There’s a young festival that takes place every December on Rusinga Island. A celebration of the Abasuba people and their culture, language and artefacts. It’s a cultural answer to the question “Can a people die?”
Its mid-December, and Magunga, who’s online bookstore you should definitely visit for African reads, and Abigail Arunga-poet, columnist, and hawker of her thrilling poetry book Akello, and I are headed to Homabay’s most famous island.
Its as dramatic as a day can get. We get stopped and fined for speeding, which took me two seconds to write about but took about five hours to deal with in real life. At some point, Abby is a jailbird guarded by two mean-looking prison warders at the back of the Molo law courts. But that’s not the story. The story is that we eventually, after getting lost, tricked by Google Maps, land in Rusinga.The first sight of Rusinga is under a crimson sky. The sun is hiding behind some far off mountains on an island whose name I never get to know. Daylight refuses to go quietly, still illuminating the cuddly clouds from below, making them look like they’ve been bathed in blood. And then it rains.
It rains for hours and then it stops. Suddenly. I think I’ve lived away from water bodies for too long. Where I come from, the rain doesn’t just stop. It goes the same way it starts. First there’s a word, then there’s a whisper. Then someone turns the knob, another dims the lights, a third pulls the curtains apart and the music of the sky breaks. When the song ends, the pitches fall. The volume reduces slowly, away from the climax, a diminuendo so subtle that you can tell when it goes.
But even that bothers me. The silence after a heavy downpour. On Rusinga Island it’s even worse. The music just stops. There’s no ceremony, there’s no preparation. At first, it sounds like its another wet apocalypse and then its deathly quiet. It sounds like complete silence for the neophyte in me, and I seek solace in the Congolese band that starts playing outside.
Anne Eboso, our host and the Rusinga Festival producer, uses this break to take us on a brisk walk to see the ghost city of Rusinga. An endless city of still lights, a story waiting to be told. The men who venture into this darkness and sit for hours, tugging and pulling on their nets, must have some of the highest levels of bromance allowed under the code. Its like this, every night. Wives pack food for their husbands and fill their lanterns with kerosene. Husbands ruffle their kids hair as they walk to Kolunga beach, to grab their nets and go fishing in the dark. The city grows as the night goes by, as more and more fishermen find space on the lake and lay in wait.
This water is their bread and butter. It’s what dresses their children and builds their roofs. It’s what takes care of their parents. It pays the dowry and buys her all the dresses she wants. It keeps her up at night at first, even if her father was a fisherman, worrying about whether tonight will be the night he doesn’t come back. Then he does, every day break. She meets him by the door, unloading the catch he carries on one hand as she smiles. Sometimes he doesn’t catch anything, and she has to sit him down and tell him there will be days like that. But as long as he has her, as long as she has him, the world will be their lake.
There’s that aura of resilience on Rusinga Island. A sense that the people here aren’t giving up. See, there are about 200, 000-500,000 Suba people, of whom only about 50, 000 can speak the Suba language. Only 30, 000 or so live on this magnificent island, which they loved so much they named it twice. Rusinga is a corruption of the Suba word “eluzinga” for island. On Rusinga, they will tell you you must pay homage to their greatest son, Tom Mboya, before you go around climbing their hills and sliding and falling on their deceptively slippery grass-or maybe it was just me.?
Mboya, born in Thika to a Suba man who worked McMillan’s fields, was buried here, at home. Because wherever an African man lives and toils, his father’s home will always be his roots. When he eventually goes, the how notwithstanding, they will take him back and bury him there. If he is great, then they will build him a mouseloum and place his prized possessions in cupboards with glass casing. Then they will sing his praises forever, or until his son or daughter outdoes him.
One might see Rusinga as one of the few remaining bastions of the Suba. A culture that has been fighting for some recognition distinct from that of the culture dominant around it. The cultural influence is apparent, not just in language. But so is the fight to be Suba and not “Luo-Abasuba.” A Suba man wants to be known as Subanese, and will correct you several times, on Twitter and in person, that to be Subanese is not a small thing.
But can a people die? Can a civilization, however small and however seemingly nondescript, simply be wiped off the face the earth? History suggests so, but its never that simple. Human beings are one big society, something ants seem to understand better than we do. A people can seem to die but some part of them lives on somewhere. It attaches itself to their neighbors or their conquerors, and infects them so well they don’t even realize it.
The festival centers around this haunting question, whether a people can truly disappear while they are alive. Anne and her team, for 4 years now, have been working to make sure that doesn’t happen. Through the course of 2 days, the festival rolls through performances, exhibitions, pageants, sports and lots of food. The food tent is always full, bristling with people trying out different meat and fish dishes, and washing it down with owusera, porridge.
Rusinga Festival is fun until we hit Lake Victoria for the headline event, Okuidiewana kwa amaato, boat racing. Then its thrilling. Its adrenaline on boats, the sound of oars striking the water as the boat surges forward. There’s something powerful about mankind at this moment, where the entire crew focuses on a singular rhythm. Only the steer, seated at the bow, seems to look up and move his oar from side to side, steering the boat in the right directions.
The winning team, Agumbo, steered Maende Junior, with its prominent, albeit rather interestingly drawn, portrait of Col. Gadaffi, to victory with such flamboyance that they might as well have been sunbathing. It was a mix of elegance, and sheer grit, hitting the boat with their oars in perfect rhythm. It’s music, broken by the screams of spectators so far off they look like small, colorful, shiny dots.
As the adrenaline wears off, we end this fantastic trip with a tour of the Birds islands, with the Education Minister for Homabay County, himself Suba, acting as our guide. There’s something to that, being shown around a lake by a man who considers it home. To him, it’s everything. He lost his greatest catch when he was 17, heading to the mainland from Mfangano Island, and almost drowned while at it.
As we head back to Blue Ridge Hotel, this swanky hotel that was home for the two nights in Rusinga, that story stays with me. For dry-landers like me, water bodies are nothing but trouble. For the Suba, the lake is everything. It is life, food, and sport.
One story is good,
till Another is told.