Catrina Stewart heads to the islands on Lake Victoria in search of a peaceful retreat and a whopper of a Nile Perch.
Who killed Tom Mboya? The riddle over the murder of one of Kenya’s most celebrated politicians in 1969 remains unsolved to this day. Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge, the man who pulled the trigger, said as he was arrested, “Why pick on me? Why not the big man? We did what we were told.” He never did reveal the identity of the “big man,” and was hanged in haste, most probably to prevent him from talking.
Nearly half a century after his murder, Mboya’s name still resonates hugely in Western Kenya. Schools are named after him, and his mausoleum, moulded in the shape of the bullet that killed him, on a windswept patch of Rusinga Island still attracts a steady stream of visitors keen to pay their respects.
Leafing through the Mboya family’s press cuttings about his life, I wonder what might have been. Would Mboya, as a pan-Africanist who claimed to look beyond tribe, have helped Kenya overcome its tribal divisions had he succeeded the ailing Jomo Kenyatta, as many expected? Or would he have succumbed to the trappings and challenges of power?
Paul Ndiege, Mboya’s much younger half brother, who takes drop-in visitors on a tour of the politician’s final resting place, naturally believes that his sibling could have been Kenya’s saviour, perhaps even the continent’s.
“Tom was beyond tribal or ethnic boundaries. He ensured Kenya was one vision, one people,” he says. “If he’d lived, Africa as a whole would have taken a very different course.”
We take our leave, deep in thought. Ndiege supplies no answers to the identity of those who sought his brother’s demise, but he talks eloquently about the decades of disappointment and marginalisation of Kenya’s Western peoples.
We drive back along the rutted track that loops around Rusinga, and past the smart Rusinga Island Lodge, where a former owner with a background in shipping conceived a plan to restore broken-down steamers and fit them out for luxury cruises. It might have transformed this part of Lake Victoria into a more popular destination for holidaymakers – and helped bring prosperity to the West. But he died an untimely death, and his plans died with him.
The largest lake in Africa and source of the Nile, Lake Victoria spans 27,000 square miles. It was named by John Hanning Speke, the British explorer who first reached its shores in 1858. It is a lifeline for those who live here, with fishing, although depleted, still a main source of income for lakeshore communities.
Yet, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, it’s not on many of my friends’ “mustsee” lists. Tourism in this region is still nascent, as evidenced by just a smattering of decent accommodation.
My stomach knots with excitement as we scramble onto a launch in Mbita, a twoshack kind of place that has morphed over a relatively short time into a sprawling town and launching pad for the islands. We’re headed for Mfangano Island Lodge, a retreat on the attractive island of the same name. Unlike Rusinga, it has not been denuded of its trees, nor is it troubled by bilharzia, the parasite that thrives in stagnant water around Lake Victoria’s shores, and burrows through human skin.
We break the golden rule: do not cross the lake in the afternoon, when the wind starts to whip up. As our speedboat crashes over the swollen waves, I clutch my pregnant belly and castigate myself for not taking the weather into consideration.
Soon, though, we are puttering around the edges of rugged, forested Mfangano, and we slowly motor into the camp, where a handful of attractive thatched cottages are clustered around a small bay. This serene resort is hardly what I expect to find in Lake Victoria. We are soon swaying in hanging swings, sundowner in hand, on the pier stretching into the lake. Dinner takes place by candlelight in the garden, where we’re treated to a feast of twinkling lights on the horizon, those of the hundreds of fishermen using lamps to attract the tiny omena, a silvery sardine-like fish.
For the most part, those who stay at Mfangano – part of the Governor’s Collection – have traditionally been the safari goers, looking for a place to relax after a trip to the Maasai Mara. But perhaps things are changing in this part of Kenya, with events such as the annual Rusinga Island Festival, or Mfangano’s recent cycling race around the island, attracting a younger, more active crowd.
The following day, we do what everyone does on this lake: fish. Our target is the Nile Perch, which was introduced into the lake several years ago to the detriment of the native Tilapia.
Within moments of our setting up the rods, I get a nibble. “Reel it in! Reel it in,” shouts Sam, the boat’s captain. Thrashing on the other end of the line is perhaps the biggest Nile Perch I have ever seen. It ducks and dives, but it is thoroughly snared.
Sam leans over the side of the boat, and jabs a vicious-looking hook through the fish’s bottom lip. Hauling it over the side of the vessel, he makes a quick judgement. “It’s about a kilo,” he says, giving it a couple of quick thwacks to the head. I smile broadly – not just a fish, but a big one, too, I think.
Sam quickly deflates my mood. “I once caught a Nile Perch weighing 71 kilos,” he says. “It was nearly as heavy as me.”
I look at him doubtfully, trying to imagine what it must feel like to haul in a perch weighing 71 times as much as the dying creature – no longer a whopper, but a tiddler – flapping gently at my feet.
Leaning back in the boat, I survey my surroundings. Less than a couple of hundred yards off, two fishermen are hauling in a net. Unlike us, they haven’t yet caught anything. But it’s still early.
We pack away the rods and continue our circumnavigation of the Bird Islands, two giant chunks of rock where cormorants bask in dying, dung-spattered trees, well-camouflaged monitor lizards scuttle away at our approach, and otters frolic in the shallows.
We putter into Takawiri Island, where Manmeet and his wife Kati have taken over the management of a small lodge on what is possibly the only bit of white beach in the vicinity. Kati, who does most of the cooking for guests, is away when we visit, so Manmeet has rustled up a fish curry for lunch. Manmeet is no amateur, however. Both he and his wife once
ran a popular restaurant in Kisumu. Besides the rustic accommodation that they offer, the couple are landscaping a campsite that will be one of the few decent budget accommodation options on the islands.
Back at Mfangano, I eschew the camp’s inviting-looking pool to make an excursion to the caves to see the rock art, said to be some 4,000 years old. Daniel, a hunched islander from the Suba people, with a jovial patter, leads us up a steep path through scrub and thorn bushes to a cave where we can just make out red and white whorls on the rock sides, painted by the Two pygmy hunter gatherers. Red was for rain, and white for drought, summoned to weaken the enemy and force them out.
The cave was divided into two halves – one for the men, one for the women. Daniel perches on a bit of rock which he says was the matriarchal seat, where the most senior woman would oversee her flock of girls, and ensure no impropriety. If a young girl was caught straying before marriage, she’d be sent back to the tribal home to marry an older man with several wives. And the man in this tryst, did he get off scot-free, I tease Daniel. “No,” he smiles, perhaps deliberately misunderstanding. “For the old man, it was a blessing.”
Despite their legacies, certain groups have had only a tenuous foothold on these shores. The Two were vanquished, forced into retreat in the Great Lakes, where they remain marginalised. I wonder if the Suba, struggling to retain their identity and their language in an overwhelmingly Luo area, could, too, face a similar fate. The two tribes coexist peacefully, but the Luos, too, feel threatened in this neglected part of Kenya.
Our last day on Mfangano, we take breakfast on the jetty, the lake’s waters still and glistening in the morning sun. Ahead of us is the drive to Nairobi. It may be only a seven hour drive, but it feels like a million miles away from the serenity of the lake.
The writer and photographer were guests of Mfangano Island Resort. Resident rates start from roughly Ksh 16,000 pp, full-board. The lodge is closed in April and May.
To access the islands, head for the mainland town of Mbita, where you can drive across a bridge to Rusinga, or catch either the water boat or ferry to Takawiri and Mfangano islands. Fly540 now flies to Homa Bay, 40 minutes’ away.