Not even lake waters could calm battlefield at Karungu

Scenes of white birds hovering over the shores of the lake, occasionally scooping liberal helpings of omena from the drying fishnets are quite common. This picture of serenity is completed by teams of snorting piglets foraging for discarded omena by the shores, while a swarm of satiated birds perched on stationary boats, gently rock in the waves.

Although Karungu is currently a perfect picture of serenity, peace has been elusive in this area from the day the prophet who had magical powers foresaw the coming of traders.

True to saying, a prophet rarely finds favour among his kinsmen. When the magician who also doubled as healer and medicine man divined about baby-like creatures that wielded sticks with fire, his message was shunned.

Baby-like creatures

When the famed magician, Okumu Ogada, popularly known as Okumu Gor or simply Gor Mahia saw a vision of baby-like creatures, who were ravenous like locusts, he traveled to Karungu.

His intention was to warn the braves of Karungu, who were reputed to have conquered all their enemies not to attempt to confront the enemy alone for they would be annihilated.

He pleaded with the locals: “You the descendants of Chwanya, listen. A swarm of baby-like creatures is advancing on us. Other people have fought them and have been utterly destroyed.”

 Adrian Onyando captures the historic meeting between Gor Mahia and the people of Karungu, in his book, The Epic of Gor Mahia, where he retells how the magician’s counsel was dismissed as signs of cowardice.

Having fought and won many epic battles, the people of Karungu declared that they were well equipped to deal with any adversary and their shields strong enough to stop Nyametho, the comet that smoked a pipe and resided in the skies. Their leader, Ougo Ratego, trembled in indignation at the suggestion that he was supposed to tell his warriors to sit back and welcome the baby-like creatures, simply because they had sticks with fire.

“This is no land of cowards. This is no land of peace. We are not going to yield to a swarm of babies or plagues or diseases! We have tamed more weird creatures. If the babies come, we will rock them to sleep, with spears if need be,” Ougo thundered.

When the much-talked-about baby-like creatures finally arrived near Karungu, predictably from Wanga kingdom where Nabongo Mumia reigned supreme, the local people were ready. Apparently Gor could not wait for them to arrive in Kanyamwa for he secretly sneaked to Wanga where he spied on the white people and their strange ways.

Predictably, when Charles Hobley, the administrator who would later dominate Nyanza like plague arrived in Nyanza, he was directed to Gor, the famed medicine man and magician.

Back at Karungu, when word reached that the baby-like creatures had finally arrived as Gor had prophesied, warriors went to work, sharpening their spears as they made tougher shields in operation for the battle ahead.

At Gor’s home in Sigama, Hobley was dismayed by the welcome he received and penned his bewilderment in his diary. “I, Charles Hobley have traversed this continent but nowhere have I seen this. Don’t wild animals attack when you invade their territories?”

 But the trouble Hobley and his men were anticipating – some of them African soldiers from Sudan and Uganda – were not long in coming.

While he hosted the white men in Kanyamwa, Gor sent emissaries to Karungu, warning that these men were wielding sticks that had fire.

This meant instant death, as they could not be stopped by the strongest of shields. Ougo directed his followers to start making tougher shields from the kang’o tree, determined to stop whatever fire the white baby-like men brought to him.

When Ougo’s and Hobley’s men finally met at Karungu, it was a mismatched battle; for when the first shot was fired the entire place was on fire as every warrior who stood in its path was consumed. “The spears could not match the guns and the wooden shields could not block the bullets. Not even the waters of Lake Victoria could extinguish the fire, as the Karungu fighters were annihilated,” Onyando explains.

And as hundreds of fighters fell, Karungu’s commander shouted, “To the lake brothers! To the lake!” as the men fled, jumping into the water where they either drowned or were mowed down by the bullets. Ougo too was shot dead as he desperately tried to fight the intruders, as his men navigated the Lake Victoria waters using his wooden shield in vain.

When the guns fell silent, Karungu was in ruins and the remaining warriors conceded defeat, giving Hobley and his countrymen time to establish law, order and civilisation.

Although Karungu lost the war before it had really begun, theirs was not the last of the battles that would be experienced. For, in less than 20 years, the beaches were transformed into a major theatre of international conflict.

Fight to control beach

When the First World War was declared in August 1914, the residents of Karungu watched in dismay as the white men slaughtered each other as each tried to control the beach.

Karungu was invaded by the German forces from nearby Tanganyika (now Tanzania) on August 23, 1914, as they prepared to attack British interests in East Africa.

 At the time, Kenya and Uganda were under the “protection” of the East Africa Protectorate administered directly from London by the colonial office, while Tanzania was under the Germans.

As soon as word of the impending attack of Kenya by the Germans from Uganda spread, there was panic in all the areas near Lake Victoria. In Kisii, the whites in the area abandoned their offices and homes as they fled to Homa Bay through Karungu on their way to Kisumu where they were all supposed to assemble for easier protection by their Government.

One boat was kept at Kendu Bay and another at Homa Bay to assist the Government to hastily evacuate the whites in Kisii, which was on more than one occasion occupied by the Germans in the course of the First World War.

At Karungu, there was excitement on September 9, 1914, when the German troops landed on their way to Kisii. The residents gleefully watched as their tormentors scampered to Kisumu for safety.

The following day on September 10, an estimated 300 Baganda porters accompanied by two companies of Kenya African Rifles were dispatched from Kisumu through Kendu Bay to Kisii to battle with the Germans.

It was a spectacle to behold as all whites who had fled from Kisii joined the troops as they returned on road and some on bicycles, on September 11, leading to a major battle between the two world powers.

Two days later, the British troops were routed out of Kisii and had to retreat to Kendu Bay, while others cowed at Awach although they all later regrouped the following day and recaptured Kisii.

Echoes of the fierce battles between German and British troops reverberated in Karungu, which was at times used as the launching ground for the attacks.

Feeding the nation

At one point a Catholic priest, Father Stam, who had made a reputation in Kisii for indiscriminately administering the last sacrament to dying German and British troops was the commander of Karungu.

At the time, three steamers dispatched from Kisumu had passed through Karungu in pursuit of Germans. Father Stam was at one point left in charge of the station assisted by 24 askaris and two soldiers, although he was relieved of his duties later when real soldiers were available to command Karungu.

Ninety years later, memories of Ougo’s resistance to the British occupation in Karungu have faded because all the witnesses are long gone.

Few residents can recall Gor’s visit to Karungu and his advise to its brave warriors not to confront the sticks with fire.

Gone too are the ineffective cowhide shields and the spears that were melted by Hobley’s guns.

There are no war relics or museums in Karungu to remind the locals of how their town was once turned into a battlefield by British and German troops.

The name and the town have however remained intact. The provincial administration has strategically located its headquarters at the backwaters of Lake Victoria, perhaps to ward off any invasion by foreign aggressors.

With the senseless killings long forgotten, the men of Karungu carry on just as their forefathers had done for centuries, fishing in Lake Victoria and feeding the nation.

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