In the Beginning
During the colonial period, the Luhya and Luo tribes of Kenya were collectively referred as The Kavirondo. The name withstood time and even had an independence movement name (Young Kavirondo Association). If you ask the general public in Kenya the meaning of the word Kavirondo, the common answer would be the Kiswahili interpretation of ka-virondo (squatting) – which was the preferred way of sitting for the inhabitants around Lake Victoria.
This is however far from the truth. To get a deeper understanding, we set on discovery on the use of the word. To begin, we check the first ever recorded use of the word Kavirondo. Using Google N-gram – a tool built on top of Google Books, we can find the first, and subsequent use of the word in books. The diagram below shows the results of running the keyword Kavirondo on books published between 1800 and 2000.
The first use of the word Kavirondo is in the book ‘How I found Livingstone: Travels, Adventures, and Discoveries in Central Africa’ by Sir Henry Morton Stanley published in 1872. In it, he notes, “I travelled for a considerable time in company with three intelligent Sanheli, who lived three, six, and nine years respectively in the country east of the Victoria Lake, there called Okara”. He continues, “Okara seems to be Lake Victoria proper… it is three days by canoe, and joins Lake Kavirondo which may NOT deserve to be called a lake, but only an arm of Okara”. Here we do observe that the Kenyan section of Lake Victoria between current day Homa Bay, Kisumu and Siaya was considered separate from ‘proper’ Lake Victoria and it was referred to as Lake Kavirondo.
The people who lived around Lake Kavirondo were the Luo. Sir Henry Morton Stanley noted “very dark people live on it, and have cattle”. It is highly unlikely that the name Kavirondo was bestowed by Sir Henry Morton Stanley – he would have preferred a more English name. Therefore, the name must have been already in use. Origin of the name is also unlikely to be from the Luo since they already had a name for it – Winam, which translates to ‘head of the lake’. The diagram below shows Lake Kavirondo which currently is known as the Winam Gulf.
What’s the Origin of the Name?
Before attempting to answer the question, there are two phenomena we should explore. First, the use of Swahili porters into the hinterland of Western Kenya and Uganda was rare before 1870s – most never made it back to Mombasa. So, they are unlikely source of the word Kavirondo in this period. Second, tribes got their alternate names from neighboring tribes and not distant ones. Example, the Luo referred to the Nandi as Lango meaning hostile neighbor. The Swahili referred to the Mijikenda as Wanyika meaning people from the plains/bushmen.
Given the limited movement of people within this period, it is improbable that tribes a thousand kilometres apart would have a name for each. This required repeated interaction on a wider scale to create familiarity and hence develop stereotype – thus names. Therefore, the name Kavirondo must have originated from the circumference of the Winam Gulf. Excluding the Luo, the likely source would-be; the Luhya, Maasai, Kuria, Kisii or Suba. So, we search for variation of the word Kavirondo among these tribes in hope for a match. Voila! There was a match. Fifty kilometers north of Kisumu there’s a place known as Rondo.
The Luhya word Kam’rondo means all round, from the map you can observe the area known as Rondo is surrounded by Kakamega forest. This is similar to the Winam Gulf which is surrounded by land. Books published between 1887 and 1910 have the word Kavirondo written in hyphenation (Kavi-rondo) which alludes to a source document with the word Kam’rondo. But it gets better – I decided to search for books with the word Kam’rondo. I got several matches but upon inspection the word was missing. By luck I got a book in PDF format, and when I searched kamrondo it matched to kavirondo as shown below.
It then dawned on me that the search was interpreting an ‘m’ as ‘vi’. Given cursive writing was the standard handwriting, the first person who documented Winam Gulf wrote it as Kam’rondo and it was read and re-written as Kavirondo. If it fooled a computer program, then it would easily fool the human eye.