Discovering the Rusizi River – Did It flow IN or OUT?!, Pt. I

East African explorations in the mid 19th Century were overwhelming directed to discovering the source of the Nile in central Africa.  Along side this goal, laying out ways and means whereby the English could establish a strong foothold in East and central Africa by way of trade and commerce up the Nile, which was to  be supported by the activities of missionaries coming into the region to work with locals.  This was considered a ‘best bet’ approach:  introducing commerce together with Christianity.

 The discovery of Lake Victoria by Sir John Hanning Speke in July 1858 and of Lake Albert Nyanza by Sir Samuel Baker and his wife, Lady Florence, in March 1864 resolved a good part of the mystery of the source of the Nile.  However,  Dr.Livingstone and some others were concerned that there might be sources further to the south or west, that fed into these two northern Lakes (out of which flowed the White Nile into Sudan).  Lake Tanganyika, discovered by Burton and Speke in February 1858, was considered a prime candidate for a more southern source of the Nile that could conceivably be connected to northern lakes by way of river[s]:

 If he [Sir Samuel Baker] is correct in his belief that the Albert Nyanza and Tanganyika are portions of one vast lake, or united by a broad channel, a direct highway by water exists, nine hundred miles in length, through the interior of the continent, which cannot fail greatly to assist in the civilisation of the teeming population in its neighbourhood.

We, however, must await the return of Sir Samuel Baker and Dr Livingstone, to be enlightened on this and many other deeply interesting points.

Source: W.H.G. KingstonGreat African Travellers, From Mungo Park to Livingstone and Stanley.  1874.

The great lakes of central and east Africa. Ujiji, on Lake Tanganyika, was the major market town of the area, where Stanley ‘discovered’ Livingston.

 With this possibility in mind, all of the aforementioned explorers were intrigued by a mysterious river named ‘Rusizi‘, which was located at the north of Lake Tanganyika.  For it was said by some locals, as well as by some of the Arab merchants trading in the area, that it flowed into the Lake – and by others that it flowed out of the Lake. 

 Burton and Speke tried to reach the Rusizi during their explorations of the lake in 1858, but were unable to do so.  It was then up to Livingstone and Stanley to make this important trip, which they did in November and December 1871 – as described in this and several following blogs.

 And although they did resolve the mystery, showing that the Rusizi flowed into the lake, and hence the impossibility of its being a direct source for Nile waters, Livingstone nevertheless was not convinced that – in the adjoining areas of central Africa – there would not be other sources of the Nile River, a possibility he then spent several more years trying to resolve – dying during this effort..

 And, in fact, others [‘armchair geographers’ in England] were similarly not convinced, as Stanley relates:

 Mr. Findlay … holds it [the Rusizi] to be a mere marsh-drain, which when the  south winds prevail, would possibly flow in the opposite  direction; and he still believes that Captain Speke and I,  when at Uvira*, were within five or six miles of the head.  Since Dr. Livingstone’s visit we have heard more upon  this disputed subject…

 * Uvira – An arab trading village for ivory and slaves, on the N.W. shores Lake Tanganyika (right across from us).

 Source: Burton-Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, vol 2, 1872 [his travels were in 1863]

 The importance of the flow of the Rusizi was this: if it did flow out of Lake Tanganyika and into the great lakes further north, then England could open trade and commerce as far away as the lake, then transporting goods by boat all of the way through the great lakes and into Sudan and Egypt by way of the Nile.  It was, as W.H.G.  Kingston states in the first quote (above), a dream of colonials during this period.

 The Rusizi problem is of great interest to me as well as to colleagues who have or now work in Burundi, because we live in the vicinity of the river and find the lore associated with it fascinating.  As well, the exploration of Lake Tanganyika up to the Rusizi and in its vicinity, as detailed by Stanley, contains a wealth of information on people, places, flora and fauna of the time that is unavailable elsewhere

This and several following blogs [4] contain most of Stanley’s description, together with photos and some commentary.

Of particular interest in his journal are the following points, that I have generalized from the descriptions of the area include the following, to be briefly discussed at the end

  • The existence of numerous villages along – and just above the Lake
  • A plethora of mini-kingdoms in which these villages were located
  • The rich variety of gardens cultivated along the lake
  • Lively trade among inhabitants of the regions, found in local markets dotted along the shore
  • State of near-pristine forests in the area, but already being mined for the construction of boats and for other uses
  • There being three different, but interconnected groups of people inhabiting the lake basin and immediate hills:
            Farmers in the lowlands
            Farmers/herders in the hills just above the lake
            Fishermen along the lake shore and on a few of the islands

A couple of notes:  The names of villages where they stopped and of geographical regions are in bold, to help those familiar with the area think of possible current names – if they are different.  I’ve placed explanatory notes in square brackets.

Northern Lake Tanganyika, I’ve extracted from a larger map by Stanley. The villages that they visit are underlined in red, and the geographic areas that he mentions are circled in blue. The Rusizi River is at the very top of the lake, which is where I live.  Source:

 I’ve enlarged the above portion from the original map so that the names can be read, but it is a bit fuzzy.  The geographic place names mentioned in this blog are highlighted.

Chapter XII:

  • ·          “I distinctly deny that `any misleading by my instructions from the Royal Geographical Society as to the position of the White Nile’ made me unconscious of the vast importance of ascertaining the direction of the Rusizi River.  The fact is, we did our best to reach it, and we failed.” — Burton’s Zanzibar.
  • ·          “The universal testimony of the natives to the Rusizi River being an influent is the most conclusive argument that it does run out of the lake.” — Speke.
  • ·          “I therefore claim for Lake Tanganika the honour of being the SOUTHERNMOST RESERVOIR OF THE NILE, until some more positive evidence, by actual observation, shall otherwise determine it.”–Findlay, R.G.S.


Had Livingstone and myself, after making up our minds to visit the northern head of the Lake Tanganika, been compelled by the absurd demands or fears of a crew of Wajiji* to return to Unyanyembe** without having resolved the problem of the Rusizi River, we had surely deserved to be greeted by everybody at home with a universal giggling and cackling.  But Capt. Burton’s failure to settle it, by engaging Wajiji and that ridiculous savage chief Kannena, had warned us of the negative assistance we could expect from such people for the solution of a geographical problem.  We had enough good sailors with us, who were entirely under our commands.  Could we but procure the loan of a canoe, we thought all might be well.

* Inhabitants of Ujiji, the major Arab market town half way down the the east shore of Lake Tanganyika

** An Arab market town in mid-Tanzania, on the route to Lake Tanganyika

Upon application to Sayd bin Majid*, he at once generously permitted us to use his canoe for any service for which we might require it.  After engaging two Wajiji guides at two doti [pieces of cloth] each, we prepared to sail from the port of Ujiji, in about a week or so after my entrance into Ujiji.

* An important Arab merchant located at Ujiji, trafficking mainly in ivory and slaves along Lake Tanganyika for export to the coast]

…Our ship–though nothing more than a cranky canoe hollowed out of a noble mvule tree of Ugoma* –was an African Argo bound on a nobler enterprise than its famous Grecian prototype.  We were bound upon no mercenary errand, after no Golden Fleece, but perhaps to discover a highway for commerce which should bring the ships of the Nile up to Ujiji, Usowa, and far Marungu.  We did not know what we might discover on our voyage to the northern head of the Tanganika; we supposed that we should find the Rusizi to be an effluent of the Tanganika, flowing down to the Albert or the Victoria N’Yanza.  We were told by natives and Arabs that the Rusizi ran out of the lake.

* The region of hills along the western side of the lake, directly opposite Ujiji.

Ujiji market, looking north. Source:

Sayd bin Majid had stated that his canoe would carry twenty-five men, and 3,500 lbs. of ivory.  Acting upon this information, we embarked twenty-five men, several of whom had stored away bags of salt for the purposes of trade with the natives*; but upon pushing off from the shore near Ujiji, we discovered the boat was too heavily laden, and was down to the gunwale.  Returning in-shore, we disembarked six men, and unloaded the bags of salt, which left us with sixteen rowers, Selim, Ferajji the cook, and the two Wajiji guides.

* Salt was absent in much of the Lake region, and was often made from herbs, as explained in this blog.

Boats of Stanley and Livingstone on the Lake. Source:

Having thus properly trimmed our boat we again pushed off, and steered her head for Bangwe Island, which was distant four or five miles from the Bunder of Ujiji.  While passing this island the guides informed us that the Arabs and Wajiji took shelter on it during an incursion of the Watuta* which took place some years ago–when they came and invaded Ujiji, and massacred several of the inhabitants.  Those who took refuge on the island were the only persons who escaped the fire and sword with which the Watuta had visited Ujiji.

* Watuta: also called ‘Mazitu’, described as a ‘migratory race’ found to the East of Lake Tanganyika who regularly  attacked and plundered villages from Lake Victoria southwards..

After passing the island and following the various bends and indentations of the shore, we came in sight of the magnificent bay of Kigoma*, which strikes one at once as being an excellent harbor from the variable winds which blow over the Tanganyika.  About 10 A.M. we drew in towards the village of Kigoma, as the east wind was then rising, and threatened to drive us to sea.  With those travelling parties who are not in much hurry Kigoma is always the first port for canoes bound north from Ujiji.  The next morning at dawn we struck tent, stowed baggage, cooked, and drank coffee, and set off northward again.

* Kigoma – Small port, of considerable importance today

Contemporary Kigoma bay; all forests have been cut down

The lake was quite calm; its waters, of a dark-green colour, reflected the serene blue sky above.  The hippopotami came up to breathe in alarmingly close proximity to our canoe, and then plunged their heads again, as if they were playing hide-and-seek with us.  Arriving opposite the high wooded hills of Bemba*, and being a mile from shore, we thought it a good opportunity to sound the depth of the water, whose colour seemed to indicate great depth. We found thirty-five fathoms at this place.

* Bemba – Lofty and beautiful hills in the N.W. corner of the lake, visible from our location:

View from our beach; to the right is the region of Bemba, mentioned above

Our canoeing of this day was made close in-shore, with a range of hills, beautifully wooded and clothed with green grass, sloping abruptly, almost precipitously, into the depths of the fresh-water sea, towering immediately above us, and as we rounded the several capes or points, roused high expectations of some new wonder, or some exquisite picture being revealed as the deep folds disclosed themselves to us.  Nor were we disappointed. 

The wooded hills with a wealth of boscage of beautiful trees, many of which were in bloom, and crowned with floral glory, exhaling an indescribably sweet fragrance, lifting their heads in varied contour–one pyramidal, another a truncated cone; one table-topped, another ridgy, like the steep roof of a church; one a glorious heave with an even outline, another jagged and savage-interested us considerably; and the pretty pictures, exquisitely pretty, at the head of the several bays, evoked many an exclamation of  admiration.  It was the most natural thing in the world that I should feel deepest admiration for these successive pictures of quiet scenic beauty, but the Doctor had quite as much to say about them as I had myself, though, as one might imagine, satiated with pictures of this kind far more beautiful–far more wonderful– he should long ago have expended all his powers of admiring scenes in nature.

Beach and hills at Gombe National Park, north of Ujiji, not deforested because it is protected.

Today, most of the region along the lake are for the most part bare and eroded, having been cleared of trees many decades ago.

From Bagamoyo* to Ujiji I had seen nothing to compare to them–none of these fishing settlements under the shade of a grove of palms and plantains, banians and mimosa, with cassava gardens to the right and left of palmy forests, and patches of luxuriant grain looking down upon a quiet bay, whose calm waters at the early morn reflected the beauties of the hills which sheltered them from the rough and boisterous tempests that so often blew without.

* Main port city across from Zanzibar Island

The fishermen evidently think themselves comfortably situated. The lake affords them all the fish they require, more than enough to eat, and the industrious a great deal to sell.  The steep slopes of the hills, cultivated by the housewives, contribute plenty of grain, such as dourra and Indian corn, besides cassava, ground-nuts or peanuts, and sweet potatoes.  The palm trees afford oil, and the plantains an abundance of delicious fruit.  

The ravines and deep gullies supply them with the tall shapely trees from which they cut out their canoes.  Nature has supplied them bountifully with all that a man’s heart or stomach can desire.  It is while looking at what seems both externally and internally complete and perfect happiness that the thought occurs–how must these people sigh, when driven across the dreary wilderness that intervenes between the lake country and the sea-coast, for such homes as these!– those unfortunates who, bought by the Arabs for a couple of doti [cloths], are taken away to Zanzibar to pick cloves, or do hamal work!

As we drew near Niasanga*, our second camp, the comparison between the noble array of picturesque hills and receding coves, with their pastoral and agricultural scenes, and the shores of old Pontus, was very great.  A few minutes before we hauled our canoe ashore, two little incidents occurred.  I shot an enormous dog-faced monkey, which measured from nose to end of tail 4 feet 9 inches; the face was 8 1/2 inches long, its body weighed about 100 lbs.  It had no mane or tuft at end of tail, but the body was covered with long wiry hair.  Numbers of these specimens were seen, as well as of the active cat-headed and long-tailed smaller ones.  The other was the sight of a large lizard, about 2 ft. 6 in. long, which waddled into cover before we had well noticed it.  The Doctor thought it to be the Monitor terrestris.

The ‘Dog Faced’ monkey shot by Stanley was a baboon, which still live in protected areas along the lake

 * Jane Goodall’s reserve for chimpanzee studies is today located in this area, at Gombe National Park – see this site and here.

Monitor lizards are still fairly common and are greatly appreciated as a meat source. The big ones used to try to catch our baby goats and chickens by climbing trees and then dropping down on them. Source: zoo2you

We encamped under a banian tree; our surroundings were the now light-grey waters of the Tanganika, an amphitheatral range of hills, and the village of Niasanga, situated at the mouth of the rivulet Niasanga, with its grove of palms, thicket of plantains, and plots of grain and cassava fields.  Near our tent were about half-a-dozen canoes, large and small, belonging to the villagers. Our tent door fronted the glorious expanse of fresh water, inviting the breeze, and the views of distant Ugoma* and Ukaramba*, and the Island of Muzimu**, whose ridges appeared of a deep-blue colour. 

* Hills on the West side of the Lake – see map.

** Largest Island in the lake – see map.

At our feet were the clean and well-washed pebbles, borne upward into tiny lines and heaps by the restless surf.  A search amongst these would reveal to us the material of the mountain heaps which rose behind and on our right and left; there was schist, conglomerate sandstone, a hard white clay, an ochreish clay containing much iron, polished quartz, &c.  Looking out of our tent, we could see a line on each side of us of thick tall reeds, which form something like a hedge between the beach and the cultivated area around Niasanga. 

Along birds seen here, the most noted were the merry wagtails, which are regarded as good omens and messengers of peace by the natives, and any harm done unto them is quickly resented, and is fineable.  Except to the mischievously inclined, they offer no inducement to commit violence.  On landing, they flew to meet us, balancing themselves in the air in front, within easy reach of our hands.  The other birds were crows, turtle-doves, fish-hawks, kingfishers, ibis nigra and ibis religiosa, flocks of whydah birds, geese, darters, paddy birds, kites, and eagles.

…The third day of our journey on the Tanganika brought us to Zassi River and village, after a four hours’ pull.  Along the line of road the mountains rose 2,000 and 2,500 feet above the waters of the lake.  I imagined the scenery getting more picturesque and animated at every step, and thought it by far lovelier than anything seen near Lake George or on the Hudson [in the States].  The cosy nooks at the head of the many small bays constitute most admirable pictures, filled in as they are with the ever-beautiful feathery palms and broad green plantain fronds.  These nooks have all been taken possession of by fishermen, and their conically beehive-shaped huts always peep from under the frondage.  The shores are thus extremely populous; every terrace, small plateau, and bit of level ground is occupied.

[It is a surprise to learn that the shores were so heavily populated in the mid-19th Century.  Also, to learn of the variety of crops that were grown, suggesting active commerce by way of market towns along the coast and most certainly linked to upcountry commerce.]

Zassi is easily known by a group of conical hills which rise near by, and are called Kirassa.  Opposite to these, at the distance of about a mile from shore, we sounded, and obtained 35 fathoms, as on the previous day.  Getting out a mile further, I let go the whole length of my line, 115 fathoms, and obtained no bottom.  In drawing it up again the line parted, and I lost the lead, with three-fourths of the line.  The Doctor stated, apropos of this, that he had sounded opposite the lofty Kabogo, south of Ujiji, and obtained the great depth of 300 fathoms.  He also lost his lead and 100 fathoms of his line, but he had nearly 900 fathoms left, and this was in the canoes.  We hope to use this long sounding line in going across from the eastern to the western shore.

Fishing village along the lake today.

Fishing village at Lake Mollera, Rwanda, early 20th.C. would be similar to villages that were along Lake Tanganyika in the mid-19th.C.

Henry M. Stanley, How I Found Livingstone.  Travels, Adventures and Discoveries in Central Africa including four months residence with Dr. Livingstone. 1890.

.Part II is here: Discovering the Rusizi River, Did it Flow IN or OUT?! Part II



About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-Central, Agriculture, Colonialism, David Livingstone, Explorers & exploration, History-Recent, Lake Tanganyika, Living here, Rusizi River ^ Wetlands, Sourcd of the Nile and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Discovering the Rusizi River – Did It flow IN or OUT?!, Pt. I

  1. Pingback: Discovering the Rusizi River, Did it flow IN or OUT?! Part IV « Dianabuja's Blog

  2. Pingback: Discovering the Rusizi River, Did it Flow IN or OUT?! Part III « Dianabuja's Blog

  3. Pingback: Discovering the Rusizi River, Did it Flow IN or Out?! Part II « Dianabuja's Blog

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