Kenya: Living the Simple Life in Sigomere
By Marianne Stenger
“Muzungu, how are you?” Yell three overly excited, barefoot children on the dusty street as our pickup drives slowly by. I wave as we pass, then crane my neck to look back and see them still waving and pointing, huge grins spread across their little faces.
My unlikely stay in Ugenya district came about through a friend who recently started a sustainable development project in this area.
I had been eager to visit a “real” part of Africa, as my previous African experience had been in South Africa, and I have been repeatedly assured by adventurous folk that S.A is not “real” Africa.
A flight from Nairobi landed me (armed with my lonely planet guide book) at Kisumu airport, which really is not much more than a few thatched huts and a runway or two.
I was immediately aware of the fact that I was the only foreigner here. Pretending not to notice that I was sticking out like a sore thumb, I collected my oversized bags from where they had been set down in the dirt while trying to ignore the “helpful” porters milling about.
The sun was burning by now, though I noticed some people absurdly wearing winter coats.
On my drive to the little village of Sigomere, where I was to stay, I observed the bicycles with some interest. It’s amazing how much use can be made of a simple bicycle.
There were bicycle taxis, bicycles heavily loaded with vegetables or plastic chairs stacked a meter high, some even carrying live goats or sheep tied awkwardly on the back. Stalls litter the sides of the road, selling everything from bananas to shoelaces.
The scenery outside of the city demands attention immediately, and to describe it as beautiful, would be mundane. The blue sky, heavy foliage and richly colored earth, all make for a striking contrast. I can’t help but get flashbacks of “The Lion King” and smile to myself.
The first thing you notice is how green the landscape is here. This is largely due to the fact that the area has good rainfall, and since it is right on the Equator, there are no real seasons aside from rainy or dry season.
Our house is situated inside a small compound along the main road through Sigomere. These houses are simple but functional, and we’re lucky enough to have hot running water and electricity, as well as an inside toilet, something you won’t find in most houses around here.
My first stop after washing off the red dust that I was covered in after our drive from the airport, was the local “pub”.
If you had visions of a nice cold beer at the end of a long day, you would be sorely disappointed, as the beer was of course room temperature. (Apparently, most people actually like it better that way out here) On the up side, a bottle of Tusker (Kenyan beer) will only cost you Ksh 100.
The owner of the little bar seems perplexed when I ask him for an ashtray. When I further explain, he motions with some amusement to the ground, then turns his attention back to the grainy little television set.
We order a plate of Ugali, Sukuma Wiki, and fried beef; it is after all the only thing available to order.
A woman brings us a jug of warm water and a bowl to wash our hands before the meal. Ugali is made from corn meal and is cooked till it’s firm. Sukuma wiki is a kind of cabbage which has become popular in Kenya.
It’s simple, edible and not entirely unpleasant, though the meat is a task to chew and the Ugali sits heavily in the stomach long after being consumed.
Nyanza province is primarily home to the Luo tribe. The Luos make up about 12 percent of the Kenyan population, the third largest tribal group in Kenya.
The spoken language is Dholuo, along with Swahili. Luckily for me, English is also widely understood.
Aside from a few confusing situations due to language barriers, I have been able to get by speaking only English.
Introductions usually go like this; Me: “Hi, I’m Marianne,” Other person: “I’m fine”.
Those who live around here have generally been welcoming and friendly, always helpful, and eager for any opportunity to converse.
Like the piki driver today, who curiously asked me where I come from. “From the Netherlands,” I answer. He smiles understandingly, pauses and then tells me, “ Ah yes, I was in Eldoret just last week.”
One thing I noticed is that when it comes to names, there are a couple of fairly common names that almost every other person answers to around here. A Luo name will very rarely have no apparent meaning.
Many names reflect the time of day the birth occurred, while others might indicate the weather conditions at the time of birth, or even the activity which the mother was engaged in right before she went into labor.
“Onyango” for example is a fairly common name which means, born early in the morning.“Odero” means, born near a granary, while “Ouma” means, born facing downwards. My personal favorite is “Okongo” which means; born in a beer drinking establishment.
Transportation here is either by matatu, which is a van/bus or by piki-piki, a motorcycle taxi.
Paved roads are practically nonexistent, and after rainfall, the hard dirt roads immediately turn to mud, becoming slippery and impassable.
Driving on the left-hand side of the road appears to be more of a suggestion than a rule, which can make driving hazardous, to say the least.
My first trip in one of the local Matatus was from Ugunja to Kisumu and back again. For the excellent price of 150 shillings, you can experience what it’s like to have your life flash before your eyes.
The Matatu was packed fuller and fuller with every stop we made, so much so that at times the side door would be left open and people would hang on to the side, only ducking in while we were overtaking a truck or bus.
Luckily I was sitting up front next to the driver and didn’t get the “full” experience. The matatu seemed to pick up speed from 10 km to 110 in a matter of seconds.
I can’t count the number of times I had to squeeze my eyes shut, as we would overtake a petrol truck, which would also be traveling at a comfortable speed of 100 km/hr, while large potholes loomed ahead.
“Are you Obama’s relative?” asks the older man who is partially sitting on my seat. I smile and nod. This seems to be the answer he was expecting, as he also smiles and shakes my hand vigorously.
On market days, these little towns come alive. Stalls appear on every corner, and chickens and stray dogs run freely through the mess of it all.
“Buy things” says a little man at Sigomere market as he gestures to the colorful plastic junk laid out on a sheet, I can’t help but smile at his straightforward advertising pitch. His friend shoves a pink toy phone up to my face, clearly, I am in need of one of those.
Some of the stalls are selling fresh fish. Delicious Tilapia or Nile Perch, caught the same morning in Lake Victoria. Refrigeration is still a thing of the future out here, so for obvious reasons, it’s best to buy your meat/fish early on in the day.
The currency takes some getting used to, as the highest note here is KSH 1000, which is about the equivalent of 10 euros. Most shops or stalls rarely will have change, so you’ll often find yourself waiting for 15 minutes while the vendor or shopkeeper searches the town for some change.
Then there is the “Muzungu” price: you will likely be paying twice as much as what the locals pay, if you aren’t “in the know.” I’ve often come back from the market feeling pleased about my purchases, only to find that I had paid about three times more than what I should have.
Being propositioned for money is a usual occurrence, you are a foreigner, therefore you have money. Lots of it. That is what everyone naturally assumes, and there’s clearly no point arguing about it with someone whose earnings are somewhere under 3 Euros a day.
“Are you married?” asks a man selling worn-out football shirts. “No,” I reply, to which he flashes a toothy grin, “Even me, I’m single,” he tells me expectantly, and I note to myself that next time my answer to this question should be yes.
I learned an unhappy lesson one evening when the kitchen window was inadvertently left open.
We were relaxing in the lounge when I went to retrieve my phone from the bedroom.
The second I turned on the light, hundreds of winged insects began flooding in through the bedroom door, and swarming around the source of the light.
Frantically, I began flailing my arms quite uselessly, and wondered if these creatures were dangerous.
I couldn’t figure out where they were coming from, until I noticed the kitchen window was cracked open. Insects were literally swarming in through the crack.
Turns out they were termites, and in mating season they are attracted to the light. There must have been a termite mound somewhere near the house.
I have since learned that fried termites make tasty snacks which are treasured by the locals. I guess there could be worse things to swarm through your kitchen window. Needless to say, the bug spray came in handy that night, although sadly it made the termites inedible.
Marianne Stenger comes from the Netherlands, loves to travel and has subsequently lived in a number of countries including Belgium, Italy, Portugal, England, and America. Currently, she lives in rural Kenya, where she works with a sustainable development project called “Footprints Kenya.” Marianne is also a freelance writer and journalism/travel writing student with the London school of Journalism.Visit her website