Rusinga festival: saving the Abasuba culture

Saturday December 29 2018

Rusinga Festival

AGES Dancers performing a Luo folk dance at the Rusinga Festival. PHOTO | ANTHONY MUWASI 

MAGUNGA WILLIAMS
By MAGUNGA WILLIAMS
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A people can die off without losing their lives. So to save the culture of the Abasuba people, Anne Eboso has been hosting the annual Rusinga Festival for the past six years.

The Abasuba are Bantu and are believed to have migrated from Uganda to Kenya more than 500 years ago.

The Abasuba settled in the southern reaches of Lake Victoria on the Kenyan side, most predominantly on the Rusinga and Mfangano islands.

The word Rusinga comes from the Suba word Eluzinga, which means island. So Rusinga Island just means Island Island.

The islands were already occupied by the dominant Nilotic Luo tribe who intermarried with the Abasuba.

It is no wonder that many people think that the Suba (or Subanese, as they sometimes call themselves) are a subset of the Luo community.

It also does not help that the political elite coined the phrase Luo-Abasuba, in effect propagating a lie.

Dying out

Currently, there are about 300,000 Suba people and just about 50,000 who speak the language. Meaning, the Suba culture, if not preserved, will soon be lost.

The Rusinga Festival tries to separate the two cultures. Each year, during the week just before Christmas, the festival is held for two days on Kamasengre Grounds on Rusinga Island.

Although the primary aim of the festival is to raise awareness about the dying Suba culture, it also showcases the region as a tourist destination.

rusinga festival

Cultural activities at the Rusinga Festival held on December 20 and 21, 2018. PHOTO | ANTHONY MUWASI

Started in 2013, the festival has gained popularity, both with Kenyans and international visitors.

This year, there were about 8,000 visitors to the festival from 13 countries — Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Argentina, Germany, Kosovo, the US, the Netherlands, India, the UK, the Czech Republic, the Phillipines and Australia.

The local hotels including new ones were fully booked during the festival period, and some guests had to be housed in dormitories at local schools.

On the first day, visitors went on a tour of Rusinga and the neighbouring islands of Mfangano, Mbasa and Soklo.

Ramogi dancers at the Rusinga Festival. PHOTO |

Ramogi dancers at the Rusinga Festival. PHOTO | ANTHONY MUWASI

Rusinga is the birthplace of African statesman Thomas Joseph Mboya, who was assassinated in 1969 when he was stepping out of a pharmacy on Government Road in Nairobi. This is where he was laid to rest and a mausoleum was built in the shape of the bullet that killed him.

Next to Mboya’s grave is that of trade unionist William X. Scheinman who was a friend of Mboya; in his will he requested to be buried next to him.

At the mausoleum is the leather suitcase that Mboya was carrying on the day he was killed. Some blood is still visible on the case.

The Kenyan flag that draped his casket during his funeral, and the name plaque that used to sit on his desk when he was Kenya’s minister for finance, are also there.

At Rusinga, people talk of a ghost city. It is a sight to behold. While standing on top of one of the hills - Got Kiahera — you can watch a spectacular sunset, and as night falls, the fishermen row their boats into the blue of dusk.

The fishermen carry lanterns to attract fish, but when you see them from afar in their hundreds, it looks like a skyline in the distance, hence “ghost city.”

There are a pair of footsteps imprinted on the ground on the island. Nobody knows where they came from and whom they belong to, but tradition has it that these are from the feet of Jesus himself.

A boat ride to the sandy beaches of neighbouring Takawiri island is a must. And so is one to Mfangano Island.

Most Suba live on Mfangano, but it is not connected to the mainland. Rusinga island was recently connected to the mainland at Mbita via a bridge.

Abasuba's history

On Mfangano Island is the Abasuba Cultural Museum, which tells the full history of the Suba as well as visit the Mawanga Caves that were used by the warring clans of the Suba community.

Mbasa Island is a birders’ paradise, with more than a hundred unique species of migratory birds. And atop a hill on Soklo Island is a crater lake.

There are anchor cultural activities such as cultural performances, sports (board games, tug of war, wrestling and boat races), food and cultural displays and pageants.

A mock fight at the Rusinga Festival. PHOTO |

A mock fight at the Rusinga Festival. PHOTO | ANTHONY MUWASI

For the past two years, there have been additional activities. Last year the Abasuba pictorial exhibition in partnership with the National Museums of Kenya was introduced and this year, they started the “Island Reading Series” in partnership with the Goethe Institut.

The reading space had storytelling for children. Additional partners came on board like the US embassy, which sponsored the library and boat races.

This year there were troupes from Uganda and South Africa performing at the festival.

The second day of the festivities had lots of action. There was a tug of war for both men and women, older men playing ajua — a traditional board game, and cultural performances from both the Luo and Suba communities in song, dance, food, pageantry and storytelling.

A musician performs at the Rusinga Festival.

A musician performs at the Rusinga Festival. PHOTO | ANTHONY MUWASI

The highlights of the festival were two highly anticipated events: The boat race where men and women from different villages on the island compete for annual bragging rights. Then there was amen — traditional wrestling.

The women’s boat race at the Rusinga Festival

The women’s boat race at the Rusinga Festival held on December 20 and 21. PHOTO | ANTHONY MUWASI

The winners received cash prizes from the sponsors.

The festival gets little government support (county or national), so Eboso meets most of the expenses with the help of well-wishers.

Much of the work of putting the festival together is done by volunteers from the community. Partners give in kind, like covering travel costs and providing prizes.

Beyond the festival, Rusinga is a great island to visit and relax. To get there, you can go by road from Kisumu to Homa Bay then on to Mbita and across the new bridge into Rusinga.

Or, you can go to Luanda Kotieno and catch a ferry, waterbus or speed boat across the lake. It’s about 40 minutes to Mbita, then across into Rusinga via the bridge.

You could also take a flight to Rusinga Airstrip. Rusinga Island Lodge has a helipad.

Once on the island, you can stay at the Lake Victoria Safari Village, Mbita Tourist Hotel, Wayando Eco-Lodge or Rusinga Island Lodge.