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.