What cultural festivals mean to us as a people

Cultural festivals simply immerse us into our heritage and remind us of who we are as a people. They do not only throw us back to where we came from but contextualize our identity in the modern era. 2018 saw a record number of culturally inclined festivals take place. The most notable are the Turkana Festival in June, the Lamu Festival in November, the Mombasa International Cultural Festival in August, and the Rusinga Festival in December.

Other festivals include the Maragoli Festival, the Isambo Beach Carnival, The Tiriki Festival, and the Terik Festival, among others, many of them happening in pockets within different communities in December. The festivals serve to attract both local and international tourists to experience the life and country of a given people. But the underlying reason is the threat of a people losing their identity and custom due to modernisation and urban migration. Since sizable populations of community members live in urban areas, organisers of these festivals strive to put aside two or three days out of the 365 every year for ‘homecoming’ sons and daughters to remember who they are while buttressing the efforts of those who hold the foundation stones in place, albeit on shaky ground.

Existential threat

Ask any Kenyan from Vihiga whether they have ever heard of the Terik. The possible response would be that you are pronouncing it wrongly; that it should be Tiriki. But the Terik and the Tiriki are two distinct groups with different cultures and languages, yet one is being assimilated and in danger of dying out altogether. It is the same situation for the ethnic Suba, most of whom speak dholuo better and only a few or no Suba words. However, these two communities have gotten godsend opportunities to revive their cultures and languages. Some peoples like the Ogiek and the Yiaku – these have only two surviving elders who are able to speak kiyiaku fluently – haven’t had that ‘luck’.

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Cultural festivals are not a new thing, they happened regularly before colonization came and dismantled the way of life. That is when the minority Suba were forced to learn dholuo in order to benefit from any colonial handout extended to their neighbours. It is a herculean task to turn such a situation around. And festivals are playing a significant role in this effort.

After following on the organization of Rusinga Festival for the past four years, I discovered that bringing such an event to life is no mean feat. The time and financial resources that go into organizing a festival on a grand scale are enormous. It takes at least a year of fundraising for a festival of three days, not mentioning the human resources involved both on the ground and at management level.

The performers have to be taken care of, sound and transport systems, competitions, invited artists, security, food and accommodation, and above all incentivize active participation of the community members. The festival has now taken place for 7 consecutive years with astounding strides being made. In the 2018 festival, I was keen to hear younger people communicate in kisuba rather than dholuo. It was amazing to hear the MCs speak more lusuba than in previous events. I was surprised to find out there is now a Suba radio station, EK-FM (Ekilao Kiona Youth FM) operating on Mfangano Island.

Mfangano Island is one of the major Suba Islands, together with Rusinga and Takawiri. The three islands have seen a surge in visitors since the first edition of Rusinga Festival. More hotels have come up and competition is now stiff. Younger people are embracing and feeling proud to be able to communicate in lusuba. All this has been achieved in 7 years, and more can be achieved in even a shorter time. Unfortunately, the government is missing to spur such initiatives. Political goodwill is also missing.

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Need for government support

The current Miss Tourism Homa Bay County, Beth Odek, opened my eyes during a boat ride to Mfangano Island. My assumption that the title comes with at least a desk, a budget, and technical support from the county government in promotion of tourism was wrong. The title just comes with, well, the sash – nothing more. Which is quite disappointing and I must commend her for doing her bit in the quest to revitalise Suba culture.

Entities like Brand Kenya and the Kenya Tourism Board should take more interest in the tourism opportunities on Rusinga Island and Lake Victoria, among other western Kenya initiatives. The first local political leader to grace the festival is Homa Bay Women Rep, Hon Gladys Wanga (Rt Hon Raila Odinga graced the 2016 festival).

It is commonsense to know that political goodwill and government support for cultural events lends great credence not only to the identity of the people involved but to their socioeconomic and political wellbeing. Political leaders from Suba region should therefore be ashamed for not supporting the promotion of their own identity. The allure of political support however comes with its own challenges: in festivals such as Isambo Beach Carnival, where political leaders have taken centre stage, the events take the tone of a prolonged political rally rather than a cultural festival celebrating a people. Such festivals end up dying when the politician no longer needs it, an example being the defunct Isukha Cultural Festival.

There are calls for the formation of the Ministry of Culture and a National Culture and Arts Council that will not only reignite Kenya’s quest for cultural identity on the world stage but also help communities strengthen their positive cultural endeavours. The national government should heed the call, and county governments should learn to appreciate and support rather than act as stumbling blocks to their own communities.

This article first appeared on Wasomi.Org under the title Cultural Festivals: what they mean to us as a people.