Travel: Row, Row, Row Your Boat -The Rusinga Boat Race

She is a child of the lake, steering through the waters with the confidence of one who knows these waters. She reads the currents and is able to steer from one side to another, making sure that the boat is balancing and gaining speed. She makes it look easy, as she shouts instructions to the crew, but captaining this boat takes not just knowledge of the water, but strength, and strategy. Because just behind them the competition is gaining on them. Watching her and the others from a power boat I am awed by her skill. But not just her, all the women in the boats in the Rusinga boat race. Unlike their male counterparts who will take to the water after they are done, these women don’t have all year to practice their rowing.

 

In olden times boat racing was used to initiate a new boat in the lake, it was an initiation ceremony of sorts. Boats were prized possessions and not everybody could afford them. Once somebody had a new boat, whether it was bought or made, it would be taken to the lake accompanied by members of the clan. The Suba are both a fishing and farming community so boats were important for the socio-economic prosperity of the clan. Other clans would also want to prove that their boats were the best so they would race to show who had the fastest boats. The clan with the best boat would of course have bragging rights. In the past, there was no practice for the boat races as there were people talented at rowing boats. With time boat racing has evolved to the type seen at the Rushing Festival, but women did not take part in the boat races as this was traditionally reserved for the men. The women were limited to cheering on the men from the shore, and probably feeding them after the boat races which are exhausting. But the Rusinga Festival has a spot for women and I must say they were impressive in their display of rowing mastery. For the festival, teams normally practice at least twice a week for at least 2 months before the festival. What is amazing is that the women who probably don’t have as much time to practice as the men, can be so good. Women don’t normally fish so they would not as much practice as the men who fish all year.

Row row your boat. Photo credit Antony Ochieng

Riding the waves. Image credit Antony Ochieng

We are in Rusinga for the Rusinga Cultural festival, learning about the Suba culture. It is a fascinating culture and we have learnt a lot in the few days we have been there. The Suba is a bantu tribe in the middle of Nilotes, and it is interesting to learn their history. How they fled Uganda to come and settle on the islands around Lake Victoria, their boats which have a mysterious way of finding their way home to warn people that the owners have capsized and their rainmakers, powerful women who could cause rain to fall or make the rain not to fall on their enemies. Find out more about the Suba in this post by Owaahh.

We start off the race not at the shores of the lake but at the festival grounds. There are traditional dancers who lead the procession to the lake. I am not sure whether this is a traditional practice or a modern one. One thing about the dancers is that as they dance and sing as they move towards the lake, they are like a calling beacon to the community to come down to the lake. Children especially walk alongside the dancers and sing with them. At the shores of the lake, the dancers enter the water and start entertaining the crowd. Quite a crowd has gathered and more people are still coming.

Cultural dancers on the way to the Lake. Image credit Antony Ochieng

Image credit Antony Ochieng

Dancing in the water. Image credit Antony Ochieng

The first race is for the women and their four boats are beautifully decorated. The boat races are sponsored by The US Embassy and Kenya Maritime Authority . It takes time to get everybody settled, all the people in the boats must have life jackets before heading out (including us) and the Kenya Maritime Authority is at hand to ensure that this is done.

We are next to the boat that eventually wins, and I can see the look of determination on the part of the captain, who sits at the back of the boat and who is the one who makes sure the boat is steered in the right way. There are 7 people per boat, 2 people seated on one row so that they can row in sync. The  6 people paddling at the front are the bowman, they provide the power to steer the boat, they set the pace, watch out for obstacles the stern man might not see. The person at the back is the stern man, and their primary responsibly is to steer, and call out instructions to the bowmen on when to steer or when to stop as the stern man anchors the boat by putting their oar in the water and uses the oar to ride the current.

It was exciting following the boat race from a speed boat (in a boat with media we are supposed to be neutral so we are not allowed to cheer for any team). The competition is fierce, and the lake currents already are not the friend of the competitors. Miscalculate the current and you could end up losing your position or being a non starter as the women learnt in one boat which had to turn back not far from the shore because they ended up rowing in a different direction, and momentum was lost as they were trying to steer their boat back to the direction the competition boats are taking.

It is hard work steering the boats when you are in a competition, and of course there are sore muscles at the end. But it is worth it for the first, second and third position winners. The men’s teams were 7 and they were just as determined as the women to win. When the boats reach the store, there is cheering from the crowd, the end is not at the shore, but at a marker quite near the shore. People were throwing themselves off the boat into the water to cool off their bodies.

After the races, people headed back to the festival for the cultural dances. For me the boat races were a highlight of the festival, it is amazing to watch the boats move over the water, and to see the determination of these people. Whatever their motivation was for entering the race, the teams were fascinating to watch. I recommend checking out the boat race if you are in Rusinga for the Rusinga festival, it is definitely a memorable experience.

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