Mwanza, the rock city with a rich history

Saturday April 10 2010

Rubondo Island, a gazetted National Park. Photo/LEONARD MAGOMBA

Beyond the beach and safari tourism circuits of East Africa are the unexplored inland historical towns that only a few discerning travellers get to see.

One such place is Mwanza in northwestern Tanzania,on the southeastern shore of Lake Victoria.

Lacking the bustle of Dar es Salaam or the tourist hype of Arusha or Zanzibar, Mwanza is Tanzania’s second largest city after Dar es Salaam with over two million inhabitants and the economic heart of the Lake Region.

Its economic mainstay is mining, fishing and tourism, which have recently prospered.

Overlooking Africa’s largest lake, the so-called Rock City is an important crossroads in the region — with a railroad connection with Tabora, Dodoma and Dar es Salaam, a busy port with ferries to Ukerewe Island, Kamanga, Bukoba and Port Bell in Uganda and Kisumu in Kenya. It is also connected by road to Kisumu.

Recently it has grown into an economic and tourism hub. Money from fishing and mining has seen an expansion in tourist accommodation from luxury five star hotels to those offering bed and breakfast.


Mwanza’s growth can be traced back to the days of the slave trade, as the trading caravans of the Sultan of Zanzibar used it as the frontier to the unexplored African interior in search of gold, ivory and slaves.

Later, European explorers such as Dr David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, John Hanning Speke and Richard Francis Burton, followed the same route and landed in Mwanza.

Dr Speke, who was the first European explorer to reach the Mwanza Gulf, is buried in the small village of Kagaye in Mwanza, making it famous and an important historical site.

Kagaye, just beyond the city, was part of the Sukuma Kingdom and home of the Sukuma royal family and is considered one of the oldest historical sites in Tanzania.

Mwanza got the nickname Rock City because of the gigantic rocks jutting out of the lake waters and strewn inland, giving the city a unique topography.

The city looks out into the lake and the most famous landmark is the Bismarck Rock, a large outcrop of granite.

According to Daya Tours and Safaris operations manager Gerald Philemon, the city has an underground tunnel which was built by the German colonialists and used by the German army for military purposes and later on as bunkers for hiding from the enemy during the war.

The tunnel runs from the Regional Commissioner’s house — originally the residence of the German governor of the region — on top of Mlima wa Machemba, to the Nyamagana city centre stadium.

Mwanza has several islands inhabited by a variety of animal and bird species. These are Rubondo, Ukerewe, Kome, Ukara and Saanane, which has impalas, hyenas, lions and monkeys.

Some of the islands have tourist hotels, established trails and safe hiking sites.The Bujora Cultural Centre offers a short lecture on the unique history and culture of the Sukuma kingdom.

The Sukuma Museum promotes the traditional and contemporary arts of the Sukuma culture. An interactive environment allows Sukuma elders to teach the younger generation traditional history and arts.

The Rubondo Island National Park, which is located on the southwestern corner of the lake, has a tranquil atmosphere and excellent birding watching.

Almost 400 species have been identified on the island such as fish eagles, stork, ibis, kingfisher and cormorant.

The island also has chimpanzees, hippos, crocodiles, and elephants (introduced a decade ago) as well as sitatungas (amphibious antelopes) that like to hide in marshes and weeds on the lake shoreline.