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Luos in Lamu, Part 2


I had promised you (and myself) to post the second part of the above article, ‘Luos in Lamu’ by Sato. But I came from (please say with a jeng accent)…a long safarr … and I decided to release steam that weekend at my favorite pub. Of course I will never party hard again. I promise. For real, I promise. Thanks for understanding. Excuses are a good way to cope with the harshness of life and there is always one that comes in handy. Do not confuse excuses for lies though. Lies are bad. Excuses assist.

As a matter of fact, you are with me in this story because of an excuse I made at the beginning. Now you will have to read the previous article. Awesome.

Back to the story. I was just about to explain how Luos -or Nyikwa Ramogi or The Teargas -tan’go? Business Community – found themselves as stone-cutters in Lamu.

The story goes that in the early 1970s, a man only known to the coral-cutters as Muudhuri, who lived in Lamu town, traded in coral. He bought coral in Mombasa and sold it in Lamu town where there was a ready market as the town was expanding. He soon realized the huge transport cost from Mombasa to Lamu was consuming most of his income. So he went to a quarry site in Likoni called, Shika Adabu, where he persuaded coral cutters to try the virgin grounds of Lamu and Manda Islands. He was not very successful as the coral-cutters knew only too well how remote the Lamu archipelago was and how a non-existent infrastructure would do more harm to their livelihood. However, six men –all Luo – decided to go with him on the basis that he will smamia bus fare. These were On’gany Pala from Nyakach, Joseph Sana and Odongo Tana from Kano, Hezbon Owiti from Karungu, Nicholas Okoth from Alego and Aguk Jombi from Oyugis.

And so it came to be that in 1981 the first Luo migrants settled in the Lamu Archipelago at a place called Ras Kitau.  The following year Muudhuri brought them to Manda Island at a place called Maweni, eponymous for the many coral rocks that were visible. As the Luo population grew it was renamed by the Island natives to, Manda –Jaluoni, or as the white settlers would call it, Luo village.

Solo coral-cutters are barricaded in these pot-hole-like pits surrounded by debris of kokoto pebbles which are mostly picked by women. Inquiry on why women do not cut the coral stones is only greeted with blank chuckles. With a ‘fuck you’ undertone,I guess.

The solo mode of labour seems to be informed by the limited total earnings against production of one pit. The cutter explained to me how this works by giving me a personal example.

He wakes up at 3.30am to make sure that breakfast and everything else is set for his two children to go to school. He claims his wife left him due to the hardship on the Island so he has to do the housework as well. (Guys stop marrying for house labor.See what happened to owadwa ni?) He then leaves his hut at 4.15 am and walks to the quarry. His aim is to cut seventy stones of sizes 9x9x18, but he knows too well that this is simply a motivational ambition. On average he will probably manage fifty stones of this size or even of smaller size – 7x7x14 which he will normally sell at around KSH 13.  He makes sure he works hard and fast enough before the effect of the hot sun is felt from 11am when he will take a break. He uses the break to go have lunch and finish house chores, attend village meetings and other matters that require his participation. He then comes back to the quarry at 3.00pm and works until it’s completely dark. I leave him hurriedly digging out the first three feet of the coral, which is unusable due to its weak formation. He hopes that this will mean more time saved for the real labor tomorrow.

Walking back to the village, I visualize the common story of migration as experienced by the Manda – Jaluoni residents. It probably starts in the rural areas of Nyanza, with dreams of a better life . A relative then talks about the readily available stone-like material underground that one could extract and earn from. Apart from Ras Kitau, where the coral-cutters are employed on a salary basis, these quarries are free for the Kenyan citizens to mine.

Since more than half of the country’s population is unemployed, poor people are more than eager to come to this place where they hear stone-like things lie underground, ripe and ready, only waiting  to be dug out, cut and turned into money. I doubt anyone asks …or offers to warn about the poor living conditions. Perhaps they come from poorer places, who knows? No one tells them that they are actually coming to settle at a place where they will be considered pariahs by the native residents. Indeed even  poor Lamu residents consider stone-cutters as a low-status and most of them would rather avoid association.

We go to buy cigis in a store in which the shopkeeper’s son, who has been left to attend to customers, is visibly exhausted. Having no strength to pack our commodities, he throws them aimlessly onto the counter where my hands rest. They apologetically explain to me that he has just come back from school, which is a sixteen kilometres walk. Manda Primary, near Manda Airport, is the only complete primary school with all classes from standard 1 -8. The pupils are released at 2.30pm so as to start early their journey back home. During rainy seasons the roads are swamped causing the pupils to miss school altogether.

Yawi School, which is only a kilometer away from the Luo Village, is their best bet for reliable and affordable education. The guides are eager to show me the school. This leads to an exciting chat past different denominational church structures. I almost pass the school as I do not realize my guides have stopped. The small block has no gate or enclosed compound and one may mistake it for one of those political party branch offices in the middle of nowhere. I am informed that the block holds standard 1- 4 as they point to a standard 5 block that stands unfinished on the side.

“The CDF started this school as a nursery for the Boni community in 2005 but they soon abandoned the project. An NGO managed to build the school until standard 4 and the villagers fund-raised to keep teachers here,” one of my guides explains.

I study the derelict school and wonder. Wonder if education is really a human right. I’m afraid to ask if they have enough qualified teachers. I’m afraid to ask if they are content with the quality of basic education that is provided within these circumstances. There is nothing to say and nothing to give.

I ask to be shown the medical centre. There is none. Not even a chemist, yaani Duka ya Dawa! They only have mid-wives who help pregnant women during emergencies. Other emergencies have to be treated in Lamu town which means one must hope that a boat is available in the middle of the night when such an emergency occurs.

My new friends walk me cordially back to my boat as my mind develops an unsuccessful hypothesis. I wonder who is to blame for such a situation, where a pariah village provides a necessary service that maintains  this archipelago’s heritage and yet they live in mud huts, have little access to water and have no medical or reliable education centres.

Did those pioneer six Luos make a huge mistake migrating to a far off foreign land, a place where most Luos in the country have no idea about? …

Should the locals treat them with more respect, affording them better business deals and amenities or should the central and local government take responsibility by improving their way of life and make sure their thirty four year-contribution to the development of Lamu town is appreciated?

I am unable to draw into a conclusion as our boat rocks back to town. All I can see now are the beautiful architectural white-residents cottages and lush green mangrove attached to the mighty blue ocean. Knowing  well that behind all that is a faux pas. A  Luo village.

About Aroji Otieno

Observing - LIVING - Feeling

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