Steve's Yarns-- All those years growing up
and living in Oklahoma, California, Arizona,
Texas, and Africa..... Ain't done growing up
'til I get over on the other side :-)

Steve Van Nattan







By Steve Van Nattan


The lake steamers of Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika were really coastal steamers like thousands that navigated the coastal waters along both the east and west coasts of Africa. They were not stately like ocean liners, but they were very well designed to go up the larger tropical rivers and haul goods across the inland lakes of Africa.

They had a very shallow draft, and the ones we sailed on had a freight capacity of 1000 tons plus passengers. Here is a web site that is well done and describes coastal shipping around the world.

From the photo of the HMS Usoga (Fitted for East African use in 1914) to the right you can see that the openings along the sides, and the rear first class promenade deck, were well above the water line.

Only river boats could have lower openings because they did not have to deal with serious storms. We asked the captain of the Usoga one day what was the worst storm like on Lake Victoria. He said that on one voyage he had gotten caught in a storm so violent that the life boats were filled with water. You can imagine from the photo that his ship must have been close to turning turtle. He told us that the design of the ships on the lakes was such that they were very hard to turn over, and it had never happened.

The ports of the most interest to us were the city of Kisumu on the north end of Lake Victoria in Kenya, and the city of Mwanza on the south end of Lake Victoria in Tanganyika (Tanzania) which was the port where we disembarked, and where our parents met us. The route most used was along the east shore of the lake stopping only at Musoma before Mwanza. You can read of the HMS Usoga and Rusinga being used by the British in the assault on the German territory and city of Bukoba during World War I HERE. The Usoga was, in recent years, purchased by an Indian locally in Kisumu, re-bottomed, one engine replaced, and she was still in some sort of use in the year 2000. It is very rare for a ship from the early steam era to be in continuous use for 86 years and counting.

Kisumu was rail head for the rail line from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya to the interior. It was about four hundred miles from our school to Kisumu. Please ignore the blue highlights someone added to the map above. Look closely, and you can see Mbita Island and Mtangano Island at the mouth of the Kavirando Bay (not named) where Kisumu was on the northeast of the lake. We had one captain who knew an inside passage between those two islands and the main land which shortened the journey quite a bit. It must have been tricky because he stayed in the wheel house all the way through the passage and instructed the pilot all along the way. We were in awe of the man because we had the impression that he was much more clever than other captains.

The Usoga captain was the sort of Englishman Kipling would have loved to write about. He was businesslike when necessary, but he was boisterous and fun loving with us kids. One time we were leaving Mwanza to go back to school. I went on board early for some reason, and he caught me and started his usual teasing. I asked him if I could find an American flag if he would fly it under the Union Jack while we Yankees were on board. He roared with delight, and he told me he would do just that if I could come up with an American flag. I raced back to the mission headquarters and asked every missionary around if they could find me an American flag. Bah-- there were none. The captain then teased me mercilessly about being an American with no flag to prove it. I personally believe he was relieved I did not find one because he might have had quite a time trying to explain to the British authorities why the HMS Usoga was sailing out of port under both the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack

I have a story from the past for you, a story which will appear here for the first time. Back when Doctor Leaky the paleontologist was digging in Kenya, his first venture was on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria. He found some bones there that he estimated were hundreds of thousands of years old and may have been the bone of the original humans from the Nroprene era at least. He at once boxed them up and sent them on their way to London to be dated officially. Well, the box was stopped in Nairobi by colonial officials before it could be shipped further. It seems the relatives of the man Leaky dug up were in an uproar. They said Dr. Leaky had dug up grandpa, and they wanted him back at once. British officials returned grandpa to the island, and Dr. Leaky headed for the now famous Ol Duvai Gorge where he found Lucy. So far, the Masai tribe have never found out that Lucy went missing. Someone should tell them. I heard this story from a missionary who visited Rusinga Island regularly and heard it from the local Luo tribal people.

And, that is a true story and was buried in the East African Standard somewhere in the 1950s.

When the train arrived from the east in the Kisumu rail yard, the first class coaches containing us missionary kids were cut loose and shunted to the pier to park about 50 feet from the lake steamer. The ship was waiting for us because we were the whole first class passenger list. So, if the train was delayed, the boat waited for us. Now, THAT makes you feel very important when you are fourteen years old. Even some airlines will not hold a flight for a Member of Parliament. Hubris all around in large portions please.

You need to understand that during the colonial era the British and other White race residents in British colonies were of a special caste. They might have been very common and mundane back in the UK or the USA, but in the colonies White folks, especially colonial officials, were coddled and pandered to for no other reason than their race. Now, that may seem cruel, and it would be if Whites demanded that nowadays. But, it was there, and you got to where you could have the best of African friends while accepting the privileges of race when they served some useful purpose.

We would lug our trunks, which everyone had, from the train baggage car, and on board the ship, and find a cabin. We traveled on the two ships so many times that we knew which cabins had the best ventilation, and the seniors and girls usually got those cabins. There were two boats on Lake Victoria, the HMS Usoga, and the HMS Rusinga. Both were named after islands in Lake Victoria near Kisumu and both ships were circling the lake constantly.

The ship, on our return trip home, usually pulled out of port at once after we were aboard. But, on the return trip going to school after vacation, for some reason, there was a whole day layover before we boarded the train in Kisumu to go upcountry. So, we went ashore and wandered through the many Indian shops there. I looked forward to this day, in spite of the sorrow of having left home again, to buy treats in the Indian sweets shops. The Indians from India are famous for their powerfully sweet confectioneries. Each sweets shop had a long counter with possibly thirty varieties of sweets. Some sweets sellers laid their goods out on a woven grass mat on the street.

My two favorites were a patty, made of sweetened condensed milk and powdered sugar, and jalebis. The sweet patty was flavored with cardamom, and I would spend ages nibbling off small bites. Jalebis which are a deep fried sweet that looked a bit like a pretzel on a diet and they were hollow. These were dropped hot out of frying oil into sugar syrup that was flavored. If you buy these in an Indian grocery in the USA or Europe be sure they are fresh. They are pretty dead if they sit for even a few hours.

We also loved samusas, but we did not buy them from the Indians. They were all Hindus, and their samusas had no meat in them. Something about..... grandma might have come back in her reincarnation as the cow, and she might turn up in the hamburger. If the Hindus are right, every deceased grandma in Texas must have been Bar B Qued a hundred times by now. A Hindu in Texas would never make it into Nirvana because he would never live out a complete life as a cow.

So, we bought our samusas from an Arab merchant because they add meat to the usual peas and potatoes in the stuffing. Samusas are found in nearly any Indian stores in Western countries today. Ask for the green sauce, instead of red, to put on them as you eat them. Also, Indian restaurants in the USA today are now serving meat dishes, even though they are Hindus. They finally figured out that their their grandma died in India, so she is a cow in India and quite safe there.

The Indian sweets in the photo at the right are a fraction of the choices in any of these stores.

In Africa long ago there were no super markets or large hardware stores. Every merchant specialized, and their shops were small compared to Western shops. We loved to go into an Indian hardware shop and order a left handed screwdriver or a sky hook. The Indian merchant, never wanting to miss a sale, would tell us one of these answers, "Ve haf one in the go-down (warehouse across town)," or, "Not to vorry, my friend Patel has one. I am sending my son to fetch it, and you come back in one hour, thank you please," or, "I have just ordered that, and it will be coming with my shipment on the train tomorrow." The merchant would then send his kid to Patel's shop.

The alleged Patel turned out to be every other merchant in town, for we would see the kid running from shop to shop asking if they had a left handed screwdriver. Eventually, we ran out of Indian merchants who would go for the prank. As we walked by their stores they would smile and say, "Vell, I haf for you now the left handed screwdriver. Please pay for it at once." We resorted to asking for prop wash, but Patel would only wag his finger and say, "Naughty boys."

Once in a long while the only ship the school could book at the right time was the one that did the trip around the west side of Lake Victoria. It was a longer trip. We would then put in at Port Bell, which was dead boring, and Entebbe, Uganda, which was a bit more interesting. But, Entebbe was strange to us because we seldom went that way, so we stayed on board and fished off the ship for cat fish. The other ports were Bukakata and Bukoba. Bukakata was exciting because it was a dangerous port for the ship. The captain had to slip in between land and an island, be sure to stay right in the dredged channel, and he had to dock at a dock that did not run out into the lake like a pier. It ran parallel along the shore. So, the captain had to pull in until he was nearly ramming the dock, throw the ship into full reverse, which made the ship shake and tremble, and he then had to back up just like parking an automobile and end up right next to the dock so the crew could throw over the docking lines.

Bukakata was also interesting because it was not a town in those days. It was only a port, and huge mountains of burlap sacks of coffee beans sat on the docks. The Indian kids slid down the bags and screamed with joy. We also noted some of the kids left wet spots on the bags after sitting still with a curious look on their faces. If your coffee seems off some morning, it may have been clandestinely flavored by some little Indian brat in Uganda.

One time we came into Bukakata at night, and on the dock sat a lady selling beans and corn cooked into a very thick mush that you could eat with your fingers. She would ladle the bean and corn mixture out of an aluminum sufaria (cooking kettle), and she would plop it on a piece of banana leaf. I knew very well that the sanitation factor was suspect, but the aroma overcame my fears, and I paid for a glob of the stuff. It was delicious, and it was nicely spiced with amoebae. Later, after I got to school, I got those horrid cramps, did the Bukakata two step, and I had the sulfurous burps-- all symptoms of amoebic dysentery. I knew what it was. Been there, done that before. I had to take a course of medication. Was it worth it? No, but when you're 14 years old in Africa, and Dad and Mom are not there to remind you of your last bout of dysentery, the aroma of African cooking often wins out.

The only other port of note was Musoma. It was half way between Kisumu and Mwanza on the east side of the lake. Musoma had a great beach, but we chose to climb a hill of granite boulders nearby. Swimming in Lake Victoria would almost always result in schistosomiasis, a microscopic worm that went through your skin and invaded your intestines. The cure was five shots in the stomach, and you had to stay in the hospital overnight each time in case you reacted. So we climbed in the rocks instead. We loved to try to surprise the rock conies who lived in the rocks of that hill. We also had to avoid very thick stinging nettle bushes. We never saw snakes, but there had to be thousands in a hill made up only of boulders. On the school bound journey our missionary escort would go ashore and buy a four gallon tin of peanut butter made by Mennonite missionaries from a mission farm. That peanut butter was the best I ever tasted, and the school kitchen put it into peanut butter and jam sandwiches which we got to eat every afternoon for "tea."

Second class passengers were mostly Indians, of whom there were hundreds of thousands in East Africa. Once in a while, back in the 1950s, an Indian would be in first class. This would be because he was well educated or in business with some multinational company, and since he had the cash he was welcome.

The way you could tell a well educated Indian was that he had forced himself to stop doing the classic head waggle. I have included a tutorial for you who want to learn the Indian head waggle. The move that looks like their head is hinged at their nose level is the hardest to learn, but if you learn it you will make friends of Indians easier.

The Indians were on the second level, while first class was top level. The dining room was also on the second level. Many times over the years I would smell the curry cooking for the second class Indians, and I dearly wanted to go eat with them because I loved curry. But, we were expected to keep our place, and that even meant that some Indians would have resented me joining them to eat. When one of the ruling class goes down the colonial caste one or two levels he is not always adored by those below him. Now, if we had been invited by an Indian that would have worked, but the Indians of the 1950s were not eager to challenge the system either. All of this nonsense is gone now of course.

In case this colonial caste system seems crude in missionaries' kids, we American kids were forever doing just as we pleased and treating Africans and Indians as friends. But in public places, like a dining room, both the upper cast and the lower cast might be offended. There were Indians who liked their power between the Africans and the British over lords. Colonialism was very complicated. If you think it is all gone, try going to the UK and walk into one of those men's clubs filled with cigar smoke and those proper snobs from Westminster. You will receive many cold stares. Then again, if you can find a tie with the school colors of Oxford, you might fake it.

The third class passengers, who were all African natives, more or less camped on the hatches over the cargo holds. The ship's crew would put up awnings so the Africans did not have to sit in the sun. They brought along their own food and cooked it on small round charcoal broilers. I believe there was food cooked by the ship, but it may not have been the best. These accommodations were not terribly comfortable, but in the 1950s it was sure better than riding the buses along African roads to cover the same distance on shore. There was no dust, no sitting like sardines, and no danger of tipping over.

The dining area was very pleasant, and we had the same formal Victorian table service as on the train, and we were served by Africans in red fezzes and while kanzus (Arab style robes) with a red waist sash. You need to go to my tale about traveling on the Mauritania for a description of British dining rituals. The oat meal in the morning was classically watery (the British like it like that), but the fish course was great. It was talapia fresh caught from the lake. Talapia, for you Americans, is not Chinese in origin. Talapia came originally from Lake Victoria.

The African waiters watched our silverware carefully. If the fish knife and fork were still in their places it meant that we had not yet been served the fish course. So, after we ate our fish, we would wipe our knife and fork clean on the serviette (napkin in the US), set them back on the table in their proper places, and slip the plate under the serviette in our lap. The waiter would see that we still had not been served fish, he thought, and we got a second serving. It was sometimes possible to get up to four servings of fish this way. There was a waiter of the Luo tribe who was very jolly with us kids, but he was also more alert than the other waiters. He often caught us after we had only gotten a second serving of fish.

So, why the craving for fish? First, we did not get fish at school in the highlands of Kenya for the three months of every term, and the fresh talapia was so good. Also, the main course which followed the fish course was often beef and vegetables boiled to death. The only way to give this Anglo Saxon pulse any character was with copious doses of Worcestershire sauce. Not only is that hard to say, but the small decanter they put the sauce in was cut glass and had a tapered glass stopper. We American kids had no skills with these British inventions, and invariably we ended up with a plate full of Worcestershire sauce with islands of meat and potatoes. Thus, the fish protocol


Like old soldiers, old ships are set aside as an act of mercy, but their glory is easily lost and soon forgotten.

The Usogo in 2008 lies grounded on the shore, probably used as apartments of as a warehouse. While it is sad, it could have been worse. In western nations old ships are cut to pieces and melted down to make more steel. If the Usoga is still there today, this year is its 100th birthday.




For photos and train stories.

Colonial British photos

East African Railways Corporation site