Located 25 kilometers from Kisumu town along Kisumu-Busia highway, Maseno town is named for a type of a tree common in the area known by the Luo as “Oseno” and the Abaluhya as “Oluseno”. The growth of Maseno town is often attributed to the coming of missionaries in Kenya, and the contributions of the African people, who donated land and helped construct the town itself. One of the primary factors that allowed missionaries to enter the region was the extension of the Kenya-Uganda Railway to Kisumu, an area whose people had a reputation for being trusting, friendly and open to development. Because Maseno is relatively close in distance to Kisumu, the missionaries assumed that its people would share the same accepting attitude.
Consequently, in 1906, the Church Mission Society (CMS) of England relocated a group of its missionaries led by Reverend J.J. Willis from Vihiga to Maseno. The land on which the missionaries settled was given to the missionaries by Chief Ogolla Wuod Ayieke, starting a tradition of African and missionary collaboration in Maseno’s development. Once missionaries entered the region, they turned their attentions toward making connections with the people.
Reverend J.J. Willis quite often appealed to the local workers at the station, and regularly gathered them for noon services in the open air while they were at a midday meal break from work. However, according to Bethwell Allan Ogot, the sheer number of Europeans in the missionary sites created suspicion among the Kenyan people, which Willis believed was difficult to overcome.
When Maseno was initially founded, the CMS and Willis’s primary goal was to construct churches that followed the Anglican tradition within a locally run, self-sufficient church that did not require British interference. Much of this strategy derived from the fact that Willis disagreed with traditional European paternalistic attitudes towards Africans, believing that the way for mission societies to have the strongest impact was to create a church that the local people could truly regard as their own. In order to survive, the church members began growing cash crops, focusing particularly on crops such as cotton, linseed, and coffee on experimental plots while distributing seeds freely to the people. Hoping to spread their agricultural strategies, the British administration based in Maseno also established an agricultural school to teach advanced farming methods to the people. These activities combined with early urban practices to lay the foundation of the modern Maseno town.
Education, specifically Maseno School, was one of the major factors in the origin and growth of Maseno town. The main objective of the missionaries in building the school was to spread the gospel to the local people. But this was a task easies said than done. There existed, for example, a language barrier between the Africans and the missionaries. The missionaries found it necessary to teach Africans a language which they could both use for communication. They consequently established Maseno School in late 1906 to close that language gap.
In the beginning, Maseno School admitted only local boys at its inception. With time, however, the missionaries spread their educational outreach to the neighboring regions such as Butere and Kisumu, where primary schools were established. The missionaries aimed at using the graduates of these schools to help them spread the gospel to the local people once they were educated. Robert W. Strayer, for example, observed that Maseno School’s foundation was made possible by grants received by the Church Mission Society in order for such development to occur. The program was so successful that many alumni of Maseno School founded their own village churches and schools. All of these developments took root in Maseno successfully, and the British government took notice. In 1907, a mission conference of Protestant missionary societies in the Nyanza Province designated the settlement at Maseno as having the status of a special sphere.
At times, missionary education was met with criticism from the people of Maseno who wanted to have a say in the curriculum. For example, in 1908, the students of Maseno School who were so averse to technical education led a strike in order to gain the right to select their own course of study, focusing their attention especially to literacy. There was even a movement to gain more African teachers, a movement which culminated in the foundation of a teacher’s training institute, the Siriba Teacher’s Training College in 1908.
Maseno School is still a thriving institution with notable alumni such as former vice president Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the late Honorable, B. Apolo Ohanga, Kenya’s first African Minister, and Barack Obama, Sr., the father of the current U.S. president, showing the lasting impact of missionary ideals on the town’s growth.
One of the key identifying characteristics of Maseno’s development is the number of academic and medical institutions that have emerged in the town. The first mission hospital was founded in 1908 by Fred Saville and his wife, but because it was still relatively small, it could only handle patients with minor ailments. Maseno also had a post office and a small prison, which were constructed by the colonial administration in the early years of the colonial period. When Kenya was declared a colony in 1920, colonial administrators were dispatched to the outlying areas of the colony, a move that led to the establishment of a District Officer post within the Maseno town.
Another development was a military camp, which was built and transferred to its current location near Maseno School, where many European activities were taking place, helping curb insecurity from the local people who were allegedly stealing European property. In 1921, a large, permanent church was constructed in the present day Maseno School compound for worship. The worship in the church was held in sessions due to the large number of people who attended services.
Throughout the growth of Maseno town, averse opinions to the colonial administration brewed among the people, generating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty with the Europeans and Africans. World War I provided a real test for Maseno town and the strength of the mission settlement. Because Kenya was a British colony, every homestead in the Nyanza Province was required to give a man or a cow to the British to help the war effort, a policy that was heavily resented. Maseno became a hub for resisting the British policy. In 1921, for example, a meeting was held at the Maseno Sisal Estate to deliberate on the grievances of the Kenyan people and decide how best to proceed. One of the key decisions was to boycott classes at Maseno School. Maseno also often hosted well-attended mass rallies for the Youth Kavirondo Association, which was formed to unite Luo people under a radical political umbrella to advocate for change in the colonial system. By 1930, there were few settlements established within the town, and most belonged to European missionaries, settlers and administrators.
The expansion of Maseno town continued with the establishment of Mabungo Center, a central market for exchanging goods and services circulating in the general surrounding. Most markets were set up near trading centers with a low population density in order to draw more people to the area. Mabungo Center also boosted Maseno’s economy by allowing avenues for people to sell goods, which stimulated crop production, and created a link between the town and established exchange economy based export cities.
During World War II, the inhabitants of Maseno and surrounding areas were once again called upon to help the British cause in every way possible. This affected the population of Maseno greatly as men were sent off to fight. In order to help the British cause, a military camp was established near the railroad tracks, approximately two kilometers away from Maseno School. Colonial administrators viewed the military camp as a means of tightening their grip on the people of Maseno, though the move intensified a sense of unity among the Maseno people. The British took advantage of the campus proximity to the railroad to create a terminal for African soldiers who would be stationed Maseno and then were transported to Jinja, Uganda before making their way to help the British in the war effort.
Every central place requires infrastructural developments in order to connect it to the surrounding areas and beyond. Initially, the primary means of developed transport was the Kenya-Uganda railway, which was constructed years prior to allow for trade with other towns. Major roadways, such as the Kisumu-Busia highway, built between 1957 and 1958, were put in place by British administrative officials to connect Maseno to the larger urban centers such as Kisumu, while minor roadways within the town were set up and maintained at the discretion of the chiefs.
The road transport expansion opened the town to other areas and enabled the transport of goods and services within the town. With improved transport system, trade grew as a result. People often came from different areas to exchange agricultural and livestock goods, leading to the further growth of the town.
Even in the modern era, Maseno’s development has not wavered. Siriba Teacher’s Training College has been merged with Government Training Institute to form Maseno University. The university has contributed to the expansion of Maseno town by attracting students from all across Kenya, which provided a population boost. In addition to Maseno School and the Anglican Church, Maseno town is also home to many educational institutions such as Maseno Mixed Primary School and Maseno Girls Primary Boarding School.
All these developments have led to a tremendous increase in Maseno's population. As far back as 1999, Maseno town's population, according to the 1999 census, was only slightly more than 2,000, and the regional Maseno region's population was 65,000. The population of the town has no doubt increased considerably. The population of Maseno University alone is currently 15,000.
The fast growth of Maseno town has heightened investor interest in the town, leading to the establishment of many businesses and rental housing keen on a making money while catering to the variegated needs of the burgeoning population of the town. In spite of a few problems here and there such as overcrowding and a high crime rate, problems that cannot be said to be unique only to Maseno, today Maseno can boast of being the center of excellent educational institutions, base of one of the oldest Anglican church presence in western Kenya, and home to one of the most vibrant urban cultures in Kenya.
Today, Maseno is a well-known and well-established town. Its growth over the last 110 years has been due to multiple factors driven by the missionaries, colonial government and local African people, all working in their own ways to serve their varied needs, contributing to the origin, growth and development of the town. It has truly grown from a mere religious station to a strong, vibrant urban center.