Kisumu Spring 2016

Jambo marafiki na familia, once again! After two weeks of traversing the Kenyan countryside, we are all finally back to Nairobi, a place which, so suddenly and seemingly without our conscious noticing, has begun to feel less like a transitory living location and more like returning to our actual home.

For the first week of our field components, we travelled to Kisumu to study the socioeconomic and cultural issues of Western Kenya. Kisumu is the third largest city in Kenya on its own, and as the largest city in Western Kenya it acts as the metropolitan, economic, and cultural hub for the entire region. As a country with, as we quickly have learned, dramatic and powerful ethnic divides, Kisumu is also Kenya’s de facto center for the Luo ethnic community  or “tribe”–something which has great social and political ramifications for the entire region and country. During our stay in Kisumu, we had the opportunity to gain irreplicable hands on experience seeing how ethnicity works to shape identity in Western Kenya. Identity is a powerful force. Likely more than anything else we took from our wonderful stay in Kisumu, we gained a true understanding of the role identity plays in influencing all the hegemonic forces which affect society and our world. It was, in many ways, the week of “identity”.

Our adventure in Kisumu began the first day when we made our way to the Kisumu Museum. The Kisumu Museum is run by the National Museums of Kenya and focuses on cultural and scientific issues in Western Kenya, particularly the Luo community. The Luo traditionally live on Lake Victoria as fishermen, but as globalization and modernization have swept through Kenya, their livelihoods have gradually been changing. The Kisumu Museum offers a look into a world before it was met with the powerful forces of colonialism, and westernization. Walking through the Kisumu Museum was an intriguing and interesting experience. The main museum hall was a single room with multiple small exhibits that displayed items from traditional Luo living, such as a fishing net or an example of basket weaving. There were also examples of the natural environment, such as several mounted heads of local animals like wildebeest and gazelles. In the aquarium, we encountered many fish species which, while once prominent, face increasing danger outside the safety of the museum walls due to overfishing and the presence of Nile Perch, an introduced species which preys on the native fish in the lake. The traditional homestead placed on the museum grounds displayed to us the importance of family in traditional Luo identity, but also, how Luo culture is dynamic and constantly changing–polygamy, for instance, while once common and illustrated by the many houses in the homestead, is now being phased out due to moral and economic changes.

After the Kisumu Museum, we piled onto the bus and drove to Kit Mikayi, a Luo cultural and religious site. Kit Mikayi means “rock of the first wife” in Luo, and the 40-meter stone formation has traditionally served as a pilgrimage monument where couples would have their marriage blessed or elders would pray for rain. Now, Kit Mikayi serves as a tourist attraction (it costs a small fee to get into the now-fenced area) and, as Christianity’s influence reached the region, it became a prayer site for Christians instead of for members of the traditional religion.

Interestingly, at both the Kisumu Museum and Kit Mikayi, we could not help but notice how we were largely presented with an image of traditional Luo life from our guides, without more modern history being acknowledged. Partaking in cultural tourism was fascinating. While it was a great educational experience to learn about the history of the area, we also became aware that many times tourists are shown what is thought to sell: often in the context of developing countries, an image of an idyllic, exotic, and not modern time.

After settling in Kogelo, we set out for the Senator Obama Secondary School. We were all surprised to see the entire school assembled for our visit, and each member of the KSP introduced themselves to the 400 students. We then broke into small groups, and were given tours of the school by the students themselves, learning about their lives and exchanging stories about topics we soon learned crossed cultural boundaries; college, homework, sports, and boys; before saying goodbye and parting Senator Obama Secondary School.

Barack Obama’s father is buried in Kogelo and his step-grandmother, “Mama Sarah”, resides next door to the school, however, this is the only correlation between the president and the secondary school. As we came to know from staying in Kogelo, this area of the country has been caught up in the wave of “Obama fever”. The hotel where we stayed the night was decidedly Obama themed, complete with a lifesize statue of the president and a main building called the White House. After President Obama visited Kogelo in 2006, the school changed its name in his honor. Once this town became associated with the Obama name and the tourism associated with it, government money poured in to improve infrastructure. The freshly paved roads felt out of place among the modest shops and markets of Kogelo. After a very full day, we slept soundly the Obama themed hotel and prepared to make the trip back to Kisumu.

Our second morning in Kisumu began with a leisurely boat ride along the ever famous, second largest freshwater lake in the world: Lake Victoria. We were guided through the history of the lake as we encroached upon vintage steamboats that were used as a mode of transport between Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. The ride provided us with an overview of the environmental concerns of both pollution and overfishing which are greatly affecting the lake so inherent to the identity of the Luo. Afterwards, we had the opportunity to interview the local fisherman and traders who interact with the lake and grapple with these issues daily.

It was apparent from our conversations with them that the fishing industry is a taxing career, with often very minimal economic rewards. The majority of traders, all who are women, were the primary breadwinners of their families and often had to “partner up” with the fishermen, offering their bodies for fish in order to make enough money to provide for those depending on them. The industry is extremely hierarchical, allowing men with the necessary resources to receive most of the profit, while those less advantaged are heavily reliant on the resources of others.

Following our adventures and interviews around Lake Victoria, we remained at our hotel to interview several representatives of the Luo community. Among those who came to share discussions with us were elder Luo men, elder women, young women, and young men. It was an amazing educational opportunity to be able to speak with each of these different age groups and to hear their contrasting views on the issues we had been studying. We found that the elders, especially the men, were rather conservative in their views regarding Luo culture and were much more determined to preserve traditional values. The young men and women were much more progressive in their views of the future. One of the young women, when asked if she identified as a Luo or Kenyan, responded with “I consider myself first a global citizen, second a Kenyan”. As the younger generation comes of age, it is clear that traditional concepts of Luo identity are evolving to become more dynamic.

After our powerful experiences in Kisumu, we climbed back upon Njau’s well-loved bus and set out for Nakuru. Unfortunately, we had to leave some of our KSP comrades behind as they were floored with food poisoning (they’re back at it and healthier than ever now!). When we got to the gate of Lake Nakuru National Park we had to sort out some logistics with passports and while we waited we were treated to quite an amusing show put on by several baboons. We arrived at our hotel within the park in the early evening and were wide-eyed to a stunning sunset over Lake Nakuru. The following morning we got up early for our first game drive of the semester! We piled into the bus once more and were treated to Njau ready to stop for each and every monkey and Sinnary answering every wildlife question. We were lucky enough to see four huge white rhinos, which we quickly learned were actually named “wide rhinos” for their large jaw structure, but the name was lost in translation. We also saw several twigas (giraffes), monkeys, countless water buffalo, and even a rare aard wolf. It was an amazing experience and wonderful conclusion to an incredible week.

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