Ditch the guide book to Kisumu, and allow Magunga Williams, a native of the city, to introduce you to its wild side.
If you must – and you must – travel to Kisumu from Nairobi, try something different. The Kericho route is beautiful, what with the rolling hills covered in green tea plantations that look like a rich man’s lawn. But that is what everyone uses. Perhaps try branching off instead at Londiani. Pause for a minute to rest your feet from the pedals and let the market women swarm your car with cobs of maize. All you have to do is choose one of them, ask them how their day is, buy a cob, accept praises of how handsome you look in that car (even if it is hired) and then proceed towards Muhoroni.
Allow the sunset to catch you at Koru. A thin road will tear before you through sugarcane plantations, hills rising up to kiss the orange sky, and a glowing ball of red fire dropping down from the sky on your left.
And that is what will be a glimpse of what will be waiting for you in Kisumu – the unexpected. But only if you bother enough to find it, because Kisumu is the kind of city whose treasures are hidden. She does not reveal herself to strangers. You have woo her to love her. Luckily for me, I grew up here so I know exactly which buttons to press to get in Kisumu’s good graces.
As a child, having fun revolved around four things; swimming at Sunset Hotel, going to Lwang’ni Beach for fish every Sunday, and when our parents were not looking, hunting for honey from the hives hanging inside Museveni thickets (the present-day Lolwe Estate), or skinny dipping at Kapenesa – a dam of green water along the Kakamega Road.
We grew up and left for Nairobi. I stayed away for so long, thinking that Kisumu would wait for me. She did not. She moved on. When I came back, it was diffi cult to recognise her. She had morphed into this metropolis of sorts, with tall glass buildings, superhighways hanging in the air, busier streets and, heart breakingly, boda bodas were no longer bicycles, but motorbikes. There used to be an assembly of trees that (depending on what direction you were going) would either escort you out or invite you into Kisumu via Obote road. All that was gone, and in their place streetlights had been installed leading towards Kisumu Airport. Sorry, Kisumu International Airport.
In the Kisumu of old, the Imperial Hotel was the only hotel worth mentioning. Yes, the hotel’s still there, but other places have come up since, whether it’s Wigot Hotel, with its infinity pool stretching towards the Nandi Hills, or Acacia Premier Hotel, another new entrant in the hood that is famous for its stellar service and kick-ass cocktails. But right across from that is TLC, a tavern that will offer you the same food and drinks as Acacia, but at half the price. A five-minute walk past TLC, you will find the Victoria Railways Club that was a hit back when Kanda Bongo Man ruled the airwaves. The bony hands of time have touched its face, but not its kienyeji chicken.
Get deeper into Milimani and you will find a range of spots next to the lake. Inside the Impala Sanctuary is the Impala Hotel. Further on down the road is Hippo Lovers Point – no prizes for guessing why it was named so – a perfect spot for sundowners. Those who just want to hang with friends on a Friday evening tend to head over to Dunga Hill Camp. There they sit with beers in hand, watching the hippos, and the fishermen sail out.
There are painful mistakes tourists to Kisumu make. First, they assume we are only good for our fish (which they then go ahead and eat with chips or chapos – or, worse still, a knife and fork). They also assume this can only be eaten at Lwang’ni beach. But there’s a well-kept secret called Ka’Akwacha famed for one thing and one thing only: Anti Stock Theft meat. Or simply Anti-Theft. Which, in layman’s terms, is just roast meat – with chunks of fatty pieces – often served with ugali, kachumbari and a special Luo delicacy called Ojuri sauce (a mixture of cow dung extraction, bile and water). After having lunch at Ka’Akwacha, you’ll fi nd the human race forever divided into two: those who have tasted Anti-Theft and those who have not.
When darkness falls and your body starts itching for music, there are two places I would recommend. Not because they are the only ones that exist, no. Only because they represent the two kinds of crowds that you will find on a night out in Kisumu. The Roan rooftop on Oginga Odinga Street draws a more urbane crowd, who like to photograph their food and drinks in between shoki shoki and dabs [types of dances].
And then there is Vimba 68, next to Mamba Hotel, where Congolese musicians wearing colourful skinny jeans ripped at the knees send the crowd into a frenzy with their high-pitched voices. I love this place, not only because the beer is cheaper, but because of the old timers who come here.
They remind me of a Kisumu I miss. Because the real beauty of Kisumu is not in those fancy hotels or rolling hills. It is and always has been the people. The loud, proud breed of human beings with dark skins and voices who have never been taught what it is to whisper. They are unashamed of how they dance, they know each other by name and village. And if you get to know them, you won’t have a dull moment in Kisumu.