Delays and a heavy gear shift slow Morris Kiruga’s progress to Rusinga, but he soon finds that speed isn’t everything.
At 11am, my mechanic still wasn’t done. Ishmael, like most people in his trade, swore he was doing his best to finish with car. But it was a story I’d heard before. Three times, actually, in the preceding 24 hours.
I was getting impatient. We all were.
There were 408kms between where we were, with fully packed bags, and where we needed to be. From Google Maps it looked like a long, winding blue line between the center of Kenya and its Western edge. To an island so beloved its people named it twice-Rusinga Island (the base word for Rusinga in Suba means island).
There were other reasons for my anxiety. The year before this trip, I’d hitched a ride with two fellow pens, Magunga Williams and Abigail Arunga. In a car blaring the new Sauti Sol album on repeat, we cruised past Nakuru with nary a care in the world. Then somewhere after Salgaa, a deathly, straight descending stretch of the road, we got caught speeding. 14kms/hr above the speed limit meant Abigail got herded into a tiny hut and then we had to spend four hours for the wheels of justice.
And do they turn slowly!
There are two routes to get to Rusinga Island, just off the mainland in Mbita. One goes through Nakuru and Kericho, and is one of the most policed roads in Kenya. The other, through Narok and Kisii, is slightly shorter. But it has the unfortunate history of flash floods making it impassable. Still, to ward off the bad vibes from the previous trip, I chose the latter. Thankfully, and in a macabre sense, I was on the wheel of a VW Golf with gear issues. Speeding was out of the question.
Ishmael finally called at midday, just before my company and I gave up on getting to Rusinga on time. The Rusinga Island Festival, a fervent two-day event that takes place every December, would start the next morning. It is a celebration of Abasuba culture, one so misunderstood that it is often just stacked up with its neighbors, the Luo.
To get to Narok, you first have to descend the precarious escarpment towards Mai Mahiu. There are a few roads like this one in Kenya, carved onto the side of the hill so perfectly that you feel l’appel du vide-the call of the void.
The first pit stop was in Narok, just 142kms in. It is a town defined by its many nyama choma meat stops; so popular in fact that you can buy and be on your way in under five minutes. From Narok, the road weaves into an endless play of turns and long straight stretches on hilly land. It feels like a rollercoaster at times, and even in a faulty car, I am still paranoid of speed guns lurking behind the bushes and shrubs. At least thrice between Narok and my next major destination, Kisii, I found speed spots, and drove past them with a coy smile.
Somewhere between Bomet and Kisii, my safari buddy was a white pickup driven by a man who doesn’t like to lose. The problem is that even a Golf with gear issues is beautiful on the turns, especially in places where speed matters less than stability. As we entered Kisii, the man overtook me just enough to get my attention, then his friend passed a note with a phone number. If I ever want to sell the car, he shouts, I should call him.
I was still smiling about this when I realized that we still have quite the distance to go. Darkness was setting in and my shoulders were cramping up. On the other end of this trip would be one of the most fascinating places in Kenya.
Set on Lake Victoria, Rusinga Island is an elongated stretch connected to the mainland by a recently completed bridge. At night, if you look out into the lake, it looks like a city has sprung out of nowhere. An endless city of flickering lights as fishermen camp out in the lake. In the morning they’ll make their way to the beaches, dragging with them the night’s catch.
From Rusinga, you are just a boat ride from Birds’ Island, a mound of rock out in the lake that’s home to many bird species. Then there’s Takawiri, whose images tend to look unbelievable. Its white sandy beaches and lush palm trees look misplaced in these parts. There’s also Mfangano, the second home of the Abasuba.
It’s not hard to see why the Abasuba chose these islands as home. The Suba (or Subanese) are descendants of exiles from a dynastic war for the Buganda throne on the other side of the lake. Their story starts, like most stories of royal intrigue, with a murder. That of Kabaka Kyabaggu by one of his valets. Then his sons started fighting each other for the throne.
One of them hired a group of mercenaries called the Abakantu. They were successful, but perhaps too much. One of them slaughtered the reigning king and desecrated his body, earning the wrath of their blesser. So one day, under the cover of darkness, they sneaked into boats and rowed away from trouble, and onto these islands.
Two centuries later, yours truly is driving towards them at night, with Diamond’s ‘Salome Wangu’ blaring in the background. It’s a smooth stretch of road with proper markings and reflectors, on an otherwise totally dark night with little traffic. The cramping has given way to pain now, and several pit stops to stretch don’t seem to have helped.
We finally get to Rusinga Island at 9pm, tired and famished. Our home for the night is a place called Blue Ridge Hotel. A shower later, we head downstairs for dinner. Meanwhile, someone combs through our bags and makes away with electronics and money.
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