Like the tiers of a great amphitheatre, WESTERN KENYA slopes away from Nairobi, the major game parks and the coast, down to the stage of Lake Victoria. Cut off by the high Rift wall of the Mau and Elgeyo escarpments, this region of dense agriculture, rolling green valleys and pockets of thick jungle is one of the parts of the country least known to travellers. Although more accessible than the far north, or even some of the major parks, it has been neglected by the safari operators – and that’s all to the good. You can travel for days through lush landscapes from one busy market town to the next and rarely, if ever, meet other tourists.
It’s not easy to see why western Kenya has been so ignored, and there’s a great deal more of interest than the tourist literature’s sparse coverage would suggest. While the west undeniably lacks teeming herds of game stalked by lions and narcissistic warriors in full regalia, what it offers is a series of delightfully low-key, easily visited attractions. For a start there are national parks: at Kakamega Forest, a magnificent tract of equatorial rainforest bursting with species found nowhere else in Kenya; at Saiwa Swamp, where access on foot allows you to get quite close to the rare sitatunga antelope; at Ruma, where a lush valley harbours reticulated giraffe, roan antelope and black rhinos; and at Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano to rival Mount Kenya in everything but crowds.
Lake Victoria is the obvious place to make for in the west, sprinkled with out-of-the-way islands, populated by exceptionally friendly people, and with the region’s major town, Kisumu, on its shores. And there’s the offbeat, if admittedly very minor, new attraction of Kogelo, the home village of the father of US president Barack Obama. The Western Highlands rise all around Lake Victoria in a great bowl, dotted with a string of busy towns. While Eldoret and Kakamega are essentially route-hubs with little for visitors to do, Kisii has a couple of good excursions, the tea capital Kericho is certainly worth an overnight stay, and Kitale has some museums. Away from the towns, much of the west, even the areas of intensive farming, is ravishingly beautiful: densely animated jungle near Kakamega and Kitale, regimented landscapes of tea bushes around Kericho, and many areas of swamp and grassland alive with birds.
Ethnically, the region is dominated by the Luo on the lakeshore, but there are Bantu-speaking Luhya in the sugar lands, north of Kisumu, and Gusii in the formidably fertile Kisii Hills. Other important groups speak one or other of the Kalenjin languages, principally the Nandi, around Eldoret, and the Kipsigis in the district around Kericho. And of course there are thousands of migrants from other parts of Kenya.Read More
Lake Victoria’s ecology and economy
Lake Victoria’s ecology and economy
Lake Victoria fills a shallow depression (no deeper than 80m) between the Western and Eastern Rift valleys, yet it is not part of the Rift system. Until the 1960s, it was home to around five hundred different species of brilliantly coloured tropical fish, known as haplochromines or cichlids, all of them endemic – unique to the lake. Scientists, puzzling over how such a dazzling variety of species came to evolve in this largely uniform environment in the space of no more than a million years, have suggested that, at some stage in its history, the lake must have dried into a series of small lakes in which the fish evolved separately. Lake Victoria’s cichlids are popular aquarium fish, and one of the commonest larger species, the tilapia, is a regional speciality, grilled or fried and served whole.
In the early 1960s, a voracious carnivore, the Nile perch, was introduced to the lake, and proceeded to eat its way through the cichlid population, driving some species close to extinction, though many have held on in parts of the lake which were too shallow for perch, or in smaller lakes around the main one. For local people, the introduction of the perch, which can reach a weight of 250kg, has been a bit of a Trojan horse: while they’re consumed locally and sold for export (good news for the lakeshore economy), traditional fishing and processing have been hit hard by the arrival of modern vessels and factories joining in the feast and taking their profits elsewhere.
The lake has other problems, however. Algae have proliferated, due to industrial and sewage pollution, depriving the lake of oxygen. More than three million litres of human waste drain into the lake every day, and the Swedish development agency, SIDA, estimates that Kenya, with the smallest share of the lake’s shoreline, is its main polluter. As well as suffering a dramatic fall in oxygen levels, the lake is becoming so murky that the remaining cichlids are unable to identify mates, so that hybridization is occurring. Meanwhile, the building of the causeway between Mbita and Rusinga Island has turned the Winam Gulf into even more of a pond, with only one outlet, inhibiting currents and making its water even less healthy.
Another threat comes from the water hyacinth, originally native to Brazil. This floating weed grows quickly around the lakeshore and spreads like a carpet across the surface, blocking out the light, choking the lake to death and snaring up vessels. Since the mid-1990s, Homa Bay, Kendu Bay and Kisumu have all at times been strangled by kilometre-wide cordons of the weed, inhibiting passage to all but the smallest canoes, with disastrous results for the local economy. Solutions have included the promotion of products (furniture, paper, even building materials) made from harvested hyacinth. In 2001, mechanical clearance enabled passenger ferries to resume, only for falling water levels to cause their suspension once more. There’s been a resurgence of the invasive weed since 2006, and the nutrient run-off following heavy rains in 2010 spread the deadly canopy even further.