A majority of residents of Bungoma belong to the Bukusu nationality group. They are friendly farming people who have lived in the area south of Mt. Elgon for many hundred years. Living only a few miles north of the equator on the East African plateau (at 4-5000 ft above sealevel), they have a good annual rainfall. Early in the century they lived on millet, cassava and small livestock, but now raise mostly maize, beans and cabbage for food and grow sugarcane for cash - plus the typical livestock of peasant farmers: cattle, goats and chickens.
The Bukusu strongly resisted British incursions into their territory in the 1890s. In 1895, they fought the British from a stronghold near Bungoma on the lower slopes of Mt Elgon called `Chetambe's Fort'. But the British had an early machine gun called a Hotchkiss gun and massacred over a hundred Bukusu warriors in the stronghold armed only with spears and hide shields. Again in the 1940s and 1950s the Bukusu resisted the British under the leadership of Elija Masinde, a religious leader and prophet who demanded return of their lands. During the MauMau rebellion (centered in the Kikuyu areas of Kenya to the east and south of here through most of the 1950s) Masinde was imprisoned, but was released to his home area at independence in 1963.
Despite the resistance, the British completed their railway from Mombasa on the Kenya coast to Kampala, Uganda on the north shore of Lake Victoria in the 1920s. Bungoma was established as the last supply stop on the Kenya portion of the line and it grew to be a district administrative center. At the time of Kenya's independence in 1963, it was still a very small town with only a few dozen shops, 20-30 homes for British colonial officers and a thriving weekly market for local farmers.
As the population of the area has soared since the 1960s (with one of the highest birth rates recorded), Bungoma grew rapidly into a major town of about 60 thousand residents. It houses many schools and churches and a major sugar factory to process the locally grown sugarcane. There are Boy Scout Troops, Girl Scouts, a `4K Club' (analogous to the American 4H Club) and a number of football (that is, soccer) teams. A few miles out of town is one of Kenya's largest paper mills at Webuye Falls on the slopes of Mt. Elgon.
Due in part to Bungoma's very rapid growth, the town does not have good public services. An aggravating problem may be that the Bukusu have been lukewarm supporters of Kenya's dominant political party, KANU (the Kenya African National Union) - the party founded by the `Father of the Nation', Jomo Kenyatta, and now headed by President Daniel arap Moi (who happens to be a member of a tribe competitive with the Bukusu). For a decade now KANU has been the only legal political party. For whatever reason, Bungoma lags well behind other Kenyan towns of similar size in the availability of public services. For hospital treatment or library access, citizens must travel to Eldoret to the east or to Kisumu in the south.
In the past decade, AIDS has become a major problem for families. Although the incidence of AIDS in the district is not known, in Kenya as a whole, at least 15% of the population is HIV positive. And the Government of Kenya is shy about public health approaches to AIDS prevention.
Although the Bungoma area no longer has much big game (beyond a small population of leopards and elephants and a large population of monkeys on the mountain), there is a growing amount of tourism in this area of Kenya as travelers come to hike in the Mt. Elgon National Forest. This long dormant volcano has an impressive crater (shared partly with Uganda). Reaching the rim is a hike - but not a climb - through a dense and beautiful forest of polycarpus and bamboo.
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