Port of old foundations and new stars

Posted On 20th September 2016

Adhi Kisumo presently translates to “I am going to Kisumu City” from Dholou dialect. My colleague, Head of photography, Jacob Otieno in an animated impromptu Language and History lesson teaches that had I uttered the same words in the 19th Century, I would be implying that I was headed to the market-place to conduct kisuma, which loosely translates to barter trade. This is where the City of Kisumu, then an important Kisuma point for various tribes stems its name. Kisumu was especially strategic, as it remains to date, as an important market for fishermen returning from Nam Lolwe (Lake Victoria), the second largest freshwater lake in the world, with their catch. Historical references document that in 1901, a port was founded in Kisuma as the main inland terminal of the lunatic express then Uganda Railway. For most of 1902, the area was called Port Florence after Florence Preston the wife of the engineer who drove the last nail in the last sleeper of the railway, before reverting to the twisted Dholuo name-Kisumu. 

It was my first time in this city that linked Port Bell and Nairobi serving as a landing point on the British flying boat passenger and mail route from Southampton to Cape Town. That was before the jet airline era that allowed for a bombardier dash 8 owned by Jambo Jet to fly this writer from the capital in 45 minutes. The alternative journey by road covering 346 kilometers would have taken at least half a day. Arriving at dusk, my contacts ensured that I disappointingly spent my first day in a state of inertia thanks to a night out sampling the town’s ultimate party points-Duke of Breeze’s Rooftop bar and Heineken lounge located at the heart of the CBD and Club Signature located in downtown Kisumu.
“At a marble-tiled terrace, voices rose from the banquet tables set against a backdrop of illuminated fountains. Liveried waiters served roast quail on Limoges china and poured Loire Valley wines, properly chilled against the equatorial heat, “Bon apetit,” said the 58-year-old-president. “Versailles in the Jungle”. 

It was a strange coincidence to bump into these words penned by New York Times journalist James Brooke who visited Gbadolite palace in 1988 at the bar of a swanky establishment that oozed the same aura. Set in Milimami, one of the most exclusive address of a city whose dominant ethnic community have been typecast as having a flair for fine things, debutante Sovereign Hotel is evidently confident of its rank. I don’t say, but I was also marking off my bucket list in finest accommodation Kisumu had to offer. 

While it is not beyond me to make a mountain out of a molehill, this luxury boutique that officially opened its doors to the public in January 2014 seems to have replicated the ostentations, albeit in its own fashion, which Mobutu Sese seko Ngbendu wa za banga (born Joseph Eesire Mobutu) spared no expense for. I will paint a picture: Imagine a white-coloured 32-room manor house marked by a symmetrical façade with a dominant top front-facing gable. Crown this palatial display using nature-red clay roof tiles. Follow its staircase that leads up to a waiting area with cream walls and unmissable wood finishing. As you wait to be checked in, take a right turn to residents lounge and enjoy a cappuccino and fresh pastry. If a concrete meal is more expedient, dock your gastronomical needs at the aptly named Maestro restaurant that promises modern Mediterranean cuisine with an Asian twist. To prove that you are prime, a dedicated area off the brasserie-styled restaurant proposes fresh sushi and teppanyaki that you would struggle to find in the entire city. After a hearty meal; a massage at the poolside Club Zest that also vaunts a fully equipped gym and steam room should ease those tense muscles. That, of course, is if you are not conjuring up things like me whilst relishing a view of the lake against the backdrop of a jazz inspired ambience from upstairs set Legends Bar and Lounge.
My second day was all about seeing experiencing the sights. The Sovereign located opposite the esteemed institution Nyanza Club on Lolwe Dive, Off Aput Road, Milimani is a few kilometres to the city and a walk was ideal. Hard to miss on the intersection of Mosque Road and Oginga Odinga Road, the city’s thoroughfare, is the Town Clock. The inscription of this towering monument unveiled on August,19, 1938 by the then Governor of Kenya Sir Robert Brooke-Popham indicates that it was erected by brothers Mohamed, Alibhai, Hassan, and Rahimtulla Kassim in memory of their explorer and social work enthusiast father Kassim Lakha who arrived in Zanzibar in 1871. Further on, on Temple Road, the Siri Guru Sikh temple that is part of 21 historical sites elevated to national monument status recently stood as a testament of the history of the Sikh community in Kisumu and. From my host of European descent, to the polite Luo gentleman with a guitar strapped on his back who set my mental campus of the CBD, and on to the clock’s and temple’s history, it wasn’t hard to decipher the diversity of people hosted in this city. Lwang’ni eating bandas by the shores of Lake Victoria was an obvious stop thanks to the numerous recommendations from anyone who knew about my trip. Its fish preparation expertise and zooming flies-that give it its name-is legendary and it did live up to expectations. 

As I purposely walked aimlessly about, I couldn’t help but notice the incredible number of mechanic shops. My mental note was sanctioned on my return by Jacob who swore that the popular Swahili word Juakali originated from those artisans. I even made a mental note that Kisumu could be the unsurpassed town to own a vehicle. The only rival to this profession, in my opinion, is the boda boda (both bicycle and motorcycle) riders and tuk tuk drivers who were surprisingly affordable. I should know because after a stop at Kibuye Market located on Jomo Kenyatta Highway, north-east of the city centre, about 1.5km from the long distance bus stop I had one bicycle rider take me round on his even more surprising black mamba at a cost of Sh50. My rider who oddly didn’t seem to tire despite my bulk and the distance covered explained that  the market remains active day and night and is the second largest open air market in Kenya, and one of the oldest. Kisumu main market, on the other hand, specialises in kikoi, kanga, and batik textiles. My rider was also kind enough to intimate that I was in luck as a Luo Night festival was ‘happening’ that night. Now ethnic themed nights are norm in the capital, but this was the inaugural festival where top Luo stars would share a stage on home soil so this was understandably a big deal. 

Before I could enjoy this highlight, however, a visit to the Impala sanctuary about 3km from Kisumu city and branded as ‘a lakeshore walk with impalas' came highly recommended. The sanctuary in the Dunga neighbourhood covering a little under one half sq. km gazetted in 1992 as a holding point for a number of captured problem animals. It serves as a grazing ground for Hippos and as a natural habitat for numerous small mammals, birds and reptiles. After taking some impressive shot of the resident zebra in the now golden waters from the setting sun, a quiet reminiscent drink in the serene Kisumu Yacht Club located was capping. Note that this member’s only club issues temporary memberships. Well, as the warm night routed light, creation of yet another tale involving mini-stampedes and ppolitical rhetoric reigned before John junior, Emma Jalamo, Prezda bandason, and the sensational Tony Nyadundo shone on the biggest concert crowd I have witnessed yet.