Small and austerely beautiful, Rusinga Island has high crags dominating its desolate, goat-grazed centre, and a single dirt road running around the circumference. Life here is difficult, with drought commonplace, and high winds a frequent torment. The occasional heavy rain either washes away the soil or sinks into the porous rock, emerging lower down where it creates swamps. Ecologically, the island is in very dire straits: almost all its trees have been cut down for cooking fuel or to be converted into lucrative charcoal. These conditions make harvests highly unpredictable and most people fish to make ends meet (although the causeway has forced them to make longer fishing trips), either selling the catch on to refrigerated lorries or bartering directly for produce with traders from Kisii. Yet the islanders, in common with their mainland cousins, remain an unfailingly friendly and cheerful bunch, more than happy to make contact with wayward travellers.
If you’re interested in making a contribution to the welfare and development of the Rusinga community, there’s a permaculture project and education centre at Badilisha Ecovillage near the lakeshore at Kaswanga, on the north side of the island, 9km from Mbita, that brings together green-minded volunteers from around the world to work with AIDS orphans, in local schools doing support work or working the land on the permaculture project, founded on the principles of sustainability and respect for the environment. You can stay here for a night or a couple of months (see Lake Victoria’s ecology and economy), and the stays make for an excellent way of getting to know local issues in a remote and challenging rural setting.
The island is rich in fossils, and was the site of Mary Leakey’s discovery of a skull of Proconsul africanus (a primitive anthropoid ape), which can be seen in the National Museum. It was also the family home of Tom Mboya, the civil rights champion, trade unionist and charismatic young Luo politician who was assassinated in Nairobi in 1969, a turning point for the worse in Kenya’s post-Independence history, sparking off a crisis that led to more than forty deaths in widespread rioting and demonstrations.