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Luos in Lamu pic

You know there is always that thing about an experience sounding more heavenly when told to you than when you are there in person. Such was the case when I visited Lamu. Actually everything visible was more beautiful and pleasurable than I had read or imagined.

It was just me and the chile. As in my relationship was rocky at that time and spending time in such a beautiful serene  Island gave me too much undesired time to observe my weaknesses. More clearly than I had solicited for.

So I shrugged it off and called a friend who had disclosed to me that there existed a Luo village in Manda Island. Whoah!, I mean, I know our ancestors had traveled all the way from Bahr el-Ghazal in the North-western region of Southern Sudan to Kisumu dala and its environs- but that was a long time ago. How did these ninjas  settle all the way up here in the land of the Oswayos ? It was simply the best excuse to run away from myself and  my chile troubles.

(I’m feeling it so I’ll continue in present tense.)

My friend patiently explains to me why it is the moon and not the wind that causes high and low tides. Unfortunately geography was merely a tolerated subject in school so I nod her on. She notices am not following and uses another method. (Yeah, I loved practicals) She brings my attention to the wet mangrove stems that explain the ebbing tide. The dhow heaves steadily, surging toward the Maweni shore on Manda Island. The kaskasi blows through my face, gently reminding me to wear my sun glasses as a congregation of egrets glide neatly over us, towards the Island. I imagine they will see the Luo village before I do. My excitement is uncontainable. I will finally know more about the Luo stone-cutters who, I understand, have called this lovely Oswayo  Island home for the last thirty years.

On expanding my view further to the Maweni shore, I notice that what from a distance  had looked like a neat arrangement of white cairns , is actually neat piles of peach corals curved carefully into equal rectangles, ready for shipment. A few men load them in old boats which will transport them to Shela and Lamu towns where the middle-men will sell them for more than thrice the original amount.

A robust, dusty, dark-skinned man marches quickly as if pressed, coming from the village. Heavy tall piles of corals rest gently on his shoulders. My first instinct is to go lend a hand- since I am somewhat afraid that he might stumble and fall. It then hits me that this is a full time job. So in a way, his profession, so he knows way better. As I step back to  make way for more porters, an unreadable woman who had noticed us climb ashore, calls out to a foreman who is supervising the transportation of the coral stones. She urges him, in dholuo, to come and attend to my friend and me.

I mask my aiwoshe  emotions as I am elated to hear my mother tongue being spoken this far away from home … in such  kind gesture. Checking to make sure my face is tight and stern not to expose this emotion. I don’t know why men do this but we do and we will always do. Full stop.

The foreman gives us a warm welcome and offers to give us a tour of the village. Soon he is joined by some of his friends who are visibly delighted to  discover that I am also a Luo.

We walk through a clean sandy path with brick-like rooms scattered on the side. Entering the village feels like being welcomed into a South African kraal.

But the joy quickly fades as I notice the dilapidated conditions of the shaky mud huts. Why would they extract coral for town residents then live in mud-huts? A soothing thought compares the huts to the ones in Luo Nyanza, suggesting how strongly connected they are to their ancestral home albeit being days away from home.

“The rain is definitely here”.

Our guide announces as he observes an awkwardly green acacia tree. It doesn’t look like it especially since its about 34 degrees Celsius. And the air is humid and musky. Jasho jembamba my frien’.  I relish esoteric knowledge so I curve my face to look curious.

“It will now become very hot for a few days then it will rain. And all the plants around us that look dry and dead will be green again. It’s just like hibernation.”

His eyes are stuck on the water jerricans that are being cart-wheeled to different huts and immediately I get it that his  hopes for rain have a lot more to do with  just  green flora. Fresh water of course. He confesses that the state of water supply is stressful. The water is ferried from Lamu Island by a particular business man. They then buy it five to ten times the usual price that an average Lamu town resident would get it for. The government fixed water pipes that brought water to Manda Airport but that is still quite the distance from the village. A few NGOs have also donated water-harvest tanks but they hope facets of fresh water will soon pour opened in the village.

It takes a short while for me to take this in. A whole community has not had  access to fresh affordable water for more than thirty years.

A few meters from the acacia I see the first coral cutter. As I walk towards him I notice a pattern of shallow pits surrounded by dry or thorny shrubs. For no specific reason I had imagined that the quarry would be a massive deep-pit. Perhaps because of the  the swampy quarries we would swim in that are still engraved in my childhood memory. We called them Kware and the activity, Dufo mpararo. Wonder who else was disappointed when they discovered that actually even normal clean swimming pools also pararisha you.

The coral-cutter is busy at work, cutting the edges of the pit with a machete. I can tell he is racing against the setting sun. His bare chest is dry and mottled with peach powder. Same for his face so it is not easy to identify him. On noticing me, he stops for a second and greets me cordially. I had not expected him to break out of work and I secretly wonder how he harbors the capacity to portray such altruism.

Could it really be that this village is always this kind to visitors or is there a concealed  frightful reason  that an outsider like me may not see? Again, I’m a paranoid gentleman.

I become only too eager to find out how and why these Luos migrated from the lake side to  the coastal end of Kenya. This  is a journey of more than a thousand kilometers by road.

Get back to work now …or whatever you were supposed to do…and catch the second part of this blog next week on Saturday.



Simiyu BarasaSimiyu Barasa is not only a celebrated contemporary director and trail blazing indie, he is also a culture/identity activist. An analysis of his work reveal an advocate of creative approach on the discourse of  the Kenyan identity and self-appreciation.

One can therefore only imagine how long this perpetual issue of Nollywood-idolization boiled in his heart before he spat it out and the whole acting fraternity made a lurch. He did not mince his words on his Facebook post. Discussion was still on going by the time I left to think deeply about it.

Below is a copy of his admonition.

F Simiyu Barasa: Something is terribly wrong. A Nigerian actor has journalists chasing after them from the minute they land at JKIA while ours remain ignored. It is not right when our home stars have to beg for coverage while some not so impressive foreigner is over hyped. So bad is this that local actors themselves fawn over them. Taking selfies to social- media-prove to us that they too are big. You can’t be big if your self-worth is measured by another’s presence. Have some self-confidence and dignity. Taking selfies with a star doesn’t mean you are one, we know the suffering you go through here. Grow some dignity get your local game sorted and aim international so that when Naija actors land in Nairobi they are the ones ASKING to take selfies with you. Right, our media neglects you. But learn from Vera Sidika about branding and visibility. She is a masters level study on hard work to market her brand, whether you like her work or not. And yes, she is probably the only Kenyan who lands in Murtallah Mohammed airport and Lagos media runs to cover her. The few actors who get to media are few and far between, in fact last I saw was Nyasuguta on citizen nipashe. Apana! This country too has actors that can be covered every week. Personally the rare selfies I post are 95% Kenyan actors kenyan artistes coz tuji support more. like Kalamashaka said in ‘punchlines Kibao’ doggy za mtaa ingine hazieji kuja kojoa hapa…’ lazima pia sisi tuwafunge mabao tumeji-armie na ma punchlines kibao…(*Hounds from a different neighbourhood are not invited to take a pis in our hood . We too must score goals…we are armed with punchlines.) ..this is the country that gave us Maumau. Where did this independent, self-love, dignified spirit dwindle?

It is a common assumption that Kenyan media rarely considers its own talents worthy of celebrity status. Artists complain that one rarely gets coverage until he has either made news or won an award abroad. So much so that serious artists even include touring abroad as strategy to make news back home. This plan may work but most of the time it doesn’t.

I remember a while back when we were invited as a theatre group to represent Africa in a huge festival in India.  We asked TV stations to cover this story. Only one station replied. There was a catch though. For them to cover our story we had to pay air tickets for their journalists and pay for their food and accommodation in India. Keep in mind that this was going to be the first time boarding a plane for most of the cast members. In India we were instant celebrities. Our stage play was on prime time news, in all newspapers and by the time we were leaving, our faces were familiar in the Indian streets. Back in Kenya and we were nobodies, shoving through over- loaded matatus.

This experience gave me a tough lesson early in my career: For an actor, curtains will always fall, no matter how long your time on stage is.

Yet the question still remains. Who is responsible for our recognition and appreciation? The media as a business only sells what they believe will be bought. I however believe that Kenyan media has to play a larger role as this is an egg and chiken situation: We can’t be famous if people don’t watch enough of us on teli and people don’t want to watch us because we are not famous… yet again Nollywood was introduced to our people less than five years ago by the same media and quality was not an issue. We deserve the same opportunity.

Having said that, I believe actors must begin by appreciating themselves first. We must remember the now retired actors that once ruled the screens long before current stars like Jalang’o and Lydia Gitachu.

I will never forget one rainy morning, I saw an old man sitting at the back of a pick-up truck, his grey kangol hat shielding his soft head from the drizzle. A few people on the street cheered him. The tired man immediately wore a smile and waved back. I soon realized it was ‘Mzee Ojwang’. Many questions about this incident ran through my- mind including whether the driver was kind enough to give him a lift or mean to let our dad…one of the greatest Kenyan comedians ever – sit at the back of a pick – up truck in rainy weather.

The nucleus of the problem as Simiyu has pointed out is not the media or the people but we. During An Actor Develops Studio –forum that we facilitated a few weeks ago, I promoted the discussion on being called a celebrity. Most actors, I realized, still felt that being a celebrity is equal to being a famous spoilt brat. This is not necessarily true. As an actor you are an artist, entertainer as well as a leader. Many People will love and celebrate your work hence make you a celebrity and a role model. Quit the false humility and give a thank you back to your fans with humble dignity.

I say this because the problem of admiring other people more than ourselves begin by us not appreciating ourselves enough. We do not fight for each other enough and –to be honest- we only have each other’s back during funerals or medical needs. This is fine but we can do so much more. You can talk about your friend’s show until everyone in your timeline considers him/her a star. He or she ought to reciprocate. How about attending Kenyan cinema and theatre? Do not let quality be an excuse, I’d rather you go watch and afterwards complain to the producers, directors and cast. If they are wise they will accept your feedback and improve.

History has proven that victory is rarely given. You must demand what you believe in and what is rightfully yours. It seems clear to me that Kenyan actors have approached the gate of honor, recognition, financial freedom and appreciation. But alas it is locked! So you either bang hard until its open, knock it down if they refuse to answer or walk back and let the next generation start all over  again.