How the bubonic plague affected Kisumu Port


A boat docked at Kisumu port on the shores of Lake Victoria in 1908. [File,Standard]

Even as it roars back to life again, Kisumu port has had its fair share of challenges, key among them being marginalisation of the region and collapse of East African Community in 1977.

But something else happened in Port Florence, as it was then called, in 1908.

Role of the port

Kisumu port was planned way back in 1901 when it was earmarked as the main inland terminal of the Kenya-Uganda Railway. The idea behind the port was that it would serve as a link between Kenya’s coastal town of Mombasa and Uganda, through Lake Victoria.

And true to this dream, seven years after the railway line reached Port Florence, it become a vibrant trading hub. With the railway line touching the shores of the lake, traders travelling in steamers and dhows could transport their goods to and from the interior with ease.

But every rose has its thorn. Adversity followed this success in trade following the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, leading to stringent containment measures that completely disrupted businesses. Movement of people in and around the bubbling port town was restricted as authorities moved to contain the plague.

A quarantine was thrown around the railway pier where it became mandatory for all dhows and steamers secured to the shore to have rat guards. The rat guards were to ward off rodents in a move aimed at preventing spread of the plague to the interiors.

Bubonic-infected zone

While declaring the entire town a bubonic-infected area, Provincial Commissioner John Ainsworth on August 18, 1908, further banned people from going to the railway pier.

Only a small number of porters were allowed at the pier on condition that they remained isolated. The porters were subjected to daily checkups and disinfection.

The health protocols left more dhows in deep waters, with crews being ordered to remain on board and not have contact with the infected area.

All stations along railway line between Kisumu and Kibigori were closed for bookings for African and Asian passengers.

Despite these early challenges, the Kisumu port has stood the test of time as it opens another new chapter of revival.

Not only does the port, a key component of the Northern Corridor, have potential to spur economic growth locally, it can strengthen shaky ties among East African Community members.

And now it is facing a rebirth following the revival of the railway and steamer services between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. This rebirth has however been plagued by Covid-19, another pandemic, which had at one time led to closure of boundaries. 

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