Recently when I posted a 1934 photo of Turkana tribesmen wielding guns, a number of readers reacted with disbelief, wondering how the community had modern firearms at that time.
Well, nearly forty years before 1934, members of the Bukusu community also bore firearms, which they actually used in combat, thanks to the Waswahili.
Between 1971 and 1972, a researcher, G. W. Mungeam, set out to interview survivors of a massacre against Bukusus. The interviews were conducted in Lubukusu and Kiswahili, and later translated for Mungeam by the interviewees’ kinsmen, including a grandson who was a Form 4 student at Kibabii Secondary School at the time.
The interviewees were two Bukusu elders - Mukisu Kakai and Sikala Mururumbu. The latter, while aged 91, died in August of 1971. But not before he gave an oral account of what he could remember about an incident that took place in 1895 at Lumboka in Western Kenya.
Mzee Sikala described how armed Swahili men (possibly a mixture of Arabs and locals from Mombasa) surrounded Lumboka in preparation for an attack against the Bukusu in 1895. The Waswahili were also joined on their side by levies from Nabongo Mumia’s community, the Bawanga.
Built by pioneer European visitors, Lumboka was a Fort of sorts. It was strengthened by ramparts made out of thick earthen, and had six-foot deep ditches built around it.
In spite of the fact that the Swahili were armed with rifles, the Bukusu rained spears on them, inflicting a huge death toll on the visitors.
The Swahili, according to Sikala, were part of an expedition of Germans – or Bachilimani as the Bukusu called them.
Shocked by the killings of their Swahili levies, the Germans paid Bukusuland a visit and engaged them. There was a heavy death toll on either side.
The Bukusu managed to inflict a heavy toll on the Bachilimani because they had, in exchange for cattle in many cases, acquired guns from deserting Swahili soldiers.
The headman of Lumboka at the time of the fighting, according to Sikala, was Wamurwa, Omulunda by clan, and his son, Wele, was leader of the warriors. Sikala also named other “headmen”, including Tengi, Omulunda by clan; Sirengo the son of Maika, Omulunda by clan; Maloba the son of Satia, Omubuya by clan; Kasembeli, the son of Muloa, Omulonja by clan, among others.
Mungeam quoted Sikala:
“According to my mother (who had relatives living at Lumboka at the time), the Swahili carried out a surprise attack on Lumboka and killed many inside the fort. My mother told me the attack began when a man had gone outside the fort and noticed a strange person crawling like an animal near the walls.
The man shouted. ‘There is someone by the gate! See he is running away!’
In this way the village was warned and the cry went out to prepare for battle. The people were very astonished that the enemy, whose presence in the area was known already, was upon them so suddenly.
‘It must be the enemy that we were warned was coming’, they said.
At the sound of the alarm Namisi (a white German commander), his Swahili leader and their men rose up from hiding near the fort walls and rushed the gates with guns,
The Bukusu retreated away from the fort entrance, where the enemy was greatest. The Bukusu warriors inside the fort held fast and maintained their position a short distance from the gate.
While the attention or the Swahili was preoccupied with entering the fort, some warriors slipped out of back gates, joined with neighboring Bukusu, and surrounded the enemy from the rear.
When the Swahili heard the noise of warriors behind them they attempted to escape but were encircled. This was at about eight o'clock in the morning.
The Swahili fought like the angry bull does when trapped and raised dust in every part of the fort. The Swahili managed to escape to Mukhweya, where they were attacked again by the Bukusu and were cut to pieces with spears and swords.
Two hundred Swahili are said to have been killed at the place called Mukhweya, which is that section of high ground to the southeast of where we are presently living.
It can be seen also from Kabula further south…..”, he told Mungeam.
This account given by Sikala in 1971 can be confirmed by records penned down by Charles Wiliam Hobley, the first British administrator in north and south Kavirondo.
This is what Hobley – the Abaluhya called him Opilo – wrote down in 1896:
“During the previous twelve months, the desertion of men with rifles had increased, and the Ketosh (Bukusu) chiefs had notably encouraged it, paying cattle for any rifle received. Mr. Spire (the officer in charge of the temporary colonial post at Mumia’s), with laudable intentions, had insisted on the surrender of the rifles as being government property, and considerable palaver had taken place but with little result. He then decided to try a demonstration of force and dispatched twenty-five Sudanese soldiers from the garrison of the station to the village of the Chief Majanja to demand the arms.
He, unfortunately, however underestimated the possibility of hostilities, and had only issued a very small allowance of ammunition to each man. As might have been expected under such circumstances, no European officer being present, a gun went off during the palaver with the chief. The Ketosh tribesmen then emerged from their villages like a swarm of infuriated bees and attacked the detachment of Sudanese. They (Sudanese) fought gallantly but were speared one by one and eventually annihilated....”
Hobley operated from Nabongo Mumia’s fort at Mumia’s. During the long rains season of 1895, he set out for Bukusuland on a punitive expedition "to subdue the tribe."
“Yes! It was Namisi the mzungu who attacked Lumboka before Opilo (Hobley) and Chilande (Grant) set out to destroy it and killed the people with guns”, Mungeam’s other interviewee, Mukisu, recalled.
Namisi was killed by a famous warrior, Wakoli, one of the many warriors that had bought guns from the Swahili. According to Mukisu, the Swahili had earlier made forays into Bukusuland to take the community’s guns by force but they did not succeed.
After Namisi was killed, Europeans – this time English - crossed to Sio River into Bukusuland. Thereafter, they fought the Bukusu at Lumboka and Chitambe.
It is these two punitive raids that I am terming the Bukusu massacre.
Mukisu further recalled that Bwana Opilo (Hobley) came from Esirirwa (as Kisumu was called) while Bwana Chilande, backed by Baganda troops, arrived from from Ejinja (Jinja) to fight the war. He then went on to describe what happened.
At about one o‘clock in the afternoon the attack on Lumboka began. Those in the village had shut themselves off. So the troops attacked the gate using their cannon. When the Ugandans caught sight of the cattle so open to them after the shelling they said ‘we are going to get them’.
Other Bukusu villages in the area also barricaded their gates. What could they do? They had no choice but to resist, the same as their neighbors were doing.
The people inside Lumboka expected to die, so they butchered a cow and roasted the meat to eat as a last meal.
What else could they do?”
He went on.
“At about one o'clock the gate was stormed but the troops were beaten for the first time. Finally the gates were broken and the Ugandans and troops poured into the fort. The Bukusu then hid behind houses and fired at the enemy. They used Namisi's guns.
Many of the captured guns, however, had been given away to the Maasai by this time, so the defense was weak.
Nevertheless many Ugandans and Swahili were killed as well as some Wanga.
The two sons of Maina of the Balwonja clan were killed inside the fort at this time. They were Wanga.
The fighting continued until sunset. Those who remained alive in Lumboka then ran away.
People escaped by climbing over the walls after dark and ran away when the enemy became tired and went to sleep. The Europeans also threatened to fight the people at Sibale fort (a neighboring village) but when the inhabitants resisted with firearms it was decided not to fight two villages on the same day.
Many Bukusu had been killed. Even those who were not involved in the fighting were killed. Men, women, and even girls were killed.
They were shot down. The number of dead at Lumboka cannot be compared, however, with those killed at Chetambe…..”, he offered.
Mzee Sikala Marurumbu told Mungeam that it took a day’s march for the British, who were backed by Teso, Bukhayo, and Wanga warriors, to reach Chetambe.
Having heard of news about the advancing punitive expedition, Mzee Sikala’s family left their village, Ngachi in Siritanya, and like everyone else escaped towards Chetambe, which was not far from Nabuyole Falls (what the colonial government called Broderick Falls).
It was not the wish of the Bukusu, noted Sikala, to continue fighting. As a peace gesture, Bukusu offered a large number of oxen to the Europeans in exchange for peace. But this offer was refused.
“We traveled as far as Mulukhu”, said Sikala, “but the wazungu kept following us”.
He went on.
“When the cocks crowed we crossed the swollen Kuywa and even cattle were swept away. At the time my father had only one cow, the only animal of his herd to survive the Lutumbi cattle epidemic (a contagious diarrhea disease that wiped out large herds of cattle in Nyanza in the 1880s. The disease rendered cattle dead within 48 hours). This animal gave us much trouble when we crossed the river and father asked me to help move a heavy log to be used to support the cow in the crossing. When I went to cross I was pushed by those behind and was nearly swept away.
I do not remember many of the names of those who were with us when we fled for the fort, but Muchemwile and Mboro, our neighbors were in our group, and the father of my neighbor Wekoka’s wife was with us. It was Mboro who, when the fighting at Chetambe became serious, covered his stomach with the small intestines of someone who had died, and pretended he was dead……”
Sikala also reported that there were more drowning incidents on the River Nzoia.
“On their way south, many (of an escaping group) drowned when a rope bridge they were using to cross the river Nzoia gave way. People had been struggling to cross and the weight of overcrowding caused the ropes to snap.
Mother was just about to climb the bridge when the accident happened, so she survived. If she had died, Khapele, my youngest brother, would not have been born.
One woman saw her mother being swept away in the Nzoia after the bridge broke and ordered her husband to get hold of the old woman or else she would no longer be his wife”.
Sikala could not recall if this old woman was saved. But many people were swept away.
“Many of the women with us hid in the thick bush along Kuywa River rather than risk drowning in the flood waters. Those who were found were captured and taken to Mumia’s……”
On the fourth day when the cocks crowed, Sikala recalled, the British approached Chetambe and the war started. Sikala’s brother-in-law raised his head above the fort wall to see how close the enemy was but got shot and fell bark into the fort.
There was a last ditch effort by villagers to release oxen including “highly coveted Ankole cattle” as Sikala described them. Even ivory tusks were put outside the fort in the hope the Europeans would be appeased but, again, the invading force would have none of that.
Then a small boy, Sikala was together with other young children taken to the rearmost part of the fort. He recalled older men and even the aging throwing spears, sometimes blindly, towards positions of the invading force.
Recollections by Dr. William Ansorge, the British medical officer for Uganda, give us a glimpse of how things looked like from outside of the fort.
“When the main body arrived”, he wrote, “it was drawn up in a segment of a circle of about 200 yards range, and we opened fire on one of the Gates with a small Hotchkiss gun. This had no great effect on the stout logs which barred it, so we shelled the huts....Firing the rifles did not inflict any material damage on an enemy crouching behind the protection of the earth-wall, our leader tried the Hotchkiss; but the missiles simply passed clean through without shattering the earthen rampart. He then brought the Maxim gun into position. Handling the weapon himself, he cut down the upper half of the wall near one entrance….”
From the inside, Sikala “found bananas and a roasted chicken inside the house where I took shelter, and began to eat. Suddenly the loud firing of the big gun (Hotchkiss and Maxim) guns] began….”
He immediately stopped chewing and listened. Then, as he described the moments that followed, “the bullets of the big gun fell like rain from heaven and house roofs caught fire…….men died like insects being sprayed with insecticide. People died, hens died, cows, and everything died….”
Amid the gunfire, his father came to check on him and exclaimed “Oh! We cannot help ourselves we will all be killed, Everything is dying, even the chickens and cattle. Some women have even had their breasts shot off!”
At that instance, he then dashed to a different position within the fort but was felled by a bullet.
People ran in all directions and a large number of huts in the vicinity were on fire.
“As I stood watching, this Bukusu warrior with his shield came near me panting but was suddenly shot dead beside me. I saw this and prayed for my own life”, said Sikala.
The victorious Europeans then managed to enter the fort, aiming their rifles at fleeing Bukusus.
Sikala described how one frightened European hid behind a granary amidst the fighting and was then speared to death by a Bukusu warrior whose left arm was burned. Just then, the warrior was also shot dead.
To give readers a different perspective of how the fort may have fallen, this is what Hobley wrote:
“Grant (Chilande) then adopted another plan, leaving a large force of Baganda to threaten a second attack on the original gate, he moved the Sudanese Company round to another gate some ninety degrees away in the periphery of the wall. We then cut down a section of mud wall by Maxim fire and advanced to the attack. The defense then concentrated on this sector; the Spears came over like rain and the Sudanese were held up by the ditch. The Baganda were then ordered to renew their attack at the original gate, and eventually the village was taken and burnt, the survivors streaming out by still another gate….”
When the fighting ended, there were so many people who had been killed that according to Sikala, “you could not walk without stepping on bodies”.
In concluding, I do not think there are any official records of how many people were killed at both Lumboka and Chetambe. However, in 2011, the Daily Nation, quoting one Mzee Nelson Kakai, reported that more than 450 Bukusu fighters were killed and 300 captured.
The newspaper also reported that former Cabinet Minister the late Jeremiah Nyagah once visited Chetambe and planted a commemorative tree.
Maybe the Bungoma County government, if not the National Museums of Kenya, will see it befitting to put up a commemorative monument for posterity.