You have to be a luo to really understand the feeling of going back to Kisumu. It’s our mecca, a halfway house between pride and nostalgia. It’s hard to imagine that there are those who have never been to Kisumu, and that they imagine it to be a squat tin town with one street, one bank, a dark mad naked man with unshaved pubes, and three Mpesa shops. They are convinced that the grandiosity of Kisumu is forged on hype. It’s not, at least not all of it, because we have an International Airport for the love of Mike. You roll your eyes all you want but we do, and it’s towards this international airport that our plane bore last Friday in the beautiful early morning light.
From the air, the plane curves as if doing a small dance before the great city. The silo-like buildings of downtown Kisumu catch the light and blush. There is the green lawn of the golf course where Kisumu’s elite tee off, big Amin-like men with big hands clutched on clubs. Normally you’d see a sparkling Lake Victoria from above running into the city, but not this morning, this morning you see heartbreak in the form of hyacinth that has run over the lake. It’s like an unattended field of weed. As the plane curls again, you see the mountain that frames the city, Mambo Leo somewhere beyond. The mountain is turning into a metropolis of constructions; massives houses, small fenced out estates, single constructions on the lips of valleys and half finished houses. The mountain is being taken over by the rich who now want to see the city below from their lofty perch on the hills. I have always loved those hills. Not more than seven years ago, those hills called Kajulu hills, if I’m not mistaken, were green and untouched; now the long ugly hands of capitalism or development have touched it and its promises, turning it into an uncontrolled eyesore with deep-pocketed folks who can afford to pay for a view. I told my brother this and he said, “It was inevitable, change is change. It’s eventually going to be like the Santa Monica’s Hollywood Hill, maybe complete with a massive signage, who knows?”
Whatever it is, that hill is becoming ugly.
Then the plane lands and you have this feeling of belonging. You know how you can be away from Nairobi for a week and when you land at JKIA, walk out of the International Arrivals gate and into the bright Nairobi sun, you feel Nairobi – strong, urgent, hungry, aggressive – come at you like a long dear friend who doesn’t understand personal space? Although you are happy to be back to your soil, you feel like your whole body is poised and coiled for something, your senses awakened, your heartbeat galloping and you just want to do something, and you want to do it now…well, as soon as you beat Mombasa road’s ghastly traffic jam.
Nairobi doesn’t know how to let you breathe because Nairobi itself is a city with it’s breath held. Mombasa is different; you land at Moi International Airport and you just feel horny. (Or does that happen to me alone?) I think it’s the musky heavy, salty-smelling air and the sea. There is something about that Indian Ocean. I have never landed at Moi – even for work – and thought, “Hmm, now now to get some biashara out of the way.” I land at Moi or Diani and I instantly want a drink and to see a fleeting revelation of a thigh, a curtain into nirvana.
Kisumu is different. Kisumu is like our mother; it takes us for who we are, who we want to be, who we pretend to be and who we have failed to be. You land at the international airport and you feel like you are understood, that unlike Nairobi, you don’t need a mask. In Kisumu you are unclothed before the universe. You are amongst people who understand your struggles.
I walked out of the airport and ran into Charlie, my official Kisumu cabbie who was there to pick someone else, and he happily said that I had gained weight, and I said “Nonsense. It’s muscle, not weight, you old goop,” then I added, “Mul’ ane kaa” and he felt my guns which is the gayest thing I have done in Kisumu, stand in the busy lobby of the airport and let another man feel my biceps. “Onge gimoro kaa, Biko,” he said laughing. Just two small boys comparing their biceps. Do we ever grow up?
We were down to bury my aunt Rozie, who was like a massive mango tree that birds and animals lived on. She had these massive branches where people hanged on, and her roots went so deep in the ground that I didn’t imagine that death would uproot her from life, a lady so gentle and lovely. But death is death, and the Bible says somewhere that we shall eventually sleep longer than we lived. And so it came to pass, the big mango tree tumbled and hundreds of us flocked to a place called Obambo, just as you are going to Bondo, the dustiest place I have been to outside northern Kenya. All the dust in Kenya comes from Obambo, that’s their shags.
First, if you can, book yourself into a hotel in Kisumu unless you plan to spend the night sitting up in the wrathful midnight cold of Nyanza. Book yourself into Imperial Express hotel smack in the middle of the city because it’s a budget hotel, a small offshoot of the impervious Imperial hotel, one of Kisumu’s longstanding institutional landmarks. Imperial Express is the place for those who want to touch and go, those in town for a jiffy. You get very white sheets, a very comfortable bed, a pillow, a desk, AC, clean shower, TV, Wi-Fi and a dust-bin. There is no lunch or dinner, neither is there a view really because you won’t be there long enough to enjoy it. It’s the epitome of functional and it’s where the doctor said you should stay in. Throw your bags in the room and go for your funeral, like I did.
Let’s handle a few things about our funerals, things that I didn’t handle in my old article How To Bury A Luo here.
People still cry in luo funerals. If you are the kind to be spooked easily, don’t go the moment the body is taken home because there is a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth; people running all over the place, crying and falling down, and sometimes even pretending to faint. You will know they have never fainted before in their lives otherwise they would not be whispering, “Yawa, dwuonda otwo…Fanta, Fanta!” We the luos are as dramatic in funerals as we are in bars. Let us be.
Should you be there when the body is brought home, don’t be scared because crying in Luo funerals is political. It isn’t even always a cry of pain, but a cry of support. The people who cry the loudest often do so to be noticed that they came and they grieved with the family. Genuine tears belong to close family and friends. That woman you see there, the one wailing like a banshee? She doesn’t know the full names of the deceased. But she understands that wailing means access.
Don’t wear high heels. Funerals are not a catwalk opportunity. Our villages are not paved with cabro. Wear flat comfortable shoes for crying out loud. But you can wear a hat for the sun. We need more floppy hats in our funerals.
Food. There is food, lots of food at a luo funeral, but then again there is never enough food at a luo funeral. There always seems to be cartels that control food. There is food for the special guests (read in-laws) then food for the watus (jo’dala). Don’t be surprised to find proper kachumbari and guacamole in a luo funeral, that’s how abundant we can get. At my aunt’s funeral I saw chilli sauce. Chilli sauce for crying out loud! I mean, it’s only at a luo funeral that a mourner might be served food and we are afraid they might ask for chilli sauce. “Of course, ma’am, do you also need black pepper with your porchetta sandwich?”
(I think I need to be congratulated, I have successfully resisted talking about food at a funeral without mentioning two words; Kikuyu and cabbages.)
My pal called me the day of the burial. (She’s Kuyu). I suspect she called so that she could hear wailing but there was none. “Kwani guys are not crying?” she demanded with some level of disappointment and suspicion. I wanted to say, “Hang on, let me gather a few mourners and ask them to wail for your benefit, there were some professional mourners we hired and they should be able to put up an expedition for you. Call me back in 10?”
I told her we only wail the day the body arrives, or when a new group comes in wailing and so we all have to stop eating and meet them at the gate and join in the wailing. She has never been to Nyanza, and doesn’t have close luo friends. I asked her what she imagines luo funerals are like and she said, “I hear you guys dance around the grave.” Which brings me to another point, We. Do. Not. Dance. Around. Or. IN. The. Grave!
Open casket policy. Because we are visual. We want to see our dead. If we didn’t see it, it didn’t happen. I guess that’s why we struggled to accept the past president when Kibaki was sworn in at night.
Alcoholism is not only a province of a particular region. It’s nationwide. I have seen it in Lelan West Pokot, and in Londiani in Kericho, I have seen it in HomaBay as well as in Mathioya in Muranga. You will see them at a luo funeral; zombie, wonky, and emaciated – and when you see them, don’t look at them as failed individuals but as sick ones that are a direct product of poor governance.
Oh the dogs. There are no funerals in this country that attract as many mangy looking mongrels like a luo funeral because there is lots of food, bones and music. They are the unseen beneficiaries of funerals, ugly looking things with ribs lining their sides. They come from far flung villages and sometimes they mate there, bringing forth life as we bury one. They are unsightly and have little to no self esteem because people keep kicking it out of them. Or lobbing stuff at them. Or insulting them with raised hands, “Guog’ni! dhi kucho!” Which is not an insult because someone who calls you with your name hasn’t insulted you, have they? It’s like saying, “You human! Get out of here.”
These dogs never look you in the eye because they feel unworthy and filthy. A dog isn’t man’s best friend at a luo funeral, it’s just a dog. Most have a limp from being stoned, but still go out on a limb to get food. But one thing is for sure, a luo funeral will never be complete without a mongrel.
I was standing waiting outside one of the mobile loos written “VIP” when this guy, obviously not from around our neck of woods asked me lightheartedly, “Who qualifies to use this VIP loo, does that mean anyone with an iPhone?” I chuckled because he obviously spent a whole day thinking up the joke and looking for someone to try it on. Encouraged by his triumphant and promising comedy career, he forged on towards a (weak) punchline and said, “I have been seeing many people use this particular loo, so does this mean almost everyone here has an Iphone?” I grinned and said, “No, it’s means that every luo is convinced that a VIP lives in them.”
At my aunt’s funeral they hauled in a mobile cash bar. (Er, yawa, tek a little). This night I found myself seated next to this Kuyu chic whom I found drinking Guarana. Now I normally wouldn’t care what anyone brings to their lips, you can drink whatever you please, but this was my aunt’s red letter day. I don’t even know who had authorised Guarana to be sold at my aunt’s funeral. (Job, was that you?) It seemed insulting to her memory – a fine and learned luo woman with unquestionable taste and poise – to have a supplier sell Guarana at her funeral! It was sacrilegious, profane and embarrassing not only to the good people of Obambo, Kisumu, but to the very integrity of the luo nation at large. Selling Guarana at our funerals is the reason we never win elections.
I thought that if God grants you beauty, surely, you should work with him. Nevertheless (you know you are growing old when you use words like that), she was our guest and we treat all our guests with utmost respect.
We were sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels with some chaps, so I offered her a whisky instead in order to free her from the bony hands of the Guarana. She declined. She said whisky was too strong for her, besides she wanted to keep her wits together. So I offered to make her a whisky cocktail, instead, which she agreed to. I made her my very own Pacho-Special: two parts Jack Daniels, four parts soda water and a dash of Chocolate Man.
At some point in the night she said she could hear something moving in the bushes behind us. I assured her it was nothing, that no night runners were dying to jump over the thicket and give her a lapdance. (Oh the things you have to tell Kyuks at our funerals to reassure them of their safety). She continued to furtively turn back to stare at the dark bushes, as if there was a hyena in there, ironically not recognising the hyenas seated all around her, with their drinks in their hands.
I wasn’t hearing these movements in the bush, save for the music from the main arena. So I asked, “So this thing you keep hearing, this beast that is lurking in darkness, is it going to leap out and leave all these people seated around here, some with more meat than us, and come right at you because, what, it knows there is a Kikuyu amongst us and their meat taste better?” She laughed and said, “Yeah, they can smell waru meat.”
I’m happy to report that no animal jumped from the bushes and mauled her leg. I suspect that it was only a mild case of Guarana-induced paranoia.
(Rest in peace Rose Tindi)