Set like a jewel amidst the blue waters of Lake Victoria, Rusinga Island beckons with unforgettable experiences. In a place seemingly untouched by time, visitors can encounter the graceful dance of giraffes against a fiery African sunset or set sail in a traditional dhow. Every footstep leads to a discovery, leaving responsible travellers with a deeper connection to the beauty of Western Kenya and their own adventurous spirit.
~ This guide is a collaboration between local expert Eric Obwanga and frequent visitor Susan Onyango ~
After a visitor arrives on my island, I always recommend going straight to Mbita Town — also known as Mbita Point — connected by a short causeway to Rusinga Island. It provides a good glimpse into the local way of life and serves as a convenient introduction to exploring the area’s wonders.
The best time to be here is during the dry season, from January to March. That’s when the weather is pleasantly warm and the gentle breeze makes it ideal for outdoor activities and wildlife sightings.
I tell first-time travellers to take a boat ride along the shores of vast Lake Victoria, one of the African Great Lakes and the continent’s largest (not to mention the biggest tropical lake in the world). This allows visitors to witness the local fishermen skilfully casting their nets, showcasing the island’s vibrant fishing community. I also tell them to avoid venturing into the deeper waters without a guide to ensure their safety.
People from here know better than to disturb the nesting sites of the island’s diverse bird species, including pelicans, fish eagles, flamingos, herons and egrets. Instead, they would rather observe these magnificent creatures from a distance, appreciating their graceful flights and melodious songs.
The best museum to start your journey and get a good sense of the island is Tom Mboya Mausoleum. With its collection of photographs and other memorabilia related to Mboya, a son of Rusinga Island and a major political leader in Kenya, it tells of his life and legacy. Ancient artefacts and insightful exhibits also also provide a deeper understanding of the indigenous communities and their own contributions to the island’s identity.
Parents should take their kids to Ruma National Park, a short distance from Rusinga Island because children can experience the thrill of a safari and witness incredible wildlife up close. The last surviving group of roan antelope in Kenya can be seen here, with their swept-back horns. Other species include impala, the Rothschild’s giraffe, and leopards (if you’re lucky enough to spot one). In discovering a tapestry of landscapes ranging from riverine woodland to towering cliffs, families can create lasting memories.
Food From The Heart
Among the dishes we are most proud of, omena (Lake Victoria sardines) is an absolute must. I like to go to the lakeside restaurants to really enjoy these small, silvery freshwater fish that are packed with nutrients and flavour.
When we get together to celebrate special occasions, the traditional beer called busaa is what people here drink. I like to gather my friends and go to a spot where locals brew this fermented alcoholic beverage to share a round. It’s worth mentioning that it can be potent, especially for visitors not accustomed to it.
When I eat completely local, I will go to Rusinga Annex Guest House. I know the food here is prepared using fresh, locally sourced ingredients providing an authentic taste of the island. Another favourite restaurant is the New Parkland Hotel in Mbita with its breathtaking views of Lake Victoria and fusion of local and international cuisines.
The part of town where locals come for traditional food is Mbita Market. Here, a colourful food scene unfolds with local vendors offering a variety of dishes and produce, reflecting Rusinga Island’s culture.
My island is known for making exquisite handcrafted sisal products. The skilled artisans weave beautiful baskets, mats and other intricate designs using natural fibres sourced locally.
The best fresh food market on Rusinga Island is Mbita Market. And it’s also good for buying everyday items like traditional clothing and handmade jewellery — this is where I take visitors to find real, local souvenirs. The products are authentic representations of the island’s rich heritage, ranging from carved wooden sculptures to paintings depicting local scenes.
We know to avoid purchasing souvenirs from street vendors because these items may not be well-made or accurately reflect the island’s culture.
Getting Deeper Into Rusinga Island
A great book to learn more about my island is Rusinga Island: Lake Victoria, Kenya by Linda Okatch Mungayaka with its images depicting people’s lives and livelihoods here. For fictional stories set both nearby and in other parts of Kenya, try the novels of locally born-and-raised author Okang’a Ooko.
My island is a place people are attracted to because of its untouched natural beauty, vibrant culture, and warm hospitality.
To really celebrate my island at its best, come during the annual Rusinga Cultural Festival, held in December. Visitors have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the festivities, savour local delicacies and witness captivating performances during this celebration of the Abasuba people and their culture, language and artefacts.
Most people think of my island as a place to relax and unwind, but this is a destination to embark on active, adventurous exploration, from kayaking along Lake Victoria to hiking and discovering hidden gems. It is also extraordinarily important for its rich fossil beds. The 1948 discovery here of our ancient primate relatives — over 18 million years old — made newspaper headlines worldwide and inspired ongoing visits from local and international scientists seeking a better understanding of the origins of humanity.
This is also one of the best places in the world to experience the joyful rhythms of traditional Luo music and dance. Locals are proud of that because it’s a platform to pass down traditions to future generations.
Getting Around Rusinga Island
One thing you should know about getting around my island is that its compact size (43 square kilometres) and scenic landscapes make it ideal for exploring on foot.
The best way to travel on my island to have as little impact as possible is to hire a local guide who is knowledgeable about the island’s ecology and culture. They can show you the hidden trails and also introduce you to local communities.
Luckily this method of travelling also allows me to form a deeper connection with the community.
Outside The Town
To get away and into the outdoors, I like to embark on a hiking adventure up Rusinga Hill, hitting the trail that takes me through dense forests and past waterfalls.
For a day trip just beyond my island, I like to visit Mfangano Island. I take a short boat ride across the lake to reach it and spend the day exploring its hidden coves, interacting with the local fishing communities. The island is also known for its ancient rock art, possibly 2,000 years old and thought to have been created by early forager-hunters. The Abasuba Community Peace Museum was founded to help promote tourism, protect and manage the rock art sites.
Many people will head to popular Ruma National Park, but locals know to go to the nearby Bird Islands for a truly tranquil and engaging wildlife experience.
I especially enjoy the view of my island from Gembe Hills. From this vantage point, I can appreciate the blend of nature and community, truly understanding the island’s sense of pride.
Connecting With Locals
When I want to have fun and celebrate being out on my island, I attend community festivities. Whether it’s a lively music festival, a traditional dance performance or a cultural event, I immerse myself in the joyful atmosphere.
To hang out with my friends and go to a real insider spot, I go to Rusinga Island Lodge where I and other islanders gather for live music and mouth-watering dishes. Ingredients are locally sourced; in fact, wherever possible, they’re home-grown in the Lodge’s extensive organic vegetable garden or picked from their own fruit trees.
The best resource for finding out what’s going on around town (events) is the Rusinga Island Community Facebook group.
When I want to enjoy my island without spending much (or any) money, I take a leisurely stroll along the shores of Lake Victoria, basking in the beauty of the sunset and the serenity of the surroundings.
Jubilee Garden is my first choice for music because it hosts live performances by local musicians. I can’t help but be moved by the passion and talent of the artists. And when I feel like dancing, I go to Club Pier Rusinga for the lively nightlife and the rhythmic tunes.
Finding Solitude In Rusinga Island
When I want to go somewhere to sit and relax on my incredible island, I go to the enchanting nature reserves. I find solace in the shade of ancient trees and in the company of wildlife.
The place that makes me proudest of my island is the Akonya CBO (Community Based Organisation). This community-driven initiative plays a crucial role in empowering the local community and preserving the island’s cultural heritage, working with local projects to uplift living standards.
When The Seasons Change, This Island Shines
The dry season (December to March) is the best time to bird watch, go fishing and hiking. This is when I always recommend visitors explore the shimmering waters of Lake Victoria because it’s the time when wildlife is often more visible along the lake’s edges.
The rainy season (April to November) here is magical when you witness the amazing transformation of the landscape. This is excellent for exploring the waterfalls; the increased rainfall during this season results in beautiful falls dramatically cascading down the island’s landscapes.