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The study presents the first extensive reconstruction of rainfall variability for Kenya using documentary evidence. The study used over 10,345 documentary sources to review the rainfall changes witnessed in Kenya from 1845-1976. Different published and unpublished sources including the missionary records, settlers’ diaries, explorers’ journals, governmental reports were consulted. Based on the meteorological observations for the country, the rainy years were assigned the following indices: very wet, relatively wet, normal, dry, and very dry. The results show chronologies of significant dry phases identified in the years 1849/50/51, 1868, 1875/76, 1879, 1883, 1888, 1897, and 1899, 1918/19, 1928, 1934/35, 1944, 1972, and 1975, while wet episodes occurred in 1878, 1899, 1905, 1912, 1916, 1922, and 1929 and 961. The evidence for the major dry and wet spells and the findings are evaluated within wider historical context.
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Journal of
Climatology & Weather Forecasting
OPEN ACCESS Freely available online
Research Article
ISSN: 2332-2594
Studies of historical climate provide valuable knowledge for natural
rainfall and climate variability, which is very useful for better
understanding of the current climate changes and prediction of
the future scenarios. This knowledge whether gathered from
proxies or weather recordings can both improve our understanding
of natural climate variability and help address the question of
whether modern climate change is unprecedented over the long-
term context in order to resolve environmental issues associated
with climate variability [1].
In order to acquire adequate information and determine the past
climate changes within different regions, researchers use various
paleoclimatic proxies with well dated quantitative data for both
seasonal and interannual resolutions. Global climate reconstruction
during the past centuries rely on the ability of relatively sparse
sets of palaeoclimate proxy indicators such as tree rings, ice cores,
swamps and lake sediments, borehole temperature measurements,
ancient manuscripts containing phenological and historical data of
blossoming dates, harvest dates, grain prices, ship logs, newspapers
and weather diaries to provide precisely dated annual information
of broad scale temperature trends and rainfall reconstructions [2-
5]. Instrumental records are generally considered not to be long
enough to give a complete insight to long-term global climate
change and variability [6].
Climate change at seasonal to annual resolutions for recent
centuries has been highlighted in a number of studies, which have
included climate-modelling experiments with estimated natural
and anthropogenic radioactive-forcing changes and empirical
hemispheric or global reconstructions. Although, a notable lack
of high quality, widespread, long-term instrumental records in
many parts of the world before the mid-19th century remains a great
challenge to scientists investigating various facets of climate change
[7]. Such reconstructions are based either on natural archives
only, such as ice cores, tree rings, speleothems, varied sediments,
and sub-surface temperature profiles obtained from borehole
measurements, or on multiproxy networks that amalgamate natural
proxy indicators with climate information obtained from early
instrumental and documentary evidence [8,9].
In most cases documentary sources are considered more preferable,
they provide climatic anomalies and extreme events such as
droughts and floods, which can be related to climate changes [10].
Studies show that the combination of instrumental and proxy
data began in the 1960s with the investigation of the influence
of climate on proxy data, such as tree rings and ice cores through
Documentary Driven Chronologies Of Rainfall Variability for Kenya,
Telesia M. Mutua*, Sebastian N. Runguma
1Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, The Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Africa
The study presents the first extensive reconstruction of rainfall variability for Kenya using documentary evidence.
The study used over 10,345 documentary sources to review the rainfall changes witnessed in Kenya from 1845-1976.
Different published and unpublished sources including the missionary records, settlers’ diaries, explorers’ journals,
governmental reports were consulted. Based on the meteorological observations for the country, the rainy years were
assigned the following indices: very wet, relatively wet, normal, dry and very dry. The results shows chronologies
of significant dry phases identified in the years 1849/50/51, 1868, 1875/76, 1879, 1883, 1888, 1897, and 1899,
1918/19, 1928, 1934/35, 1944, 1972 and 1975, while wet episodes occurred in 1878, 1899, 1905, 1912, 1916, 1922,
and 1929 and 1961. The evidences for the major dry and wet spells and the findings are evaluated within wider
historical context.
Keywords: Documentary data; Rainfall; Droughts; Wet spells; Indices; Climate change; Rainfall variability; Long
Correspondence to: Telesia M. Mutua, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, The Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Afirca,
Telephone: +254 720966379; E-mail:
Received: June 02, 2020; Accepted: June 15, 2020; Published: June 25, 2020
Citation: Mutua TM, Runguma SN (2020) Documentary Driven Chronologies Of Rainfall Variability for Kenya, 1845-1976. J Climatol Weather Forecast
Copyright: ©2020 Mutua TM, et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which
permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
J Climatol Weather Forecasting, Vol. 8 Iss.2 No: 255
8:255. doi: 10.35248/2332-2594.2020.8.255
Mutua TM, et al.
OPEN ACCESS Freely available online
scarcity of such records and therefore, there is a clear need to explore
longer lead times for predicting seasonal rainfall and continuously
monitor prediction relationships. This can be achievable by
using earlier records, which can give better spatial and temporal
resolutions for the locally based rainfall variations [48,49]. Most of
the environmental reconstructions in eastern Africa have focused
on swamp and lake sediment records [12,29,50]. There has been less
effort in utilizing documentary evidence to establish chronological
climatic trends for this region [12]. Researchers investigated
rainfall variability in Western Kenya using documentary evidence
[51]. Analysis show recent climate variability in the eastern Africa
region, mostly from 1960 to 1990 [35,52-55]. Other researchers
have concentrated on the impacts of climate change, and associated
mitigation, adaptation and coping strategies [56].
Although there are a few studies on droughts and famines
in Kenya, they have covered the period between c1897-1982,
and mainly focus on dry land areas, such as Kitui and Turkana
Districts, which are more susceptible to drought conditions [57,58].
Study of drought in Embu, Isiolo, Meru, Machakos, Kitui, and
Marsabit has incorporated the socio-economic impacts, adaptation
and coping strategies for the year 1972 [57]. However, the covered
areas are situated in the eastern parts of the country, the other
parts of the country are not represented. There is no evidence of
a chronological documentary based research covering the entire
country. This knowledge gap can be filled through utilization of
the available documentary records extending over a long period in
order to establish the trend of climate change for the entire country.
Instrumental climatic records are very recent for Kenya. The first
climatic data were recorded at Mombasa town in 1890, and then
in 1891 and 1894 further stations were opened in Malindi and
Machakos towns respectively. By 1904, there were additional
stations at Makindu, Voi, Murang’a, Kapsabet and Kisumu towns.
Meteorological recording developed further, incorporating other
weather elements for Nairobi such as temperature, daily sunshine
hours, cloud cover and wind speed. Since then, weather recording
has been consistent in Kenya and substantial archival proxies are
available for earlier periods, which can be used to establish the
chronology of rainfall variability and long term societal adaptation
and coping strategies in Kenya.
However, such documents are underutilized and thus the annual
climate chronology for Kenya, for the period preceding reliable
meteorological instrumentation, has not been forthcoming. Given
this knowledge gap, this study has utilized the available ‘proxy’
documentary for the period 1845-1976, to investigate rainfall
variability in Kenya during this period. This includes scrutinizing
available documentary evidence (personal diaries, journals, reports,
letters, notes, correspondences, and memoirs) among others.
The nature and extent of extreme events such as flood episodes,
droughts, famines, and reference to food production are of primary
Kenya is located at latitude 4° N to 4° S and longitude 34° E to
41°E in eastern Africa. The country covers an area of 582,650 sq
km including 13,400 sq km of inland water and 536 km coastline
straddling the equator, which cuts across the country about 90
miles north of Nairobi. Kenya’s boundaries are defined in the east
cross validation processes [11,12]. With the development of multi-
proxy climate reconstructions, climate data were extended not only
from local to global, but also from instrumental data to patterns of
climate variability [8].
In the northern hemisphere (NH), paleoclimatic reconstruction
began as early as the mid-17th century as indicated by studies on
Iceland and the Baltic sea using documentary accounts of ice area
and volume [13-16]. It has been noted that documentary based
vine-related biophysical indicators and vine harvest dates based
on 400 to 500 year-long temperature reconstructions have been
used in France [17], Switzerland [18,19], Germany and Italy [20,21],
the Mediterranean basin [22], and a 392 year-long preliminary
temperature reconstruction for western Hungary [23].
Documentary evidence such as accounts of canal, river freezing
frequencies and the duration of snow cover have also been used
in several studies to determine winter severity in various parts of
Europe [24,25]. Moreover, a combination of documentary and long
term instrumental records has also been used to reconstruct the
past half millennium January-April air temperature for Stockholm
(Sweden), the seasonal winter/spring temperature for Central
European regions, monthly time series of the North Atlantic
Oscillation (NAO) and the Eurasian (EU) circulation indices back
to 1675 [26].
There is evidence that records from the southern hemisphere are
under-represented in paleoclimate studies, in particular records
from continental Africa [27]. It is a great struggle for researchers
trying to establish the chronology of weather variability in most of
the African countries. Due to scarcity of the weather observation
stations in most African countries in comparison to the developed
regions, such as those in the northern hemisphere, there is less
confidence in the robustness of the climate trends in these areas.
Although, climate variability in this region strongly forces the global
climate system, only a few continuous, high-temporal-resolution
climate histories are available in the tropics [28]. Consequently,
environmental reconstructions in these low latitude regions have
been primarily focused on swamp and lake sediments records [29].
For instance, paleoclimatic data in African have been gathered from
large lakes such as Lakes Victoria, Turkana, Naivasha, Malawi and
Tanganyika [30-34]. Using these proxies, warming during the 20th
century has been observed in most of the East African Rift valley
lakes [2,6]. Although these environmental issues associated with
climate variability proxies only provide limited spatial resolution
over this vast continent, such studies have been fundamental for
climate projections, especially temperature and rainfall modeling
within East African region [35,36].
Moreover, documentary based paleoclimatic reconstructions have
been carried out, especially in the southern Africa region. These
includes an extensive 19th century climate record for Lesotho,
derived from documentary evidence by Grab and Nash (2010)
and several other historical records representing the 19th century
rainfall and climate variability for other parts of southern Africa
[28,33,34,37-44]. Studies on sea surface temperature variation
include different observations [45]. While the other researchers
have assessed 20th century temperature trends [46,47].
In the East African region, documentary based paleoclimatic
reconstructions are less advanced. Kenya in particular suffers a
J Climatol Weather Forecasting, Vol. 8 Iss.2 No: 255
Mutua TM, et al.
OPEN ACCESS Freely available online
information with an acceptable density, optimum reliability,
precise dating, homogeneity over time and possibility of being
quantified [62].
Table 1: Details of the documentary data sources
Location Details of sources Dates
Kenya National
Archives (Nairobi
and Mombasa)
• Published and unpublished
colonial government records
such as annual and monthly
reports, government gazette,
Blue books, monographs,
journals, diaries and memoirs
• Explorers, travellers and
missionary records such as
travelogues, diaries, incoming
letters from various districts
and outgoing letters from
government offices and reports
• East African Protectorate
instrumental weather records
1840s- onwards
1840s- onwards
1876- 1976
McMillan library
• Newspapers, such as East
African Standard which is now
referred as the Kenya Standard
• Annual reports, books, journals,
diaries, Annual
1840s -onwards
Kenya National
• Books and historical records
written by explorers and
travellers, such as diaries and
Any available
record starting
from 1840s
• Republic of Kenya instrumental
weather records 1900-1976
libraries in South
Africa and Kenya
• All available books showing
climatic conditions in East
African region, particularly the
conditions for Kenya, diaries
and Journals written by the
colonial government, explorers,
travellers and missionaries in
Kenya or any other East African
Data analysis
The methodology used to identify the climatic conditions from
documentary sources in this study was adapted from different
researchers [42-44,62-68]. Whenever possible, all references were
read and noted in a chronological order, with all information related
to seasonal weather phenomenon, environmental conditions, and
human societal responses recorded verbatim. Observations from
each year were subsequently compiled in a chronological order
along with details of the author, dates and location captured [62-
In the case of most letters, journals and quarterly reports were
relatively straightforward process although some annual records
only permit the identification of seasonal patterns [44]. Considering
the fact that some authors are both time and place specific in their
by the Indian Ocean and Somalia, in the west by Lake Victoria and
Uganda, in the south by Tanzania and to the north by Ethiopia
and Sudan [59]. According to the 2009 population and Housing
Census, Kenya has a population of 38,610,097 [60]. Being an
equatorial country, there is only a small variation in mean monthly
temperature. Most of the country experiences a semi-arid to sub-
humid climate, with the highlands and lake areas being wetter
compared to other parts of the country. The temperature ranges
between 21°C and 25°C in most parts of the country. However,
in the highland regions, the mean monthly temperature is usually
17°C between the month of January and April [2]. The diurnal
temperature ranges in nearly the whole of country is in the range
9°C to 13°C except above 2200 m in the highlands where it is
about 14°C to 17°C and at the coast on the Islands where it is
between 5°C and 9°C [61]. Kenya has diverse geographical features;
the Coastal region, Nyika plateau, highlands regions, and the lake
basin region.
Documentary data
The study has utilized documentary sources to generate the rainfall
variability for Kenya during the period 1845-1976. The primary data
sources for the study were the archived, published and unpublished
documentary evidence such as letters, journals, memoirs, diaries,
travelogues, reports, monographs, and newspaper articles written
by explorers, travellers, missionaries and colonial officials who lived
in and travelled through Kenya and neighbouring countries such
as Tanzania and Uganda during the 19th century. Early travellers
in the East African region, such as Dr. David Livingstone, Rev.
Charles Ludwig Krapf and Rebmann expedition records dating
from c1845 were useful in providing earlier information before the
settlement of the missionaries and colonial government in Kenya.
The most resourceful materials were the collection of the
unpublished letters from the missionary stations, established by the
Church Missionary Society (CMC) in Kenya. Most of these letters
were very detailed because they were written by missionaries who
had stayed in Kenya for many years, therefore can be considered
reliable for climate interpretations. They were also place specific,
thus showing long-term spatio-temporal variations for different
parts of the country. In contrast, there was a need for more careful
analysis of the quarterly colonial government reports or annual
summaries in order to identify the specific timing of the climatic
events and the impacts they had on the environment. The quarterly
and annual reports and letters from the, ministry of Agriculture
and the East African Protectorate Meteorological Department
were also consulted. These contained annual, seasonal and in
some cases quarterly accounts of rainfall, temperature and harvests
reports of different parts of the country. Letters and reports sent
to and colonial government offices during the colonial period, also
contained valuable information of harvests, droughts, floods and
other weather occurrences written by the District commissioners.
The documentary records were retrieved from University libraries
in South Africa and Kenya, the Kenya National Archives (Nairobi
and Mombasa), Kenya National Museum (Nairobi), McMillan
library, and Kenya national library services in Mombasa and
Nairobi (Table 1). The main objectives during data retrieval
were identification of documentary series that may offer climatic
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observations, all comments about the environment (observations
about weather, harvest quality and hydrological conditions) or
description of unusual events such as droughts, famines, floods
or pest infestations and the human societal responses since
c1850 were used in determining the timing of the rainfall seasons
(onset and cessation dates). In cases where time lags between
the occurrence and documentation of an event or phenomena
is suspected, relevant contextual material was noted to allow the
timing to be more tightly constrained [66,67]. All materials were
scrutinized to minimize bias from external factors such as war, slave
trade, pestilences and land use changes, which are not products of
climate variability [63,68].
To determine variations in the relative amounts of seasonal
and annual precipitation, the ordered documentary records
were analyzed according to ‘rain-year’ between March-May (long
rainfall season) and October-December (short rainfall season)
with the seasonal and annual rainfall amounts being qualitatively
categorised into one of the five classes: ‘very wet/floods’, ‘relatively
wet’, ‘normal’, ‘relatively dry’ and ‘very dry’. This method is
identical to that used by many researchers [42-44,63,64,67]. During
the classification process, preference was given to climate related
phenomenon that provide the strongest indication of relative and
actual rainfall occurrences, such as reports of rainfall intensity, wind
and storms/lightning, hail, fog, river levels, floods, description of
crops and vegetation cover, information of droughts, famines and
societal coping strategies [8,26,67,68]. The content analysis and
discourse analysis was used to assess the information and rank the
observations in terms of severity.
Each of the classes was assigned an ordinal index relative to the
documentary descriptive rainfall intensity within a given season
or a ‘rain-year’ (Table 2). Indexation ranged between -2 to +2
based on the impact of the events and the community responses
Therefore, positive or negative indices indicated unmistakably
extreme conditions [62]. Because the documentary information
does not have regional sub-divisions, these indices were used to
develop an annual time series representative of the whole country
over the documentary period c1845-1976. These series were useful
for verification of seasonal and annual rainfall anomalies identified
in the instrumental time series, especially when there were gaps in
the instrumental records. Descriptive information on seasonal and
annual anomalies was quoted wherever possible so as to emphasize
the extremities of events over the study period.
Data and methodology limitations
The study is subjected to various limitations. Firstly, there are
spatial and temporal constraints imposed by the limited availability
of documentary and instrumental records for the earlier part of the
chronology. The earliest instrumental recording in Kenya was done
in Frere town in 1876-1880, then after a decade, a weather station
was established in Mombasa in 1891. Recording concentrated in
the coastal region for about two decades before the establishment
of a station at Machakos in 1896. Due to this, the study only relies
on the scarce documentary evidence for the years preceding these
records. This may affect the continuity of the data and result in
poor presentation of the rainfall conditions in the early 19th century.
Secondly, there are issues of data reliability [42]. Whilst the
descriptions of environmental conditions contained within
documents are mostly eyewitness testimonies, all observations
necessarily reflect the positionality of the observers as well as
their intended audience [67]. For example, individual observers
may describe environmental conditions for a specific time and
place very differently. This may in part be influenced by their
nationality background, and experience of conditions in the
study area. Observers from different climate backgrounds may
describe the climate at their destination differently compared to
their home country, and this may be subjective [68]. On basis of
such subjectivities of individual correspondents, the classification
process also becomes highly subjective. Potential errors therefore,
can be overcome wherever possible, by cross-referencing between
multiple observers and basing classifications upon accounts from
correspondents who had been resident at a location for some time.
Additionally, the influence of various factors, such as the altitude
and physical features on rainfall quantity and distribution across
the country, also may affect the results of this study. Rainfall
in lowlands is usually low compared to that of the highlands.
Therefore, interpretation of weather events may vary depending
on the location of the observers. Moreover, the instrumental
records for the highlands may not represent the rainfall intensity
in the lowlands in cases of data shortages. Due to that, only years
with extreme events reported by a number of respondents may
be classified as very wet or very dry, with other years categorized
according to the weight of documentary evidence. Normal years
may only be identified where there is little or no reference made to
‘abnormal’ rainfall, where correspondents comment that rainfall
had been unremarkable, or where wetter conditions during one part
of the year were offset by an earlier or later dry period [42,43,67].
Therefore, all accounts of individual climatic events were read with
an awareness of these potential subjectivities.
Event Index Description
Very dry -2 Drought accompanied by reports of dry rivers and springs, if being impossible to sow or very bad harvests, rise of
prices, great famine associated with death of people, lack of pastures and livestock deaths.
dry -1 Records of meteorological drought, involving lack of rainfall without the explicit mention of deficits in the runoff
of rivers and springs
Normal 0 Events in which the author did not comment on weather conditions and where other non-meteorological events
are found.
wet +1 A strong and continuous rainy period which affects agricultural and other socio-economic activities
Floods +2 Rains accompanied by floods
Table 2: Rainfall events indexation in relation to documentary interpretations
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The current study utilizes the documentary evidence to describe
consolidated documentary based chronologies of droughts and wet
spells in Kenya over 134 years from the year 1845-1976 in order to
extend our understanding of historical rainfall anomalies in the
country beyond the instrumental recording era.
The drought spells
Drought is a normal feature of any climate, a temporary recurring
natural disaster observed in all climatic zones due to rainfall
deficiency in a given region over an extended period of time [70-
72]. This phenomenon is rated as the costliest natural disaster of
the world and affects more people than any other natural disaster
[73]. The fact that the region’s economy is largely agro-based and
the agricultural production is predominantly rain-fed renders acute
the vulnerability to drought [71].
The earliest recorded droughts in Kenya come from sporadic
accounts of the travel writers aiming to the interior of the country
from the coast. These records are not continuous, hence it was
only possible to establish individual dry years from them and not
possible to identify period of droughts. Nevertheless, the years
identified as drier were 1849/50/51, 1868, 1875/76, 1879, 1883,
1888, 1897, and 1899 in the 19th century [74]. Dr. Krapf, noted
the first dry spell on his journey to Tana River in 1850, along the
Kamba l and where people had moved to their neighbouring land
in search for food and he describes the situation as follows:
26th [July, 1850]. “... arrived at the plain on the top we proceeded
to the nearest village, and inquired after the kamba, Muiluwa
Kiwui, with whom I was first to reside. We were told that he had
quitted the village, in consequence of a famine from which the
country was suffering through want of rain..." [74].
This drought was an extension of a relatively dry conditions
experienced in 1849 due to delayed onset of the short rains. As
Krapf passed by Kikumbuliu towards the end of the year 1849 he
noted dry conditions with Kamba people devastated and associating
a white man’s visit with rainfall blessings as he says;
17th [November, 1849]. …when we reached Kikumbuliu the
Wakamba surrounded me…they often asked me if rain would
fall and whether I could not make it come, as if I was a " mundu
wa mansi manene" a man of great water (the sea coast), and had
with me " niumba ya mbua" , an umbrella.
20th [November, 1849]. Today the first rain fell in Kikumbuliu,
which places me in great favor with the Wakamba, although I
tried to counteract the superstitious notions and ascribe all to
God… [74].
Most of the early documentaries have concentrated on coastal and
Kamba land (the current Machakos and Kibwezi). Hence, it was
impossible to know whether these conditions were wide spread in
the entire country. From 1851-1868 the traveler’s records are not
available, and information is quite limited, the records become
more detailed from 1871 onwards. Nevertheless, a famine report
shows chronology of droughts in Kitui, noting the oral traditions
suggested that severe droughts were experienced in Kitui in 1836,
1868, 1887/88, and 1888 [58]. Although other droughts were bad,
severest of all droughts was noted in Kitui to have occurred 1897.
It was a year of great scarcity, there was nothing available to eat
resulting in an extensive famine, which lasted in Kitui for five years.
Description of the state of this famine is shown below:
During this famine, people hunted alligator for food because the
wild game had disappeared from the forests and caves because of
severe drought [58].
Consequently, the famine was locally referred to as “lwaya
In the following year, the famine spread to all parts of Kitui
driving people to resort to diverse and desperate methods of
adjustment, as a result famine came to be referred to severally
depending on how the people in the local areas perceived it. In
Kitui central for example, it came to be known as Nzaa nene or
Nzaa kubwa (big famine). Alternatively, it was known referred to
as ngomanisie (all over or worldwide).
The year 1898 was the same year that the colonial post was opened
in Kitui town and the drought experienced in this year was
unique in the history of the Kamba in several ways. The colonial
administration immediately initiated moves to provide food stuffs
in selected markets areas to be purchased as famine relief. Rice was
made available in Mumoni in Northern Kitui where the Kamba
from Northern and central division exchanged bulls for rice. In
Southern Kitui especially Kanziko location, people trekked to
Kimbwezi in Machakos. In the southern Kitui therefore, the famine
came to be known as (Nzaa ya mvunga) the famine of rice [58].
The writer quotes words used by Amber to present a vivid
impression of how people in Kitui responded to this famine:
Animals became a main source of food; goats were held in store
to be exchanged for grain. Men turned avidly to hunting, large
groups from both sides of the Tana even met at the River to
organize the killing of hippos. All kinds of fruits and berries
became dietary staples, and small children spent their day as
foraging for these and the roots called (ngatu) that were prepared
and eaten. However, such actions were only stopgap measures,
they could not possibly support people through famine lasting
several years. Indeed, the traditions recall that people were soon
reduced to eating the skins that they slept on, their quivers, and
even the urine soaked slings used to carry babies [58].
Nevertheless, evidence from other records show while Kitui was
severely dry there were other areas, which had food such as the
Kikuyu land. For instance, in such areas food could be work for as
shown below:
… because of hopelessness of the situation, the Kitui A.D.C,
Mr. C.R.W Bane accompanied the caravan of about 5,000 Kitui
Kambas in search of food across river Tana to Kikuyu land. This
traditional mode of coping with scarcity was successful as usual.
However, the strugglers were attacked by people identified as
Kikuyu, robbing them of food they had so painfully acquired
and carried. Angered by this Mr. Bane petitioned for a punitive
military expedition against the Kikuyu [58].
This gives an impression that these droughts were not being
experienced uniformly in the whole country. This famine continued
until 1902, documentary observations provide interesting
observations and perceptions of what transpired during the
recurrent droughts. One of the missionaries located at Machakos
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saw all rampage caused by this famine which coincided with the
building of the railway, consequently the building activities being
interfered with by the great hunger. By 1901, the famine had greatly
affected people causing massive deaths as described by a missionary
The scenes around our mission station were appalling. Skeleton
were tottering hither, thither with every bone, and joint in
their body exposed to view. No matter where one went, corpses
strewed the tracks. Little skeleton babies were found crying by
the dead bodies of their mothers.
By 1902, the situation was completely devastating in the whole
country. Deaths were wide spread, people searched for help though
helplessly died on their way as shown below:
At this time the railway, which the government was building from
the Coast to Lake Victoria Nyanza…was now used in saving the
lives of ten thousands of native savages. Over the stretch of rails
which already had been laid the Government brought up large
quantities of Indian rice and opening free food depots at various
forts in the country, distributed food to those wrecks of human
beings. Some reached the area of distribution too late, and soon
passed away, while hundreds ravenously bolted the uncooked
grains and immediately died, but withal many thousands of
lives were saved. The train which the savages had called ‘The
great serpent’, to whose advent they had attributed the famine,
became, in the goodness of God, the means of salvation.
The dry conditions ended 1903 with good rains, the anguish
which lasted all these years diminished. The other notable
droughts in the documentaries spanned in 1918/19, 1928, 1934-
35, 1944, 1972, and 1975. The 1918/19 drought was widespread
with severe consequences particularly to the natives because the
colonial government had now settled, putting much emphasis
on development projects. Additionally, the drought had been
accompanied by small pox, meningitis and other killer diseases,
which increased the anguish among the native. In his survey
research noted the following:
… Even in 1918-19 when there were widespread famine and several
outbreaks of smallpox and other killing diseases throughout
Kenya, the government was less concerned with improving food
production in the rural areas than with recruiting laborers for
the European farms. According to Ainworth, at least 155,000
people died from famine in 1918. Many others died from
smallpox and others diseases [75].
… in 1918, the famine which was experienced resulted from
the failure of 1917 November rains and 1918 April rains…The
famine was nicknamed Mukunakyongo (That which beats the
head), because during the famine, many people were struck by
severe headache probably meningitis, which caused death. The
famine was also referred to Vita-kuu (the big First World War)…
the head disease is said to have started from among men who
had just returned from the war [58].
This drought seems to have extensively affected most of the East
African region as described in a Tanganyika hand book.
It was difficult for those of today to visualize the state of the
territory after the 1914-1918 war. The territory’s economy, its
communications and its inhabitants had been disrupted by
the East African campaign and Tanganyika did not escape the
influenza epidemics of 1917-1919. Which were estimated at time
to have caused 50,000 and 80,000 African deaths. addition failure of rain in 1919, caused disastrous famine
in what is now central province, so that even in 1924 there were
nearly as many skulls scattered over the countryside between
Kondoa-Irangi and Dodoma, the remains of some of these who
had tried to walk to the central line to fetch food there provided
by the government as there were skulls of horses which had
been so freely used by South African forces and which died of
trypanosomiasis and other diseases.
In 1928/29, there was also a notable drought, which caused massive
migration of people from Kitui to other areas, which were more
food, secure. The drought was brought about by a combination of
locust swarms and less rainfall. In January that year, the A.D.C.
Mr. Devonport acknowledged extensive destruction of vegetation
by locust swarms, which marked the beginning of the existence
(Mang’alata), parches of bare ground, completely denuded of
vegetation, which the colonial administration attributed to
overstocking. The vegetation took a long time to rejuvenate
causing the drying up of springs and streams on the hillsides. The
land remained with only tree trunks without vegetation causing
population to be panic-stricken (Colony and protectorate of
Kenya Annual Report of the Department of Agriculture for the
year ended 31st December 1928) [58]. The situation is much more
described below:
The local administrative officials estimated that 30,000 people
from northern Kitui especially Tharaka and Mumoni crossed
river Tana into the neighboring Kikuyu districts. An additional
5,000 people left Southern Kitui for coast settlement such as
Mariakani and Mombasa’ (Colony and protectorate of Kenya
Annual Report of the Department of Agriculture for the year
ended 31st December, 1928).
Such migration was observed again with recurrence of another great
drought in 1934/35 triggered by failure of rains in 1934, which
had far-reaching effects on the lives of people and on public policy
in the district. Unlike previous famines, which caught the local
administration in Kitui unaware, a lot of food had been imported
from the other districts and stock pilled awaiting eventualities.
However due to severity of the drought, the famine was so wide
spread that the stockpiled food was not sufficient and in 1935 a
significant number of able bodied men left the district to provide
migrants labor elsewhere, especially in Mombasa [58]. By virtual
of food being imported from other districts it is an indication
that sometimes the famines were not being experienced in the
whole country especially in the highlands. Kitui district is one of
the vulnerable semi-arid areas in Kenya, which has had frequent
drought cases. Due to this, there is more literature on famines
compared to the less vulnerable zones in the country. The 1934/35
drought lasted for more than two years, due to devastation people
came up with different coping strategies as indicated below:
During the year, many cattle died due to tsetse fly and of lack
of pasture and water… It had been nature's contribution to the
destocking process which prolonged persuasion or seizure of
livestock had not achieved… people realized that by collecting
livestock bones, they could sell them to Asian traders at various
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Mutua TM, et al.
OPEN ACCESS Freely available online
markets centers. The Asians would then in turn sell them maize
flour. The famine therefore referred to as Nzaaya Mavindi
(famine of bones)... £50,000 worth of food was made available
in Asian shops to purchase with money received from the sale
of livestock and livestock bones. In that year, 20, 698 head of
cattle and 63, 718 head of small livestock were exported on
hoof through officially arranged auctions. In addition to the
measures famine relief was provided at schools, dispensaries and
other public centers...Tax exception was considered for the first
time. A family with a large number of huts (wives and children)
and short of food or cattle was eligible for partial remission with
a hope that would facilitate their ability to buy food [58].
There were several other droughts years in Kenya, but the famines
were not only attributable to low rainfall amounts but also
outbreak of locusts and Tsetse flies, which destroyed the crops
rendering farmers helpless. For instance, some records such as
Baringo District Annual report (1944), DC/BAR/1/4, KNA
Nairobi, Akong’a (1982) and Colony and protectorate of Kenya,
Agricultural Department Annual Report, 1944 give an indication
that the hardships experienced in 1944-1946 were not only caused
by decreased rainfall amount, but also locusts outbreak which
lasted for more than three years. These records give the following
details about these droughts.
The outbreak of the swarming phase of Desert Locust
(Schistocercagregaria) which began in December, 1942, continued
throughout 1945 and by the end of the year there was still
no indication in the East African area that the outbreak was
diminishing (Baringo District Annual report 1944, DC/BAR/1/4,
KNA Nairobi):
...In the first six months of 1944, particularly in the plain areas was
a period of drought and hardships with half the average rainfall.
This resulted to a great scarcity of grazing and much movement of
stock in March, persistent trespass by Kamasia stock in the Solai
area led to complaints by solai farmers Association' (Colony and
protectorate of Kenya, Agricultural Department Annual Report,
…. owing to persistent droughts and locust swarms, food shortages
continued to be experienced in 1944. During that year, 48,000 bags
of maize were imported and sold, especially in the July-December
period. In the following year, 9000 bags of maize were also imported
and sold at a price of Sh.10.50 per bag in the Northern Location.
Moreover, the maize and maize f lour provided was quite unusual. It
was red in colour. The famine therefore came to be called (Katune)
Red (Colony and protectorate of Kenya, Agricultural Department
Annual Report, 1944).
The wet spells
Having traced certain dry years and drought periods attention will
shift to the wetter periods noted in the documentaries. The wetter
periods are often more difficult to identify using this methodology
[44]. The dry periods have serious long-term consequences
occurring over a number of years, compared to sudden isolated
and short-lived wet spells. This again is probably a result of the
fact that their effects are not as negative as those associated with
droughts. Therefore, such occurrences are not recorded in as much
detail although severe weather such as floods will be noted. Despite
these difficulties, the year 1924, 1926 and 1951 stood out as wet
years, with severe storms being experienced in most of the country.
The observations were well noted in the colonial record especially,
the extremities experienced in 1951 when excellent harvests were
registered in most parts of the country as described below:
…the year 1924 will be a memorable one in respect of the
confidence which it has restored in agricultural industry,
and the prosperity which it has brought to all sections of the
community. The reward of development in the post-war period
is now being reaped.
After one year, better rains recurred in the whole country in 1926
during the long rainfall season, although to some extend it affected
the crop outputs in some areas. On the other hand, perennial crops
such as coffee benefitted from the heavy rains and good harvests
were expected in the following season as the records from the
annual reports show below:
Rainfall was generally above normal and on the whole it was
a favorable season, though in some districts crops suffered
from an excess of rain. Of the main crops, coffee showed some
improvement over the previous season, and the condition of
the trees gives promise of heavy crop next season. The yields of
maize were high in most districts, though disappointing in one
or two because of weather conditions. Over the country as a
whole fair crop of wheat were obtained. In native Reserves fears
were entertained for a time in regard to food supplies but except
in the Eastern part of North Kavirondo crops were sufficient
to ensure the sustenance of the people, until the new season's
plantings were well advanced. Market prices of some agricultural
exports fell slightly towards the latter half of 1926, notably in
case of maize, coffee, cotton, and sisal, making it more than
ever necessary that the cost of production should be closely
watched (Colony and protectorate of Kenya Annual Report of
the Department of Agriculture for the year 1926).
The year 1951 was marked by exceptionally heavy rains in both
long and short rain seasons. During the short rains there were
strong hailstorms in some areas such as Fort-Portal as noted by one
of the Rift Valley Province District Commissioner in an appeal
letter for flood data in May 1951 and a letter by a meteorologist in
charge to the Director East African Meteorological Department in
September 1951 describing the wet conditions as follows:
25th-26th [April, 1951]. 'There was a heavy rain storm over
Nairobi, accompanied by some thunder. Most of the rain fell
between 2300 hrs and 0200 hrs. E.A.S.T. and as the storm was
virtually stationary over the Centre of the city area, there was a
rapid concentration of water into Nairobi River which caused
considerable flooding and damage.
8th [May, 1951] ‘…the recent floods in Kenya have been quite
exceptional. In a number of cases, all previous records have
been broken. The Tana at Garissa rose foot higher than
on any previous occasion since records were kept’ (District
commissioner, Rift valley province, a letter appealing for flood
Data, PCNKU/2/20/3).
Rainfall for the year was well above average in all main agricultural
areas. Both the long and the short rains were good, the latter
everywhere persisting far into December. During the short rains
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hailstorms were also experienced in Nairobi as shown below:
[3rd September, 1951]. Unexpected thunderstorm associated
with hard hail occurred at station at about 14.28 hours local...
some tree branches began to break off. After 1-hour period, rain
was measured and was found as 3inches fall within 1 hour...
We went down the valley near the station just to check whether
the hailstones or ice, which fell, had been melted or not. But
Rain-year Average rainfall
Index Specific weather event
1845-46 Normal 0 No unusual event
1847-48 Normal 0 No unusual event
1848-49 Normal 0 No unusual event
1849-50 Relatively dry -1 Late onsets of both long and short rain seasons (6th April and 20th Nov. 1849) respectively
1850-51 Very dry -2 People in Kamba land had quitted villages because of famine and river volumes decreased
1860-61 Normal 0 No unusual event
1868-69 Very dry -2 Severe drought in the entire country; in both seasons rainfall failed
1869-70 Normal 0 No unusual event
1875-76 Relatively dry -1 Marked decrease of rainfall in most reporting stations
1879-80 Very dry -2 A severe wide spread famine
1880-81 Normal 0 No unusual event
1883-84 Very dry -2 Severe famine
1887-88 Normal 0 No unusual event
1888-89 Relatively dry -1 Water scarcity and lack of food because of famine in Kamba land (Kimbwezi)
1890-91 Normal 0 No unusual events
1891-92 Wet 1 Wet, high rains at the coast
1897-98 Very dry -2 Great famine, notably in Kitui which lasted for five years
1898-99 Dry -1 Dry, but severe drought and famine in Kitui
1899-1900 Wet 1 But, great famine noted in Kitui
1900-01 Very dry -2 Drought but unexpected rainfall occur at the end of December
1901-02 Very dry -2 Drought in Kitui
1902-03 Very dry -2 No rains at all
1904-05 Relatively wet 1 High record in Kitui relative to 1936 records
1906-07 Very Wet 2 Wet from SPI indices
1908-09 Normal 0 No unusual event
1912-13 Normal 0 Abundance of rainfall in the March-May (long) rain season
1915 -16 Relatively dry -1 Severe drought in the first quarter of the year until rainfall broke out in mid-April then the October-
December(short) rain season fails
1916- 17 Relatively dry -1 Little and unevenly distributed long season rainfall, failure of the October-December rains.
1918-19 Very dry -2 Severe widespread famine and drought due to failure of Oct-Dec rains in 1917 and April rainfall for this year.
1919-20 Very dry -2 Widespread famine and several outbreaks of smallpox and other killing diseases throughout Kenya
1920-21 Relatively dry -1 Low and poorly distributed rainfall in both seasons
1921-22 Relatively dry -1 Rainfall was relatively below average
1922-23 Very wet 1 Heavy long rain season
1923-24 Normal 0 No unusual events
1924-25 Relatively Wet 1 Rains were satisfactory in most of the country with great harvests throughout the year
1928-29 Very dry -2 Great drought and Swarms of Locusts destroy all vegetation leading to drying of springs and streams
1929-30 Relatively dry -1 Low rains; Severe famine in Kitui
1931-32 Normal 0 No unusual events other than continued locusts destruction in most of the country
1932-33 Relatively dry -1 Below average rainfall some parts such as Kitui suffer famine
1933-34 Very dry -2 The rainfall for the five drainage areas in the colony was 25% below normal for the year 1933
1934-35 Very dry -2 Failure of rains leading to wide spread famine
1935-36 Very dry -2 Failure of 1934 and 1935 rains leading to a great famine
1936-37 Normal 0 Heavy rains with Kitui registering the highest rainfall figures (75 inches) since 1904 and no more events
1937-38 Normal 0 No unusual events
1938-39 Normal 0 No unusual events
Table 3: Rainfall event conditions in different years
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1939-40 Relatively dry -1 The rainy seasons were shorter than usual and there was scarcity of showers in the dry seasons
1940-41 Relatively dry -1 Adequate rainfall in the first half of the year; later months somewhat deficient, short rains fails
1941-42 Normal 0 No unusual events
1942-43 Relatively dry -1 Below average short rains
1943-44 Relatively dry -1 Drought in the early half of the year, particularly in the plain areas with half the average rainfall
1944-45 Relatively dry -1 Persistent drought and locust swarms increase famine intensity in 1944
1945-46 Relatively dry -1 Rainfall was slightly below average over Kenya, the main rains started late and were below average, short rains
were confined to September only the followed by dry weather until April (1946)
1946-47 Relatively Wet 1 Drought in the early quarter year; above average short rains extending to the beginning of the long rain season
in 1947
1947-48 Relatively wet 1 Heavy long rains followed by below average short rains
1948-49 Relatively dry -1 Conditions most variable, very poor in the drier areas as to above average in wetter areas. Total rainfall a little
below average; long rains set on in March and were generally below average but short rains rather above average
1949-50 Relatively dry -1 The year from a purely production viewpoint was a disappointing one. Drought conditions were widely
1950-51 Relatively wet 1 Above average rainfall in all main agricultural areas. Both the long and the short rains were good, the latter
everywhere persisting far into December; excessively wet conditions in the highlands
1951-52 Relatively dry -1 Prolonged 1951 short rains; late onset of long rain in most of the country, with some areas receiving below
average annual rainfall
1952-53 Relatively dry -1 Below average rain in most of the country with exception of Nyanza which received above average in most
1953-54 Relatively dry -1 Below average rainfall in most of the country with exception of the coastal areas; the long rains were poor and
amounts were substantially below average
1954-55 Relatively dry -1 Below average short rains; Some long rains
1955-56 Normal 0 No unusual events
1956-57 Normal 0 Climatic conditions were reasonably satisfactory throughout the year. No unusual events
1957-58 Relatively wet 1 Remarkable weather for exceptional rainfall in January; soil moisture was generally plentiful throughout the
1958-59 Very wet 2 The total rainfall for the year was well up to average or above average except for areas along the coast
1959-60 Relatively dry -1 Long rains set on (19th March) but unevenly distributed; drought conditions widespread in the entire country
during short rains, particularly in coast areas
1960-61 Relatively dry -1 Heavy long rains commencing on 14th March; Failure of the short rains extending to the first quarter of 1961;
widespread drought
1961-62 Very wet 2 Heavy and very persistent short rains which started on 11th Oct. continued without a break until Christmas
1962-63 Very wet 2 1962 was a wetter than average year in all areas except the Coast region
1963-64 Very wet 2 1963 was wetter than normal in all parts of Kenya; except in Muhoroni where less than average rainfall was
1964-65 Relatively dry -1 Drought in most of the year; the long and short rains were below average in most parts of the country
1965-66 Relatively dry -1 Rainfall was plentiful only during October and November while the March to May rains failed in most areas
1966-67 Relatively dry -1 Good long rains records but short rains fails after good set on in October, the worst rainfall deficits from the
December normal since 1952.
1967-68 Very wet 2 Significant flood in some parts of Kenya on (11th/5/1967); Prolonged substantial long rain season
1968-69 Relatively wet 1 Plentiful annual rainfall throughout Kenya up till September; too much rain cause a famine especially in Kitui
like that of 1960 and 1961
1969-70 Relatively dry -1 Lowest April rain in Kenya since 1942; fairly early heavy onsets at end of February continuing to early march
then long dry spells alternated by rain storms.
1970-71 Very wet 2 Above average or average rainfall was reported in most areas, wettest being Nyambene, Meru (806.5 mm, 101%)
followed by Limuru (566.4 mm 189%), Butere (371.7, 133% )
1971-72 Relatively dry -1 Rainfall inadequacy; a famine in Kitui and some other parts of the country
1972-73 Very dry -2 The year was characterized by unevenly distributed rainfall which was much below average
1973-74 Relatively dry -1 Exceptionally dry year; unusually wet January and February; then short unusually light long rains in April and
May, followed by a very short Oct-Dec season
1974-75 Relatively dry -1 Generally a good year in spite of the early drought and poor distribution of rainfall
1975-76 Very dry -2 The rainfall was generally lower than that for 1975 which made 1976 the driest of the last three years
found some big stones lying there still which I anticipate will
take three or four days more to be melted by sunshine' (A letter
from the Meteorologist in Charge to the Director East African
Meteorological Department, Rs/19/21 KNA Nairobi).
J Climatol Weather Forecasting, Vol. 8 Iss.2 No: 255
Mutua TM, et al.
OPEN ACCESS Freely available online
Using documentary evidence (Table 3) the study establishes that
during the 19th century dry years prevailed in 1849/50/51, 1868,
1875/76, 1879, 1883, 1888, 1897, and 1899. While, in the 20st
century, droughts experienced between the period 1900-1976
occurred in 1918/19, 1928, 1934/35, 1944, 1972 and 1975. The
study establishes that the 20th century had more experiences of
severe and prolonged droughts than any other period of the study.
Most of these droughts prevailed from mid 1940s, 1950s and 1970s,
some lasting for more than four years. On the other hand, the wettest
periods during the study were experienced in the 1870s and 1960s.
More specifically, the wet years were, 1878, 1899, 1905, 1912, 1916,
1922, and 1929 and 1961. Notably, the extremely wet years during
this study period were 1878 and 1961-63. The study was limited
to the period with documentary evidence, however a calibration
of the descriptive chronologies with relevant meteorological data
to enhance the documentary driven weather chronology can also
been employed to extend this analysis to the 21st century.
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