When in Kisumu, make sure you visit the museum
Saturday March 06 2010
Kisumu, the largest Kenyan town on the shores of Lake Victoria — also fondly called Kisumu City following its so-called upgrading 10 years ago — is an important maritime and commercial hub connecting northern Tanzania, eastern Uganda and western Kenya.
As expected, fish is the mainstay of this town, both for the local market and for export.
But apart from the lake and the fish, Kisumu, unlike what many East African residents think, has other attractions such as the Kisumu Impala Sanctuary (Kenya’s smallest wildlife reserve gazzetted in 1992 and home to impalas and zebras. Within the sanctuary is also an orphanage for caged lions, leopards, hyenas and other animals).
The Hippo Point and the Kisumu Museum established in 1980, the first to be built using government funding in post-independence Kenya, is another attraction.
The Kisumu Museum offers an exhibition that seeks to interpret the intangible heritage of the Luo by exploring their way of life and their artistic and social practices.
Beyond the pavilion, past the snake park, the aquarium, traditional weaponry, jewellery and farm tools from various ethnic communities of Kenya, is the model traditional Luo homestead, a resource on the Luo culture.
The home is called Ber Gi Dala, which roughly translates to “home is good.”
Visitors get a running commentary on the Luo and their traditional practices.
For example I learnt that it was as recently as 1450 that in order to escape the harsh climatic conditions caused by the spreading of the Sahara desert and the drying up of the Nile Delta, that the Luo migrated from the Nile Valley southwards through Southern Sudan and North Uganda before settling along the eastern shores of Lake Victoria.
And that Dholuo, the language of the Luo, which belongs to the Western Nilotic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language is also spoken by other Luo-speaking Ugandan people such as the Lang’o, the Acholi, the Padhola and the Alur.
At the model homestead, the guide points out the various plants and herbs used in traditional medicine to treat both the people and their livestock.
We also learnt that owls, hornbills and woodpeckers were all considered bringers of bad omens and were feared and loathed by the Luo.
The most interesting feature of the homestead is the three-legged traditional stool called Kom Nyaluo, a stool that virtually controlled who enjoyed marital favours from the husband of the home and thus controlled child bearing in the traditional Luo home which was, more often than not, polygamous.
The man of the house would send his youngest (and most innocent) child to take the stool to whichever wife’s hut as a sign he was going to spend the night.
But even more amusing, the man would not let sunrise find him in his wife’s hut and he would sneak back to his own, confusing the other wives as to where he had spent the night.
This brilliantly averted obvious petty jealousies bound to arise from a polygamous home.
“What if one wife felt that she wasn’t having the stool in her house often enough?” someone asked.
“Well, she would ask the first wife to intervene on her behalf,” said our tour guide.
“But what if the first wife didn’t like her, and made sure that her complaints did not reach their husband?” someone else insisted. The questions rolled on.
Suffice to say, ideally Kom Nyaluo was the seat that symbolised love and joy and also sustained life in a traditional Luo homestead. Literally and figuratively of course.