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The Visitor

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 becoming endangered.      

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 with syrup,

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 ease transitions.

“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.

Part 2                   

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 appealing.

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.

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