Mbale was born from a place once described as not fit for human habitation and rose to become the most powerful after Kampala and Entebbe. Writing in the Uganda Notes of 1902, C. P. Philips, a missionary traveller who moved through the area, described it as “a long wilderness of shrubs inhabited by elephants”.
Mbale’s current location was no man’s land. It was claimed not only by the Bagisu, but also by the Iteso, Bagwere and the Karimojong.
Despite the dreadful descriptions, Mbale still had attractions. Key of these was the abundance of water and matooke. Besides, the location was a connecting route between Namatala swamp and the Nkokonjeru escarpment.
Semei Kakungulu, a Muganda agent who spread British administration to eastern Uganda loved Mbale so much that when the British relieved him from his duties in 1902, he pleaded with them to grant him land between Naboa and Masaaba (Mt Elgon) for him and his followers. So, they gave him land in Gangama where he lived, died and buried.
Bishop Tucker described Mbale two years after Kakungulu’s settlement as: “We were altogether surprised at the appearance of this place. Only two years had passed by since Kakungulu had settled down on what was little better than a wilderness, and lo! We found ourselves surrounded by gardens, well cultivated gardens, and well-kept houses too had sprung up, most of them well built. Broad roads intersected the whole countryside, one of them running right through the settlement from the chief’s enclosure to the traders’ quarters, reminding us of the main road in Mengo.”
By 1904, Mbale was an established ivory centre patronized by ivory big merchants like Omar Mohidin and Idi bin Shero who had shifted their base from Mumias to Mbale until 1911. They were joined by others like Mohomad Bakar who shifted his base from Kampala and European hunters like W. D. M. Bell.
Elephant hunting made the gun market lucrative in the area, though some went as far as Ethiopia. This rapid development of an area originally described as a waste attracted the attention of the protectorate office in Kampala and Entebbe and brought it to the attention of the colonial office in London and hence the desire to bring it under the British protectorate.