Thor Heyerdahl and Kontiki

Richard Oduor Oduku


Illustrated by Marta Munoz

Alego to Polynesia e1481487862712

Our classrooms had earthen floors and windows the size of full moons – a truant’s blessing, but I wasn’t one. We sprinkled water every morning after sweeping, to pacify dust, and lugged tins of cow dung, on Fridays, for bi-weekly cementing of floors. That was before the Constituency Development Fund gave classrooms a facelift and saved kids from the displeasure of crouching in flea-infested cowsheds at dawn, before corporal punishment was banned, before after-school fistfights became dishonoured, before the slavery of carrying jerrycans of water to irrigate stunted hedges ended. During planting seasons, we tarred large school farms with compost manure, and when harvesting came, each of us stood with a basket in hand and a long row of maize in front, and harvested until little round pockets of lymph collected beneath our thumbs. A full basket of maize meant sprinting to the central collection point to empty the basket, or risk being tagged a malingerer and booked for thrashing.

Not that it was possible to escape thrashing. Every move broke some unwritten law, every demur a sin. An accidental slip to mother tongue earned one a disk – a symbol of linguistic shame.  You’d pass this to the next mother tongue speaker until the disk chained tens of students whose only sin was to speak Dholuo. In the evening, the prefect called the first culprit, who’d call the next in the chain, until the last person with the disk walked to the growing line of sinners in front of the assembly and handed the disk back to the prefect, then walk to the teacher for six firm strokes of odar on the thighs, just for momentarily deserting the Queen’s language. We tailored an additional layer of fabric on the backside of our shorts to cushion our buttocks from the insistent bite of the cane. Wednesdays were Swahili speaking days. Since the most notorious noisemakers were uncultured in the language, it was the quietest day in Mahola primary school.

Sporting events, drama and music festivals, and the annual Agricultural Society of Kenya shows rescued pupils from the drudgery of school life. I first recited a poem at the Zonal level, in Uranga, and failed miserably, but later on in high school, our drama dance got to the national level in Tumutumu. ASK shows were the perfect legal opportunity to be away from school. We went to Siaya and spent the whole night refining moves we’d learnt in disco matanga, dancing to Gidi Gidi Maji Maji and Wiki Mosh’s Atoti exploding from Omega One speakers. Aneno nyako moro kae nyinge ng’a, Atoti, and look around for young girls we could pull close, To bendo nyalo miel koda nyinge ng’a, and we’d all shout, Atoti:

Atoti sud kae mond imiel koda
Yawa Atoti sud kae mond amiel kodi
Atoti lovely deadly nyako ni iromo wiya
Atoti take me tease me nyako ni

Despite the conviviality, even in those days, Siaya held the aura of a wasting town. Like many small towns in Nyanza province, it nursed big scars of government neglect, and tall tales of budgetary allocations eaten by the thieving elite. Tales stretched back into the ‘70s. You could see evidence of big money in their homes – big concrete buildings, red-tiled roofs, and endless tracks of unfarmed land. Bedfords with ugly noses, and Datsuns in their fading splendour, nestle beside sturdy Mercedes and Volvo frames. You will be told this was the home of Peter Oloo Aringo wang’e dongo, a famous court jester in the Moi regime. The only sign of life in such homes is a caretaker. The immediate family, bred on the soft nests of wealth, live in towns. An enviable wastefulness.

Saturdays were the best days. It took slightly over an hour to trek from Mwer market to Apate Catholic church, if one cut through the two-plank bridge at Ulawe, and half the time on a bicycle, but you had to be careful not to be buried by a cloud of dust, or smashed by riotous mini-buses plying the Hawinga-Siaya route. On our way to catechism, we climbed rocks at the foot of Gangu hills and peered lustfully at the oxbow Lake Kanyaboli on the vast Yala swamp. We twitched our noses at women with baskets of fish, but deep down I longed for the evening, warm by the fireside, feasting on deep fried dwela.

These catechism classes were to protect us from the grasp of the myths and mysteries of Alego, to christianise and save our young heathen souls from eternal damnation. A child growing in Alego hears whispers of an evil, fantastical world. Evil spirits invade people’s homes. One hears of Jolemo from the Roho Israel cult in their turbans and long flowing robes, on their knees in the homes of the possessed, with candles in their hands, whacking evil spirits with their chants. In the grass-thatched houses, candles of different colours – red, black, green, white – glow in a circle in the sitting area. The possessed is made to lie inside a circle of burning candles, writhing to drops of melted wax, and screaming as demons break from the ribcage of their souls to a material world of eucalyptus incense. Escaped demons were chased on foot by chanting disciples. The Apostle would suck, with their mouths, an assortment of things, even cow horns, from the intestines of the possessed. These horns, and other items excavated from possessed souls were heaped in refuse and burnt until the evil spirits became smoke and flew to the clouds. Meanwhile, on a makeshift fireplace, another set of disciples busied, preparing tea and nyoyo for the prayer warriors.

A child with a rich imagination is enchanted by such rituals – the performance, the ease with which certain people enter the spirit world, the duality of existence, the ability to see and carouse with an old world receding from humans. The chasing of spirits wasn’t only limited to Roho Israel. At certain times of the year, after the sun had set, and the glow of the moon bathed the fields of wilting maize and sorghum, it would start as a faint wail, far off in the horizon, the wail and the clanging of metal would get closer, and when it got to our gates, we would pick whatever object lay within our grasp and clang them, and turn firewood into drum sticks and hit, frenetically, water containers, drums, sufurias, and plates, and pass our sounds to those further off across Luoland. This noise – a metaphor of clanging cymbals and the insistence of trumpets – would fend off spirits from the lake, the cacophony in every home telling spirits to pass, pass, you are not welcomed here. The old taught that these spirits of long dead people could whistle and sing dirges, and carried bad omens in their smoky souls. A chill washed over the villages, after such events, and carried the spirits back to the lake. We learnt that this practice, Nyawawa, was ancient, and had sailed with the Luo people down River Nile.

I smouldered away my childhood with books. In lower primary, our school had a small library. I borrowed story books, a shilling a book, and stayed with it for a week. The library operated for only two years, and closed, threatening to block a river of literary fortune, but I discovered another stash of books at home, a rich body of religious and philosophical books from my father. My older brother also became a primary school teacher and routinely carried home school texts and African reads. I met Peter Abraham’s Mine Boy and Meja Mwangi’s Double Cross, and Anton Chekhov, and Chinua Achebe, and Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector in that stash. I also met an 800-plus page Pandoras Box by Elizabeth Gage, and Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. I met Clive Cussler’s Raise the Titanic, which introduced me to the expansive Dirk Pitt’s adventure world – that tall 6 ft 3 man with craggy looks, opaline green eyes and sly wit, with his sidekick Al Giordino, solving the insolvable. Deep Six was my most memorable read of Cussler’s adventure novels.

During school holidays, Goretty became a reading-mate – a young, incredibly beautiful girl, with misty, always down-turned eyes. Her father was doing well, from what I heard, a clearing and forwarding business. He had many trucks and built a mammoth house with piped water and a generator. She came home with an armload of Mills and Boon. We talked about fiction, on such saintly dusks, looking into each other’s eyes to see the unsaid, but our deserts of want remained forever locked in us. On late night reads, I reminisced on the frailties of love as the oil lamp died on me, and fell in love, again, with Lili in LACE 2 by Shirley Conran. It was Lili with the most expensive breasts in the world; Lili who stroked the tips of her breasts in the shower and shook as the electrical circuit of sensation connected to the core of her body, her two cinnamon buds growing hard in the carnation-scented foam; Lili who ripened early, whose breasts attracted lusting hands of unknown men lounging on the street corners of a shabby Paris suburb; Lili who learnt early how to use the power of her body. Lili was a vortex of catastrophe, and I wanted her.  We exchanged Mario Puzo’s, the Godfather and the Last Don. We exchanged Sydney Sheldons, and Memories of Midnight stayed with me for a long time because of Sappho’s song:

sing me no songs of daylight
for the sun is the enemy of lovers
sing me instead of shadows and darkness
and the memories of midnight.

This song opened doors to ancient Greek erotic poetry, but I had to wait for over five years, to re-enter Sappho’s world inside the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (FASS) library at Egerton University. The arts library served as a refuge to decongest after an intensive week of biomedical classes and lab work. It is here that I studied Plato, Socrates, Homer, and Victorian poets, and enriched on Kant, Spinoza, and Spencer and others I had met earlier in my father’s thick books, authored by Christian apologists like Rev. Joseph Ballerini.

I read these books with the door locked, deep in the night, peered into the farthest ends of human imaginations, and teared from the twirling smoke from the oil lamp. Some days, the cock crowing would shake me from the imprisonment of words, a young soul lost to the lonesome thrill of mystery worlds. I read them in the grass fields and bushes while herding cows, on the shores of Mwer dam hunting kingfishers, inside early afternoons battling heavy eyelids after a huge plate of ugali.

One day, when I thought had decimated the stash, I stumbled on another book, a different kind of a book, with a cover like a magazine, and an unpronounceable author’s name, frayed a little on the edges, with a few dog ears, but certainly not in the worse of shapes. It was Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki: By Raft Across the South Seas, published in 1948, and reprinted as Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. Heyerdahl kept notes in a dew-drenched logbook during the legendary sail. Let me tell you the story.

One day Thor Heyerdahl was seated with an old native of a South Sea Island by a fire. The old native told him legends and stories of his tribe, amidst pottery fragments from the past, traces leading into the mists of antiquity. The walls were lined with books. Some of them one man had written and hardly 10 men had read. These books opened a new world to Thor.

“Tiki,” the old man said quietly, “he was both god and chief. It was Tiki who brought my ancestors to these islands where we live now. Before we lived in a big country beyond the sea.”

Heyerdahl wondered. Here was a man fettered to ancient times, a man with an unbroken link to the time of gods, the great Polynesian chief-god Tiki, son of the sun. He also noticed that the huge stone figures of Tiki in the jungles were similar to the monoliths left behind by extinct civilisations in South American jungles. How did these isolated island people – these tall handsome people with their dogs, pigs, and fowl – reach these scattered solitary islands in the Pacific? Every time the western explorer set out to discover what lay in the landmasses in the seas, they encountered these places inhabited with people having unique languages, social organisation, advanced agricultural methods, and old religions based on ancestor worship. The migratory pattern of these scattered populations was an unresolved scholarly question. Here were old pyramids, paved roads, four-story houses, carved stone statues, and incomprehensible hieroglyphs, surely a sign that these were people with high cultures, but how did they get there? Was there a bridge of land over the sea, in ancient times, but which had sunk? Did the ancients travel from Peru to the Pacific islands on balsa-wood rafts? The only way to test the theory was to build a raft as the Spaniards had described in their studies of prehistoric migrations and launch it into sea.

The Kon-Tiki was a scientific expedition. The initial six members were Knut Haugland, Bengt Danielsson, Eric Hesselberg, Torstein Raaby, Herman Watzinger, and Thor Heyerdahl. Heyerdahl and Watzinger went over the Andes for wood, up a mountain road 13,000 feet above sea level, a place largely uninhabited, except for Indians with pack donkeys, and their women spinning wool as they walked, and an occasional flock of Ilamas. They went into the Ecuadorial jungles and found balsa wood, built makeshift rafts, lashing nine big balsa logs together with hemp ropes, and drifted down the Palenque and the Guyanas to the Pacific, and built the raft that would take them across the oceans in Peru.

There are detailed descriptions of the process of making a balsa raft, but even richer is the narration of the entire adventure, not only the hissing waves threatening to roll over the raft, but the survival of man when left alone to use evolutionary ingenuity to battle the monstrosity of the sea. “Under full sail at sea, nature was our only teacher, the last raftsmen having died hundreds of years before, and we went through the hard school in our first weeks in the Humboldt Current off the coast of South America,” Heyerdahl says. In the end, Heyerdahl proved, not only that prehistoric balsa rafts were used by ancient peoples to cross the Pacific, but also that:

“Primitive people are capable of undertaking immense voyages over the open ocean. The distance is not the determining factor in the case of oceanic migrations but whether the wind and the current have the same general course day and night, all year round. The trade winds and the Equatorial Currents are turned westward by the rotation of the earth, and this rotation has never changed in all the history of mankind.”

There is a water pan: we call it Opiyo. I’m ignorant of the origin of the name. It may have been borrowed from the name of an early dweller. Opiyo is a common name in Alego. There were talks, when we were young, that in the early years of post-independence, there had been a massive government investment in building dams and water pans across the country. During the long rains, Opiyo became a lake, overflowing with ripples and idiosyncrasies of little fishes and frogs and snakes. We built rafts using banana trunks and sail to the deepest ends. These measly acts of sailing, as a child, provided an anchorage for re-creating the illustrious adventures I had read. We swam on its loamy waters, before algae began colonising its shallowest ends, turning its odour from that of fresh soil to decay, but it never lost its blooming pink water lilies until the next big drought turned the lake into a football field.

I bought pirated 48-in-one video collections, on uneventful evenings, to watch Komodos in the Galápagos Islands, and observe the unusual finches Charles Darwin had observed for five weeks on the famous H.M.S Beagle, sailing with Commander Robert Fitz Roy. I knew that this group of Pacific Islands were in the Pacific off South America, in Ecuador. It reignited my desire to revisit the Kon-Tiki, but I didn’t, at least for more than 10 years, until this year when a talk with Panorama forced me to ransack my memory for what I loved about travel writing. I remembered Thor Heyedahl’s adventures. I must have read a reprint edition. I am unable to trace the volume now, but the tale of six companions and a parrot crossing the Pacific Ocean in a raft, battling nature for thousands of miles across the tempest, has stayed with me.

Heyerdahl and his crew filmed the expedition, amateur photography on a rolling raft in the open seas. I stumbled on it on my search for a replacement copy of the book. Watching the documentary imbued me with a deep longing for the innocence of childhood, a desire to relive the moments when my eyes twitched, lying on my belly, reading Kon-Tiki deep into the night. I recalled the fear I felt when sharks and poisonous eels swashbuckled on board, the hopelessness of the crew at their inability to steer the raft away from the treacherous waves pushing them to the coral reef on the 101th day, the palpability of Raaby’s tone when informing a radio in New Zealand that the Kon-Tiki was about to be wrecked, and that if there was no contact from the crew in 36 hours, they should inform the Norwegian ambassador in Washington that they had perished. They didn’t perish. Kon-Tiki was stuck on a reef on an uninhabited islet off the Raroia atoll, after sailing for 101 days over a distance of 6,980 km. The crew, with the help of villagers, canoed safely to a village in a nearby island.

Our ancestors were brave sailors. The migratory story of ancient civilisations is etched on rafts such as this. It is the story of how ancient Indians settled in the scattered islands bordering Polynesia, how ancient Africans colonised Australia and Melanasia, and beyond into Indonesia and the Coast of Asia. It is an old world, not of unintelligence, but of intelligent civilisations scattered in areas that were ignorantly classified as unoccupied territories. I have watched the documentary three times. I’m watching it a fourth time, now, as I send this story out. I long for the day I’ll be able to visit the Kon-Tiki Museum at Bygdøy in Oslo, and see the salvaged original Kon-Tiki balsa raft with my own two eyes.

Richard Oduor Oduku

is a

Senior Editor for Panorama.

Marta Munoz

is a

Guest Illustrator for Panorama.

Artist, Illustrator & Textile Design. Clients include The Tate & Liberty.


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