Goodbye Kisumu

Early morning Lake Victoria boat ride

After two years of (mostly) staying put in Kisumu, I’m getting back on the road!

Of all the places in the world, I would not have guessed that I’d break my nomadic streak for life in Kisumu. I’m glad to have spent all this time in the slow pace of a small city - definitely dodged the intense lockdowns around the world.

Things I’ll miss from my life in Kisumu

  • walking down the quiet Okore Road or Ridoch Road as the sun sets and the heat of the day lets up

  • cycling or running along the Lake Victoria shore in the direction of Dunga beach, noticing the water hyacinths surrendering or gaining turf as the “seasons” change.

  • grabbing a booth and working from Java House at West End Mall in the afternoons - Going to Java was the one COVID risk I allowed myself for the sake of keeping my sanity and having a reason to get out of the apartment. Debatable if I held on to my sanity, but it became such a comfort that I’d visit Java at least once a week, and get one of the few vegan/vegatarian options in the menu, so much so that the waiters knew exactly what I’d get. “Green smoothie and a garden salad?”. All I had to do was nod.

  • the stunning views of the hills around Kisumu - I was lucky to be in a fifth floor apartment, and seeing the orange and purple hues of dawn over the hills was an experience.

  • the one-hour (minimum) wait times at most restaurants and how it teaches you to embrace Kisumu’s quirks and work with it - I’d call in my order an hour in advance and would have to wait only 5 - 10 minutes when I got there 😛

  • rushing to Chandarana/Food Plus before closing time for groceries that cannot be found elsewhere in Kisumu (hummus, kombucha, vegan pesto/ice cream/wine, fresh tofu)

  • being accosted by the same group of boda drivers outside West End Mall who know exactly where to drop you off, all jostling to be the one to make 50 shillings. I’ve been told that real Kisumu folks pay only 20 shillings to go to most places, but 50 is the minimum price for foreigners.

  • the long rains - the howling winds, the lightning storms over the lake, the sheer intensity of rain.

  • the dodgy instant electric heaters - Can you really say you’ve lived life on the edge if you haven’t showered under an electric showerhead that instantly heats water, as you contemplate high-voltage electrocution and bodies charred beyond recognition? Just kidding, this probably belongs in the next section.

  • the elaborate greetings. As someone familiar and very comfortable in the brusque, utilitarian, seemingly rude (by Western standards, not mine) ways of urban Indian customer service at grocery stores, and small shops and restaurants, the social ritual of greeting absolutely everyone before engaging with them initially drove me crazy (So inefficient). This is a real transcript of a phone call from an unknown number

    Me: "Hello?"
    Person: "Hello, how are you?"
    Me: "I'm fine, how are you?"
    Person: "I'm fine too"
    *Awkward pause
    Me: "Yes?"
    Person: "I'm calling you from DHL. There is a package at our office...."

    But now? Kisumu has done a number on me. I was in India briefly last year, and I got strange looks because I started all interactions with “Hi, how are you?”

  • making small talk with a stranger and discovering that they run a “ministry” on weekends and collections have been down in recent months. The odds that that has happened to me 2 - 3 times!

  • watching the sunset in the weirdly segregationist, melanin-free environs of Dunga Hill Camp on a Friday night, and greeting folks whom you’ve only ever seen with a bottle of beer in their hands (and presumably not their first for the evening). Alcoholism is a real thing, Kisumu!

  • taking a boda to the airport, and catching your flight even when you get to the airport 15 minutes before takeoff.

View of the hills near Kibos Road, Kisumu

Things I won’t miss

  • The garbage burning and the filthy air (sometimes)! Don’t get me started (I’ve written about it before).
  • The drunk-driving! If you see someone driving past midnight on a Friday, I promise you they’re not sober. It blew my mind when I learnt that drunk-driving was just the norm in Kisumu.
  • Maybe it’s just me and my complete lack of social media and/or social skills, but it felt like there was absolutely nothing to do in Kisumu but to go to church or drink to get hammered. At this point in my life (and, I hope, always), I don’t need someone shouting at me that “the fiery depths of hell await you for your sinful ways” in the hope of scaring me into committing to a tithe, nor do I want to run away from an existential crisis by numbing my mind with alcohol (I prefer travelling, i.e, literally running away, instead). That meant..spending a lot of time reading and watching stuff online. And resentfully finding and Alliance Française events in Nairobi
    • That said, I’m leaving with a tinge of regret that I didn’t use my time in Kisumu to travel to the places around it. I’ve been learning more about permaculture and natural farming lately, and after spending days trying to find a permaculture farm accessible to me that would be willing to give me a tour, I found one an hour’s drive away from Kisumu 🤦. I also don’t feel like I’ve seen much of Kakamega and beyond, not to mention Mount Elgon National Park!
  • The madenning chorus of church loudspeakers on the weekends, starting as early as 8AM and stretching all the way to about 6PM.

Exciting times for Kisumu

I’m cautiously optimistic about all the upcoming changes in Kisumu - A waterfront promenade is under construction, the Kisumu port is being revived, many parts of the city have been spruced up and new bicycle lanes created in preparation for the Africities summit in a few months, and the colonial-era train is finally functional again, if your definition of functional accommodates a train that averages about 20 km/h and takes 12 hours from Nairobi to Kisumu.

Depending on how the election in August ~is decided~ goes, the next President may have strong ties to Kisumu - Hopefully that translates to a greater focus on the region, if only for the purposes of voter appeasement.

What’s next?

I’m looking forward to doing a bit of travelling - Yes, it’s inconvenient to look up COVID restrictions and take PCR tests, but after a long time in Kisumu, the scale has tipped in favour of travelling despite the inconveniences. I feel silly that I haven’t seen much of east Africa in all this time in the region, so I have Rwanda on my mind.

What I’d really like from this year is to find a small house on a permaculture farm, in a part of the world with a mild climate, spending hours outdoors everyday, working on the farm alongside people willing to teach me their farming practices and put up with my remote work, somewhere I can go cycling or wandering off every weekend.

Categories: travel
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