How collapse of lakeside economy has left behind decaying towns

Nyambambo Trading Centre at the border between Nyamira and Homa Bay counties. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]
Old buildings that have clearly seen better days, crumbling graves and an abandoned jetty on Lake Victoria are the only signs that Asembo Bay was once a major economic hub in Nyanza.

Between the 1970s and 1980s, the town, also known as Kamito, was a household name.

Sitting on the shores of Lake Victoria in Asembo, Siaya County, the town bustled with fish, cotton and garment trade, most of it run by Indian traders.

It drew traders and visitors from as far as Gem, Ugenya, Alego and Seme. Today, it is a pale shadow of itself, having been brought down by the region’s economic downturn.

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The departure of Indian traders, who owned almost all beachfront shops in the town, drove the last nail on Asembo Bay’s coffin.

Today, the trading centre looks eerily deserted. Ghostly tombstones marking graves of long dead wealthy traders that drove its economy decades ago stand sentry on beaches that once throbbed with life.

Half of the buildings that gave the township its fame are gone, either vandalised or brought down by old age.

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Just to show how important the trading centre was, Kamito originated from an Indian businesswoman that locals used to call “Min Mitu,” Dholuo for Mitu’s Mother. But locals simply pronounced “Mitu” as “Mito” and so Kamito, or the place of Mito, came to being.

The exit of Indians

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Benson Milando, 68, is one of the traders still trying to eke a living from what is left of Asembo. He recalls the arrival of Mama Mitu, followed by other Indian traders such as Manji, Babu and Hussein.

“They came and settled here. They even built a temple about 100 metres from the beach,” he recounts.

According to Mr Milando, the beach was one of the most vibrant markets in the region between 1953 and 1989. Its piers were built by the Kenya Railways in 1960s to dock steamers.

Then suddenly, the town stopped growing and started withering away. Residents attribute the death of the town to the departure of the Indians, who left as a result of incessant theft.

Some of the theft, they said, was calculated to push the Indians out. “Some locals who were not happy with the Indians dominating businesses in the centre, and they decided to frustrate them,” says Milando.

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But Asembo is not the only such centre that fell.

A man walks past a temple that was built by Indian traders at Asembo Bay trading centre. [Isaiah Gwengi, Standard]
In the northern part of Siaya, the once vibrant Ukwala town, one of the oldest administrative centers in Western Kenya, is also withering away.

Like Asembo, Ukwala, in Ugenya Sub-county, was started by Indian traders who later relocated to Kisumu and other towns.

So vibrant was the town that in 1966, when Central Nyanza District that was headquartered in Kisumu was split, the seat of the new district named Siaya was moved to Ukwala due to its superior infrastructure.

Pioneer Siaya District Commissioner Isaiah Cheluget operated from Ukwala before the headquarters shifted to Siaya, 29-kilometres away.

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According to residents, the then Senior Chief Muganda Okwako demanded that the headquarters be moved, saying there was no land to expand it. He recommended that the headquarters be taken to Alego, Siaya, where his colleague, Senior Chief Amoth Owira, had more land.

The decision haunts Ukwala to date.

Today, the court built decades ago is still functional. So is a dispensary built in the 1960s, which has since become a sub-county hospital. But Ukwala town has been eclipsed by other centres. “Maybe Ukwala would be a different place today had the district headquarters remained and attracted more development,” says Ben Ochieng’, a resident.

In Rarieda, Madiany town witnessed rapid expansion in the 1980s. Today, little is heard about the town that hosted the headquarters of what is today Rarieda Sub-county.

Word has it that the headquarters was “temporarily” transferred to Aram market, 10 kilometres away, after a strong wind blew off the roof of the district commissioner’s office. It never returned.

Madiany is now a forgotten town, where livestock from nearby villages roam.

Residents recall with nostalgia the well-kept district headquarters, secured with wire fence. Senior citizens also say the small town once hosted a ginnery that was fed on cotton from Bondo and other parts of the county. But all is quiet now.

So low has Madiany sank that even administration police officers posted here feel forgotten. “Since almost all the services were transferred to Aram, the Government has forgotten to even build a latrine here. We use public toilets at the market centre,” an officer who requested anonymity said.

However, Rarieda Sub-county Luo Council of Elder chair James Ayaga refuted claims that the transfer of Rarieda Sub-county headquarters was politically instigated.

He said representatives from Asembo and Uyoma were called to a meeting before the decision to transfer the headquarters was made.

Miwani town in Kisumu county. (Denish Ochieng, Standard)
In Kisumu, the tale of Miwani town is tear-jerking. The once robust sugarcane growing town is a ghost metropolis - bartered, abandoned and forgotten.

The town started dying a slow death after its lifeline - Miwani Sugar Company - was put under receivership in 2000, and finally died a few years later.

With the death of Kenya’s oldest sugar mill, thousands of people lost their jobs and businesses that depended on cash flow from the factory closed down.

Even the road linking Kisumu to Chemelil through Miwani fell apart. It now has some of the biggest pot holes in Nyanza.

Public schools such as Miwani Primary School that catered mostly for children of factory workers were adversely affected. Even the commercial sex workers who eked a living from the workers, packed and left.

The township, which had an estimated population of 10,000 in late 1990s, is deserted.

During the night, the steady purring of Miwani’s engines kept hope alive. Since they fell silent, the town has remained as quiet as a graveyard, especially during the night.

The factory’s ghost stands forlornly about a kilometre from the main road, its compound overgrown with grass and the few remaining machinery rusting away. Around it, life has come to a standstill.

“Life was good here, but now the town is dead. It could not survive without the factory,” says James Ogol, a boda boda operator.

The motorbikes are the only form of public transport left operating on the ghostly streets after matatus, finding no passengers to carry, changed routes.

The death of Miwani town has worsened the biting poverty in the once rich sugar belt.

“Health and social facilities in the town that were managed by the company are all falling apart,” says Martha Onuko.

Still, Miwani remains the oldest commercial sugar farming zone in Kenya, having hosted the first sugar cane plantation in 1924.

With Miwani’s death, two new townships - Kibos and Mamboleo - have sprung up in the neighborhood. Ironically, their growth is spurred by Miwani Sugar’s private competitor, Kibos Sugar and Allied Industries.

Parts of the New Kendu Bay town. [James Omoro, Standard]
In Homa Bay County, the death of Old Kendu Bay town has left behind a long list of orphaned businesses. The centre started limping in the late 1990s after engineers tarmacking the Katito-Homa Bay road left it out in the plan. With the new road passing nearly a kilometre away, traders shifted to a new center - now called the New Kendu Bay.

The fate of Old town was sealed when the Kenya Railways Corporation also abandoned the Kendu Bay Pier where passenger ships docked from Kisumu.

The once busy Kendu Bay ginnery that gave the old town its business lifeline also died with the collapse of cotton farming.

The Old town sat along the shores of Lake Victoria and traces its origin to Arab traders who settles in the area in 1912. The Arabs were joined later by Indians.

Today, the Old town is dead. Buildings that lined the only street are rusting away. What used to be a cotton ginnery is an eyesore. No investor wants to put up any new business on this decayed mass of stone and cement.

According to Daniel Ogweno, a resident, Old Kendu Bay would have survived had the Kenya Railways continued with the passenger service steamers that docked there.

The cereals board effect

Things worsened when the National Cereals and Produce Board also stopped using its Kendu Bay depot in the old town. “After the NCPB depot closed, Old Kendu town closed with it,” says Christabel Auma.

In Nyamira, the one-time robust Nyambambo Trading Centre is also on its deathbed.

The centre sits along the Homa Bay-Nyamira border and brought two communities - the Kisii and the Luo- together for trade. 

The Kisii called it Nyambambo, while Luos named it Karota. The centre was once a vibrant economic hub, drawing traders from Kisii, Kisumu and Kericho. But not anymore.

Today, the jury is still out on what changed the town’s fortunes. However, many agree that the spectre of violence after the disputed 2007 presidential polls dealt the final blow on the town. “No fighting was witnessed in this area, but the fear of possible unrest made traders to shun this place,” says Daniel Omuga, 57, one of the residents.

More than 10 years later, fear still seems to haunt Nyambambo, stagnating its growth and slowly shrouding its importance.

[Isaiah Gwengi, James Omoro and Stanley Ongwae]

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EconomyNyanzaLakeside EconomyLake Victoria