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Ties that bind Isukuti, lizards and tree now on the brink of extinction

By Robert Amalemba | May 4th 2021
Boaz Otenyo Shimoli during an interview with The Standard at Eshiandukusi village, Lurambi. Shimoli earns a living through making musical instruments such as Eshilili, Isukuti, Litungu, Kayamba, drums, etc from different types of skins. In Isukuti making, he uses the monitor lizard's skin which he gets from hunting with his dogs and spear. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Boaz Otenyo Shimoli stoically stretches his lean body to pull a monitor lizard skin from a lump of drying cow and goat skins under the roof of his semi-permanent mud-walled workshop at Lurambi, Kakamega County.

His confidence and skill can be felt in his voice and demonstration as he takes us through his work. He does it with the mastery of a medicine professor showing students the craft of dissecting a patient.

The confidence in his voice however shrinks as he explains what he terms the greatest tragedy of his trade - diminishing number of monitor lizards, locally called Imbulu.

“In a few years we will have no Isukuti dance under the skies of Kakamega. I hate to imagine that, but I know when it eventually happens, I would have long died,” he says.

The monitor lizard, a small terrestrial reptile that lives along river banks, is listed among the 52 “endangered and threatened reptiles in the country” by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Hunt freely

“Initially we used to hunt for the reptiles freely, make the drums and dance, but things are becoming a little bit challenging as the animals are no longer easy to find and the law is tough on us (Isukuti drums makers) in the event you’re nabbed with its skin,” he says.

The drums, a core ingredient of the Isukuti dance common among the Idakho and Isukha Luhya sub-tribes, are made in a set of three to represent the traditional family bond running through father, mother to child.

The biggest of the three drums represents the father (tata), the medium-mother (mama) and the smallest-child (mwana). The father takes the biggest share of the monitor lizard skin covering flowed by the mother then the child. “The father drum directs the (Isukuti) dance movement just like the father is naturally in charge of key family affairs. The mother drum adds the tweaks in the dance as the mother should lighten the family as the child drum complements what the father and mother drum are doing,” explains Shimoli.

He went on: “The skin of one monitor lizard can make the big drum (tata) and the small one (mwana), for you to get a full set of the drums you have to get about two of the reptiles,” says Shimoli who sells the set between Sh25,000 and Sh35,000.

120cm to 220cm long

According to a wildlife site, the Nile monitor lizards can grow to about 120cm to 220cm long, with the largest species attaining 244cm.

He says the monitor lizard skin has a historical and even emotional attachment to the Isukha and Idakho sub-tribes.

He uses the Mukomari tree (Cordia Africana) trunk to fashion the bottom side of the drum by drilling a hollow section into it then mask the top with the monitor lizard skin.

The tree being an indigenous type is hard to find just like the monitor lizard. “When we fail to get the Mukomari and the monitor lizard skin we make do with goat skin and eucalyptus tree. The end product is, however, a weaker version of the organic Isukuti drums that peppered the Isukuti dance,” says Shimoli.

The Isukha and Idakho people who love dancing at every key life event employ the dance in their day-to-day life from time of birth, circumcision, marriage, death, planting, harvest, war, and even during bull fighting.

Recently, the Isukuti dance has found itself in political rallies and school music festivals.

“My better clients are schools who flock my home to buy the Isukuti drum for music festivals. I have once sold sets of drums to people who said they were from the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi. I made a killing that day by selling several sets of the drum.”

He regrets that locals don’t appreciate the prices for the Isukuti drums made from monitor lizard skin. “I especially don’t like dealing with bull fighters, they want you to sell them the drums at a throw away price yet you have toiled to hunt for the lizard,” he says, adding: “They think monitor lizards are as easy to catch as it was during the times of our forefathers.”

Since most of the people who used to deal in the skin trade died and some moved on to other ventures, Shimoli now has to solely rely on his hunting prowess to keep stock of the high-demand Isukuti drums made from monitor lizard skin.

He has 11 dogs, which he tags along in his hunting expeditions, for the diminishing lizard along the streams of rivers and in sugarcane plantations.

There is inadequate statistics from KWS to show the number of the lizards, but all agree their number is declining, the more reason they are tagged “endangered and threatened.”

“You will be lucky to get a monitor lizard these days unlike in the 1970s through the 1990s when we used to catch as many as ten in a single day. Today you will be lucky to get ten in a month,” says Shimoli.

He has to supplement his trade by making the ordinary drums from cow and goat skin targeting churches with indigenous roots in Western Kenya.

Shimoli, who is from the Idakho sub-tribe, learnt the trade from his grandparent Ayub Alulu. Isukuti dance has evolved through schools where it is a common feature in schools’ music extravaganza.

But this heritage, at least the organic one where the drum set was made from Imbulu and Mukomari tree trunk, is slowly dying away with the diminishing number of the lizards.

In 2014, the Isukuti drum and dance were inscribed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) in the list of “intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding.”

The session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage took place at Unesco headquarters, Paris, from 24 to 28 November 2014.

How the heritage will be safeguarded under the laws banning hunting of the monitor lizards and those that protect harvesting of the indigenous Cordia africana (Mukomari) tree - the key ingredient of making the drum that keeps the dance alive, will be something interesting to watch.  

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