You know there is always that thing about an experience sounding more heavenly when told to you than when you are there in person. Such was the case when I visited Lamu. Actually everything visible was more beautiful and pleasurable than I had read or imagined.
It was just me and the chile. As in my relationship was rocky at that time and spending time in such a beautiful serene Island gave me too much undesired time to observe my weaknesses. More clearly than I had solicited for.
So I shrugged it off and called a friend who had disclosed to me that there existed a Luo village in Manda Island. Whoah!, I mean, I know our ancestors had traveled all the way from Bahr el-Ghazal in the North-western region of Southern Sudan to Kisumu dala and its environs- but that was a long time ago. How did these ninjas settle all the way up here in the land of the Oswayos ? It was simply the best excuse to run away from myself and my chile troubles.
(I’m feeling it so I’ll continue in present tense.)
My friend patiently explains to me why it is the moon and not the wind that causes high and low tides. Unfortunately geography was merely a tolerated subject in school so I nod her on. She notices am not following and uses another method. (Yeah, I loved practicals) She brings my attention to the wet mangrove stems that explain the ebbing tide. The dhow heaves steadily, surging toward the Maweni shore on Manda Island. The kaskasi blows through my face, gently reminding me to wear my sun glasses as a congregation of egrets glide neatly over us, towards the Island. I imagine they will see the Luo village before I do. My excitement is uncontainable. I will finally know more about the Luo stone-cutters who, I understand, have called this lovely Oswayo Island home for the last thirty years.
On expanding my view further to the Maweni shore, I notice that what from a distance had looked like a neat arrangement of white cairns , is actually neat piles of peach corals curved carefully into equal rectangles, ready for shipment. A few men load them in old boats which will transport them to Shela and Lamu towns where the middle-men will sell them for more than thrice the original amount.
A robust, dusty, dark-skinned man marches quickly as if pressed, coming from the village. Heavy tall piles of corals rest gently on his shoulders. My first instinct is to go lend a hand- since I am somewhat afraid that he might stumble and fall. It then hits me that this is a full time job. So in a way, his profession, so he knows way better. As I step back to make way for more porters, an unreadable woman who had noticed us climb ashore, calls out to a foreman who is supervising the transportation of the coral stones. She urges him, in dholuo, to come and attend to my friend and me.
I mask my aiwoshe emotions as I am elated to hear my mother tongue being spoken this far away from home … in such kind gesture. Checking to make sure my face is tight and stern not to expose this emotion. I don’t know why men do this but we do and we will always do. Full stop.
The foreman gives us a warm welcome and offers to give us a tour of the village. Soon he is joined by some of his friends who are visibly delighted to discover that I am also a Luo.
We walk through a clean sandy path with brick-like rooms scattered on the side. Entering the village feels like being welcomed into a South African kraal.
But the joy quickly fades as I notice the dilapidated conditions of the shaky mud huts. Why would they extract coral for town residents then live in mud-huts? A soothing thought compares the huts to the ones in Luo Nyanza, suggesting how strongly connected they are to their ancestral home albeit being days away from home.
“The rain is definitely here”.
Our guide announces as he observes an awkwardly green acacia tree. It doesn’t look like it especially since its about 34 degrees Celsius. And the air is humid and musky. Jasho jembamba my frien’. I relish esoteric knowledge so I curve my face to look curious.
“It will now become very hot for a few days then it will rain. And all the plants around us that look dry and dead will be green again. It’s just like hibernation.”
His eyes are stuck on the water jerricans that are being cart-wheeled to different huts and immediately I get it that his hopes for rain have a lot more to do with just green flora. Fresh water of course. He confesses that the state of water supply is stressful. The water is ferried from Lamu Island by a particular business man. They then buy it five to ten times the usual price that an average Lamu town resident would get it for. The government fixed water pipes that brought water to Manda Airport but that is still quite the distance from the village. A few NGOs have also donated water-harvest tanks but they hope facets of fresh water will soon pour opened in the village.
It takes a short while for me to take this in. A whole community has not had access to fresh affordable water for more than thirty years.
A few meters from the acacia I see the first coral cutter. As I walk towards him I notice a pattern of shallow pits surrounded by dry or thorny shrubs. For no specific reason I had imagined that the quarry would be a massive deep-pit. Perhaps because of the the swampy quarries we would swim in that are still engraved in my childhood memory. We called them Kware and the activity, Dufo mpararo. Wonder who else was disappointed when they discovered that actually even normal clean swimming pools also pararisha you.
The coral-cutter is busy at work, cutting the edges of the pit with a machete. I can tell he is racing against the setting sun. His bare chest is dry and mottled with peach powder. Same for his face so it is not easy to identify him. On noticing me, he stops for a second and greets me cordially. I had not expected him to break out of work and I secretly wonder how he harbors the capacity to portray such altruism.
Could it really be that this village is always this kind to visitors or is there a concealed frightful reason that an outsider like me may not see? Again, I’m a paranoid gentleman.
I become only too eager to find out how and why these Luos migrated from the lake side to the coastal end of Kenya. This is a journey of more than a thousand kilometers by road.
Get back to work now …or whatever you were supposed to do…and catch the second part of this blog next week on Saturday.