The Lumboka-Chetambe wars 124 years on and the lessons we should learn

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A clear view of Webuye from the famous Chetambe hill. (Photo/courtesy
A clear view of Webuye from the famous Chetambe hill. (Photo/courtesy

The year was 1895-some 124 years ago-during the long rains season between March and May, C. W. Hobley the then officer in Charge of the British Colonial administration at Nabongo Mumia’s Fort in the then named North Nyanza together with another British Colonial administrator William Grant of Busoga in present Uganda led a mission to subdue the Bukusu tribe who lived and still live in the hilly grasslands between the Nzoia River and the Southern slopes of Mount Elgon in Western Kenya.

The expedition was mounted after the Bukusu had annihilated a force of armed Sudanese soldiers from the Colonial post at Mumias and to compel the surrender of rifles left among the Bukusu by Swahili soldiers of the colonial outpost at Mumias and those decimated.

C. W. Hobely and William Grant commanded a company of Sudanese troops and armed Baganda estimated at about 1000 and Chief Mumia asked to be allowed to attach a column of spearmen and Uasin Gishu Masai also volunteered to provide a contingent of hundreds of warriors. The British contingent fought the Bukusu at Lumboka Fort then situated at present day Mateka in Bumula Constituency. After a fierce battle in Lumboka and where the Bukusu were overwhelmed the surviving warriors escaped and headed towards the Webuye Hill where they entered the Chetambe Fort where the Tachoni lived. The Tachoni abandoned Chetambe Fort as the Bukusu took position. The Chetambe Fort was larger and on a raised location.

The British expedition force arrived at Chetambe hot on the heels of the Bukusu and C. W. Hobleys account of the encounters with the Bukusu warriors at Chetambe is recorded as follows:

We all had some very narrow escapes from warriors who charged up with spear and shield well nigh to the rifle’s muzzle… I have a particularly vivid recollection of a warrior who charged down on Sitwell and myself. A volley from a detachment of Sudanese failed to check his rush and he only ended his career at our feet, checked by a lucky shot from Sitwell’s revolver

And C. W. Hobley records the final battle at Chetambe as follows;

“A storming party of Baganda was organized supported by a half company of Sudanese, the nearest gate was shelled and a section of the mud was on each side of the gate was undercut by machine-gun fire, until it collapsed. An advance was then ordered. The Baganda and Sudanese stormed the breach with great dash, but once amongst the crowded huts the  advantage of their firewas lost, and the Ketosh with great gallantry counter attacked and our force experienced considerable loss, two Sudanese officers being killed, and about half  the rank and file either killed or wounded, and the survivors driven out of the village. The situation was then critical, so Grant, Sitwell, and I took the balance of the Sudanese and, instead of advancing into the middle of the village, fought our way along  the inside of the wall, opening fresh gates as they were reached. As each gate was opened, contingents of our force poured in, and eventually the resistance was overpowered”

With the British colonial administrators having overpowered the last frontier of resistance by the Bukusu they naturally took prisoners and the most visible symbol of wealth, the cattle of the conquered community.

As the people of Bungoma County mark 124 years since the Lumboka and Chetambe wars it is unfortunate that the battlefield of those famous wars of resistance to colonialism, imperialism, subjugation of the African remain anonymous and literally fading and with no monuments to remember, commemorate, honour the gallant warrior and innocent men and women and children who perished in the Lumboka-Chetambe wars. So if we can’t put pride of palace to our proud heritage of being prepared to shed blood to safeguard our freedom, independence as our forefathers did years ago how can we conquer our future.

And the question here is where is the documented history of these wars, the ramifications, their costs. Who will seek reparations for the community? Who will seek the appeasement for those who died and an apology from the aggressors, the United Kingdom? And what is it that made us lose that war? If the war was to be fought again today will we win and if not, why? What have we learned, mastered for 124 years that ought to make us better? The future of our region must be constructed with those questions that we ought to be striving to a position where if today Lumboka–Chetambe wars were repeated we ought to win them.

It was the white man’s gun that had the decisive advantage? What have we invented to surmount that disadvantage we had in 1895? Unfortunately nothing. We must ask why, why, why? Time has come to put the history of Lumboka-Chetambe wars in its proper perspective and give the heroes who were at the heart of the battle pride of place, honour, dignity and to serve as an inspiration for the wars that now threaten to overwhelm us of ignorance, disease, poverty and new imperialism in disguise from diverse quarters.

So what other momentous historical events of the other 18 Luhya sub-tribes remain uncelebrated, uarchived, unhonoured, undocumented. Who will restore the forgotten heritage that defines who we are as a community in our sojourn in Western Kenya?