The shores of Lake Victoria hug Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, Africa. It stands as the world’s largest tropical lake and the world’s second largest freshwater lake. Its immense waters are known in Africa as Victoria Nyanza. From north to south, Lake Victoria stretches 210 miles or 337 kilometers, and it is 150 miles or 240 miles wide. Its shoreline is 2,000 miles or 3,220 kilometers long.
Researchers believe that Lake Victoria formed over 400,000 years ago. Lake Victoria is home to numerous animals including the hippopotamus, sitatunga, bohor reedbuck, African clawless otter, marsh mongoose, cane rats, giant otter shrew, defassa waterbuck, spotted-necked otter, Nile crocodiles, helmeted turtles, and mud turtles. In the past, over 500 species of fish swam in Lake Victoria, but that population has reduced by 50% to 80% depending on which information you source.
The Kagera and Katonga Rivers flow into Lake Victoria on its western side, and its only outflow is the Victoria Nile. A myriad of smaller streams also feed the lake. Escarpments of 300 feet back its western coast making papyrus and ambatch swamps. The northern coast is flat and bare. Numerous islands rise from the lake’s bed. One of them is the Ndere Island National Park in Kenya, and Ukerewe is the largest island with 650-foot hills and villages.
The Serengeti, Akagera, Lake Mburu, Mount Elgon, Ndere Island, Rubondo Island, and Ruma National Parks, the Biharamulo, Burigi, Icorongo, Kigosi, Kimisi, Maasai Mara, Maswa, Mowogosi, Rumanyika Orugundu Game Preserves, and a few small national forests wrap around Lake Victoria. Kampala, Uganda, the biggest city at the lake, lies on its northern shore, and about two dozen villages dot the shorelines.
Lake Victoria’s Health
Unfortunately, Lake Victoria has experienced so many issues that have affected its health. Most of the native fish species are extinct, and today, the cichlid fish species are most of the fish in Lake Victoria. Forty million people live in the Lake Victoria basin. Environmental issues include the deforestation of natural vegetation on its shores, a thriving fish-export industry, and the introduction of several exotic plant and animal species that have proved harmful to native species.
Other challenges facing Lake Victoria are pollution, biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, and soil erosion. The rivers flowing into the lake and the streams carry more and more silt into the lake recently. The Uganda Game and Fisheries Department (UGFD) introduced Nile perch in Lake Victoria in the 1950s, which are responsible for the native fish extinction, and the damage is irreversible.
The Tanzanian government planned a highway through the Serengeti National Park to connect isolated parts of Lake Victoria to the Kilimanjaro region. It wanted to improve economic development and create new markets. UNESCO, national, and international conservationists staged a 30-year protest, and the Tanzanian government finally agreed not to build a highway through the park in 2011, which would disturb important animal migration routes.
In the early 2000s, the World Bank established the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Program (LVEMP) in partnership with the East African Community (EAC) Republics of Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. The LVEMP and EAC work on the environmental issues of the Lake Victoria Basin on a long-term basis and help to improve the welfare of millions of people that depend on the lake for its economic resources.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) works with school children, teachers and village leaders with environmental education programs in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. The WWF is teaching environmental management and conservation at Lake Victoria and the regions surrounding it. These programs train stakeholders from the Musoma and Tarime Districts. The stakeholders also include teacher trainers, leaders from environmental committees, and local village leaders.
Lake Victoria History
When English explorer John Hanning Speke was on an expedition to discover the source of the Nile River, he found Lake Victoria on August 3, 1858. Speke headed three African expeditions and two of them with another experienced explorer, Richard Burton. Both were officers in the Indian Army. In 1858, the lake had a pristine shoreline with small shallow bays, inlets, and wetlands.
Speke named the vast water body Lake Victoria after his Queen Victoria. Burton and Speke set out in 1854 to on a journey from the port in Aden, Yemen, to Somalia, and then they traveled further south into East Africa. They parted ways for some of that expedition. Speke trekked south of Bunder Gori, Somalia, twice, and Burton went north to the “forbidden city” of Harar in Ethiopia in 1855.
Speke faced death from wounds during an 1855 Somali attack on the British camp near Berbera, Somalia. He recovered and fled to back to Aden with Burton. The British military briefly deployed Speke to a Turkish regiment in the Crimean War and then returned to Africa to join Burton’s expedition. They started out in Zanzibar (present-day Tanzania) in June 1857 and found Lake Tanganyika in February 1858.
Both mean contracted malaria, and when Speke recovered, he traveled north without Burton and discovered the southern shores of today’s Lake Victoria. Speke published his account, What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, based on his African expedition journals in a series in Blackwood’s Magazine and later in a two-part book, Journal of a Cruise on the Tanganyika Lake.
The African people called the lake Ukerewe and Nalubaale then and still do today. Lake Victoria ferries began operating in 1900. During East Africa’s British Colonial Era, the first steamboat left the Kisumu Port on a northeastern Bay on Lake Victoria. The major ports on the lake are Entebbe, Jinja, and Port Bell in Uganda, Mwanza, Bukoba, and Musoma in Tanzania, and Kisumu in Kenya.
Lake Victoria Ferry and Vessel Operations
Lake Victoria ferries transport goods, freight, and passengers between Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, plus Lake Victoria’s islands, today. In the 20th century, the ferries were international transport, and they traveled clockwise or counterclockwise for most of the 1900s. Today, the ferries primarily transport goods, vehicles, and passengers between the three countries. Other are ferries carry roll-on/roll-off for vehicles, dedicated train ships, passenger catamarans, and freight ships.
The most vital port is Mwanza. It has superior infrastructure and road and rail connection to the Indian Ocean with its important ferry systems. Although Kisumu, Port Bell, and Mwanza all have ferry repair dry docks, only Mwanza’s ferry repair dry docks are used regularly. A big slice of Lake Victoria’s industry is located in Mwanza. This makes Lake Victoria heavily trafficked.
German and United Kingdom companies designed and built most of the ferries in the 1900s. Then those countries dismantled the ferries into untold numbers of parts and reassembled them at Lake Victoria. Today, Tanzanian companies with floating dry jetties and dockyards at a Mwanza wharf construct the boats on Lake Victoria. Lake Victoria’s maritime history has vessels with interesting functions, and many wrecks occurred.
In 1912, the Bow, McLachlan & Company built the SS Kavirondo, a tugboat, and launched it in Kisumu in 1913. The SS Kavirondo served as a gunboat in WWI. She became an accommodation ship later and was suspended in 1984 in Kisumu. Accommodation ships serve as barracks for military personnel and civilians. She sank much later and was raised in 2005. She has new owners today and is a barge.
The British commissioned the RMS Victoria in 1959, and Queen Elizabeth II gave her the title of the Royal Mail Ship. Kenya received its independence from the United Kingdom in 1963, and Kenya renamed her as the Motor Vessel (MV) Victoria then. Some significant accidents on Lake Victoria have had devastating results. The MV Bukoba ferry sank in Lake Victoria In May 1996. At least 1,000 people lost their lives.
In May 1996, MV Bukoba carried way more passengers than was its capacity of 430 passengers. She capsized off the coast of Mwanza and 894 people drowned. The Dynamic Cotton Ginnery of Mwanza, Tanzania’s cargo and passenger Motor Vessel Nyamageni carried 40 commuters on April 2006. She sank, and 28 people drowned.
Another overcrowded vessel, the MV Nyerere, sank between the Ukara Island and the Ukerewe Island, which killed 228 passengers. Even though 41 people survived, 32 of them suffered from serious injuries. The MV Victoria caught on fire from what was thought to be welders working in a lower deck cabin in February 2013. The Surface and Marine Transport Regulatory Authority, SUMATRA, severely criticized its management.
Lake Victoria Culture
The earliest fossil evidence from East Africa in the Lake Victoria region shows that the earliest known specimens of Homo sapiens date back 195,000 years. Lake Victoria is known by some inhabitants as Ukerewe Lake. The human culture that developed around it is called Urewe. The Urewe culture spread on the islands in Lake Victoria and around it in the Kagera Region of Tanzania, the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, east to the Nyanza and Western provinces of Kenya, and north into Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
Archeological sites from Urewe culture go back to the Early African Iron Age during the 5th century BC to the 6th century AD. Local people associate the Early Iron Age pots and smelting furnaces discovered with royalty. Researchers believe the Urewe culture developed from the Bantu people in Cameroon of West Central Africa and their language is from an eastern subfamily of the Bantu languages.
From Mbita Point, tourists board a 40-minute ferry out to Mfangano Island to explore the geometric rock art paintings there possibly created by Twa hunter-gatherers between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago. The local Suba conducted rainmaking rituals at the Mawanga cave on this island until the 1980s.
Inhabitants from the Nandi, Kalenjin, Kisii, Maasai, Luo, and Luhya communities met in Kisumu, Kenya, as a trading and bartering hub. They named it Sumo, which means “a place of barter or trade”. These communities used variations of the name Kisumu. The Luo named it Kisumo, which means “a place to look for food”. The Abagusii named it Egesumu, meaning “a structure for keeping/raising chicken”.
Professor Koen Stroeken of Ghent University in Belgium of the Department of Languages and Cultures conducted 20 years of research in northern Tanzania, beginning in 2001. An absence of pigmentation in the skin, hair, and eyes is Albinism, a congenital disorder. Some Sukuma speaking communities believe magical properties of people with Albinism are evil, and they have murdered people with this disorder.
The Sukuma practice bride wealth, where the groom of a bride must give cattle to the family of his bride. The Sukuma have sophisticated purification treatments for premature babies, twins, and their parents. They call the babies nsebu, which means heat and implied danger. They put these families through rituals which gives them the status of mhola, which implies fertility, peace, and good rains.
The Buganda Kingdom in Uganda holds a large and influential culture. Lake Victoria is called Nalubale there. This word is a reference to the spirits and ancestors who they believe live in the lake water. Their ancestors constructed shrines that honor the spirits on the islands and you can find these people performing rituals along the water’s edge. As we can see, from the few of these cultures, that cultures are numerous and diverse at Lake Victoria.
Tourism at Lake Victoria
Two of the most popular attractions in the Lake Victoria Basin are the Rubondo Island National Park, the largest island park in Africa, and the Ssese Islands, an archipelago of 84 islands. Agritourism is alive and local agribusinesses include bananas, beans, coffee, maize, peanuts, soybeans, and tea farming on a commercial level or as a home subsistence need. Ranching includes cattle, chickens, goats, pigs and sheep, plus fish farming.
Visitors can try their hand at fishing for the invasive Nile perch fish. After the catch, local guides will prepare their fish dinner at the nearby campsites. The campsites show visitors how the natives live, and yet they are comfortable. Quad bikes and nature walks all around Lake Victoria and on its island are big attractions.
The major safari game reserves and national parks mentioned in the first section attract people in droves. People travel to Lake Victoria’s regions to see the gorillas and the yearly wildebeest migration, the 100-acre Ngama Island with its chimpanzee sanctuary, or the many other species of animals. Its enormous network of islands is home to incredible bird species.
The Ruma National Park that lies near the shores of Lake Victoria is an exciting visit with its mosaic landscape comprises riverine woodlands and Savannah. Many species of animals call this ecosystem home, including the endangered Roan antelope. This park houses the blue swallow, a globally threatened bird.
The Ndere Island National Park is a haven for birds and animals, including rare species like the endangered Sitatunga antelope and over 100 species of birds flying above and throughout the island. The Homa Hills present themselves with stunning views here.
Nahashon Njenga Njoroge confessed to the assassination of Tom Mboya, a Kenyan statesman and trade unionist, who contributed significantly to worker’s abuses in Kenya. Njoroge murdered Mboya in 1969. The Kenyan government built a museum in his hometown of Mbita to commemorate and honor him.
The Thimlich Ohinga Archeological Site is a popular place to visit. It is a dry-stone walled settlement thought to have been built in the 16th century and may have served as a community fort. It preserves the history of local communities who used the lake for their livelihoods. It gives a view of African tribes before the pre-colonial period.
Mfangano Islands Camp offers cottages built from clay with African architectural ingenuity on the shores of the Mfangano islands with amazing views of Lake Victoria. The Rusinga Island Lodge on Rusinga Island is a resort that offers six expressive cottages that can accommodate families. This resort grows organic gardens and produces organic food products.
At the Kigali Women’s Centre, tourists can take a Take a 10-hour walking tour or cooking class with local women. The centre works to train women for employment with various skills, and it operates as an NGO that provides a social enterprise and sells local goods. This is only a small sample of what tourists can see and do at Lake Victoria.
Lake Victoria Info
How Can You Travel Around Lake Victoria?
- Tourists can fly from Nairobi to Kisumu and drive to the lake.
- Travelers can hire local tour guides to take them to the lake and its islands.
- Vacationers can rent quad bikes ride to the lake.
- You can take a bus from Mwanza to Kigali. It isn’t direct, and you will need to transfer a few times.
- The bus from Kigali to Musanze is takes two hours.
- In Uganda, a direct bus ride can turn into a series of transfers to get to Kabale.
- Many of the boats and ferry companies offer tours of Lake Victoria.
Is Lake Victoria the Longest Lake in the World?
No, Lake Victoria is not the longest lake in the world. The honor belongs to Lake Tanganyika in Africa as the longest lake in the world, and another freshwater fishery like Lake Victoria. It is 420 miles long, and its northern shore is 175 miles southwest from the southernmost point of Lake Victoria.
Lake Victoria is the second largest freshwater lake in the world. Most sources cite the Caspian Sea or Lake Baikal in Russia as the largest freshwater lakes in the world. The Caspian Sea is an inland sea surrounded by Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.
Why is Lake Victoria so Special?
Lake Victoria is the world’s biggest tropical lake in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. It is the biggest lake in the African Great Lakes region. It provides enormous economic resources and its fishery produces one-million tons of fish per year, which employs 200,000 people who support four-million people. Lake Victoria is home to about 40-million people.
Tons of African culture and diverse communities along with the most amazing animals surround Lake Victoria. The islands in the lake offer amazing ancient shrines, artwork, culture and nature. The ferries that traverse the lake can take visitors anywhere they want to go. It offers an amazing vacation unlike anywhere else in the world.
Can You Swim in Lake Victoria?
Local residents and tourists swim in Lake Victoria. Many people lose their lives in boating accidents or drown in Lake Victoria. Bilharzia-infected snails are present in many large African lakes, including in Lake Victoria. This is not a lake to play around in and is considered an extremely dangerous lake.
It is not recommended to swim in Lake Victoria. Large populations of hippopotamuses and crocodiles swim and play in Lake Victoria The medical term for bilharzia is Schistosomiasis and locals call it snail fever. This is a deadly disease that causes severe abdominal pain and diarrhea, and then infertility, spleen enlargement, and organ failure.
How deep is Lake Victoria in Africa?
Lake Victoria’s average depth is 130 feet 40 meters, and the maximum depth of the lake is at 276 feet to 84 meters.