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Saturday, November 19, 2011

the river and the source

I was talking to this Greek guy and he told me one difference between ancient and Modern Greek, in ancient Greek words weren't just words, they carried weight and concepts and whole philosophies behind them. So to use the word sacrifice for example one had to call to mind love and pain and tragedy it was not just a word you used. The purpose of language was twofold, to communicate and to philosophise, to state what you want to say and to state your point of view of the world as a whole physical and metaphysical. Swahili does that sometimes. Think of the word ushago. On the surface this just means home but it goes deeper, it's not just the home you call home, it's not your house in the city with your family and friends, and instead it's your real home. The one in the countryside, the one that carries gallons of your blood and kilos of your flesh. The word carries with it a concept designed to combat the alienation and isolation that surely faced the first generation of rural~urban migrants. It told you that there was a real home waiting for you once you went and did what you had to. That first generation had children, children who grew up in the city, children who only knew the city, divorced from the culture of ushago and al that goes with it. Children who feel alienated and isolated there instead of here. But still they used the word ushago, diluting it and changing it making it false. At least that’s how I feel. I don't call it ushago, not in my mind at least, my ushago is Nairobi, and Gwassi is where my father was born.

I visited it for the last time two years ago

It's by the lake, right by the lake. Lake Victoria I should say. The mystical source of the great river. There are islands dotted all over the place, Migingo is a motor boat ride away from the place, there are also a lot of close islands, one of which is called Kiwa and was the source of a visit my cousin and I paid. There is no ferry to Kiwa. The traffic is not that demanding. Instead there is a boat that fits about thirty and rocks its way there. The boat is nothing special, wood carved to make a hollow that floats on water on the back of which is a motor that pushes it along on those occasions when the wind takes leave of its sails. You sit on these benches 5 apiece and wait to be taken across. At the beginning of the trip there is sound coming from everyone. The conductor demanding payment, the people making fun of us city-goers as we cramp in and try in vain to fit in. but the lake must be heard and soon all this noise fades away, slowly, slowly, ever so slowly it ebbs like colour from cloth. A dark hue of noise becomes the white grey of quiet that is only possible near a large body of water. The silence of the wind finds your ears and that silence is one of the most beautiful songs nature can play you. The violin of the orchestra, when its peaceful its unobtrusive telling you stories and singing songs of yore. A wealth of age and experience exists in that silence and as if on cue everyone sits quiet to listen and to look. As if to add to the experience the motor died on our way back resulting in out sitting and twiddling our thumbs worried for that irrational minute that all landlubbers have when at water that we would never make it back.

On Kiwa we experienced  a different lifestyle to even the rest of Gwassi. A pancake shaped island no bigger than a twenty acres it had a law unto its own that such places seem to. There was fish frying in pans all over the place. This was for the evening meals and we could see it since the demarcation between market place and commercial area and the rest of the place was purely theoretical on our way to the one bar we found housewives frying fish just outside their homes in huge pans within smelling distance of the marijuana we could whiff being smoked openly since the police never come here. We bought fried fish at 5 shs. Each asked for some salt and went to sit by the shore of the lake and listen some more to the song of the lake as we enjoyed our meal

Give it enough time and Lake Victoria turns into the river Nile.

It's hard to explain the sheer size of the Nile. It's the second biggest river in the world, a life giver to two of the biggest countries in Africa but what does this mean? It means it's huge. I can remember the first time I saw it flowing through the streets of Cairo. It looks like a lake is finding its way through the city; the waters have millions of little waves in an expanse that takes the space of ten highways. A map of Egypt shows cities built near the river hugging their mother afraid to let go. The railway runs almost parallel to it since this is where everything is found and yet it's still impossible to fathom the necessity of this river until you have an aerial view. In Luxor we climbed the hill that separates the Valley of the Kings from the temple of queen hochipsou. At the top of the hill you were treated to great views, a mountain where my name is now carved stands there making me feel like the explorers of yore. At the top you can also see the land before you, desert and sand. Desserts are bright; they hurt your eyes as they burn you up. The sun bleaches the sand leeching it of all colour so that the assault on your eyes is now twofold, the blaze on top and its reflection below.  Suddenly the desert stops and before you there is a lush green plantation, forests and plants, the power of irrigation, a kilometre in there is the Nile again and a kilometre past the desert. There is no preparation for the change in fauna from white to green and back to white again, it just happens. Immediately its green, the Nile, green, immediately it's white.

The previous night we had taken a Nile boat known as a faluka to the other side of Luxor, the west bank on the promise of a good shisha place. We piled into the boat and the quiet of the water settled on us too. I looked out over the water to the millions of little waves frolicking. Calm waters have more waves than turbulent ones. There is no huge show of strength, the kind that takes swimmers back to the shore instead there are millions of little ripples. Creases on a cheaply laundered suit. It speaks of untold power all these ripples. A certain wiry strength you find in people who have grown up farming. The Nile tells you of strength and history. A river that gave rise to Pharaohs and pyramids, to an elaborate seven thirty one god religion, an almost indecipherable language and temples as colossal as the debt Egypt owes this river. Yet it doesn't shout out its significance, it doesn't spend its time trying to make you understand its importance. Its unassumption is enough.

We got to the other side as the stars sank into complacence, content to twinkle in place till sunrise. We sat down and ordered our shisha. One thing most people will be surprised about when they go to Luxor is the prevalence of hashish. It's everywhere in every offer as if it's all tourists do, hashisha[my own term] is quite common and offered to takers on the west bank.

Our eclectic group of internationals sat down and got to talking, pretty soon the conversation turned to the dangers of the Nile more specifically crocodiles.

“...actually my brother killed a crocodile in the Amazon. He just went up to it and cut off its head, they're very lazy after they have been eating and you can just walk up to it and cut off its head. Thwack!” said the Brazilian.
“My father killed a guinea pig by mistake once.”~Briton.
“Is this really the time to bring up a dead guinea pig?”~Greek

Like all things this night too came to an end. The smoke in the shisha turned to naught, the drinks in our glass became the drinks in our stomachs and the words in our mouths became yawns. We piled back into the faluka and began our journey back up the river.


  1. I've always wanted to visit one of those islands. I have strange mystic ideas about what they're like and I'd love to be there in person one day.

  2. yer i like those islands everything is so different there, life takes a different pace and direction, you should definetely do if you have the chance.

  3. LOL, dude, that crocodile story,was that the hashisha talking?

  4. that to the best of my knowledge was a true story