A tale of a resilient festival, a people reborn and the politics of a jealous neighbour

A tale of a resilient festival, a people reborn and the politics of a jealous neighbour

Tucked just close to the shores of Lake Victoria in Southern Nyanza is a small Island named Rusinga. A few years ago I would have just passed my fingers over this small mass of land while reading maps, but in 2015 I found myself there for the first time, gracing the annual Rusinga Cultural Festival. The festival celebrates the culture of the Abasuba people and endeavors to resuscitate the dying Lusuba language. In the process opening up the lulled region for cultural tourism. A perfect raison-d’etre.

There are several important things to learn from this cultural quest. First it is evidence of the infamous miseducation of a nation. The Kenyan system has taught for years that the Abasuba are a subset of the Luo, dubbed the Luo-Abasuba. Yet the reality is that the Abasuba are Bantu who are closely linguistically, socially and culturally related to the Luyia and Baganda people, while the Luo are a Nilotic group. It is easier to say fate had it that the Abasuba would integrate into the Luo way of life, but history actually asserts that the integration was via a systemic blueprint that started during the colonial days and got ratified after ‘independence’. A system that has almost erased a people’s identity and their language so that the UNESCO Red Book of endangered languages had to list it. Last academic bit here, you should not confuse the Suba people as being among those who have so small numbers that the chances of their survival is minimal, like the Ogiek. No, the Suba are there in good numbers only they can’t speak their language. In the end they would be ‘wiped out’, forgotten, if something is not done. But this is a resilient people who do not want to disappear and are using all means to survive and be recognized. The genesis of Rusinga Cultural Festival stems from this quest, sprouting when no other major cultural event existed, when political leaders from the region had embraced the status quo.

What makes the Rusinga Cultural Festival unique?

A few things make Rusinga Cultural Festival stand out from other festivals across Kenya. Its peers include the Lamu Festival and the Turkana Cultural Festival in terms of attractions, offerings and authenticity. But what has really buttressed its foundation and enabled organic growth is its deep taproot as a people driven voluntary initiative rather than a politically motivated event.

An African cultural festival should not be a gathering of suits. It is not where a select group of people strangled by ties sit on well-dressed chairs while another ‘indigenous’ group entertains them. That is not a festival. A cultural festival has to be experienced. Festival goers come to this island to partake of the way of life … participating in the dances, cheering the boat racers and the wrestlers, dipping into the lake and going on treks and voyages within and across islands, sampling the foods, among other niceties. You are not bored by incessant delegations and speeches that steal the vitamin from the festival – every event is treated like a main event. This is where most would-be great festivals fail to meet the thresh hold of a cultural festival and basically become political rallies.

For Rusinga Cultural Festival and Kenya at large, the objective is more than just holiday fun. It is also a quest to open up and promote a largely neglected part of a country as a tourist destination. Anyone who has been following the festival over the years would tell you that the success is tangible. The locals cannot wait for every last Thursday and Friday before Christmas of every year when the festival happens, with the desirable economic ripple effects being felt on the Island. We the goers can never have enough of it, with each visit presenting a unique experience.

How the Rusinga Cultural Festival has shaped the society and surrounding economy in recent times

We are all having this important discussion because it was provoked. In its 8th edition in 2019, the Rusinga Cultural Festival has grown in leaps and bounds, leaving in its trail the emergence of Lusuba radio stations on Rusinga and Mfangano Islands. There is an obvious growing interest of the younger generation in learning the language and communicating in it. In this respect of course the challenge of the dominant Dholuo language has to be overcome and it is no easy task. Secondly the opening up of the Suba islands for tourism cannot be understated given the growth of the hotel industry especially during the festival period. Airlines such as Jambojet and Safarilink have been involved in the festival, long distance buses have used the festival as bait, as more Kenyans and non-Kenyans travel to Rusinga.

While Rusinga Island is the anchor destination, festival goers experience boat rides to Mfangano and Takawiri islands which are the other major Suba lands deeper into the Lake Victoria, among other smaller inhabited and uninhabited rocks rich in fauna, such as the Birds Island. Soon this festival will be a large carnival in the ranks of Mombasa and Rio carnivals.

Being weary of politics and the jealous neighbour

Now unless people start talking about you both in good taste and otherwise, you have not made enough impact. And when the jealous neighbour realises that the house he thought would be stuck at the foundation stone has reached the lintels and starts feuding over and cutting your fences, then you know you have made progress. Producing a festival such as the Rusinga Cultural Festival is no mean or cheap affair, I have written about that before. It needs big volunteering hearts, massive sponsorship, and a visionary resilient producer. When no festival existed in the land of Abasuba, the producer of Rusinga Festival dived into the dark to create a brand like no other.

It is therefore no surprise that a jealous neighbour would try cause confusion by trying to erect their own fence and billboard where yours stands, hijack sponsorship by pretense of being you or representing your brand, and use your festival blueprint for political mileage. It is important to state that sponsors need to verify the names and organisations before bungling their sponsorship and publicity deals as in Kenya most successful things usually boil down to sociopolitical competitions. But knowing how building a brand and running a festival is such an arduous process, it’s not a calling for a riffraff.

For those of us who understand the evolution of the Rusinga Cultural Festival, we need to assure the organisers that we have their back whenever they need us and we can never sit back and watch anyone urinate in their plate. There is only one Rusinga Cultural Festival and it happens on the last Thursday and Friday before Christmas and it happens mainly at Kamasengre school, Tom Mboya Mausoleum and the K’Olunga Beach for the boat races. Take note jealous riffraff.

Author: Hillary M Namunyu

Hillary M Namunyu is an arts and culture journalist fascinated by data, technology and books. He digs around for experiences that make life worth living, especially in the culture and tech arena. What a cocktail!