Last year just before Christmas, I made my way for the first time all the way to the Rusinga Island that is in Lake Victoria. I have been to that part of the country before several times but not at Rusinga in Mbita, Homabay County.
It was the time of year for the Rusinga Cultural festival one of the biggest cultural festivals in Kenya.
Lucky for me I am close friends with the organizer of the festival and I was enthusiastic to see what happens thereafter hearing so much about it. I decided to go via bus from Nairobi, and yes it was a long ride but even on the trip, there is so much of the country [Kenya] to see. Places I had never been to before.
Rusinga Island itself is part of Homa Bay County in the Nyanza region. It is home for the Suba people and they have a lot of cultural influences from the Luo people who dominate the region. This was part of the reason my friend Anne Eboso Okongo was inspired to start the Rusinga Cultural Festival.
As someone who attended the festival last year in 2017, I saw a vibrancy in the activities and the excitement in the community around. I got to sample the most delicious local food and thoroughly enjoyed the dances and other performances.
From what I understand the festival has done a lot to improve the economic situation of the island which was mainly known for only fishing and has now diversified other business and employment opportunities in the area.
It was also a town people tended to leave to look for work opportunities in other towns but now the festival has brought a lot of life in the town and there is usually a huge exodus to Rusinga during the holidays and employment opportunities are on the rise.
Below is my interview with her where she explained more about the festival.
The dates are scheduled for 20th to 21st of December 2018
There are various Tour companies that have packages for the event to make it easier to travel there
a) Buu Pass[Transport booking company based in Nairobi ] https://buupass.com/
+254 715 763 362 [they have included waterbus tours around the Island]
b) Turnup Travel [Based in Nairobi] +254 724 215977 – facebook.com/events/2204027206584747/
c) Dala Adventures [Based in Kisumu] +254736 107278 – facebook.com/events/695839750752326/ [ have included a ferry ride on Lake Victoria from Kisumu to Mbita]
d) Viba ExploreTours[Based in Kisumu] +254797 843364 – vibaexplore.com [they have packages for day trips and also for people who want to stay longer that includes accommodation] I personally took a bus from Nairobi but I would advise the use of a tour company if not familiar with the area, it will save a lot of hassle.
Anne’s Inspiration For Rusinga Festival
Having known Anne for a while she juggles a lot of roles and is always very passionate above on making a difference in her community. Apart from the festival, Anne is an entrepreneur [owner of ALL FOR CARS a company that sells automobile spare parts and all the employees are female] She is also a cultural enthusiast and a reading literacy advocate.
As a literacy advocate, Anne was part of the organizing committee of the StoryMoja [One Story] Festival in 2017. It is a very well-known literature festival and is described as a ‘celebration of books, stories and culture’ and is the biggest book party in East Africa
This specific edition [in 2017] came exactly ten years after the 2007 Post Election Violence and coincidentally, it was also being held at the backdrop of yet another disputed presidential election and a historic ruling nullifying the same presidential elections. It was the inspiration behind the theme was Black Peace. And as one journalist noted in the Star Newspaper, “The StoryMoja Festival was a welcome getaway from boiling political temperatures.”
The Rusinga Festival
It happens every year [for the last 6 years] in December [because that’s basically the major holiday season in Kenya] and usually around Christmas time so that people make a holiday out of the whole experience.
Anne studied Marketing and it was what drove her to think of ways of better packaging the Western part of Kenya as a tourism destination. Most people know more about the Coastal part of Kenya and the wildlife but going to the Western part of Kenya is generally not as explored.
The Rusinga Festival is a two-day event that takes place on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria. The festival begs to answer the cultural question of “Can a people die?” as a result of the intermarriage between the Suba and the Luo people. The Suba culture is listed in the UNESCO’s Red Book of Endangered Languages  The festival is a celebration of the Suba culture through music, fashion, film, food, art, literature, sports, and conversations.
What To Expect When Attending The Festival
It’s a showcase of traditional Suba performances through songs, dances, instrumentals, storytelling, comedy, and poetry.
In traditional Suba culture, sports were used to unite the people. We will have different sporting events like okuidiewana kwa amaato (boat racing/canoe regatta for both men and women), okukulana kwa engoe tug of war (for both men and women), Oluko (board game) and Eminyiika (traditional wrestling)
Exhibitions will be in three main categories: Food exhibition (which will showcase traditional Suba foods); Art exhibition (which will include traditional Suba artifacts, basketry, weaving,); and book exhibition (which will involve the display of Suba publications – either based on Suba culture or written by Suba authors and traditional African Folklore tales). The exhibitions are geared towards the economic empowerment of the youth and women.
Entails showcasing of fashion and culminates in the selection of our cultural ambassadors, Mr. and Miss Suba. Part of their mandate during their tenure includes promoting social change in the community, using their talents to promote Suba Culture and promoting brands that support Rusinga Festival.
Workshops and master classes
The workshops and master classes are based on various topical issues affecting the community and are meant for information/knowledge empowerment. e.g. financial literacy, business management, HIV AIDS, sanitation, health and literacy campaigns.
The Rusinga – Mfangano Island complex is on the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Organized tours around the Suba islands of Lake Victoria (Rusinga, Takawiri, and Mfangano) and the environs are meant to not only open up this area to the world but also to promote social change through tourism as an additional economic activity.
Due to the lifestyle and the continuation of some practices such as ‘Sex for Fish’, Suba district has been worst hit and until recently, Suba region has been leading for long with the highest prevalence in HIV AIDS in the country. Because of the huge numbers of the locals that the festival attracts, this has promoted health education and medical camp to take centre stage as a means of improving the livelihoods of the community members.
Some of the other activities that would be great to experience and see that are highly recommended by Anne are:
a) Enjoying the delicious festival delicacies
b) Paying homage to Tom Mboya’s mausoleum – one of Kenya’s greatest sons. The mausoleum is a stark reminder of some of the key components of the Kenyan history.
c) Enjoying the sunrise and sunsets atop the island’s hilly terrain.
d) Visiting the Abasuba Peace Museum in Mfangano Island
e) Enjoying the water bus across the islands.
Other Local Festivals on Anne’s bucket list
Anne has managed to attend other festivals that happen in Kenya at different times of the year. The cultural ones that she has attended are:
i) Lamu Cultural Festival – Attended in 2018.
ii) Maragoli Cultural Festival –several times over the years
iii) Turkana Cultural Festival – Coming soon
According to Anne, the Lamu and Rusinga festivals are very similar only that Lamu has been there longer hence more well known. They both focus on celebrating a culture of a people; Lamu focuses on Swahili culture whereas Rusinga focuses on Suba culture.
With Anne’s busy schedule I was curious to know what it would take to organize an event of that magnitude.
There are already a lot of misconceptions about organizing the festival and the truth is that each year she has to put extra effort to outshine the previous years event.
Most people think to organize an event that happens in December, then the planning for it starts in November. In reality, the planning of an event especially a major one such as Rusinga Festival starts immediately one edition of the festival ends. It actually takes a lot of effort to conceptualize an event, draft a proposal and even write reports. So technically the two-day event takes one year of planning.
Basically for the festival to happen these are some of the things that need to be done
Fundraising/ Resource mobilization which is easily the most critical element in event management because everything costs money. Example venue, sound, catering, tents, artists accommodation, and other expenses
Communication – Whether the event is a ticketed one or a free one, there has to be a strategy in place to reach the targeted audience.
Artists/Partners Management – Any event that involves artists or partners/sponsors requires an artist’s manager.
And many more
Anne has a lot of partners that make the festival possible and have gone a long way in ensuring that it happens every year.
a) The Rusinga Island community who have embraced the festival and fully supported it from inception. And they know how to turn up in the thousands
b) The US Embassy which has consistently supported literacy campaigns on the island as well as supported the festival to provide a platform for sensitization on the HIV Aids scourge.
c) Kenya Tourism Board which has supported the festival since the fourth edition when they first learnt about it.
d) Award winning bloggers who have showcased the festival on the online platforms and helped in opening up the festival to the world
e) Various government agencies such as NSSF [National Social Security Fund] who continue to use platforms such as the festival for sensitization.
f) Various local fashion talent also take place in showcasing in the event especially the fashion show
For those considering getting into event planning or management as a career Anne says that it should be a basic skill included in the school curriculum, considering that in one time in our lives or another we will be planning or managing an event. Some of the common ones being birthday parties, weddings or event just hosting guests at our homes.
Anne offers internships for those who would like to be more involved in the nitty gritty of the planning and management process.
Where Anne Hopes Rusinga Festival to be
Locally [Kenya] Anne uses Lamu Cultural Festival as a benchmark. Being the oldest cultural festival in the country having been there for 18 years and has grown over the years to attract more than 50,000 people. Numbers Rusinga Festival is yet to reach but slowly getting there.
Internationally, she would like to reach the levels of the Edinburgh Festival which is famed to be the largest arts festival in the world. It is on her bucket list to attend as well.
Anne’s last words to me at for the interview was this
“On 20th and 21st December 2018, the Rusinga Festival lights will be turned on, transforming Rusinga Island into a wonderland. You will be left in awe as you lap up the rich Suba culture and the stunning serenade of nature with every sunset and sunrise over Africa’s largest freshwater lake.
Karibuni [Swahili for Welcome] Rusinga Island”
I truly cannot add any more to that.
So if you can please make it to the festival, flights are also available to Homabay so it is not too late, and explore Western Kenya, there is a lot to see and do.
To follow Anne and the Rusinga festival
Twitter – twitter.com/RusingaFestival
Facebook – facebook.com/RusingaFestival/
Lorna is a 2016 YALI Mandela Washington Fellow.