Some years back, Kisumu was touted as the third Kenyan city. Of course this ‘declaration’ of the lakeside town as a city was more of a political move, meant to mollify the residents and Luo politicians, than a serious statement of intent to support the town to grow into a proper city. Kisumu celebrated its 100th year of existence in December 2001. It had grown from a small railway terminus into a fairly sizeable town, by Kenyan standards, in the century of its life.
Yet it could easily have become the cultural and economic hub of the urban settlements dotting the shores of Lake Victoria in East Africa. But by 2001, Kisumu was stuck in some rut. It had stagnated for years. Its industries were dying or dead. Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi), the Kenya Breweries plant, the sugar factories, the small-size household goods and food-processing ventures were downsizing or closing. The railway line had died. Kisumu had slowly shut down.
Bethwell Ogot fully captures the life and times of Kisumu in his book Kisumu 1901-2001: From an Inland Port to First Millennium City (Anyange Press, 2016). Writing on Kisumu’s anniversary celebrations, this is what they say, “Kisumu town held its centennial celebrations in December 2001. The celebration had several objectives: to bring the people of East Africa together to celebrate the arrival of the ‘Lunatic Express’ at Kisumu in 1901; to remember the historical backdrop against which the British colonial office conceived and built the Uganda Railway; to pay homage to the African, Asian and European heroes who lost their lives building the railway; to celebrate the cultural bond that held together the three races — Africans, Asians and Europeans — of three divergent continents for over 100 years; to give Kisumu an economic, social and cultural facelift after decades of political neglect …”
From its inception, Kisumu had the prospects of developing into a ‘worldly’ city. The railway line had arrived on its way to Uganda. It would pass through the neighbouring regions occupied by non-Luo, thus opening up the region and easily linking communities that had been separated by natural barriers. The town was established as the administrative headquarters of the Lake Victoria region after the colonial administration abandoned Mumias, according to Ogot. Its founder and first administrator was Charles William Hobley, then a First Class Assistant at Mumias, who built his offices and house at what is presently Bandani and Otonglo. Then the port where the railway would terminate was called Ugowe.
The train came with people — Europeans, Asians and Africans; goods; new cultures and different worldviews. The Europeans were administrators or professionals. The Asians worked on the railway line but also set up businesses in the new town. And the town grew. The colonial administration built a shipbuilding yard, and the ships that plied Lake Victoria, ferrying goods from and to Uganda and later Tanganyika, were assembled in Kisumu. The goods that came back from the neighbouring countries and the countryside were sent to Mombasa by rail. By 1907, Kisumu had a cotton factory and a fishing industry. Nyanza Club had been founded in 1904 and the Kisumu Hotel was built in 1912. Kisumu was a fairly thriving town with a good number of Europeans, although Ogot notes that there were more ‘official’ than ‘non-official’ Europeans in the town. He records that there were more than 23,000 Asians in Kisumu by 1921, primarily traders but also providing other services.
Ogot writes that Kisumu experienced fair economic growth that saw several investments by the Asians in the period between 1919 and 1939. He also says that several Africans — Luo and Luyia — bought lorries for transportation businesses. By 1927 Kisumu Airport was being used to dispatch airmail from East Africa. Full air transport services were available through Imperial Airlines, with three flying boats between Southampton in England and Kisumu. Two of the boats continuing to Cape Town, Ogot writes. He further informs us that there were services to India and Malaya from February 1939, then Australia and New Zealand beginning July 1939. “Kisumu had thus become the hub of air transport in Africa, a real international airport,” he notes. Kisumu Airport apparently received 48 seaplanes and 192 landplanes with approximately 500 arriving and 600 departing passengers. This was quite a busy schedule by the standards of the day, the historian writes.
Reading Kisumu 1901-2001 leaves no doubt in one’s mind that Kisumu was set to take off economically from the moment it was established. It was connected to Mombasa and thus to the rest of the world by rail. The airport added more links. It had people from diverse backgrounds: racial, cultural, political, spiritual, social and linguistic. There were Christians, Hindus, Muslims and others as way back as the 1920s. There were established factories, hotels, schools, professions, urban settlements as far back as the 1930s. From Kisumu, one could easily travel to the neighbouring countries and towns by ship, train, bus or plane starting in the 1920s. The town was probably more cosmopolitan and globally connected than Nairobi in the early years of the 20th century. What slowed it down? What stunted this seeming pearl on Winam (the head of the lake)?
Politics? Maybe. Economic decline resulting from local and global developments? Maybe. Outward migration by the Asians and other residents? Maybe. However, there has always been a strong feeling in Kisumu that the town has been victimised for years because of its association with the Odinga family as well as the supposed Luo ‘oppositional’ politics. The final breakdown in the relationship between Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta brought about by the confrontation at the opening of the New Nyanza General Hospital on October 29, 1969 is in some way seen as the moment Kisumu — and the wider Nyanza region — was marked as an opposition zone. Considering that the government is a big consumer but also has the power to dispense or keep economic goodies, Kisumu’s economy declined significantly from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Kisumu was just about to start reviving socio-economically by the time it celebrated its centenary.
Today one can still see and sense Kisumu’s lost glory in the old government offices, old buildings owned by Asians, the pier, the rusting rail lines, and the old estates of Nubian or Bandani. But devolution of power has injected some resources into the town. There are new hotels and office blocks rising. The new airport claims to be ‘international’ once again. Kisumu is the entertainment hotspot for a larger part of Western Kenya, including parts of the Rift Valley. Should the standard gauge railway reach the port, as planned, and should travel and transport by lake to Uganda and Tanzania be fully reestablished, Kisumu will once more reclaim its long-lost title of the cultural and economic hub on Lake Victoria.
Kisumu 1901-2001 isn’t just a historical record of the town from its founding to the beginning of the 21st century. This is a legacy story. It is a tale of what could have been had the early leaders of this country and of Kisumu exploited the potential for growth that the town was blessed with from the beginning. Today’s leaders should take note of how that opportunity was lost and make decisions that will fully exploit Kisumu’s unique advantages to grow. Lastly, this book is a challenge to Kenyans to write stories of their towns, peoples and histories.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]