History of Mbale City Uganda

Clock tower in Mbale Town
Clock tower in Mbale Town

Mbale municipality is one of the towns in Uganda that were elevated to a city status after Parliament approved a motion to create 15 new cities.

The cities that started operation effective July 1st 2020 include Jinja, Mbarara, Fort Portal, Arua, Gulu, Masaka, Hoima, Lira and Soroti.

In this article, our focus is on Mbale City exploring the history of Mbale, how it came to be called Mbale, the popular Kadodi dance, tourism attractions never to miss out when you visit Mbale among others.

Historical Background of Mbale City

By the end of 19th century in 1900, the area known as Mbale was uninhabited, comprising of grasslands, forests and marshlands. At this time Semei Kakungulu had extended British rule, and he had curved out Bukedi which covered Bugwere, Budama, Bukedea, Bunyole, Sebei and Mbale with with headquarters at Budaka.

However, in 1903, the British directed Semei Kakungulu to transfer the administration offices from Budaka, further east. Kakungulu then moved the headquarters from Budaka to the current Mbale District.

The Baganda at first named the place Kalungu in Luganda meaning a deserted place. Later Kakungulu named this area Mbale, after a small village in Buganda, however, the indigenous people claim that this area was named after a rock found in the area (Source: Municipal Archives). Mbale Means a rock in the local dialect.

The locals say the  name Mbale is derived from the local native Bagisu word for ‘stones’. In the Lugisu language, stones are referred to as kamabale. There are many types of stones found in Mbale, because Mbale lies at the foot of Mt.Elgon.

The stones found in Mbale are used for housing construction and road building in Eastern Uganda. Some special types of stones from Mbale are taken to the nearby Tororo Cement Factory to be used as raw materials for cement production

In 1906 it was gazetted as a regional centre, and by 1951, the town had built modern Offices on plot 62-68, on what is now called Republic Street. After Independence in 1962, Mbale was the first town to be granted Official status as an urban Authority. Mbale Municipality is one of Uganda’s big town supported by a first growing private and public sectors.

Mbale developed as a commercial centre from Arab slave traders and later, it also attracted Indian traders especially those who had come to build the railway line. Eventually, Mbale became the Government’s administrative centre for the eastern region.

By 1951, the town had built modern offices on what is now called Republic Street and after independence in 1962, the Mbale Municipal Council was the first town to be granted official status of an Urban Authority.

Mbale Town is fairly well connected in terms of transport. It is a major business hub in the region and trades with Kenya, Sudan and Tanzania. The town is served with a total of over 100 kilometres of tarmac and earth roads.

Mbale is the nodal centre for the Mbale-Kampala highway via Tororo Town through Tirinyi road. It also connects this region of Uganda via the Soroti highway.

Size and Topography: Mbale has gentle hills and valleys covering a geographical area of 2,435 hectares. Its relief varies from 4,040 feet above sea level in the south-eastern border region to 3,600 feet above sea level in the west.

Location: Mbale Town is located on the foot of Wanale ridge of Mt. Elgon which is 8,000 feet above sea level.  Mbale is bordered by Tororo District in the south, Manafwa District in the south-east, Sironko District in the north-east, Kumi District in the north, Budaka District in the north-west, and Butaleja District in the south-west.Mbale’s central location makes it attractive, competitive and a business hub in the region.

Further its location and multiple entry points and its close proximity to Kenya makes it accessible to all regions and provides opportunities for enhanced trade activities that attract local investment necessary for economic development.

From Kampala the Capital city of Uganda it is 256 kilometres via Tororo and 230 kilometres via Tirinyi. It is 52 kilometres from the Western Kenya (source: five year development plan, 2014/15-2019/20).

Below is a video of Mbale town done by Urban TV.


Mbale’s population stands at 98,000 (UBOS, 2015), of which, 44,900 are males and 46,900 are females with a sex ratio of 98.1 males per 100 females.

However, this figure is far below that of the day population estimated to fluctuate between 400,000-700,000 which reflects significant strain on council delivery of the services. The land population density is 534 persons per sq. Km.

The population of Mbale Municipality according to three divisions with the largest, most populous and economically most prosperous being Industrial Division with 45% followed by Northern Division 40% and then Wanale Division with 15%.

The large population in Industrial Division is attributed to the large population of immigrants as compared to Wanale Division, which is predominately a residential area comprising mainly senior Quarters.


The climate of Mbale City is influenced by its proximity to the Equator and its situation at the foot of Wanale Ridge. The climate is warm and humid without extremes. There is hardly any seasonal variation of temperature throughout the year. Rainfall is fairly distributed ranging between 1250 and 1750 mm per year.

Mbale receives relief rainfall. The town enjoys a double maximum of rainfall during the months of March to May and October to November. Rainfall amounts are sufficient to impart sustenance to growth of annual and perennial food crops both within and without the Municipality that supports the urban population today.

Geology, Soils and Vegetation

The soils of Mbale town are largely of the formalistic gneiss that are in the last stages of tropical weathering. Their volcanic nature renders them fertile for support of plant life. The larger part of the Municipality is developed such that it has presented a modified vegetation cover with limited traces of natural vegetation.

The basement complex is firm and stable rendering it ideal for the development of housing to the high density settlement.

Local Economic Development

Mbale is strategically located in Uganda which makes it attractive and competitive. It is surrounded by a rich agricultural region which provides the Municipality with agricultural produce. Its close location to Kenya provides the town with opportunities for various economic activities and trans-border trade.

The main economic activities carried out in Mbale include trade, transport services such as boda-bodas, telecommunication services, restaurants, lodges and hotel services, and food processing industries. In slum areas however, there are high levels of unemployment, especially among the youth.

Tourism attractions to visit when in Mbale City:

Follow the Sipi River as it plunges over three sets of basalt cliffs (chebonet, Chema and Tegeres) within a space of 2km.  Opportunities for mountain biking, mountain hiking, abseiling, rock climbing, paragliding and fly fishing are all found at Sipi. It has plenty to offer to adventurous tourists.

Sipi falls: Located at the border of Sironko and Kapchorwa, Sipi falls is the pride of Bagisu. In addition to the magnificent falls, the area gives an eye catching view of the Kapchorwaa undulating landscape.

Wanale Mountain: Located three kilometres from the town, the mountain gives a clear view of Mbale. It is a home to the famous Kawuka caves, a dream for every tourist who visit Mbale City. The Bagisu believe that the caves contain spirits that cure infertility in women.

Bumutoto cultural site: This is where the Bagisu perform male circumcision. It is also where the circumcision is launched from, every even year, and it spreads to the rest of Bugisu.

Imbalu dance: Before you leave Mbale, jig to the Kadodi tunes (Imbalu or circumcision dance) for candidates to be circumcised. It is a culture the Bagisu pride in.

You can watch the video below of the Kadodi Imbalu Dance by Elgon Ngoma Troupe. 

The Exploration centre at Budadiri: The centre is one place one should not miss out to visit when in Mbale. With its spacious accommodation in the heart of Mt. Elgon Forest Reserve, it is a home to a variety of wild game, including monkeys, butterflies and birds. It is also a site for the Budadiri hot springs.

Sisiyi falls: Sisiyi falls are perhaps the most interesting falls though least known among tourists who visit Mbale City. They lie in a valley that stretches 3 kilometres and 2,00 metres deep. They form a zig-zag pattern of a rainbow when flowing, bringing out beautiful scenery for tourists.

Mt. Elgon forest reserve: It contains a variety of fauna and flora. The dense green vegetation is attractive and has a variety of animals. The reserve also contains the famous Jacksonâ pool- something that is very rare in many reserves and parks in Uganda. For those who enjoy swimming when on holiday, the reserve is the ideal place.

Mount Elgon is famous for its Arabica coffee. Take a Kapchorwa coffee tour and learn more. The upper slopes of Mount Elgon are home to dramatic giant forms of heather, lobelia and groundsel unique to east Africa’s highest mountains. The Nkokonjeru arm is a 25km long ridge of lava. This spilled out of a satellite vent on the SW flank of Mount Elgon after the central cone collapsed and blocked the main magma chamber. At the end of the last ice age, melting glaciers created a lake in the caldera. Rising waters overflowed the enclosing wall and cut rapidly down through weak layers of ash and agglomerates, to carve the Suam gorge.

Bamboo shoots (Malewa): When in Mbale, you can taste the malewa, a local delicacy in the area.

At Kapkwai, you can find a variety of forest birds and primates on the trial network at Kapkwai forest exploration centre.

Educational institutions in Mbale District

Mbale has a number of educational institutions from lower primary to University level. There is Islamic University in Uganda, Livingstone International University among other institutions of higher learning.

One of the most popular and oldest schools in Mbale is Nabumali High School. It is located in the village of Nabumali in Mbale District, off the Tororo–Mbale road, approximately 11 kilometres (6.8 mi), south of the city of Mbale. This location is at the foothills of Wanale, one of the mountain ranges that make up Mount Elgon. 

The school was founded by the Church Missionary Society in 1900. It moved to its present location in 1912. The performance of the school was exemplary in the 1960s through the 1990s.

Slums and shelter: Mbale Municipality is characterized by high levels of poverty, poor and illegally constructed housing structures, overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate basic services delivery.

This situation can be attributed to rapid urbanization that has not matched the capacity to plan and manage urban growth. The growth of slums has therefore become a natural indicator of the effects of rapid urbanization.

Rural to urban migrations is by far the most significant driving force behind rapid urban population growth. This migration has resulted in the fast development of informal settlements as most of the immigrants are poor and cannot afford to live in good quality houses. The high levels of unemployment in the towns further aggravate the problem of informal settlements.

Notable slum areas in Mbale include; Kikamba, Barracks, Mutukula, Kiteso, Bulago, Bujoloto cells, Kiduda, Karimojong, Sisye and Muvule wards. These slums are characterized by high rates of poverty coupled by high rates of illicit income generating activities such as prostitution, brewing of illicit alcohol, and child labour.

More than 39,000 people are estimated to be living in these slums which occupy more than 335 acres of land, according to Mbale Municipal Council Three Year Development Plan 2009/2010.

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