How Bukusu fell afoul of divide-and-rule

Thomson’s travels led to him to the realise regional rivalries

In Summary

• Wanga was elevated to paramount chief, much to the chagrin of the Bukusu

An African chief
An African chief

Inspired by Livingstone, Thompson arrived in Zanzibar 20 years before the twentieth century. He took a boat to Mombasa. It was part of the Sultanate of Oman. Here, he organised for porters, guns, and so on.

Then he commenced his journey by caravan from old Mombasa to distant Mumias. He has written about it in a book called Through Maasailand. Quite a read. He describes land, customs and weather of all where he passed through. Flora and fauna he leaves not behind.

When he eventually arrived in Bungoma, it was through Uasin Gishu county, and after he crossed River Kipkaren and camped near Webuye. Here, he came into contact with the Bukusu. He called them Kavirondo.

It is them who gave him a guide to take him Kwa Shiundu, the old name for Mumias. Shiundu was the king in Wanga back then. I think he is the father of Mumia who the British made paramount chief of all of western. Mumias is named after Nabongo Mumia. Mumia's. English. Kwa Mumia. Kiswahili.

Before reaching Mumias, Thompson observed three things in Kavirondo. The land was good and weather, too, and as such, there was plenty to eat and drink. His caravan stayed longer here because of food, beer and women.

Secondly, the tribe was populous and healthy. This meant they had no major enemies and were going through a period of peace and plenty. The leaders of the tribe were competent. They included the clans that wear the Esipokoto. The ruling clans of the Bukusu through their migrations, wars and peace.

In Bukusuland, royalty is determined by blood but also by achievement and honour, as it is with the Ibo in Achebe stories. Men have worn the Esipokoto because of their leadership values in war, spirituality and enterprise. They tend to come from specific clans. One of them is the populous Batilu clan found among the Bagisu and Bukusu. The mother of my father was a Mutilu from Uganda.

The third thing Thompson records is the hostility that this tribe faced from three foes. The Nandi and Pokot, who were now rising at the expense of the weakened Maasai. The caravans that were increasingly using this route destabilised their old ways of life. They brought it in guns and spiked the demand for tusks. Young men found hunting elephants better than conducting war raids on neighbours for cattle. The third enemy was the Wanga kingdom. 

When the mzungu arrived in Mumias, he found the dislike for the Bukusu high. The Wanga told him he was lucky. He had been brought by Bukusu guides and the Nabongos consider them enemies. He could have been killed had he not been white. The long contact with the coast advised King Shiundu to welcome Thompson in peace. He told them of his dislike for the Bukusu, who were his northern neighbours and the subject of campaigns to pacify them that were however not succeeding. He considered them backwards. Mumias already had clothes, guns and was using cowries.

When the British eventually took over the homeland of Kenya, Mumias got their attention. They elevated it to a major urban area of their rule and elevated the Wanga king to a paramount chief. Obviously, one territory they placed under him was Bukusuland. You can imagine the happiness in Mumias and the chagrin among the Bukusu. The old schism between the two neighbours and cousin tribes deepened deeply.  

When the Bukusu saw the unity between Europeans and Nabongo was tightening, they started raiding caravans from the coast. The motivation was to get guns and also to cripple Mumias.

It is such that led to an altercation between Bukusus and Britain in 1895. By this time, the Bukusu had adopted the art of living in fortified villages. A fort is called Lukoba. They built centralised villages and surrounded them with thick mud walls. They farmed the land around such. When danger arrived, they rushed into the walls and defended themselves from there. 

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