On December 20, 1901, Florence Preston, the wife of the engineer building the Kenya-Uganda Railway, drove the last nail in the last sleeper (crosstie) of the railway by the shores of Lake Victoria. Port Florence thus came into being.
However, the city was only called Port Florence for one year; it then reverted to its original Luo name–Kisumu, meaning a place to look for food. This essay explores the emergence of Kisumu's lake port, focusing on the factors that favored Kisumu's evolution into an important city.
Kisumu lies at the northeastern edge of the Winam Gulf, a long, shallow arm that protrudes from the main body of Lake Victoria. Kisumu has a population of 409,928, according to the 2009 Census, ranking it the second largest city, after Kampala, Uganda, in the Lake Victoria Basin. It is the third most populous city in Kenya, the principal city of western Kenya, the onetime capital of former Nyanza Province, and now the administrative headquarters of Kisumu County.
Kisumu emerged as a port in 1901. This can arguably be attributed to its location as the main inland terminal of the Kenya-Uganda Railway. The major aim for building the railway was to link the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa to the interior in Uganda, which the British saw as being of high significance to their strategic and economic interests.
While drumming up support for building the railway, Sir Gerald Portal, the British Consul-General for East Africa from 1889-1892, and British High Commissioner to Uganda from 1892-1893, summed up the potential importance of the railway when speaking in the British Parliament by saying that the railway would "ensure the protection of the source of the river Nile from Britain's enemies; it would be a great potential market for British goods, and it would have a revolutionary effect in settling the region." He was successful in mobilizing the British government support for building the railway.
The British encountered several challenges during the construction of the railway. For instance, they faced resistance and hostility from the various communities like the Nandi who viewed the British as intruders intent on interfering in their lives. The British also endured a shortage of water and . suffered attacks by "man-eating" lions at the Tsavo River while constructing the railway. These challenges frustrated the British and demoralized the Indian workers who were building the railway. Nevertheless, the British and the Indians persevered, completing the line from Mombasa to Kisumu (named at that time Port Florence) in 1901.
The arrival of the railway in Kisumu made Kisumu strategically and economically vital for the interests of the British in the city itself, and in Uganda and the lake basin region as a whole. The railway consolidated British interests in Kisumu and Uganda. The railway also literally transformed the manner in which goods and services were transported from the coast to the interior of East Africa. Up until that time, the main form of transport in the interior were either the ox-drawn wagon or human beings working as porters. The railway now removed the need for humans or oxen in the transportation of goods and services. The railway facilitated the transportation of heavy equipment far inland into the interior with relative ease. The railway also encouraged colonial settlers to move into the Kenyan highlands and the Rift Valley where they grew cash crops such as coffee and tea for export, and conducted other types of economic activities. In fact, the British government encouraged white settlers to farm large tracts of the Kenyan highlands which the railway had made accessible in order to help pay for the cost of constructing the Kenya-Uganda Railway. In addition, the railway facilitated tourism. Hunting parties used railcars on the railway to go hunting. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of those who travelled to East Africa for game hunting, which is chronicled in Roosevelt’s book about his African expedition. The railway also helped the British in their campaign against General Paul Erich von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Germans in the East African Campaign during World War I.
After the construction of the railway, Kisumu’s importance also started becoming evident to traders and travelers in the region. Traders who in the past transported their goods and conducted business through the nearby Port Victoria, an important center on the caravan trade route, near the delta of River Nzoia (just east of the present-day Uganda border), started turning to Kisumu where the railway made transportation of goods and services easier, faster, and more profitable. With the railway line almost touching the shores of the Lake Victoria, traders–traveling by boats and steamships on the lake, plying the caravan trail from places like Pemba, Mombasa, or visiting the markets on the hills and plains of the interior with their wares on foot–could connect with each other with ease, sell goods and services profitably, and make their way back to their homes. Located on the cusp of the Winam Gulf, Kisumu quickly overtook Port Victoria as the most important port on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria and a gateway to the interior of East Africa.
The lake port continues to shape the lives of everyone who lives in Kisumu. We interviewed people who live and work in Kisumu, who told us about the importance of Kisumu's port to their lives.
James Owino, a resident of Pand Pieri, a neighborhood in Kisumu, asserted that Kisumu port remains the center of many trading activities in the lake basin. The port connects people to places as far as Mwanza, Musoma, Bukoba, Homa Bay, Kampala, and the islands of Lake Victoria such as Rusinga, Migingo, and Mfangano. Traders from these areas usually bring goods such as fish, bananas, cassava, cotton and gold to sell in Kisumu or transport through Kisumu to other markets and towns. Kisumu also serves as an outlet for Uganda’s trade with Kenya and the rest of the world since Uganda is a landlocked country. Odindo, an employee at the Kisumu Port, commented that the existence of Kisumu as a port has also created a heavy volume of construction activities in the region.
But Kisumu's port has faced various challenges that have diminished its full potential. These include the collapse of the East Africa Community in 1977, which slowed down the city’s growth and prosperity. Another problem facing Kisumu port identified by residents of Kisumu is political marginalization of the Luo by the central government since independence. One resident asserted that the central government is not concerned about Kisumu or addressing problems at the city's port. Another problem in recent decades has been the growth of hyacinth weed, which chokes off a large part of the Kisumu pier and frustrates shipping activities.
During our research, we also met many former and current workers at the port who identified administrative challenges the port city of Kisumu has been facing. We heard and saw firsthand some of the difficulties workers at the port face every day. James Owino argues that managerial problems have led to deterioration of the port. Due to managerial problems, the port has not generated a lot of revenue. Without any sizeable revenue, the port has in turn suffered from lack of proper maintenance, workers have not been paid, and conditions at the port have deteriorated. The problems at the port have thus become cyclical, one problem feeding into the other. These problems have in turn posed even a greater challenge to the expansion and development of the port. Until some mechanism for monitoring port activities and assuring accountability is instituted, it seems unlikely that the port will overcome its problems anytime soon.
However, there are some signs of positive change. The city has started growing again after a long slump. Since 1996, the city has again emerged as an important hub for social, economic, and political activities in the Great Lakes Region. The revival of the port has also been stimulated by the growth in the shipment of goods through the port to destinations in Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. Kisumu has also been designated a “city” by the central government of Kenya. Although Kisumu's rank as a city has not been formalized through a charter by the central government, Kisumu residents have not wasted time embracing their new status as residents of a city. This means that, if handled correctly, the future of Kisumu as a port city is great.