Last week I had the opportunity to revisit Nyanza. I left Nairobi at 10 at night, as soon as the bus got started I fell asleep all the way to the first stop. The non-dreams assisted by alcohol that make a moving journey almost non-existent travelled with me. I woke up. I peed. I got back on the bus. I slept and all of a sudden we were in Kisumu. It was almost 8 in the morning and the city seemed to just be stirring. That’s an amazing difference from Nairobi. You see on the way back I got to Nairobi at about 6 and by then people were already up and about. The shimmering light of night turning into day was interrupted by people on their way to work and from other activities. Nairobi city centre at that time is teeming with life. It’s so cold it feels like a winter night and glimmering into view is all this activity but not Kisumu, not at that time. There was barely a shop open, a few people scattered here and there that you could ask for directions and the look of a Nairobi person was written all over me. People have this gift of knowing when someone is a visitor in their town. There is probably a look of wonder or a gait that says this is not from here. Everyone walks different in different cities. There is some of the wariness associated with Nairobi but not a lot of the hurry. It’s more leisurely, there’s more time and you hear it in how people talk, see it in how they walk.
Oyawre. This is how you greet in Luo during the day, or in the morning. Translated directly it means “it has opened up.” The sky that was imprisoning the sun has opened up and let out a new day and when you meet someone you ask them oyware? (has it opened up?) They say oyawre ainya. (It has truly opened up or it has opened up a lot.) You are not delusional in assuming a new day has greeted us is the assurance you receive. Not a greeting passed between people but an affirmation of one passed between the eternal day and the human being. All you do is affirm the lack of delusion and go on with life.
I didn’t stay in Kisumu for a long time; I soon passed it and went on to a place called Kaudi. It’s not very well known except that it’s close to Bondo and even closer to Kogelo. Sandwiched in between these two places where Luo blood seems to have congregated to give the leaders almost all Luos hold dear. The road to Obama’s grandmother’s house is still being constructed and it is a thing of efficiency. There are drains being put up along every kilometre of finished road, huge drains that mean no matter how much it rains this place won’t be impassable. I was staying at ARO development centre, the Kenyan headquarters of the organisation I was working with in Norway. It’s not really a place I could afford to stay at on my own dime. The rooms are nicely made up with light streaming in from windows and bars to keep out the mosquitoes. It seems forever expanding with a dining room, conference facilities and a round hut that can be used as a meeting place at all times of the day. I gorged myself on the food, omelletes for breakfast prepared with onions, tomatoes, garlic and just the right ammount of oil. A variety of foods for the rest of the meals, chapatis and beef stew, chicken curry and ugali, toasted sandwiches and roasted chicken, spaghettis and sauces.
And it has that thing that you never see in the city. Horizons.Here things stretch away from you. Horizons of light that make you sure the earth is flat. In the evening when the sun is disappearing into that place it goes and its light is waning the horizons can be seen to disappear too. As they go further and further away from your eye it becomes darker and darker like the lion king scene until at the very edge all you can see is shadow and myth. Then it drops away. The light disappearing with the land and taking it with it into that prison until it opens up again There are also horizons of sound. Taken away from the incessant sounds of the city you start to realise just how much life nature has, crickets at night, mosquitoes buzzing, birds at dawn. The sound becomes almost like the light when you are really still you can hear it in ever widening circles. Here is the immediate sound of someone walking, further you can hear another circle as children play and then it gets darker and darker and if you really listen all these sound merge into silence. The silence stretches like a finger especially at night when all the humans have put themselves to bed and all left for you to listen to is the sound of the earth not moving because in a place where the earth is flat how can you really believe that it moves around the sun?
We were carrying out an interview about solar lamps with one of the technicians in charge of it and he begins to tell us this story his grandfather told him about how sugar became so popular. You see the colonialists had all these sugar plantations and no one to sell it to. The locals had never had sugar and couldn’t be convinced of its necessity but they liked their tea. They had it piping hot and sugarless. The farmers were not having it and hatched this scheme to make sugar popular. They went to the market place and announced free tea. People lined up to have it. This tea was laced with sugar and the people who had it agreed it was better. Those resistant to change were forced to take some and soon they liked it too. The next time like classic drug dealers they were told they had to fork over a little something for the sugar and by now they were hooked.
We were driving around and a guy had stopped his motorbike on our path. Our driver said, “o chung e wang ndara” this means he has stopped on the eye of the road. He has blocked not only the road but the vision for which the road was made, he has made it blind with his insistence and what is a blind road? Just one that doesn’t know where it’s going and thus can’t let you, the user go there. It was raining really hard and he told us the Luo equivalent of its raining cats and dogs, he didn’t say it in Luo so I can’t transcribe but basically it goes something like it’s raining so hard the monkeys are committing suicide because they would rather use the trees as shelter.
I went back to Kisumu for the weekend and in many ways it reminds me of the Nairobi of my youth. The city council hasn’t cottoned on to how much money in bribes and legal revenue they can make by enforcing litter laws. People dump their litter ad cigarette butts everywhere. I got on a matatu and I was hanging. Hanging like its 2002. And this seemed normal. For those of you who don’t know what hanging is, this is simply what happens when a matatu is packed so full that there is no space for anyone else inside. The three-seaters have been made into four and five seaters so the conductor throws the door open and some people hang onto the inner crevices by the tip of their fingers. The wind gets them, the danger gets them, the effort of making sure they don’t slide gets them. You pay less because you aren't actually sitting down, you pay more for the view you get.
We spent Saturday night in Kisumu partying our hearts out. Kenyans do like to party, and in Kisumu you get from place to place in tuk tuks even at night. These things do not have the prohibitively high prices that taxies in Nairobi have. The clubs were not very different . the first one we went to played music from my teenage past though. From that time in my life when I could actually remember the lyrics to songs and sing along to hit after hit. Some of them bringing back a memory of a place or a time. Mostly an emotion. The song you heard when you were done with high school, finished with rules and regulations that expressed themselves in an explicit, overt manner brooking no bending and punishing all breaking. That song that represents some of the transition into the time when your life was no longer ruled by bells. When you felt you were free before the even louder bells of societal expectations and monetary concerns began to sound in your mind and control your heart, leading you every which way. But when you first heard this song you still had an illusion of control. And it led you from a life where rigidity was the only way to fit into the system into one where the bells are so amorphous and ambiguous that you can lie to yourself that you didn’t hear them and escape the rigors of time by denying it. Come 8 in the morning and we spilled out of the club, grasping our beer in plastic cups and bottles. It seemed ok to do this no one had told me why but it seemed that in this city the arm of the law was shorter.
Kiswahili is not terribly popular among Luos. Am not sure why, maybe it doesn’t allow the same jumping through hoops that our language allows. Maybe the hoops are much harder to find and impressing with eloquence or expressing ourselves in the way that Luo allows is much harder in Kiswahili than in English. That’s my guess after my four days there. When you say goodbye in Luo you say oriti. This translated exactly means may he wait on/for you. Until we see each other again I leave you this blessing and this hope that he waits on you. In response you give the same blessing, may he wait on/for you too. There is no promise inherent that we will see each other again even though it is implied. But then we didn’t really say hallo either. May he wait on you until the day greets you again. This is very hard to capture in Swahili.