Rusinga: The forgotten beach and bird paradise
The boat hits the sand of the shore and comes to a halt.
I breathe a sigh of relief. I’m finally on Rusinga Island, or Chula as the islanders call it.
Rusinga Island is one of the best kept secrets of Kenya’s tourism. Much has to do with its location and access.
On this backpacking adventure, I travelled by bus from Nairobi to Kisumu.
From Kisumu, a cramped matatu took me past K’ogello (Barack Obama’s paternal ancestral home) in Siaya, and on to Luanda Ko’otieno on the shores of Lake Victoria from where an hour’s boatride brought me to Rusinga Island.
Rusinga lies on the eastern stretch of Lake Victoria, at the mouth of Winam Gulf.
The island is 16km long. I booked into Rusinga Island Lodge, an exclusive lodge with eight cottages, lush vegetation and complete with a private airstrip and a jetty that is fully lit at night.
I set out to see what a person on holiday would do on the island, besides lying on the warm sandy beach. Well, for one, you could hire a boat and explore the nearby islands.
One of the guides from the lodge suggested bird watching.
“Birds, like, with wings and all?” I asked him. “Yes, birds.” He repeated. Now, I’m not a fan of bird watching.
But apparently Rusinga Island is a bird paradise with some 369 species of local and migratory birds, many not found anywhere else in Kenya.
There is a bird island not too far from the lodge. The guide promised that I would not be disappointed.
And he was right. The small island happens to be a breeding ground for many of the bird species, and everywhere I looked, were birds perched on trees, basking in the sun, fishing or just frolicking in the water. It was a sort of “ bird’s mall,” I remember thinking.
Takawiri Island was a pleasant surprise with white sandy beaches and palm trees.
We toured the now defunct hotel property then later swam in the clear waters.
Mfangano Island loomed large across from Takawiri. The beauty of Lake Victoria is its sparkling blue waters.
When heading back to the lodge (after our attempts at fishing yielded nothing but embarrassed laughter) I saw a roof of a “house” with a bullet shape. “Is that a church?”
I asked our guide. It is the Tom Mboya Mausoleum, said the guide.
Although Tom Mboya died 40 years ago, his spirit is still very much present on Rusinga Island. His death is treated as a grand act of martyrdom.
A visit to his mausoleum is a lesson in history, and one of the many brothers (Mboya’s father had four wives) Paul Ndiege walked us through the life of one of Kenya’s legends, felled by a bullet in the political intrigues of the 1960s.
He also showed me mementos from Mboya’s life, which included an old briefcase which he was carrying when he was shot in present day Moi Avenue in Nairobi.
Faint bloodstains are still visible on the copper latches.
A stone’s throw from the official mausoleum is a cultural centre that is an alternative source of information on Tom Mboya’s life.
The effervescent and eloquent Nick Odhiambo — also one of Mboya’s half-brothers — takes guests through Mboya’s life in a muddy and grass-thatched hamlet.
The difference from the mausoleum is that he has a tonne of interesting newspaper cuttings pasted on the walls, including a computerised impression of what Mboya would have looked like today. Odhiambo also gives a talk on the culture of the Luo.
At night, a calming stillness descends on Rusinga, with the only sound being the waves hitting the shore.
And from the lodge’s charming jetty, I can see out in the lake dancing lights from fishermen’s lanterns.
The string of lights looked like a lone city in the lake. And once in a while, the wind carries their voices to the shore; a ghostly sound. The whole scene is quite enchanting.