Heritage of the Bukusu Forts – 6 Facts to Know the Bukusu or Babukusu are the largest of the 17 houses sub-tribes of the Luhya are today found largely in Western Kenya and Eastern Uganda. Learn all about Bukusu origin, ancestry, clans, traditions and culture.

Commonly referred as the Bukusu, the name Babukusu was given to the community by other communities who met the Bukusu. During the ancient, at the markets where barter trade between communities took place, the Babukusu were known for their habit of inquiring about bukusi (price) of the goods. As a result, they earned the nickname babandu be bukusi (the “price people”).

To date, there is so much to learn about the Bukusu. The modern Bukusu is a quite elaborate cultural heritage that lies deeply entrenched in the fortified monuments that spread all over the Bukusu lands. Unfortunately, these sites, which were once abuzz with ancestral activities, now remain untraceable, faded from the face of the earth and Kenya’s history. These forts, locally known as chingoba in the local dialect, also protected the people from adversaries for they were extremely fortified. For instance, oral tradition has it that it took dozens of skilled warriors about four days to breach the Fort of Chetambe!

Whereas Lumboka and Chetambe were the hallmark of Euro-Bukusu clashes that happened towards the end of the 19th century, history traces occupation of fortified villages back into time when Babukusu migrated together as bands of clans. It is said that they would build strong walls around their villages as a safety measure to keep out their enemies like Bakwabi (Maasai), Barwa Balaku, Bakinisu, Bakisila, Bakamulyungu and Bakoloyonjo (Kalenjin raiders) as well as notorious Bamia Bapala, Bakhumana and Bamatola (the Iteso).

Babukusu, traditionally referred to as the Thigh of the Elephant, have always prospered in as a united people. Forts were regarded as an epitome of cohesion and coexistence, which supported communal living. Life flourished when resources were pulled together such as communal herding of cattle and livestock in outer pastures (chikewa) and returning them to sleep in safety of the forts by the evening. 

Inter-clan ties between forts also allowed for intermarriages. Intertribal barter trade, and other forms of trading, involving livestock, weapons, grains, and buffalo hides, among others, also occurred in these forts. There was a warmth of life within forts with social and political interests well adhered to.

Notably, these chingoba were quite vast. A typical fort was led by a headman, and had a population of about several hundred people. Within the forts, it was common to have specific clan/clusters (chibololi) concentrated in different sections of the fort, like Bayemba in Westerly direction and Babuulo in the North etc. 

On their size, large forts such as Mayeku Fort in Mabanga had a diameter of about 120 meters. They also had ditches around the fort, and for instance, the Fort of Muliro (Omukokho) along Kimilili-Lugulu road suggest a diameter of approximately 250 meters. Smaller forts such as Wachana (in Kibabii), Namawanga (in Myanga) and Kulumbana (eNambuyusi) had smaller diameters, ranging from 50m to 80m. Permanent walls of stone and murram ran along these oval/circular forts measuring about 0.25 m to 1.5m in thickness and up to 3m in height. 

Outside of these walls, dry ditches were dug up to 4 meters wide with a depth of not less than 2.5 meters to keep enemies at bay. These big stone enclosures has a single entrance with a warrior’s barracks at the mouth for swift response in case of an attack. Lastly, there were small holes (biibili) in the walls to shot arrows and track the movement of the enemy. Often times, beehives hang on the inner wall, ready to be poured outward to any enemy that seemed to breach the fort.

The following are some of the fort sites, as traced by Bukusu anthropologists in the last century;

  1. Kibabii -Mayanja Fort Sites

Namawanga fort, about 2 km North of Kibabii Mission overlooking Namawanga River as it feeds into Khalaba. This oval fort with a dyke around it. Two headmen, Wachana and Nabutola, headed this fort.

  • Kalaba Fort- 85 meters in diameter, a section of the wall still preserved in the North Estern section of the fort.
  • Nabutola II Fort- (this second fort about 70 meters in diameter) located 1.5 km from Myanga.
  1. Bokoli-Kimilili Forts

Songai, Masaakha and Makheti Forts headed by Nambu (Omukwangwa)

  • Lukamula Fort headed by Wanambuko Omusamba
  • Kabachanga Fort (Barefu), Wambaloba (Babuuya) and Nato Forts headed by Sipeto Omukembe
  • Kitayi Fort (coffee factory occupying northern section)- completely destroyed by Bakwabi (Maasai morans)
  • Temba Fort (Baliuli) & Muliro Fort (near Misikhu Primary Sch., occupied by Bakokho)
  • Nalondo and Siuna Forts.
  1. Bungoma/ Mabanga Fort Sites
  • Wayong’o and Wanyongo-Nadende Forts, North of Mabanga Agricultural School
  • Lukala Fort- This is a large fort 200 meters near Lwanda Primary school the eastern section of the fort lies the school compound.
  • Mayeku Fort in Mabanga
  • Nambuyusi Fort headed by Wayong’o.
  • Chetambe Fort led by Chetambe (Omuyumbu)
  • The fort of Lumboka – where Mukisu Wakoli, led a ferocious resistance against the British led by Sir Fredrick Jackson. Nabwana would later in 1959 be awarded  Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the queen for an outstanding political career.
  1. Kuywa-Lukhome Forts
  • Kilui and Mamisi forts (Babasaba), Bukekhe (Basonge), and Wangili forts (headed by Siranjofu Omulunda)
  • Sirengo and Masungo forts belonging to Batukwiika.
  1. Kimalewa-Teremi Forts
  • Mukhono & Khafwafwa Forts (Bameme)
  • Kapchanga & Wanasi forts (Barefu)
  • Munyole (Bakwangwa), Chambuni (Bamalicha &Barefu), Kasile (Babuuya) and Kulabusia forts (Bakibeti)
  • Sikuche forts headed by Namwikholo Omukhoone.

6 Other Forts

  • Wangusi and Bokoli forts (in present day Bokoli)
  • Wekhobale, Babuya and Walusaka Forts

Please note that these forts existed before 1900 and names of some of these places have changed or lost in memory. Importantly, forts were cherished social spaces that protected people and supported communal living. In places where most of them stood, there are cultivated land that would only need archeological digging to reveal them. On the other hand, names of places like Lumboka, Nalondo and Namawanga were inspired by the presence of these forts.

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