Stories that make Rusinga Island come Alive

Read this before attending the next Rusinga Festival. It is a brief orientation to the Rusinga Island, Cultural activities, history, Photos and my personal experience this year.

The Rusinga Festival happens on the Rusinga Island for 48 hours. It incorporates music, fashion, film, food, artistry, literature, sports and stories that transport you deep into the Abasuba culture.

Resorts in Rusinga Island are fully booked as Kenyans and Tourists stream in for the Activity Packed Festival. From Acacia Premier Hotel in Kisumu City, to Wayando Beach Eco Lodge Mbita, in Rusinga Island.

#RusingaFestival incorporates music, fashion, film, food, artistry, literature, sports and stories that transport you deep into the Abasuba culture. Click To Tweet
Wrestling Display at Rusinga Festival - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Wrestling Display – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

The Rusinga Festival Experience

When they built a bridge from Mbita town to Rusinga, electricity found a way to cross the water. So now there are many houses that are connected to the national grid. I have not seen a mud house yet, but I have not walked the whole island yet. The bus made us late.

Still, we finally arrive at the venue, and there is a group that is performing, and from the car, I can hear drums and the orutu. There is something about traditional instruments that always draws me. There is something in the beat of the drums, in the call of the orutu, that makes me start tapping my phone.

Coulurful Abasuba Culture at the Rusinga Festival - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Coulurful Abasuba Culture – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

I grab my camera and rush to find the group in leopard-patterned clothes, calabashes covering the breasts of women, body paint dressing the men. There are elderly men in the background dressed in goat skin and holding long sticks.

And I remember that just a couple hundred years ago, this was the land of the people that fled the kingdom of Buganda. While some settled here, others moved inwards, not believing that the Luo had left fertile hills unoccupied. Kumbe those hills had tse tse flies. Those that remained started clan wars with the Suba of Mfangano island.

This was once a warrior tribe!

By the way, the Abakhoone clan of the Luhya community claim to be the first people to build boats by digging out a tree trunk. I wonder what the Abasuba will say, knowing that they rowed their way across Nam Lolwe. But to be fair, the Abakhoone had sailed the lake long before the Abasuba did. The Abasuba were the last tribe to settle in Kenya

Unusual People – Luhya Culture

The language used in the presentations is Dholuo. The story is, when Western education and its colonial advantages reached Luoland, the Suba sent their children to Luoland to learn. And the Subas that could speak Dholuo had a higher advantage over their counterparts. So the old folks taught their kids more Dholuo than Suba. Up to now, it is still a struggle for some people to accept that the Suba are Bantu.

The heat in Rusinga! I would give anything to be in a loin cloth right now. I can’t wait for the storytelling session at night. And considering that Suba is considered a language in danger of extinction (UNESCO 2003) is language the most important part of preserving a culture, or is it the practices themselves?

Womens Tug of War - Cultural Sports at the Rusinga Festival - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Womens Tug of War – Cultural Sports – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

In Taita, they used to have exorcism/healing sessions by use of drums. People would gather for an exorcism/healing session and drums would be played over and over until someone fell and convulsed. There must be something about rhythm and vibration that affects the human mind.

I have just witnessed something similar at Rusinga. They played the drums until it almost got hypnotic. No singing. Just drums and dancing, the tempo increasing, getting faster and faster and then, suddenly, they stopped.

At the Tom Mboya mausoleum, you will see this Korean doll that the Queen of England gave the man himself. The curator of the mausoleum, the late Tom Mboya’s brother, says no one knows what the doll means, but it is so revered that when Koreans come to visit, they bow to it and say nothing of its meaning. My curiosity is piqued.

Rusinga Cultural Festival 2016 – Magunga Williams

A cultural festival curated by Anne Eboso Okong’o geared towards celebrating the intersection between the vibrant cultures of the Luo and Abasuba nations living in the South Nyanza, Kenya.

– Photography: Fifi Fiona, Anthony, Afrotrip and Magunga Williams.
– Music: Kanungo by Otieno Aloka
– Video: Magunga Williams

Song: Kanungo Eteko. Artist: Otieno Aloka. Album: Kanungo Eteko. The Orchard Music (on behalf of Music Copyright Society (LUO MUSIC CATEGORY) of Kenya); UBEM, and 3 Music Rights Societies Buy it now on Google Play

Competitive Men Boat Racing at Rusinga Festival with Romantic Men - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Boat Racing – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

What you should know about the Annual Rusinga Cultural Festival

Rusinga Cultural Festival is a yearly 2-day festival in recognise the Abasuba Culture and people of Kenya. It happens on Rusinga Island during the last week just before Christmas. Rusinga Cultural Festival was started by Anne Eboso and managed via the Chula Cultural Foundation.

Rusinga Festival is the only significant effort to maintain the culture and history of the Abasuba People, who mostly live on the Rusinga Island and Mfangano Island on Lake Victoria. The Abasuba culture has has been shrinking over time as a result of assimilation and intermarriage into the adjacent Luo Community.

In recent years, Kenya has been in the limelight of the global experience of a growing dominance of fundamentalist voices and acts of terror justified on religious grounds.

This is particularly sad because Kenya has had a long established culture of religious acceptance, tolerance, accommodation and exchange.

I recommend you to read about this group that is Promoting Religious Tolerance in Kenya.

Rusinga Festival is the only significant effort to maintain culture & history of the Abasuba People, mostly found on Rusinga and Mfangano Island on Lake Victoria Click To Tweet
Calabash Bra made of Guards at Rusinga Festival - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Calabash Bra made of Guards – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

The Abasuba People speak the Suba language. According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and cultural Organization (UNESCO) the Suba Language is one of the thirteen endangered languages in Kenya.

Rusinga Cultural Festival addresses Social issues in the Abasuba community like health & sanitation, banking, social security protection and sex-for-fish that increased the spread of HIV. The Abasuba community members are fully involved in the composition of the Rusinga Cultural Festival. With no age restrictions and free entry, the attendance is always high.

According to United Nations Educational Scientific & Cultural Organization (@UNESCO) the Suba Language is one of 13 endangered languages in Kenya. Click To Tweet
Water Sports - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Water Sports – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

Rusinga Island — Activities at Rusinga Festival: Music, Culture, Food, Sports and Tourism

Rusinga Festival incorporates Traditional Music Performances, Sporting, Tourism, Cultural Sporting Activities and Food from Traditional Suba Cuisine. This comes after the signature masquerade-like street procession indicating to Risinga Island locals as well as visitors that the festival is on.

Sisal Woven Bra at Rusinga Festival - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Sisal Woven Bra – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

Music and Culture at the Rusinga Festival

Rusinga Cultural Festival incorporates traditional as well as contemporary music performances. The Traditional music, performed in Subanese language comes in form of presentations by cultural troupes and local Abasuba traditional music groups.

Abasuba culture is the main focus at the Rusinga Cultural Festival. Artifacts in clay-work, woodwork and daily Abasuba life showcasing the Abasuba culture are displayed at the festival. All this is aimed at highlighting, celebrating and preserving the Abasuba culture.

Traditional Abasuba Cultural Dance at the Rusinga Festival - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Traditional Abasuba Cultural Dance – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

Food – Traditional Suba Cuisine and Modern Delicacies at the Rusinga Festival

Food from Traditional Suba Cuisine, local delicacies and modern foods are served at the festival. Some of the Traditional foods take a lot of time to prepare and are only available for a few hours on the first day. There is a variety of recipies food available for both vegetarians and meat lovers.

Abasuba Lunch - Tilpia Fish, Brown Ugali and Traditional Greens Mboga - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Abasuba Lunch – Tilpia Fish, Brown Ugali and Traditional Greens Mboga – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

Sports, Games and other Activities at the Rusinga Festival

Sports is said to be the highlight of the festival. The most famous being Wrestling(Eminyiika), Oluko/Oruko(Ajua) Tug-of-War and Boat Racing.

You guys… you have not seen a proper stank face until you have seen men dressed in nothing but leopard-skin loin clothes puffing their cheeks, biting their lips, looking like their faces are akimbo. Weh.

Sports is said to be the highlight of the festival. The most famous being Wrestling(Eminyiika), Oluko/Oruko(Ajua) Tug-of-War and Boat Racing. Click To Tweet
Two men Wrestling Display at Rusinga Festival - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Two men Wrestling Display – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

The earth is trembling here.

All the Racing Boats at the Festival are human powered.

They are manned by a group of 7 people; 6 to paddle and 1 group leader who is also the helmsman. Women have a special category at the boat race.

The festival also has other competitive sports like board games.

Sports, Indoor Board Games at the Rusinga Festival - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Sports, Indoor Board Games – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

Rusinga Festival’s role in Local and International Tourism

Lake Victoria’s Islands attract many tourists —  Rusinga Island, Takawiri Island and Mfangano Island are open and accessible to the people attending and participating in the Rusinga cultural Festival.

Tour and Traveling companies work in conjunction with the festival to facilitate special tours, transport and accommodation for guests. The festival plays a huge role in growing tourism in Western Kenya for both local and international tourists.

Story Telling around the Fire – My Epic Experience

Story Telling around the fire at the Rusinga Festival - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Story Telling around the fire – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

Picture This. You are seated in a circle beating stories. Then someone shouts ‘All lights off!’ and everything goes dark, except for the lightning flashing above. After a minute, people from everywhere start shouting ‘Jowi! Jowi!’ and making strange, animalistic sounds.

They are a lion, they are a leopard. ‘Jowi! Jowi! Jowi!’ the shouts rise louder. Someone runs with a flame to the middle of the circle and lights a bonfire. Then dancers run around and gather and start dancing and singing around the circle.

A man chants something that I am told is dirty, as it usually is when old men cry at funerals. It is eerie. It feels like they are about to channel ancient spirits. It is a night of tales by the fireside.

Among the storytellers are a group of 12 from Argentina, Uganda, India, Germany, Kosovo, and the U.K. Plus the Kenyan tellers

That intro was everything, man. Everything.

There is the usual village drunk being rained on but trying unsuccessfully to dry himself by the fire. Which has refused to go out. Concurrently, a band is covering Ayub Ogada and mixing it with a story.

Photos that make you want to visit Rusinga Island Festival - Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive
Photos that make you want to visit Rusinga Island Festival – Rusinga Festival: Stories that make the Island come Alive

These Rusinga Island Photos will make you attend the next Rusinga Festival

My Journey to Rusinga Island…

The lake is not your friend. One moment it is so calm you want to dive in even though you don’t know how to swim, the next it becomes violent.

The man at the front of the boat tells us the lake has potholes, so they have to follow certain routes. It has to take a bit of skill to know where not to go. It has to take an understanding of wind and direction of waves to know where not to take the boat.

There is an old man nodding off at the back of the boat, next to the pilot. He knows these waters well. Me, I don’t know when I will next experience this. He wakes up when we are at the Bird Island (Mbasa) and tells us that no one lives on the island, that the man who decided to bring chest and live at Mbasa was chased away by the Government. I wish I knew the names of the species, but there were so many birds on trees, on rocks, on water. The birds go to the different islands to look for food, but they will always go back to their bedroom in Mbasa.

The trip from the bird island to Takawiri starts rocky. The old man is still calm, so I am calm too. Then as suddenly as the water became rough, it calmed down. By the time we were at Takawiri, the water was barely moving. But to land at the lodge at Takawiri, you need to get prior permission. We do not. We look at the white sands from the safety of the lake, hate that we neither have permission nor the willingness to pay 300 bob for a small bottle of soda, and head off to Mfangano Island, to the Abasuba Peace Museum.

The museum is not very big. It is really just one room full of old calabashes, old drinking horns. On a mat, there are all sorts of spear and arrow heads, the staffs that the elders used to hold when conducting village meetings, and a tool that Luos used as a weapon, but the Suba converted to hunt mud fish. In a forgotten corner, lies a huge shield made of hide and wood and metal. Very huge. Almost everything in there was salvaged from caves hidden deep within Mfangano.

Enchanting sunset! (captured during Rusinga Festival) Photo Credit- Anthony Muwasu
Enchanting sunset! (captured during Rusinga Festival) Photo Credit- Anthony Muwasu

We leave Mfangano for Rusinga, and the lake turns against us. Suddely, the boat rocks heavily as the waves hit it from all sides. Water is powerful, man. Water created depressions of over a meter and a half at one point, but we cleared it before the lake closed back on us. And if you think that is not deep, remember that even though I have a life jacket, I don’t know how to swim, and there is no other boat in the vicinity. And remember, this is not a speed boat. It is not a ferry. It is the small motorboat with a portable propeller engine at the back. The middle of it is so low that if you put sambusa like passengers do at the front of a car, your elbow will be in the water.

That lake does us proper. Someone tries to move to the middle of the boat but the old man at the back yells for her to maintain position. Balance is everything. Capsizing is easy. The old man scans the waters and in Dholuo, tells the pilot to go slowly, to not fight with the water too much. And it works. The old man has seen his share of violent waters. I used to wonder how people who have fished their whole lives could capsize in a boat and die, but now I understand. Back on land, someone looks at the skies and says, “Did you say there were people coming from Mfangano? They will have a very rough time in the lake.”

Rusinga Festival - Stories that make Rusinga Island come Alive - Image - Anne Eboso Okongo
Rusinga Festival – Stories that make Rusinga Island come Alive – Image – Anne Eboso Okongo

Have you ever been in a bus that was on a road so bad that it had to tilt this way and that way until people called Nyasaye by all his names? Now imagine being on a boat that is doing that thing. It is our timing that was wrong, though. We overstayed at Mfangano. But I am typing this. Meaning I made it back to terra firma in one piece. And I have some nice shots of the bird island.null

Last night, the moon was full in Rusinga.

I sat on a plastic seat at Kamasengre grounds, my neck angled backwards, and stared at the skies, stared at the clouds dancing around the moon. At the other end of the grounds, the beauty pageant was going on, the models walking to old reggae music. Between the light of the runway and my end of the field, people are dancing and drinking and having fun. In many ways, it feels like an oloko (local discotheque) and their energy reminds me that I am no longer an adolescent.

Rusinga Island Lodge - Rusinga Festival- Stories that make Rusinga Island come Alive
Rusinga Island Lodge – Rusinga Festival- Stories that make Rusinga Island come Alive

It had been a full day. And adrenaline kind of day. Apart from the Maa community, I had never seen a people so involved, so intense in such a gathering. I wanted to upload the faces just so that you see how carefree they were, how happy they looked. And it struck me that the police were only seen when the Woman Reptesentative was around. I did not see a uniform again. And I did not hear any cases of mugging or phone snatching.

Rusinga is very safe. So safe that cows sleep on the road unguarded. A driver told us that after the harvest season, people would not herd their cows. The animals would be left to their own devices. You could be on a journey to the other end of the island and meet your cows along the way. No one would steal them. Rusinga had always been on my bucket list. A close friend had his honeymoon here and regalled me with tales of its beauty. I hadn’t even heard of the festival that many years ago. So when the opportunity presented itself this year, I jumped on it.

Rusinga Island Lodge - Rusinga Festival- Stories that make Rusinga Island come Alive
Rusinga Island Lodge – Rusinga Festival- Stories that make Rusinga Island come Alive

This was the seventh edition of the festival, apparently. Anne Eboso started it small because she knew the importance of culture in finding identity and the socio-economic growth of a people, and she wanted her son to know about his Suba heritage. And in the course of research, she saw the need to revive the Suba language and heritage that had almost been totally overshadowed by Luo influence. The first festival was conducted entirely in Dholuo.

Now, there are many things conducted in Suba. It is a strange language. It sounds like Luganda, like Lusoga, like Luhya, but spoken with the definitiveness of Dholuo. Yesterday, I saw thousands of people gathered, cheering, dancing, jumping into the lake. And I never once felt like an outsider. Even the drunkards were friendly, fist-bumping me and switching to English when I said I did not understand Dholuo or Olusuba. “My name is Obogo. Remember that,” one said.

It has been a while since I had that much fun. Maybe because I am so in love with culture, maybe because I have always wanted to catch a glimpse of what really used to happen in the days of old. My heart is at rest. Off to Mfangano and Takawiri islands now. 

Photo of the Rusinga Island Lakeside - Rusinga Festival- Stories that make Rusinga Island come Alive
Photo of the Rusinga Island Lakeside – Rusinga Festival- Stories that make Rusinga Island come Alive