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Dr. John Patrick Ojwando
Published: March 2018

The city of Kisumu in the east African nation of Kenya is appealing to business and tourism, and residents are reveling in its newfound poise, as investors and traders make a beeline for the open spaces, discovers author on return to his ancestral home.

“Routine!”

“Another technical appearance.” These were some of the responses I got from my folks when I gave the clearest indication of an impending return to my ancestral home in Kenya.

Or so they must have thought…

After years of continued absence from family reunions and just a couple of fleeting visits to show for in over a decade, their dismissive retort one felt was justified. But then,I was determined this time round to make it count.

And there were incentives galore.

One, a welcome break! Two, the opportune moment to be in the midst of family members at a scheduled mass in memory of my late Granny, and third, to experience first-hand devolved governance in Kenya that had everyone talking.

While still in Bengaluru, I could feel a sense of heightened activities. Surely, it could not be just the ‘feel good’ moment.

Something was cooking. And it was heating quickly.

All of a sudden, close friends and relatives making the trips with a lot more regularity than before.

Fuelling my suspicion further was their penchant for property and investment banter at the drop of the hat.

What the hell is going on?

I was left wondering.

The answer would unravel upon my travel.

On a chilly Saturday morning, I arrived in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya aboard the Kenya Airways Vessel KQ 202. So much can be packed in a decade. And it was evident that my long absence had a telling effect.

I grew up in the outskirts of Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city.

The city is a story.

A principal location in western Kenya, it is situated at an altitude of 1131m with direct access to the Winam Gulf, which leads to the vast expanses of the rest of Lake Victoria, the largest freshwater lake in Africa and second in the world.

Erstwhile Port Florence, Kisumu was a landing point on the British flying boat passenger and mail route from the UK on the route down to South Africa’s Cape Town. However, opinion is divided on its present name. Some say Kisumu is a corruption of the word ‘Kisuma’- a place of ‘barter trade’. Others, ‘Kisumo’ –‘I am going to trade.’ And still others ‘Sumo’- a ‘place to look for food’. Whichever is true, it is believed the city is one of the earliest settlements in Kenya dominated by diverse communities at different times before the emergence of the Luo in the later years following their migration south from Sudan.

Where food is concerned, the famed ‘Ngege’ (Tilapia) has been a much-flaunted item on the menu.

Well, if you are on a first visit, there are hordes of eat outs to choose from, some of them with fascinating names. ‘Cham Gi Wadu’ (share with your relations),‘Jo Mwandu’ (the economically able), others bordering on the ridiculous–‘Lwangni’ (flies). Whether the restaurant is in awe of the indefatigable spirit of flies exhibited at eat outs remains a mystery. However, foodies in their reviews speak highly of the culinary experience. “It is the best place you could ever visit on an empty stomach”, shares a frequent visitor to the restaurant. While another laments: “I wonder why such a nice eating place is named after flies?”

To get a better feel of the fish eating culture of the Luo community, a visit to these joints is an eye-opener.

At the restaurants, it helps that foodies have the option to choose the fish size and see it cooked on the site according to your taste -dry (grilled/roasted) or wet (served in sauce of traditional ingredients).

Another place of interest is the car wash where cars, buses or trucks are driven into the lake for wash. Besides the revving of engines, foodies can feast on freshly cooked or grilled local fish, ngege at the nearby food stalls. Dipped in mouth-watering African spices, it is usually accompanied with kale, cabbage or kienyeji (traditional vegetables) by the side and either rice, chapatis or ugali – Africa’s staple food that sometimes features other grains such as millet, sorghum or cassava.

Incidentally, Kisumu is a stronghold of the Luo community and considered the hotbed of opposition politics in Kenya. The city regularly rises in proud defiance and tales of its many clashes with the central governments of any given day are well documented.

Sadly, it is a defiance often cited as the cause of Kisumu’s stagnant growth despite its strategic locale, erudite population and exciting tourism getaways.

The county is not far away from Siaya county, home of the father of US President Barack Obama.

His grandmother Sarah Hussein Obama now enjoys an exalted status with visits from high-flying guests from near and distant shores.

There is a strong mix of both expats and local immigrants in the city. Their presence is more visible at community events or clubs and pubs.

The Indian community has been settled in Kisumu for ages now with businesses spread across the city. They can be found in large numbers in the Central Business District and its main street, named after the first Vice President of Kenya, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

The city still clings to low rising colonial old style houses that have people of Indian descent as the occupants.

There are also numerous small villages around Lake Victoria of immense interest and tourists have been exploring some.

A visit to Dunga Beach for instance offers insights into the traditional lifestyles of the Luo fishermen.

A few meters drive from Dunga is Kiboko Bay Resort. From the outside, the resort seems to be a small -tented camp but has the option of dining at the venue. In the late evenings, one is assured of spectacular sunsets over Lake Victoria.

These scenes were at the back of my mind as I set out on my journey from Nairobi to Kisumu. My choice of Easy Coach bus service was to get a comfortable ride and the chance to tap into nostalgia a little by taking in the scenic landscape en-route.

For decades, the journey from Nairobi to Kisumu along the highway (officially called A104) often posed several challenges. That was because the main highway link by passing Naivasha, Nakuru and Kericho, finally ending at Kampala, the capital of neighbouring Uganda, attracted several slow moving long haul trucks and trailers, resulting inpotholes making the route a driver’s worst nightmare.

The present rehabilitation of the highway makes it one of the finest in Kenya – thanks largely to the latest obsession in the continent with Chinese solutions to Africa’s problems.

The risks on the highway however refuse to go– the lack of barriers, impatient drivers, wildlife roaming along the roadsides and poor visibility because of foggy conditions being the reason for the numerous accidents. Recently, it has earned the dubious distinction of being cited as one of the world’s most unsafe roads and the Kenyan Government through its National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) has begun to crack down on reckless drivers. The climbing lanes have also solved the hassles of long hold ups by trucks and trailers along the route.

Earlier in the morning as we drove through Waiyaki Way, what used to be an experience revving into gears on four lane highways as you head out of Nairobi is no more. The splendour of the scenery – tree lined gardens and the delightful breeze has been replaced by ill-advised plans to ease traffic gridlocks. It is of little solace that an adjoining road has been named after the late Prof. Wangari Maathai, a tribute to the Noble prize -winner for championing the cause of conservation. She would certainly be turning in her grave seeing trees making way for expansion of the road.

Some noteworthy places along the route remain the same with, the expansive Lord Delamere farms being one of them.

A British peer, Lord Delamere was amongst the first and most influential Britishers to settle in Kenya.

The history of the family remains intrinsically linked to land and agriculture in the country. Many still question the legality of a lopsided agreement that gave him control of such a massive piece of land to an individual.

It is said he arrived for a hunting trip through the now troubled Somalia and fell in love with greenery here, ignoring prostrations from his wife. However, it would take him three attempts before he received a 99-year lease on 100,000 acres of land that he named Equator Ranch.
Nearby, smaller African settlements have sprung up and motorists on the route often halt for the popular nyama choma – African barbeque at the many eating joints along the way. Some of these and haphazardly constructed building are the only blot on an otherwise beautiful landscape. The vistas of the Great Rift Valley are still impressive. After a long stretch of open countryside, you arrive at Nakuru. Previously a laidback town, it has since emerged as a flourishing commercial city.

Along the route, varieties of farm produce are on display -cabbages, carrots, potatoes, green corn, oranges, bananas and apple- grown in small farm holdings.

After Nakuru, there are hills and forests and pastures interrupted only by a long view of the tea gardens of Kericho. This is a pleasant place to stop by for a cup of refreshing Kenyan tea.

Slowly easing into the expansive Kano Plain, a sign that Kisumu is a touching distance, it is evident that some of the markers on the highways from the colonial era have long vanished with just a few exhibiting their willingness to stay alive in the face of the new developments.

But a notion that I have always held stands vindicated, Kisumu needed a rethink. The highways and roads leading into the city are doing just that.

The very first indicators of the transformation are the filling stations that dot the route, Shell, Kobil, Tosha and Total – all at hugging distances.

With rehabilitation of major roads, developers seem to be in a mighty hurry to put up structures, both in the suburbs and its CBD. The rural electrification is on course and floodlights are a welcome boon at market places and shopping centres.

Some of the architectural marvels etched in the city’s landscape include Acacia Premier Hotel, West End Mall, a preferred haunt of the upwardly mobile. Youngsters can be found in their numbers working on their start ups at the Java House or shopping at Uchumi Supermarket or commercial outlets.

If there is one area where there is going to be a cut-throat competition, it is that of supermarkets. Until recently, it was an area dominated by Nakumatt Nyanza, Mega, Ukwala and Tuskys. Now, Tuff Form Mall is set to host shopping outlets and so too is the Lake Basin Mall, a multi-billion dollar venture touted to be the biggest in the region.

According to its promoters, the shopping complex will have state-of-the-art escalators, panoramic lifts linking all levels, car parking at two levels, food court and children’s play area.

The architecture of the mall takes a contemporary and futuristic outlook with a curving roof that bears close resemblance to a sail – an apt metaphor of the lakeside city.

There is certainly a battle going on for architectural supremacy in the skies of Kisumu. Capping it is the University of Nairobi, Kisumu Campus towering into the sky as if seeking a marker for educational establishments in the region. The 22- storied building in the city centre replaces the British Council Library. At the opposite end is the city campus of Maseno University.

Once a sleeping giant, Kisumu is revving and chugging on at a very impressive pace. The city brings to mind an ancient African prophecy attributed to the Maasai, Kikuyu, Kamba and Kelenjin communities in which the arrival of the railways in the region is described as ‘iron snake’ belching smoke.

The iron snake that would traverse the land was prophesied to bring bad omen as it slithered along. It was a religious sage – Mugo, Kabiru of the Gikuyu community – who prophesied the coming of the ‘white’ rulers many years before they set foot on the Kenyan coast of Mombasa through the Indian Ocean. A similar prophecy was attributed to Masaku, another sage of the Kamba community and Mwenda Mwea – a medicine man. In Western Kenya, it was Kimnyole, the Orkoiyot, a community leader who predicted the arrival of Europeans (the white tribe) and the railways (the iron snake) that would change the lifestyles of the Nandi community.

Considering that the arrival of railways in Kenya heralded the rule of the ‘whites’ and put the indentured labourers from India, initially roped in to construct the railways, on the path of trade, the analogy of the ‘snake’ fits well with that of the influx of investors and settlers pulling strings to change the face of the city.

The passage here being roads the county government is aggressively rehabilitating to make services easily accessible to the residents.
With echoes of Karibu nyumbani (Welcome back) ringing in my ears, I am left to ponder whether the clatter of steel in the sky can usher the change the people have longed to embrace. That said, Kisumu and its many islands, is a city that is far removed from a past mirrored by minimal growth. The dreams of ‘Kisuma’ shaping into a Dubai shopping experience perhaps may not be far-fetched after all!