In the sultry atmosphere of KISUMU, a distinctive smell from the lake – fish, mud and rotting vegetation – drifts in on a vague breeze from central Africa. More laid-back than any other big town in Kenya, Kisumu was founded as a railway town and lake port, becoming the country’s third-largest town as its fortunes rose with the growth of trade in colonial East Africa and the newly independent nations. It suffered badly following the East African Community’s break-up, however, and throughout the 1980s and early 1990s the port was mostly dormant. Kisumu’s position might lead you to expect a bustling waterfront and a lake-facing atmosphere, although in fact the town has now turned its back on the water, focusing instead on the commercial centre and land links to the rest of Kenya. Although some commercial shipping has resumed, and the port sporadically buzzes with loading or unloading (and people looking for a lift to Uganda or Tanzania), low water levels and water hyacinth have held back progress.
Even if the time-warped atmosphere of a place that’s been treading water for three decades may not be much comfort to its inhabitants, Kisumu is one of the few upcountry towns with real character. It’s a tranquil, easy-going town, where even the manambas at the bus station are unusually calm. Any anticipation of claustrophobia is quickly soothed by the spacious, shady layout. The contrast with Nakuru, if you’ve just come from there, is striking. It’s a good idea to find somewhere to stay soon after arriving, before starting any energetic wanderings, as it gets tremendously hot here.
The railway line from Mombasa reached the lake by 1901, reassuring the British public who were having serious doubts that the “Lunatic Line”, as it was dubbed, would ever reach completion, but the first train only chugged into the station at Port Florence, as Kisumu was originally known, in 1903 when the Mau Escarpment viaducts were completed. By then, European transport had already arrived at the lake in the form of a steamship brought up from Mombasa piece by portered piece, having steamed out from Scotland in 1895. Many of the ship’s parts were seized en route from the coast and recycled into Nandi ornamentation and weaponry, and it was five years before a complete vessel could be launched on its maiden voyage across the lake to Port Bell in Uganda.
By all accounts Kisumu was a pretty disagreeable place in the early years. Apart from the endemic sleeping sickness, bilharzia and malaria, the climate was sweltering and municipal hygiene primitive. But it quickly grew into an important administrative and military base and, with the consolidation of the colonies in the 1930s and 1940s, became a leading East African entrepôt and transport hub, attracting Asian investment on top of the businesses that had been set up at the railway terminus when the Indian labourers were laid off. Kisumu’s rise seemed unstoppable until 1977, when the sudden collapse of the East African Community, more or less overnight, robbed the town of its raison d’être. The partial reformation of the community in 1996 brightened prospects, and by 1999 the port was relatively busy, thanks largely to UN World Food Programme transit goods destined for war-torn Rwanda and Congo.
Since then, however, Kisumu has again seen a downturn in its fortunes, owing to the decline of the local sugar industry, sugar cane being the surrounding region’s main cash crop. Dumping of subsidized sugar by the EU led to a worldwide crash in prices, and this in turn forced the closure of sugar refineries at nearby Muhoroni and Miwani, which were the mainstays of the local economy. More recently, parts of Kisumu were badly hit during the post-election clashes in 2007–8, though recovery since then has been rapid.Read More
Kisumu MuseumForemost among the town’s sights is the engaging and ambitious Kisumu Museum. Set in a large garden with carefully labelled trees, the main gallery happily mingles zoological exhibits with ethnographic displays. Apart from the rows of trophy-style game heads around the walls, the stuffed animals and preserved insects and crustaceans are displayed with considerable flair and imagination. Particularly good use has been made of old exhibits from Nairobi’s National Museum. A free-swinging vulture, for example, spins like a model aircraft overhead while, centre stage, a lion is caught in full, savage pounce, leaping onto the back of a hysterical wildebeest in the most action-packed piece of taxidermy you’re ever likely to see.
The ethnographic exhibits are illuminating, too. The Maasai aren’t the only people who take blood from their cattle for food: Kalenjin peoples like the Nandi and the Kipsigis once did the same, and even the Luo lived mostly on cow’s blood mixed with milk before they arrived at Lake Victoria and began to cultivate and fish. In separate halls from the main gallery are a small, but worthwhile aquarium, illustrating the problem of fish depletion in the lake (see what your tilapia looked like before it became a curry), and a snake house with a fairly comprehensive collection of Kenyan species. Outside, the tortoise pen and croc pond seem rather pointless extras. The crocodiles, getting extremely large, are fed on Monday afternoons at around 4pm.
KOGELO, 10km past the Kisumu airport, is exactly 1km south of the equator. The Senator Obama Secondary School apart, there are no outward signs of Kogelo’s place in the family history of the US president – and little evidence of the development and investment that the media speculated would transform it after the 2008 US elections. Obama’s family roots can be traced back to the homestead of Mama Sarah Onyango Obama, third wife of Barack’s paternal grandfather, 1km or so out of the “centre” of Kogelo, to the northwest, which is where Barack’s father (who died in a car crash in 1982) is buried. The homestead is now a gated and askari-guarded plot, with several tents for the security detail in the front garden and Mama Obama herself the host of frequent local delegations – although you can take a look from the outside, and possibly even pay a visit. Plans to build an Obama Museum here have been put on hold while the competing claim of the village of Kanyadhiang near Kendu Bay – where Obama Senior was born, according to some family members – is considered.
Lake Victoria health hazards
Lake Victoria health hazards
Although going out on the lake is fun, it is, unfortunately, a disease-ridden body of water, and even though there aren’t always clouds of mosquitoes, the malaria risk is quite high. Snails carrying bilharzia also flourish in the reeds around the fringes of the lake, and although the Luo wash and swim in it and sail their vividly painted, dhow-like mahogany canoes on it, the danger of bilharzia is all too real. It’s very rare to get the disease after brief contact with infected water, but you should avoid getting wet, as far as possible, if you’re fishing or boating, and don’t even think about swimming.
The Luo are the second-largest ethnic group and one of the most cohesive “tribes” in Kenya. Their distinctive language, Dholuo, closely resembles the Nuer and Dinka languages of southern Sudan, from where their ancestors migrated south at the end of the fifteenth century. They found the shore and hinterland of Lake Victoria only sparsely populated by hunter-gatherers, scattered with occasional clearings where Bantu-speaking farmers had settled over the previous few centuries. Otherwise, the region was wild: untouched grassland and tropical forest, dense with heavy concentrations of wildlife.
The Luo were swift invaders, driving their herds before them, from water point to water point, always on the move, restless and acquisitive. They raided other groups’ cattle incessantly and, within a few decades, had forced the Bantu-speakers away from the lakeshore. Despite the conflict, intermarriage (essentially the buying of wives) was common and the pastoral nomads were greatly influenced by their Bantu-speaking in-laws and neighbours, ancestors of the present-day Luhya and Gusii.
The Luo today are best known as fishermen, a lifestyle that had sustained them while migrating along the rivers, but they also cultivate widely and still keep livestock. Culturally, they have remained surprisingly independent, and are one of the few Kenyan peoples who don’t perform circumcision. Traditionally, children had six teeth knocked out from the lower jaw to mark their initiation into adulthood, but the operation is hardly ever carried out these days. Christianity has made spectacular inroads among the Luo, with an estimated ninety percent being believers, but it does not seem to have destroyed their traditional culture quite as thoroughly as it has elsewhere. Despite the ubiquity of Gospel singing, traditional music, especially the playing of the nyatiti lyre, is still very much alive and well worth listening out for.
Lake Victoria’s discovery and exploration
Lake Victoria’s discovery and exploration
The westward view from Kisumu gives you little sense of the vastness of Victoria Nyanza (Lake Victoria). From the shores of the narrow Winam Gulf it’s difficult to grasp the fact that there’s another 300km of water between the horizon and the opposite shore in Uganda, and an even greater distance south to Mwanza, the main Tanzanian port. Victoria, the second-largest freshwater lake in the world after Lake Superior, covers a total area of nearly 70,000 square kilometres – almost the size of Scotland or Nebraska – of which only a fraction is in Kenya.
It was barely five centuries ago that the Luo first settled beside the vast equatorial lake they called Ukerewe, and the lake remained uncharted and virtually unknown outside Africa until well into the second half of the nineteenth century. Then, in the midst of the race to pinpoint the source of the Nile, the lake suddenly became a focus of attention. When English adventurer John Hanning Speke first saw Ukerewe in 1858, he was convinced that the long search was over, and promptly renamed the lake after his Queen. In 1862, he became the first person to follow the Nile downstream from Lake Victoria to Cairo, and triumphantly cabled the Royal Geographical Society in London with the words “The Nile is settled”. Sceptics, however, doubted the issue was settled, countering that Lake Tanganyika was the true source, and it took a daring circumnavigation of Lake Victoria, led by the American journalist Henry Morton Stanley, in 1875, to prove Speke right. Sadly, Speke did not live to enjoy the vindication – he was killed in a shooting accident in 1874.