It was not until tragedy struck in 1982 that the idea of building the Mbita-Rusinga causeway emerged. A car belonging to Independence hero Tom Mboya’s brother Alphonce Okuku, the then Mbita MP, plunged into Lake Victoria.
The car car fell off from a ferry operating between Rusinga Island and Mbita town. During the day, the ferry, boats and canoes were the major mode of transport residents could use to move from the island to mainland and vice-versa.
Crossing the lake using the vessels was sometimes dangerous, especially during windy and high water tides in the lake. Several boat accidents occurred, leading to loss of lives.
In 1973, the then Mbita MP Harrison Opiyo, father of current MP Millie Odhiambo, died in the lake after a boat he was travelling in capsized.
The MP was crossing over to Rusinga Island after he campaigned for his reelection. His daughter (Millie) told the Star the death surprised not only the family and residents but Kenya as a whole.
She says the incident still lingers in the minds of family members and residents.
“My father had just attended a political meeting in Mbita. He died on his way back home,” Odhiambo says.
“He succumbed to strong water waves that were prevailing across the lake due to weather change.”
Odhiambo says residents continued to lose lives until 1982, when area MP Okuku sought help from the national government through the Roads ministry to have a causeway built to link Mbita and Rusinga Island.
“Due to more deaths arising, residents quickly embraced the idea and built the causeway. In fact, they voluntarily collected stones and filled the lake with them, with disregard to environmental assessment,” she says.
The causeway was then built by filling the lake water with rocks and earth soil to provide a venue for crossing the lake.
The causeway was used for more than 30 years until 2012, when the state, through the National Environmental Management Authority, recommended construction of a bridge on grounds that the causeway structure was a hindrance to free flow of water.
Nema said the causeway was also blocking free movement of fish from one side of the lake to the other and allowing germination of water weeds called water hyacinth.
The new bridge was christened Mbita Causeway Replacement Bridge.
Eng Raphael Kabugu, who did civil works on the project, said the bridge has provided a long-term solution not only to residents but also to tourists.
“The materials used in constructing the bridge will ensure even future generations are served. Tourists visiting the area will have a smooth drive to Rusinga Island,” Kabugu says.
He says the bridge is 160m long and 10m wide. The height of the bridge from the water surface is 8m.
“This faciltates passage of vessels from one side of the lake to the other,” Kabugu says.
The approach road from Rusinga Island is 500m and the other one from Mbita town is 250m.
All vessels that are 40m wide and less than 8m high will pass under the bridge.
“The bridge is designed in such a way that it allows normal-sized ferries and other vessels except ships to pass under it,” Kabugu says.
The Mbita-Rusinga Bridge was funded though a collaboration of the Kenyan and Spanish governments at a cost of Sh1.5 billion.
Kabugu says construction began in March 2013 and was expected to be completed in August 2014 but was delayed by change of design.
He says residents requested them to establish a larger bridge design, making them complete it in 2017.
“Our initial design was a bridge 3m high from water surface at a lower cost, but residents and leaders requested that the design be changed. This led to increase in cost and duration of project completion,” Kabugu says.
The Kenya National Highway Authority approved the bridge.
KeNHA general manager in charge of designs Samuel Ogege praised its design.
“The bridge was built in a manner that is fit for human use, so there is no threat on safety of anybody who uses it. The building materials used in the construction will ensure residents don’t encounter unnecessary deaths as before,” Ogege says.
Ogege says they installed a lighting system on the rails, road signs and fences.
“We ensured even children who walk on this bridge cannot fall into the lake. Lights reflectors also help in crossing the bridge at night,” Ogege says.
The manager adds that the demolition of the causeway has allowed for free circulation of water from one side of Lake Victoria to the other.
“We removed the causeway to give the depth of 4.5m to allow free flow of water. It has also paved the way for passage of vessels from Homa Bay town to islands in the lake like Mfangano, Remba, Ringiti, Kiwa and Takawiri,” the GM says.
Residents, including MP Odhiambo, are happy the bridge is complete. Odhiambo says the economic well-being of residents has started improving since they started using the bridge.
“Environmentalists said free flow of water from one part of the lake to another would improve the lake’s ecosystem. Generally, we’ve started seeing benefits like increase in trade among our people since the bridge was completed,” says the MP.
Mzee Oscar Odero, 60, says residents now move from the island to the mainland with ease. He says lack of a bridge had long caused delays in movement.
“Besides, many lives were lost in the lake. We are now free to move from one side of the lake to another anytime,” Odero says.
The bridge is also expected to cushion residents from attacks by hippopotamuses, which used to be blocked by the causeway.
“We’ve been living in fear of being attacked by hippos, which use to hide on the sides of the causeway. Hippos could attack and injure people including fishermen when they crossed the causeway especially at night,” resident Tobias Okeyo said.
Rusinga MCA Okuku Miregi said the bridge will help them reclaim land submerged when water levels rose during construction of the causeway.
“We had many plots near the lakeshore but they were filled with water when stones were plunged into the lake to create the causeway. But we’re happy now that water levels have receded and allowed more dry land,” Miregi says.
Litare Beach Management Unit secretary Wilson Nyajwaya says blocked movement of fish jeopardised breeding.
“The southern side has more fish than the northern one. The bridge has enhanced distribution of fish varieties across the lake, leading to increase of fish population in other parts of the lake,” Nyajwaya says.
Homa Bay fisheries officer Isaac Mosi explains that about 80 per cent of Kenya’s Lake Victoria waters are in Homa Bay county and have been gazzetted as a breeding zone for fish.
“The destruction of the old causeway has come at an opportune time for fishermen because fishing in breeding zones will stop, as there is free movement of fish in the lake,” Mosi says.
The officer blames the collapse of fish processing plants across several fishing towns along Lake Victoria on the causeway.
He says the causeway stifled fishing for more than three decades without any environmental intervention.
“Reduction of fish breeds in Lake Victoria can also be largely attributed to the use of illegal fishing gears. This has led to the decline of Tilapia and Nile perch species,” Mosi says.
Homa Bay Governor Cyprian Awiti says the opening of the bridge has improved economic development of the small-scale business persons.
“There is no doubt that fish and omena catch will increase after the collapse of the causeway. Homa Bay leaders intend to provide more solar lights to increase business hours,” he says.
The governor said the light would reduce insecurity in Mbita and Rusinga.
He said the county expects an influx of tourists, especially those who will visit Tom Mboya mausoleum in Rusinga Island.
Speaking when he launched the bridge on July 12, President Uhuru Kenyatta promised residents the government will construct the Rusinga Island Ring Road and Mfangano Road.
Uhuru said the bridge will ease transport and increase fish stocks in the Winam Gulf.
“The bridge will reduce water hyacinth since it will not block the flow of water,” Uhuru said.