Every last Thursday and Friday before Christmas, a colourful event dubbed the Rusinga Festival takes place in Rusinga Island,Kenya.
Rusinga Island is one of the numerous islands on Lake Victoria and is approximately six to seven hours drive from Nairobi the capital of Kenya. The other alternative routes from Nairobi is by flight to Kisumu then connecting to Mbita by road through Ahero-Katito-KenduBay-Homa Bay then to Mbita or use a ferry direct from Kisumu to Mbita.
The Island is one of the important archaeological sites in Kenya where fossils and the skull of Procunsul Africanus was found by Mary Leakey.
The Island is an ideal bird watchers paradise with one hundred species of birds having been recorded with a good number of them termed as endangered. It is also the best place to see giant monitor lizards;bigger in size than most seen in the entire region.
The Suba people.
The Abasuba are a sub-tribe of the Bantu people of East Africa. It is estimated that there are just about a hundred thousand (100,000) Subanese left.The shrinking of the Suba culture is attributed to cultural blending from the larger Luo tribe through intermarriages and interactions.
History has it that the Suba were kicked from Uganda and settled in the islands of Mfangano and Rusinga in Kenya by the then Kabaka (King of the Kingdom of Buganda) because of witchcraft. According to one of the curators at the Abasuba Community Peace Museum, witchcraft and rainmaking are still practiced, however at a small proportion.
The Rusinga Cultural Festival is a story, a journey and a celebration of the Abasuba people who use this platform to tell the world who they are and the need to preserve their already endangered culture.
The 5th edition of the festival attracted a mammoth crowd of enthusiastic participants, exhibitors, organizers and attendees. Driving through Rusinga island, it is almost impossible to imagine the entire population seen at the festival were from the neighboring villages that seemed scarcely populated…well from an outsiders eyes.
The event held at Kamasengre Primary School grounds was full of sparkle, fun and zest.
At first when I visited the grounds on the eve of the event, I went to bed convinced that there wasn’t really much to see at this festival. I doubted I was going to even enjoy myself.
Fast forward to the festival date… a massive transformation had taken place! There were people everywhere trying to catch a glimpse of the main event, music, entertainers, media from all corners and generally good vibe in the air.
Then there were a particular group of dancers that definitely stole the show with their energetic dances. Their traditional costumes,sunny smiles and coordinated moves pulled everyone to them every time they performed.
While the traditional dances songs and story telling sessions went on at the main arena, exhibitors showcased Suba culture at different levels in the white tents at the peripheries.Food,fashion, literature and traditional artifacts like pottery,woodwork,basketry were exhibited.
As the program would have it, the dance groups were to lead the procession to a nearby beach called Luore to witness the boat race. This was most irresistible part of the entire festival. In no time I was part of the group singing and dancing through the villages calling on more villagers and visitors to join us.
The Rusinga Cultural Festival’s boat race is an event on its own that attracts an even larger crowd. Dozens of people joined the procession as we traversed through the villages. In a few short minutes,as everyone else approached the beach, there was yet another larger crowd patiently waiting for the race to start.
It is all song and dance as the competing groups prepare to start the race.
The most impressive attribute of the organizers of Rusinga Festival is time keeping.Events ran smoothly and within the scheduled time. The boat race was not an exception either.It started on time.
Never in my life have I ever seen so much vivacity. During flag off, loud cheers and clapping filled the air as the teams put their best paddles forward. Defeat was not an option here… evidently.Especially when there was money to be won.
The adrenaline, sweat and determination yielded narrow wins and worthy losers. Everyone broke into dance and jubilation again, singing traditional songs of victory in favor of the winning teams and their boats.
After the exciting boat race, the crowd then matched up again to Kamasengre school grounds where wrestling ,tug of war, ajua and other teams were preparing.
It was during the Rusinga Festival that I watched a live wrestling match. Nothing compared to what we see on TV.The heart beat that comes with watching a live match in action is uncontainable. There is a mix of fear and thrill all in one. It is a nail biting experience.
The Suba men have energy and endurance. I also discovered that wrestling is a mind game.
As wrestling went on, the older men were battling their wits with Ajua; a popular gambling board game that originated in Kenya and is played in some parts of East Africa as well.
Tug of war was drawing up a crowd and so was the fashion show. After the wrestling matches, fashion show seemed more appealing to me. It was wonderful to check out amazing designs from the designers who did a good job telling the evolution of African fashion.
Before I knew it, the sun was already casting its orange rays signaling the end of yet another day at the island. Most of the days activities had come to an end,but the locals stayed behind to enjoy tunes from their favorite local musicians.
The event definitely lived up to its name. I cant wait to attend the 6th Edition of the same,but next time I will register as a wrestler or a dancer.Maybe.
Long live Rusinga Cultural Festival.
Long live Rusinga Island.The beautiful island with a breathtaking sunset.
Photo contributor: Antony Muwasu Ochieng