Every town has two names.There is the name that appears in Geography books and maps. Then there is the name by which the locals call their town. Thus the windswept town called Isiolo becomes ‘Siolo’ to locals. The ‘I’ is silent. Wajir is Wajeer. Nanyuki becomes Nanyukii to the locals. Kisumu is Kisum.
You know why locals pronounce the names correctly? Because they own the places. A town’s name may be Anglicized or altered by other tongues but its owners stick to its real name. One of the towns whose owners claim vehemently is Kisumu.
You see, its easy to claim Kisumu. For one, unlike Nairobi, Kisumu is not seething with angry masses-people that seem to be running away from something or everything. Kisumu is made up of people who are at home with themselves. Two, the town is guided by a lord mayor called order unlike Nairobi which is lorded over by some unseen mayor called chaos. Nairobi is too chaotic, like a hospice for the moribund. When chaos gets tired of tormenting the world, they hide in Nairobi. I always wonder how that metro survives with no riots breaking out every day.
Every town has a persona that it presents to the traveller.Machakos is an over bleached slay queen in yellow dress trying to catch up with her big sister Nairobi.Nyeri is an old geezer who drives a 1978 Chevrolet pickup. Kisumu is a debonair gentlemen in three piece suit smoking a cigar, taking single malt whiskey, using words like ‘propestrous’ in his speech. You have to like the way sons of lake the take whiskey with religious piety, like its holy communion.
Coming from a place with no large water body, I love going down to Lake Victoria just to watch the lake anytime I am in Kisumu. I love Lake Victoria’s expanse-actually I feel it should be upgraded to a sea. Or an inland ocean. The little lake ones love is ones biggest ocean. If Dead Sea, which does even support life, is ranked is a sea, then Lake Victoria should be upgraded to a sea too. For the love of Kisumu, we should start a petition to the UN for that upgrade. This would be a good reward to the lake which is always calm, unlike other water bodies which are always moody.
The other day that I found myself in Kisumu I was impressed by the town’s neatness. The town has fully recovered from the elections chaos that rocked the town last year. Kisumu is one town where I have a free tour guide called Ogallo.Now, Ogallo and I did Literature and Linguistics together in campus. This man Ogallo is a man of letters. He speaks his English with pleasant flow of liquid words, the plosives gliding smoothly over the fricatives, the bilabials dancing gracefully over the alveolars.So much for Linguistics though.
When Ogallo is happy, epithets fall from his mouth. When he is angry, he hurls words around like spears. I always tell him that if he were to insult somebody, his insults could raise blisters on a sensitive skin because they would be so forcefull.But he hardly does that because he is such a refined man.When Ogallo is around me, he speaks in iambic pentameter, like Shakespeare, because he and I are poetry buffs.
Jarabuon, what brings thee to this lacustrine borough?
He asked me as he picked me from the bus stage.Jarabuon means ‘potato people’ his nickname for us from Central Kenya who take every meal, fish included, with Irish potatoes. Lacustrine means ‘having to do with the lake.’ As for borough, you check out the meaning. I am doing too much explaining.
Same old thirst for wisdom. I told him. I had gone to see a certain Professor at Maseno University.
One of the things that irk Ogallo is that I cannot eat fish. His efforts to enlist me into the cult of fish lovers have always failed. So he took me to the Imperial Hotel on Achieng Oneko Road where they serve good fish.
I hear you mountain people boil fish in lots of water then add warus to it.He tells me.
Treat that as a myth, like that of Nyamgondho. I retort back.
We laugh in between the meal. Then we wander off to the myth of Nyamgondho which Ogallo always narrates with gusto, rendering it afresh each time he does so.
Nyamgondho, son of Ombare was a was poor chap who lived in Kamuela village in the 14th century .He eked a living by fishing and hawking at Kondele market .When he made enough money he would visit local gin dens then later attend open air ohangala dances.
One day, as Nyamgondho was fishing, he pulled out an ugly one eyed woman from the lake. Nyamgondho wanted to throw her back to the lake, but the ugly woman begged him to keep her and marry her. Being a bachelor who girls avoided owing to his poverty, the idea of having a woman to sweep his simba was welcome To Nyamgondho. Thus he took Nyar Nam-daughter of the lake-home and made her his wife.
Soon, the two settled down and got a lot of wealth. Nyamgondho named the woman Adikinyi and she bore him many children.Nyamgodho got several other wives and many children. He stopped taking illicit Nubian gin and graduated to single malt millet beer. He started smoking with gold tipped pipes, his tobacco imported all the way from the land of the Ankole. Gradually, Nyamgondho forgot about his humble beginnings and became very proud.
One Saturday evening, Nyamgondho came home drunk and cursing like a Sio Port sailor. His wives refused to open the door for him. Nyamgondho got angry and abused Adikinyi, calling her an ugly old woman. The following morning, Adikinyi headed to the lake, and all of Nyamgondho’s wealth followed her. If you go to Nyamgondho site by the lake, you can see Adikinyis foot prints and the ones left by the livestock as they headed for the lake.
The following day found us at Nyamgondho site which can be accessed by murram road from the lake shore town of Sindo.The site offers a panoramic view of Lake Victoria. Boats lay motionless in the glassy lake, their sails fluttering in the wind like girls silk petticoats. Then a brief zephyr blows from the East, filling the lakes surface with a thousand dimples.
The lake is a woman, a temptress. Ogallo tells me.
The reason why we sons of the lake are romantic is because we learn it from the lake.
He goes on in an enchanted monologue. I keep quiet and stare pensively to indicate to him that what he has said is deep.We sit by the shore watching the liquid soliloquy of the lake, listening to the lake breathing. The waves break on the shores back and forth, like the eternal ebb and flow of human misery. As the sun sets Ogallo hums some lines from the poem Dover Beach. The waves-
Begin and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring,
The eternal note of sadness in.
After the Nyamgondho site tour we come back to town where I am to meet my Professor. At any given weekend, Kisumu has the highest concentration of Professors per square mile.
Now, my Professor is one of those unassuming scholars who did His Masters in Leeds, PhD in Cambridge and wears Oxford loafers and always dons a tie with an Oxford knot. When my Professor speaks, scholarship seeps from his mouth.
Great to see you osiepna. He tells me.We are at Kisumu Hotel that is opposite Maseno University Town Campus. After the usual chit chat, I tell him that I have to go out and look for good food.
What is good food?
I want some mukimo and minji.
What is minji? I explain to him what minji looks like.
Oh,you mean Pisum Sativum of the Fabacaea Family! Exclaims Professor in one eureka moment.
There is a Kikuyu lady who does them at Kondele.
So we continue with our chat with the Professor. Men with the rhythm of rhumba in their hips are dancing to some slow music. When Luos do the rhumba, they make it an art.The men have feet that are articulate as poetry, the ladies got hips that sway with coordinated geometry. But wait till hypnotic Ohangla hits the air and everybody dances with the lascivious grace of tango.
Kisumu Hotel is a cozy place with some aristocratic look. The drinks are pricey for a student like me so is their accommodation. I can’t wait to be done with Professor and go out to look for an affordable place plus my beloved mountain food.
Finally, my Prof is about to go. He calls the Hotels Manager and tells him that I am his guest.
This scholar is displaying somnolence .Get him a tranquil place for him to repose his tired torso.
That’s how I spent my night in the marvelous Kisumu Hotel despite its cost.