edge over the other market women. Such that when Onyas (as you have taken to calling him since he is your bae) comes from fishing, he will consider selling fish to you instead of akina Min Sudhe who have decided to lock their legs for their (future) men as if that thing is like soap that finishes when used regularly.

In this case, Onyas, your fisherman in shining armour, is a Jaboya.

Another example.

Sometimes there are times when fish has run away from other waters of Lake Victoria. Sometimes it is because fish migrate from Migingo or Usenge or Siaya and other fishing towns to Rusinga area. Other times, it is because people from these other fishing towns have plundered all their fish. Whatever the reason, fishing season comes to Rusinga. Meaning that the fishermen from these other towns come to Rusinga.

That presents a problem, you see. There will be an influx of men in Rusinga. Men who have left their wives at home to come to this neck of the woods in search of the daily fish. These men are dangerous, because a man needs to change oil, more so a man who eats a lot of fish. There is something in fish, it is unscientifically believed, that a makes a man always be at attention. If left like that, the visiting fishermen will go on the prowl, seducing other people’s wives. So what happens is that the beach managers give them ‘wives’. Not ati they are married. The woman is just to give Mr. Fisherman a little heaven for the short period that he is in town.  This woman could be a widow like you, Min Otoyo, or could be a single damsel in the village, or another woman who is also visiting from elsewhere.

Either way, visiting fisherman is paired up with a woman for some sort of greater good. It is a temporary thing, and the couple knows that. So that means that when the time comes for the fisherman to depart and go back home to his wife, there will be no teary ceremony. Nobody will bite their lip. Nobody will cling on like a bad habit. There is no love lost because there was none in the first place.

I imagine as they part, they will clear that rented house they have been living in, he hits her with a half-hearted forehead kiss and say “It was a pleasure to meet you. Perhaps we could do this next time?”

Another fishing season, repeat. Shit goes full circle.

But do not get me wrong. It is not only men who have the potential to become Jaboyas. Even women are known to say ‘What the fuck. You know what? What a man can do, a woman can do better.”

Remember your persona as Min Otoyo? Your story does not end with Onyas.  Onyas is just those people who you allow to plough you because of business. It is nothing personal.  When Onyas sells you fish at wholesale price, you go and resell it at retail price in Mbita. Meaning you have a few coins to rub together and what can someone do with extra money in Rusinga Island. Well, to be honest, the answer is a lot. The real question here is ”What do you, Min Otoyo, a widow with time and money to spend, who is in need of a little excitement, prefer to do with that change?” Why, you become a Jaboya in your own right. You get a young man, say an 18 year old chap, for yourself and you teach him one or two things that he thinks he knows about chudex.

This is how fish becomes bait. This is how a jaboya is made. And you know, city yuppies like me and you, people who were brought up in privilege, people who say life is hard because you have run out of data bundles, we hear rumors of people trading sex and scoff. We go to Twitter and tweet OMG! Ati fishtistution? Who does that? LMFAO. But what we do not realize is that there are women and girls who have plenty of Jaboyas because they need to survive. Unlike sponsees in Nairobi, they are not in these situations so that they can take selfies in Dubai and increase their Instagram followers. These girls are not chasing after vanity. Without a Jaboya, they cannot get basic shit like sanitary towels. Without a Jaboya, they will sink. Or so they think.

But what is the result? HIV/AIDS (how do you imagine Nyanza takes the dubious honour of being one of the most affected areas in Kenya?), children raising children, and backroom abortion clinics where the risk of death is as strong as the stench of desperation.

*

I said at the beginning that you will be lucky to be in Rusinga in December. I might have misled you into thinking that I was only talking about the floating Ghost City. You will also be lucky because every December Anne Eboso Okong’o, the former Storymoja Start-a-Library Co-ordinator, puts together a festival that is geared towards kicking out the Jaboya mentality from Rusinga Island.

Eboso is a lunje from Western who went to cook in Rusinga for a Suba man. The moment his people became her people, she saw that there was something wrong with this Jaboya business and decided to do something about it. That is how she came up with the Rusinga Cultural Festival. Yes, it is a celebration of the cultures dominant in Rusinga Island (Luo and Suba), but it is also supposed to remind you that there is much more to the waters of the great lake than Jaboyas.

And she is right, you know?

If you want to see Rusinga, like really feel the pulse of Rusinga Island, then you need to take an evening hike to the top of a hill called Got Kiahera. From there, things are really small and people look like ants. But that will only remind you of how small human beings are in the grand scheme of things.

You will stand there and see Mfangano Island on the other side, right next to the Bird Island that has over 300 unique species of birds. Birds that travel all the way from UK and US during summer to seek refuge here and then go back. You will envy them, because they can go wherever they want without needing a visa or a passport.

On your right will be the pathway to Uganda, but I suggest you pay more attention to the Nyama gi Ware islands; named after two clans. Suba legend has it that two bulls from these two clans were fighting, the battled spilled into Lake Victoria and in the end, the bulls turned into two magnificent rocks. If you roll your eyes to this story, you’re just a terrible human being.

From that point, you will see Takawiri. You will make a mental note to visit it sometime and experience for yourself the coastal aura of white sandy beaches and palm trees, and when you finally do, you will understand why Takawiri is Kenya’s best kept secret.

Perhaps from that high you might see a structure that has a roof the shape of a bullet. Do not be startled. That is Tom Mboya Mausoleum, the resting place of Kenya’s iconic politician ever- Thomas Joseph Mboya. It is aptly shaped like a bullet in memory of the one that assassinated him in 1969 outside a chemist shop along Government Road (now Moi Avenue).

Lakini the mausoleum is not only a place to learn about history. Under the bullet’s shadow you will also learn about one of the more important things in life; friendship. Just next to Tom Mboya’s resting place, is another grave of William X. Scheinman. His headstone reads “Beloved father, brother and friend of Kenya”. He was a dear friend of Mboya, who even funded the first airlift to US, from which Barack Obama’s Snr., among others benefited. So it’s safe to say that without old Bill here, Obama would not be OBAMA, you understand? William died 30 years after Mboya’s assassination. His remains, as per his instruction, were cremated, and half buried next to his best friend on Rusinga Island.

Take it from me, you will sit there and think about the people you call friends. You will realize that less than 5% of the 3000+ friends you have on Facebook will remember you one month after you die. The rest will put your photo as their profile picture for a week, after which life will move on as if you never existed. It is here that you will reflect and wonder whether your best friend in life is really your friend, or is just one of those people waiting for you to die so that they can try ‘inheriting’ your woman.

As the air darkens around you, the evening sun will kiss Lake Victoria and make blush in orange. You will marvel at the Rusinga sunset. It is the kind of sunset that you read in story books with happy endings. The wind will brush against your face, carrying with it whispers from Lake Victoria. Whispers of brave and resilient men who live off, and sometime die in, the lake. Perhaps if you listen closely, Nam Lolwe might explain to you why they are the way they are.

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18 Comments

  1. I love how you write Magunga.. I lived the Jaboya concept and took the cold passport with you.. Rusinga is on my tembea Kenya list now.

  2. Such that when Onyas (as you have taken to calling him since he is your bae) comes from fishing, he will consider selling fish to you instead of akina Min Sudhe who have decided to lock their legs for their (future) men as if that thing is like soap that finishes when used regularly. << this had me laughing like crazy…..Goon, this is great, a very good read, loved it.

  3. That journey from Kisumu to K’Otieno takes like a century. The you are there, end of the road, waiting for the waters to wash the old century away and usher in a new one. But the ferry has disappeared and will be back at … …three hours later? Lakini si I thought that the Blue Ridge is THE PLACE, ehe, atleast from the outside? I guess this is gonna be a looong comment. Let me continue it elsewhere … Long live the Rusinga Festival. Kudos to Anne.

  4. Well put bro, the HIV/AIDS menace tarnishes the allures along the lake, sadly too, the story is replicated along the beaches of Lake Victoria and far into the mainland. How I wish we heed the message of the likes of Eboso, eat the fish with some faith to family values. The day the young orphans are left behind, you die with guilt, no rest in peace coz you’ll have left one in the same old path…

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