Home to Luo’s rich cultural heritage

By Ferdinand Mwongela

Kenya has got two cities seated right next to large water bodies. One, Mombasa next to the Indian Ocean, is synonymous with tourism; the second Kisumu next to Lake Victoria is better known for its fish than as an attraction but this disguises its true beauty.

A replica of a Luo traditional homestead ‘Ber gi dala’.

After all no other place in Kenya can claim a "friendship" status with Cheltenham, UK and "sister" status with Roanoke, Virginia, USA.

Last month, with a group of journalists, I had an opportunity to visit this lakeside city. The morning flight from Nairobi to Kisumu took about 30 minutes, a shorter time than it takes me to get out of my house to the office.

After freshening up at the Vic hotel we headed for the Kisumu National Museum. The last time I visited a museum was as a small boy in a white shirt with scrawny legs sticking out of a blue short.

Traditional homestead

But here we were, a bunch of wisecrack scribes who thought, wrongly, that we had seen everything.

Right from the gate, the setup leaves no doubt that one is in the land of the Luo people. A sign welcomes you, Ber gi dala, which I am told translates roughly to "Good for home" and we are at home. The setup is of a traditional Luo homestead. A mud grass thatched house for the man of the house and separate houses for each wife presents a traditional homestead. The museum’s main gallery faces the gate as is traditionally expected of the first wife’s house. Other galleries that represent the second and third wives’ houses are on the flanks.

The main gallery holds a lot of the Western region’s material culture and natural heritage. In the centre of the gallery is a stuffed lion shown in the full splendour of its hunt. All around different materials of days gone by are displayed in cases.
 A glass case exhibition of fish and crustaceans.

Enthralling custom

From hunting tools and weapons to baskets and cooking implements. I’m more fascinated by the stuffed snake and bird displays in a corner of the gallery, probably prompted more by my healthy fear of reptiles coupled with the chance of seeing them up close.

From here we move on to the aquarium in a different building beautifully set at ground level in a tunnel like walk-through set up. I finally get the chance to see the different types of fish I have read about. From the lazy Kamongo to tilapia and the catfish.

The next stop is at the full-scale recreation of a traditional Luo homestead, Ber gi dala. It is the museum's most important and largest exhibition and comes complete with traditional huts for three wives, Achieng, Akinyi and Aketch and simba (hut for the eldest son). Apart from the homes of each wife, Ber gi dala consists also of granaries and livestock kraal of the imaginary Luo man.

Through signs and taped programs in both dholuo and English, the exhibition also explains the origins of the Luo people, their migration to western Kenya, traditional healing plants and the process of establishing a new home.

A stuffed lion at the museum’s main galary .
Our guide Caleb Oduol explains this setup helps visitors understand the dynamics of Luo culture from a practical point of view.

Luo culture

For many of my generation our most comprehensive encounter with the Luo culture was between the pages of Margaret Ogolla’s The River and The Source.

Yet what I learnt therein is nothing compared to this. The inside of the hut is surprisingly cool insulated by the mud walls and thatch.

The tortoise and snake parks were next stops. The tortoises dragging along around their enclosure while others huddled together in a group looking like a cluster of haphazardly placed rocks. A few metres ahead crocodiles lay inside their enclosure immersed in water but keenly watching our little band. Despite the chain link fence between us, I felt the need to be extra cautious.

It is amazing how a crocodile can move while seemingly still. One crocodile raised its snout slowly out of the water, so slowly it was hardly noticeable yet often with very tragic results for its victims. I could now understand how the stealth movements deceive their intended victims.

At the snake park, the reptiles lay behind glass cases. This time I was abit wary. I have little trust for live snakes whether behind a glass case or under my bed.

Here was a display of the snake population holding all manners from the forest cobra, puff adder to the black mamba, which is the longest and most venomous snake in Africa.
Guests at the tortoise park. [PHOTOS: MAXWEL AGWANDA/STANDARD]

The guide’s anecdote that after a bite, one has about three minutes to bequeath their earthly possessions to the next of kin was not very helpful.

The short but fat gaboon viper also lay close by. Altogether this must be a huge collection of potential killers in one place at any given time. I was more fascinated by the pythons as they crawled around and on each other their length and size awe-inspiring.

To wind up our tour of the museum we sat down under a tree with the curator, Peter Nyamenya whose explanations and oceans of anecdotes brought the lessons closer home.

As he droned on, I could not help but notice how quiet the museum was, compared to the troops of visitors often seen at the Nairobi National Museum.

Nyamenya, however, assured us that they get their own fair share of visitors especially school children, but agrees that more needs to be done to attract more to this region.

A tour of Kisumu, is never complete without a boat ride in the waters of Lake Victoria, and this we did. For the residents here boat rides are part of their lives but for one whose only ride was at Uhuru Park in Nairobi, this was an adrenaline charged event.

The experience as we stole away from land and deep into the waters was simply unforgettable.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Standardmedia.co.ke

National MuseumLuo CultureMargaret Ogolla