To the Back of Beyond

We were booked into a hotel in Siaya Town called Mwisho Mwisho – the End of the End – or, as we used to say where I come from, the Back of Beyond. And that’s what it seemed as, in teeming rain, we turned off the main Kisumu to Busia road at Rangala and onto a rutted dirt track with a very steep and slippery camber.

We began to wonder how it had happened that such an inaccessible place had become a district headquarters – until we so lost our way and our confidence that we had to ask for help, and were informed that we had taken a wrong route. We should have turned down a tarmac road at Luanda. I guess that’s what you deserve if you rely on a very detailed map that was made, nevertheless, back in the 1960s.

It had been a long drive from Nairobi. But a pleasantly unhurried one – with a fried breakfast at Nakuru’s Midland, strong tea at, of course, Kericho’s Tea Hotel, and a latish pepper-steak lunch at Kisumu’s Nyanza Club. But after the final couple of hours’ confusion in the rain, it was a relief that the Mwisho Mwisho Hotel wasn’t at all as bad as its name implied.

The rooms were airy, with ample hanging space for clothes; the bed had the protection of a mosquito net; the restaurant served chips as well as ugali; and, best of all, the bathroom had a shower with instant hot water – provided, that is, there was electricity which, quite often during the five days, there wasn’t.

Our guidebook wasn’t at all encouraging about Siaya. ‘The region is pleasantly rural but unremarkable,’ it says. Touring round development project sites all week, we had plenty of opportunity to get to know the place. Pleasantly rural, it certainly is – very green, with hedgerows of yellow flowers, well-wooded hillsides with rocky outcrops.

But we were surprised to see, in a region where there is so much poverty, how much cultivable land remains uncultivated. So we put the question a few times.

‘We have just harvested,’ said a man. ‘That is why you are not seeing so many crops.’

But you can’t harvest from land that hasn’t been farmed, can you?

‘Our men are lazy,’ said a member of women’s group. ‘They like talking too much.’

‘And drinking!’ said another

And the rest laughed in agreement.

Mind you, we didn’t find that the women were in any way up in arms. Even one group of mainly women claimed that the objective of discussing gender issues was to make sure that ‘husbands and wives live peacefully together’. They said it was a matter of agreeing the distinctive roles of each: with women cleaning, cooking and looking after their husbands and children – and men looking after the cattle, protecting the home from robbers and constructing the house.

‘If a man can’t construct a house,’ said someone, ‘he’s just like a woman.’

Oh dear! That’s remarkable, isn’t it?

But one of the most remarkable things about Siaya these days is the excitement at the possibility of one of their own men becoming President of the United States.

We saw the name of Obama painted on bicycles; we saw it on an Embassy kiosk; we saw it on a school name-board.

The ‘Senator Obama Secondary School’ is near Nyang’oma Kogello, the village where Obama’s grandmother lives. Its motto is an apt reference to Obama’s own incredible story: ‘Endeavor to excel’.

After the business of the days, a lot of the talk was about the chances of a black man going to the White House. And there is much hope, if not expectation, that if Obama is elected then many good things will be showered on Siaya.

If he does make it, then perhaps the Mwisho Mwisho Hotel will become the Mwanzo Mwanzo.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation