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.

Brief history

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.

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