It’s a world full of sights and sounds. In the first light of the day the lake is as still as glass without a ripple under an intense blue sky. The shrill of the African fish eagle pierces through the quietness of the morning. Out on the beach by the lighthouse at Mbita Point, the otter family enjoys a swim while the Pied kingfishers jack-dive to retrieve the tiny omena to feed on.
Jakieyo, meanwhile, the Laughing God of the Luo, is perched on his high hill welcoming guests with his toothy grin. The legend is that if you meet him walking the beach at night, he will bring you luck.
We’ve hired a Luo boat to sail around the lake for the day and hop off at the looming Mfangano Island in the horizon. Standing on the pier, Rusinga Island is in front.
It’s now connected to the mainland with a new concrete bridge doing away with the old causeway that had blocked the fishes’ passage and destroyed their spawning grounds.
The gaily coloured boat arrives with the local crew. They have sailed in from Ringiti Island and dropped their passengers off at Rusinga. Setting off from Mbita the long massif of Gwassi Hills line the southern shores of Victoria. Forested until 20 years ago, the hills have been cleared of the indigenous forest with the last of the mighty raptors like the African crowned eagle disappear.
The waterbus ferrying passengers from Mfangano and Takawiri islands to Mbita Point sails past as we near the twin islands of Mbasa. As always they are full of birds – egrets, herons, African fish eagles – there isn’t a tree or branch unoccupied. Drifting along the shore for no one steps on the islands, a gigantic monitor lizard ambles up the hill. Even though the islands are dubbed the twin islands, one is bigger and conical while its sister island is flat and smaller. Sailing the passage between the two, a group of fishers have set camp busy preparing a meal.
Our boatmen are hungry and ask if we can stop at Takawiri Island for breakfast. The fishing village is busy. Fishermen repair their nets while others lay them out on the ground for inspection.
On the ground women lay out the nets to dry the tiny omena while at the fish market the larger Nile perch are weighed and sold off to the fish merchants in bulk. The smell of fish permeates the Luo village. On the narrow strip of beach, children on holiday skip around and the white sails of the fishing boats complete the scene.
With our crew well-fed and in livelier spirits we’re off again – and this time to Mawanga rock art cave on Mfangano Island. The island is home to two rock art sites – at Mawanga and Kwitone.
They are some of the most prominent rock art galleries in Kenya dating between 1,000 and 4,000 years ago. The abstract paintings were done by hunter-gatherers called the Batwa, a Bantu-origin name for culturally related groups historically living around Africa’s Great Lakes region.
Mfangano is now the home of the Abasuba people, a Bantu people unrelated to the Batwa.
The guide’s wife appears and doubles up as our local guide. Standing at the mouth of the huge cave featuring the ancient concentric circles now quite faded with time, she explains that the Wasamo clan used the cave for rain-making rituals and are considered sacred. The white circles she says represent the sun while the red earth are the moon.
Back on the boat we sail past Ringiti Island shimmering with its tin roofs. “It’s so close to Uganda you can step into it from the island,” tells our captain.