The Great Floods of 1961 In Tana River District


Floods are part of life of the Pokomo. They have never been worried about floods because they have studied the rain pattern over the years and they are, therefore, in a position to forecast with great accuracy when the floods would come. The Pokomo depended on the floods every year for their rice crops. Lack of floods meant poor rice harvest. While flooding was and still remains a common phenomenon, there were unprecedented floods between the months of May and July, 1951 in Tana-River District. Villages that were situated on the lower levels of the valley were inevitably surrounded by the flood waters or even destroyed. Swamps, lakes and old river beds were saturated with water.

The level of the main River Tana had not dropped excessively in order to accommodate more water. As a result, the heavy short rains in November, 1951 from up-country caused the River to flood again. The whole district seemed to be filled with water at one time or the other that year. The African District Council passed a resolution requiring all villages that were liable to flooding to be encircled by protective bands. As the waters subsided towards the end of the year, however, the Pokomo took advantage and planted rice. The resultant rice crop proved to be one of the heaviest that had ever been recorded in the history of the district. It was coupled with bumper gram and maize harvests.

Ten years later, the River Tana produced one of the greatest natural disasters ever to occur in the history of Tana-River District. In 1961, there were heavy rains in the district. Equally heavy rains were witnessed in the upper areas of the River. By early September, the rains were still pounding the district. Then the unforeseen happened. On 23rd September, 1961, there came great floods which affected the whole district. The River burst its banks in virtually all places.

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Villages, missions and trading centres were isolated and in danger of being swept away by the ravaging river. By the second day, villages like Gadeni, Marembo and Dumi, to the north of Garsen, had been swept away. That same night, other villages like Kau, Ozi, Ngao, Mwanadhamba and Furaha, to the south of Garsen, were ravaged by the waters. The floods did not spare anything, ranging from human beings, animals to crops. There was water virtually everywhere, as far as the eyes could see. The rains were so severe that even the bridge on the Sabaki River at Malindi was carried away by the water from River Sabaki, thereby cutting off road communication between Tana-River District and Kilifi District.

The Pokomo reacted swiftly. They extricated their families and moved to higher grounds. Others swam to safety. They at the same time moved to higher grounds with whatever goods they could salvage. No Pokomo died during these floods. The only deaths that were recorded involved two canoes from Kau carrying 10 people of the Arab and Swahili descent which capsized on 30th September, 1961 on their way to Witu. Two other people of Swahili descent were reportedly drowned at different times. The Orma, who are non-swimmers, were bewildered by the floods. About 30% of their cattle and 60% of their goats and sheep perished in the floods. It was a miracle that there were no deaths reported among the Orma.

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In the mean-time, the Government used all means at its disposal to help the local people. The District Commissioner used his launch, christened “Pelican”, to rescue the stranded Government officers. They were all moved to safer grounds. The whole district depended on air drops of food for survival. The Royal Air Force swung into action. Their planes and helicopters flew low while dropping food to the stranded people. Flying machines became a common feature and the local residents were so excited on seeing so many aeroplanes in the air that they temporarily forgot their predicament. The arrangements by the Colonial Government were meticulously carried out and at the end of the day, it was the provincial administration officials, right from the Provincial Commissioner, District Commissioner, Chief up to the Village Headman who came out as the heroes of the operation. Looking retrospectively, some villages like Mwanadhamba, Furaha, Gadeni, Marembo, and Dumi were completely destroyed by the floods and their residents either migrated to other villages or found completely new villages.

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That is how new villages like Idsowe, Oda, Tarasaa, Hewani and Sera came to be founded. The Government recognised the efforts of several people who were given commendation letters by the state for their meticulous contribution during the floods of 1961. Among those who were awarded included the following Pokomo: Mary Hezeki (Assistant Health Visitor), Jonathan Walakisa (Coxswain of the District Commissioner’s official launch – Pelican), Heinrich Elia Mukoma (Engineer attendant of the Pelican), Matata Julius, Johana Emanuel and Mohamed Athman (all crew members of the Pelican), Fares Joel (Tax Clerk), Jekonia Jara, Eliud Abio, Matia Teofilo, Phillemon Matayo and Salatiel Teofilo (all Ministry of Agricultural staff based at Kipini). All these were presented with Certificates of Commendation for flood relief work by the Acting Governor at Government House, Mombasa (now State House) on 28th April, 1962.

Later, the Chief of Ngao Location, Masinzi Pakia, was one of the few administrators who were awarded the Queen’s Medal for Chiefs at Government House, Nairobi (now State House) in November, 1962 in recognition of his good work during the floods of 1961.Apparently, these may be the last serious floods the district may ever experience. With the building of dams across the River Tana at Kiambere, Masinga, Kindaruma, Kamburu and Gitaru, the floods have diminished so much that the Pokomo have been left without the much needed natural floods for growing rice.

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Edward M. Yesse is a Pokomo from Ngao. He was born on 18th December, 1957. He passed through Ngao Primary School, Tarasaa High School and the University of Nairobi where he graduated with an Upper Second Class Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Public Administration in 1986. In addition, he has a First Division Diploma in Constitutional Law and a First Division Diploma in Parliamentary Institutions and Procedure from the Institute of Constitutional and Parliamentary Studies, New Delhi, India, which he obtained in 1990. He is also a Parliamentary Fellow from the same Institute. He passed the Administrative Officers' Examination administered by the Public Service Commission in 1990. He obtained a Diploma in Business Management from the Kenya Institute of Management (KIM) in 2003. He attended numerous other courses. He is currently pursuing his MBA. He opted for an early retirement in June, 2013 as Regional Manager with the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) due to personal reasons. E-mail: Mobile No: 0722647327 or 0733860825


  1. Just to add itsowe village (erroneously spelt idsowe) was formed by people from a village called madyengo, which was just across the ferry from Garsen, which we called Nkambini.


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