Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Kistrech International Poetry Festival:Visiting Lake Victoria & Tabaka Soapstone Mine

Kistrech International Poetry Festival, Kisii, Kenya, Visiting Lake Victoria and the Tabaka Soapstone Mines

Day 3, Saturday, August 2nd, 2014.

Visit to Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria, Kenya
Ogari Ombuki George
Today we explore more of Kenya’s culture and lifestyle. It is the perfect balance to the seriousness of reading and esoteric discussion of poetry and song. We will spend the latter part of the morning and early afternoon under the guidance of Ogari Ombuki George, a lecturer at Kisii University. He will share his knowledge of Lake Victoria and the Tabaka Soapstone Factory with us.

While we wait for students and poets to board the large bus that has been offered by Kisii University, we are presented with a surprise. 

The awaited Kistrech Poetry Festival 2014 Anthology is distributed by Kenyan poet, Amos Marcel Nyongesa Tabalia. He had been in Nairobi seeing to anthology’s successful production. We excitedly browse the fresh off the press book, then, examine its content thoroughly.

Kenyan poet, Amos Marcel Nyongesa Tabalia.

Amos’s absence from the Poetry Festival is now clear. He has been unable to share his work with us because of his pre-occupation with the anthology. Here are excerpts from poems he had no time to present.

                     The Dreamers

On a couch,
pen in hand,
paper on lap,
she weaves her dream.

Her brain,
her loom,
as she dreams of a new future,
myriads of her mind
recorded on paper.

Kenyan poet, Amos Marcel Nyongesa Tabalia.

Night Commander
Knight of the night,
lightning speed,
traveler of darkness,
ruler of iniquity,

Am the soldier
cursed to traverse
lands of the night.

I shatter records,
speeds that I travel,

I ply ridges and bridges,
the trade of my ancestors,
a spirit that is my blood.

    They call me night runner,
       the commander of the night.

 Upon arrival, some poets, the Vikings among us, and students immediately decide they would take a boat ride on the lake.  

Knowing that I can't swim, I am not willing to take a chance on such a tiny boat. A cruise liner would be more to my liking.

After some riders are fitted with safety vests, the boat takes off and slowly disappear into the horizon of the wide lake.  

I, the non-swimmer, admire the bravery of my friends, and I am a bit jealous that I can't join this special experience.

 At the end of the wharf, facing the lake, stands one of Kenya’s unusual hotels. As we walk along the wharf towards the fishing village, we leave the unintended landmark behind.

As I leave the wharf with Christopher Okemwa, the festival organizer, and his family, I take photos of them. We will spend a wonderul afternoon getting to know each other on a more personal level.

 Those not taking a boat ride walk around the fish market and take photos of the surroundings. 

There is a lot to see and take in and having this opportunity to do so is very exciting.

Christopher Okemwa, myself,  Miariam Mpaata Mellony (Ugandan poet) and Michael Obediah Smith (Bahamian poet)  decide to sample the local fish dish.

We are in the Luo part of Kenya and fish is their staple food. We pass women cleaning fish. They are surrounded by storks waiting for scraps to eat.

The storks appear to be everywhere we turn, even on treetops getting a good view of where the goodies are.

Before we settle down to eat, we are led to a pipe-stand to wash our hands with soap water.

Being in Luo territory, most of us order 
the traditional Luo dish. It consists of tilapia (fried fish) which comes with ugali and salad (sliced tomatoes sprinkled with parsley). Others order boiled fish with ugali.

The meal cost only 3.00 shillings (less than $3.00). I am able to treat a few people to a fish meal. We drink bottled water as the establishment had no beer on offer.

The name of the shop, Mama Brian Hotel, is discussed as we have seen several small establishments with word “hotel” on their signs. One of the standouts for me was “Butchery and Hotel”.

 As we wait for our fellow sea-farer poets to return, more storks swarm the lake side scavenging for leftover fish bits. There are smaller birds too.  

While women sell or scale fish, some fishermen prepare boats for sailing and others repair or built boats on the shore.

Our Scandinavian bards and students return after one hour.  They tell us they had stopped on a little island and some had gone swimming. The sun’s heat had already dried their wet clothing. Almost everyone’s face is red or darker from the short baking. 

They, too, decide that they would have a fish treat and we hang around and take more photos while they eat. 

 Group, pairs and individual photos are taken before we leave for the Tabaka Soapstone Mines.

And then it is time to say goodbye to this beautiful fishing village which will be forever with me.

Feasting on the Pulse of Lake Victoria, Kenya
(With poets and students from the Kistrech Poetry Festival, Kenya)

The bus we arrive in at the shore
is a giant python unloading its eggs.
Eager to embrace the new scene
we push out of its metal bowels,
make a quick exit.

Before us Lake Victoria spreads
grey-blue against an endless horizon.

Some are quickly drawn to a long boat
at the pier and soon become its passengers
and disappear in the lake’s vastness.

We walk around the shore,
capture scenes we may never see again,
capture the life-rhythm of the Luo
on a continent we might not visit again.

Small boats linger at the shore
where impatient storks totter
on long spindly legs and wait
for women scaling and gutting fish
to toss unwanted entrails and gills.

Other storks, tired of waiting
or full of catch, perch
like Christmas stars
atop tall trees towering
above Mama Brian Hotel
where us poets and friends
yearn to feast on tilapia.

This is Lou country and we
must partake of this fish eating tradition.
We can tell President Obama
we have gorged on the food of his ancestors.

At a standpipe,
everyone soaps and
washes their hands.

There are no knives and forks
to hinder the joy of eating.

Gathered around a long table,
we sit in plastic chairs and dig into
fried and boiled fish and tomato salad.
Chunky slices of ugali sit
like mountains on plates.

We break off pieces and
dip them in fish sauce,
feel the mashed ugali
glide over our tongues
and down our throats.

Friendship and memories
are cemented as we relax
into easy mood
during this communal meal.

The spicy fish is soon eaten and
we make way for new customers
waiting to have a meal.

Exploring further, we pass time and
wait for the lake to return our comrades.

They, too, must partake of the fish treat,
cannot leave the lake without this rite of passage.

The giant python sleeps by the roadside
white against clay-colored earth.

© Althea Romeo-Mark 10.08.2014

*Talapia-popular fish of the Lake Victoria region
*ugali – cooked maize, white corn meal
*Luo- The Luo (also called Joluo, singular Jaluo) are an ethnic group in western Kenya, eastern Uganda, and in Mara Region in northern Tanzania. They are part of a larger group of ethnolinguistically related Luo peoples who inhabit an area ranging from Southern Sudan (South Sudan), South-Western Ethiopia, Northern and Eastern Uganda, South-Western Kenya and North-Eastern Tanzania.The Luo are the third largest ethnic group (13%) in Kenya, after the Kikuyu (22%) and the Luhya

Tabaka Soapstone Mines

Our final sampling of Kisii life takes place after our visit to Lake Victoria. We leave Luo land where people are very proud to share in the success of US President, Barrack Obama and head back to Kisii Town. On the way, we stop at the Tabaka Soapstone Mines. We get to see how Kisii locals contribute in another way to Kisii and Kenya’s economy.

We first visit tourist shops where various objects made of soap stone are on offer. There are quite a few shops to visit but I enter the first one because it is a woman who is selling. I feel the need to support her and her family. I am finally able to contribute to the Kissi economy by buying elephant, rhino and head carvings, souvenirs, which will be gifted to family and friends. I also buy a present for one of the students.

 Soap stones carvings are quite heavy so I have limited myself to small objects.

After that, we leave for the workshop where we witness the varying processes which soapstone figurines and sculptors must pass through. Special utensils are used for carving.

The process is explained to our guide who then translates it to us.

We watch women, who sit on grass under a tree, paint the carvings in colorful pinks and blues and red. When the final painting is done, figurines are placed on shelves in the factory in preparation for distribution to tourists’ shops.

Imperfect figures that have been discarded becomes prized take-away presents for students who cannot afford to buy them from gift shops.

We take a final group photo of poets and students before boarding the bus to depart to Kisii City center where our hotel is located.

Althea Romeo-Mark and Bahamian poet, Michael O Smith

Our return trip is slightly delayed as one poet has gone “awol” but he soon catches up with the bus as he arrives on a motorbike and is accompanied by a soapstone carver who had promised him a carving tool as a going away present.

Back at Dados Hotel

Returning to Dados Hotel, we rest before we have supper. It is followed by our last presentations and readings by young student poets.

Finally we have a discussion about the strengths and shortcomings of 2nd Kistrech International Poetry Festival. 

We discuss its growing pains—the biggest challenge being solid funding. 

We discuss ways of making the festival more appealing to guest poets and propose adding a poetry workshop to the 2015 agenda.

It is the dream of the organizer to be able to pay everyone’s flight and hotel fees and to have the festival’s journal completely subsidized.

It is the goal of the organizers to get more local, national and international support for the festival.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

I come away with some interesting food for thought and comments made during our question and answer periods in response to a particular poem or a presentation.

“Who buries the dead when the families are dead?”
Jenny Maria Tunedal.

“Make way for progress before it deletes you from a file called life.” Aggrey Omboki Monayo

“See me, see wahala, which kin wahala. De baby come de hala”  A sing and response line from a performance poem in Pidgeon English, From a poem about a man who commits suicide and is reborn to the same situation that made him unhappy.
Prof. Animasuan Kayode Adebanji.

“Writing myself back together,” after life’s disappointments. Michael Obediah Smith

“The poet sees poetry as a nation.”
Michael Obediah Smith.

“Poetry is getting there; it is being on the way. It is telling a story that is always incomplete. One must find the right words to complete the journey.”

“Place a poem in the world and someone will find it.”

“A pen is a poet’s companion and gives a new meaning to the expression, pen pal.”

“When is a song a poem? Oral poetry was sung, so one is linked to the other. Poems, songs and oral poetry have rhythm and repetition. What is it that makes each one distinct from the other?”

Tomorrow is our final day in Kisii. We will carry its memory with us like precious water in a demijohn.