Extra Human Flavor / by Cyrus

Past 24 hours--extra human.We saw Kidum, a rising star on the international scene, at Bomas. One of the biggest concerts Kisumu has seen in a while. They'd set up a big stage outdoors, chicken was on the grill, booze flowing, everyone dressed and looking good. People know how to enjoy themselves in Kisumu, and if you've got the dough you can put together a beautiful and calm scene like the one at the show. They forgot to put monitors on stage for the band, so a guy was desperately running the speakers through the crowd to the stage a couple songs in.

It was morning when we got home, and about an hour after sleeping I got a call from Joseph in Maseno. I'd worked and even lived with Joseph for a couple months my first time in Kenya, and I had yet to see him or his family. Plus he was going to help me find musicians in the countryside. At some point in the week I'd foolishly made plans to see him at 10am in Maseno, about 40 minutes public trans outside of Kisumu, on Sunday morning, and the hour of reckoning had come. I didn't want to cancel, so with great trepidation I emerged from my bednet a shell of myself and spongebathed with abandon.

About an hour later-- on a matatu, waiting for it to fill up so they could drive us out of town. Every time I thought it was full, that not a single other human being could possibly fit into the tight, slowly broiling space, they managed to shove in another one. Sitting in the sweltering heat in the back row, no window, 3 little kids and a woman piled next to me, so close to so many people and their smells and sounds, sweat dripping off my face, hawkers banging on the door, I wondered if I'd make it. Too much humanity, far too little space. A continuing theme. I alighted bewildered but thankful at Maseno University, where Joseph met me. He'd been waiting at a busa club down the road, where he had been "researching" a new musical act. I was glad to see him after so long, and he promised the new musician would be a hit.

And so, not 3 hours after my head hit the pillow, I was sitting in yet another busa club in a different town, this time next to an old man from the Turkana region, who played a large handmade instrument--a fur covered box with a huge arm sticking out one end, attached to 10 fishing wires stretched to the other end of the box like a one-armed harp or an instrumental cable stayed bridge with one diagonal support. Atop the arm, a plastic American flag and a doll of Ronald McDonald stretched out in crucifixion mode. I didn't have my camera for the first time since arriving (there is no way I could have fit it on the matatu along with the gifts I was bringing Joseph) and I sat in a daze directly next to the man (named Peter) as he ran through several songs and sang in Turkana while the rest of the club watched. He played beautifully, sang about love and gospel and traveling and the new constitution (from the scraps of translation I received) and I just stared appreciatively.

I made plans to go back the next day (today) to get him and his music on tape and audio, so expect it soon.

Joseph and I sat and talked development over sodas. We'd met while I was working for a major NGO, and Joseph had lived in the area of their operation for at least 3 years, watching the operation work at its lowest levels. The practical day to day results were often not pretty, and several years on there were signs of tension between the local community and the organization. Meanwhile, the head of the local operation had been promoted to regional chair while Joseph and others like him had been laid off.

We took motorcycles to Joseph's farm, a little bit off the main road. It was great to see his wife and family. Since it's almost Christmas (the first one I'll see without snow I guess) the extended family was around, and papa Njeri, Joseph's father, was holding court in another house. Grizzled, large, with sunken eyes and a moustache and a huge sloping head, missing most his teeth and fingertips, waving his massive leather hands around and pointing with the bulbous, grape-like tips, speaking loudly in his tribal language Luhiya, the first monolingual person I've met here, laughing loud enough to scare the children, and falling into lapses of contemplative silence, this was the old generation defined. He lived through colonial rule and the turmoil of independent Kenya and probably had the same hat the whole time. One of Joseph's cousins asked him if he knew of any traditional musicians and he talked of his days of listening to a great Orutu player from the area when relaxing from farming. He promised to gather the musician's sons, who also play orutu (a traditional 1 stringed instrument played with a bow), along with a few other elders, to give an on-camera lesson in traditional music for Raw Music fans next week. Extremely excited.

The countryside on a Sunday is peaceful, just children and birds and farm animals. Rachel, Joseph's wife, made a meal of pilau (spicy rice from the coast) and a stew of meat from the farm. We all sat and talked a bit and while my body was physically awake it's possible that my mind was sleeping.

We walked along the dirt paths back to the main road, Joseph and I, along with his brother Moses, a young guy named Norman, and Joseph's partner in the community development program he runs, a sharp, determined, and worldly young man named Wilson. He had just returned from 3 months in Sudan working on conflict development (doesn't sound pretty) and was telling me about the initiatives he and Joseph are fundraising for in the area. We talked about tribalism, resistance to change from the elders, roadblocks to development, fundraising, and travel as we slowly walked along the dirt road and watched Sunday unfold on the farms of Maseno.

On the matatu back home, no respite, cruelly jammed between two extra large men, I kept passing out and headbutting the shoulder of the guy next to me. He was understanding, thankfully. Our matatu, ominously, was named Princess Diana, as a sticker covering most of the windshield proudly advertised. As soon as the van entered the city limits I signaled that I wanted out, and got on the back of a motorcycle home, loving the breeze as we rode through Kisumu's now familiar slums.

At home Ozzy and Emma were still recovering from the night before, but supplies at the house were severely depleted (we have almost no water left--not just drinking water, we were lacking ANY water at all). We managed to make it to the Sunday market at sundown (yet another matatu ride through town). This was the final extra-human scene in 24 hours worth of them (homes and people and problems and dancing and music in close close close quarters). The scene was like none I'd seen, and I followed Ozzy through the stalls wide eyed, watching everyone break down and pack up their wares with a speed and frantic energy I'd never imagined. People pushing through, filling bags and putting them in ever larger bags, putting the final canvas monstrosity on their backs and running through the crowd under the crushing weight, reckless market boys pushing overburdened sharp cornered metal carts with little regard for humans, animals, or produce in their way, yelling "seis" (space!) and hoping for the best, jolting over deeply rutted and garbage covered dirt footpaths. Food and fish and meat at the end of a long hot day. A little kid staring out from the dark between stalls, two big eyes and not much else as we hurried, along with about 1000 people, to get the hell out of there. Back on the matatu, trying to get through traffic, a drunk flips his motorcycle in front of us and a crowd helps him up. He's limping, looking for someone to fight until another guy, hauling a massive metal cart rickshaw style, simply unable to stop the forward momentum, barrels through the crowd and stumbles into the busy road.  Everyone disperses, but not before a huge mama manages to, with shocking agility, jump onto our moving matatu and land, with a sigh and tremendous precision, on the small scrap of seat available next to me. My head bangs against the window, the only place it can fit next to the huge arm resting against me, and I resign myself to this crook necked position for the rest of the ride. The mama takes off the bandana that's been holding back her hair and breathes a sigh of exhausted relief at the end of a long day. If I could breathe, I'd do the same.