By: Aileen Easter, Ithaca, USA
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
The Kenyan sun rose once again as it had for millennia
over the great expanse of Lake Victoria, highlighting the sea-like
spray of the largest freshwater lake in Africa.
It had only been days and weeks that this was my view upon waking
every morning; the rich blues of the lake and a variety of greens
and browns in the landscape accentuated by a fresh lake breeze and
the music of mourning doves. It had always been my wish to
visit Africa and now, in the comfort of a pleasant routine, this
place was beginning to feel like home.
I grabbed my toiletries and headed for the restrooms
of the dormitory. The sounds of flushing toilets and running water
for washing were heard. Our group was being housed in a very
modern and urban building by rural Kenyan standards. It was
an anomaly to our lesser surroundings. Our dormitory was housed
within the ICIPE (International Center for Insect Physiology and
Ecology). Scientists were here studying mosquitoes and malaria.
ICIPE was surrounded by a tall chain link fence separating us from
the rest of Western Kenya.
We had come as volunteers to assist the Green Africa
Network (GAN) and others who were teaching and studying at Nairobi
University. Their goal was to record and preserve the practices
of the local “goya mbaka- traditional healers.
Their hope was that the general public would come to understand
the importance of this ancient knowledge and thereby provide resources
to protect the area. The island of our focus,
Rusinga, was completely deforested. Many of the plants that the
healers used could be useful in contemporary medicine yet many were
In the dining room greetings were exchanged in the
local language of dholuo. “Oyaore, Oyaore (Oh-ya-or-ay).”
I sat down to traditional Kenyan breakfast of ugali (a maize porridge
similar to grits) and fish, the cooks had also provided pancakes
bacon and sausages for the westerners. Being a healthfully
minded pseudo-vegetarian, I preferred the traditional foods of fish,
maize and greens. Not only was I at home with my surroundings, but
the food suited me as well.
The director of the program described each group' s
visit for the day. We had prescribed questions that we were
to ask the healers: What diseases do you treat? What plants
or other materials do you use? How do you prepare the remedy?
Once we asked the questions, we were to collect samples of the plants,
label them and put them into plant presses where the plant matter
could be evaluated at the University. Locals from the island and
translators from other towns helped to clear misunderstandings and
“Mos Ahinya (Mos- Ah- Heen- Ya) - I' m sorry,
apologized our director, Bethwell, in dholuo. “Our driver
has someplace else to be today, so we will have to walk to our destination.”
He explained that most of the herbalists we would visit this day
were somewhat close in distance but we should bring lots of water
to drink anyhow.
Everyone met in front of the building and we began
our walk with jovial conversations between volunteers from the United
States and Great Britain and the local University students and translators.
Speaking with Roman, I found he was a retired school administrator.
His stern look and commanding voice intimated at his need for order.
As a schoolteacher myself, to some extent, I could relate.
As we left ICIPE, we closed the gate behind us and
headed down the dirt road. When we passed the marketplace at Mbita
Point, activity was minimal and it was quiet. We reached the
causeway leading from the mainland of Kenya to the remote island
of Rusinga. Rusinga had no running water or electricity and only
in recent history were there any roads at all on the island.
The causeway was relatively new as well. Not long ago,
scientists, birders and others could only reach the island by boat
or plane. The island had very little connection to the wider world
of even its own motherland of Kenya. Two things connected
Rusinga to the larger world of Kenya: Thomas Mboya, a Luo statesman
from the island and the causeway which formed after years of people
throwing their trash and whatever they could find into a narrow
strip of water. Eventually, a bridge was formed.
Crossing the causeway, we heard the sound that is
often called the voice of Africa.
“Rhaw, Rhaw, Rhaw,” called the fish eagles as they soared
overhead. Across the causeway we could see the gently rolling
hills and wide expanses of Rusinga. Vibrant shades of green
in the land and a variety of Lake Victoria blues were uninterrupted
by very little except an occasional goat or a smiling passer-by.
We passed comforting browns in the mud but homes and colorful plots
of maize, millet and sorghum.
Around a rocky plateau, the familiar and face of
Joseph appeared. He was one of the island locals whose presence
helped to relax the herbalists during our interviews. Joseph
was standing at a fork in the road, smiling. He was one of
our group and it was good to see him. “Oyaore,”
the casual and comfortable greetings of friends were exchanged as
Joseph joined us. As we neared the water, we sighted simple
canoes and hundreds of tiny fish drying on spreads of fishing nets.
People were sitting on the shore in a line pulling a long rope that
was attached to a net in the water that held the captured fish.
The rhythmic pulling had a smooth motion drawing
me in. “You want to try it?” Joseph asked. “ Sure,”
I replied. Another guy in our group Jim decided to give it a go
also. Joseph led us down to the rope and said something to someone
who seemed to be leading the operation. Jim and I were invited
to sit on the sand at two empty spots on the rope. We pulled
and pulled. Doing this activity all day would get to be very
tiring, I thought. It' s time to go,” Joseph called,
relieving us. We had to meet the herbalist up the hill who
was waiting for us.
We passed some children in the road carrying all
types of tattered plastic buckets. They were on their way to get
water but they stopped to say hello, “Oyaore”. They
laughed at westerner' s attempts to speak their language.
We would speak in dholuo and they would speak in English.
“Oriti (or-eat-ee), we called out. Bye, they said in unison
as we parted down the road.
As we approached the herbalist home, other curious children waved
hello, then scattered into darkened areas taking refuge from the
heat. Leocadia warmly welcomed us into her two room mud and
thatch hut. She asked us to pray with her, as is the custom
upon leaving and entering a residence and after some small talk
between the translators and herself she served us an island feast
of foods similar to those at breakfast: fish, ugali and greens.
She offered us plates but no utensils. Everyone delved in
with their fingers while we ate quietly with watching eyes upon
us waiting to see if we liked the food.
We then gave her the gifts we brought (small mirrors,
scarves and crayons for the kids) as a courtesy for having
us in her home. She seemed pleased and afterwards, she brought
us outside to show us the plants that she had described to us the
previous day. We collected, labeled and pressed them
as the children looked on. As we were leaving, she thanked
us for coming and told us to come back soon.
GAN had set up a place on the island for trees and
a future medicinal garden to be planted. We were led to the spot
and that day, we planted many trees. It felt great to be part
of several cultures sitting side by side working toward a common
goal of sustainability on the island. The project had helped
forge many friendships.
Thinking back on the entire day, I felt lucky. It
was an honor and rare experience to be invited into the intimate
space of the villagers' homes. The herbalist gave so freely of what
little they had, sharing homemade food, conversation and kindness.
Our local Kenyan guides had made all of this possible and also been
warm and friendly. It was on this day that camaraderie was formed
that seemed to blur the lines of our separate cultures. We had become
embraced, “Kit yien en kitwa” - as the Luo say - in
the heart of each others culture.
The end of our workday had allowed for a leisurely
walk back to the Center. People parted ways with warm goodbyes
and left in small groups. Joseph invited myself and two others
to come to see his home. With an enthusiastic wave of his
arm, he invited us to visit his compound. Pride emanated from
his figure as he showed us his homestead. He was well
off as one could tell by the large size of his compound, his healthy
glow, his array of clothing, the privacy of his yard with the rare
commodity of trees and the multitude of his family. Colonies
of laughing, excited children came to greet us. He introduced
us to his two wives. Polygamy is legal and accepted in rural
Luo culture. It is a sign of a man' s wealth. The wives were
polite but seemed restrained and tired.
As we were leaving the compound, Joseph took me
aside. “You know,” he said, I have extra space here,
I could give you a nice place.” Joseph was asking ME to be
his third wife. I couldn' t believe it! And, then, I
considered it. Hmm, well, the scenery is beautiful, the food
is tasty, the people are warm and life is simple. No bills
to pay, no loud traffic or industry, just a life of gardening, cooking
and fishing under sunny skies. Joseph' s prospect almost seemed
I looked back at the homestead; the children were
clamoring and whining after their mothers, who had a small bit of
food to share amongst them. They were irritable after the magic
of the visitors had gone.
Wait! What was I thinking? At that moment,
the true reality of where I was set in. AIDS and other diseases
were rampant. Many villagers believed that certain diseases
were curses for breaking taboos. What taboos would I unknowingly
break? At that moment, a certain magic left my vision
as well. My looking glass that showed Rusinga as an ideal
world shattered, my vision was open and exposed. Did I want
to bear 5-10 children with little chance for survival? Could
I carry liters of water up a hill everyday?
Hunger was a reality here and women' s rights
were severely restricted. Our differences became starkly different.
Though I had been privy to a beautiful part of the world many will
never see, where people are warm and friendly and universal connections
were made, I was a stranger in a strange land.
Looking towards the road, I saw my group. Teachers,
conservationists and scientists were waiting for me. It was
time to go, so after saying goodbye, we left Joseph standing in
front of his wealthy Luo homestead on his wonderful island as we
headed back to our sterile gated community with running water for
washing and toilets that flushed. Crossing the causeway, I
thought about the fact the only thing separating us from the large
water of a lake full of hippos, crocodile and 200 pound Nile Perch
was a bit of a few weeds, some rocks and a pile of trash.
The market at Mbita Point was lively. Benga music beats played
from a ramshackle building made of tin, plastic, wood with peeling
paint and other scraps of material. Dozens of similar buildings
lined the Point. Sellers had shoes, belts and other clothing,
dried goods, and other wares displayed from their modest shelters
which were bustling with market goers. I bargained for a sea-green
child carrier whose soft cloth could bring cushioning and perhaps,
the essence of this faraway place to the baby of a friend back home,
ah home. I would just click my hiking boots three times and
be back home bringing only the memories and few souvenirs of this
warm and wonderful place where I was merely a visitor.