The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: Drive to Conserve Ancient Rock Art Sites in Kisii

HUMAN activities have been blamed on destruction of ancient rock art sites in the country, a trend which should be reversed urgently, according to experts.

Agricultural activities, quarrying, graffiti and deforestation have been identified as the main threats to cultural heritage sites in Kenya. However, concerted efforts are being made to map and gazette all the sites to protect them from further destruction.

Recently, a community rock art workshop was held at Ogembo in Gucha to brainstorm on how to protect the sites in order to benefit local residents.

Dutch organisation Prince Claus Fund has provided emergency funds to create awareness on heritage sites in Kisii County. Rock art sites at Gotichaki, Nyabigena, Tabaka, Nyatike, Ibencho, Mote O'Nkoba and Keboye areas in Kisii have been destroyed due to human activities including soapstone mining, according to sculptor Elkanah Ong'esa who is leading efforts to preserve the sites.

"We have an emergency situation at Gotichaki where valuable rock art on soapstone at Gotichaki quarry in Gucha South requires urgent action to save it. We want to involve the government and other agencies including Unesco to create awareness on the value of this art in order to protect it," explained Ong'esa.

The National Museums of Kenya says the rock art sites are heritage sites which should be protected from further destruction and has launched the mapping.

"We are concerned about the destruction of rock art sites is rampant and this trend must be reversed and as NMK we have started this process," says NMK's assistant director for Western region Isaya Onjala.

The government, he notes, is actively involved in the process of preserving the rock art sites, noting that Kisii was the home of some of the unique ancient rock art sites in the country.

"If not gazetted the rock art sites risk complete destruction," said Onjala when he addressed the seminar in Ogembo. Rock art sites, Onjala observes, can be tourist attractions which will benefit both local communities and the government in terms of revenue.

"There is a shift from animal to cultural tourism. County governments should venture into cultural tourism," added Onjala Trust for African Rock Art researcher Terry Osinini said the threats facing heritage sites were unique.

"Conservation efforts should not interfere with economic activities of the people. Most people depend on soapstone as their livelihood and this should not be interfered with," said Osinini.

Tara is a non-governmental organisation engaged in preserving rock art. Osinini agrees that agriculture, quarrying, graffiti and deforestation are the main threats to cultural heritage sites in the country.

Osinini said it is not easy to enforce existing laws to protect heritage in Kenya. "Fencing the sites is a useful solution but it creates an unnatural barrier between the people and their heritage. The alternative is to promote cultural tourism where the community gains," he says.

Emmanuel Ndiema, a senior research scientist in the Department of Earth Sciences at the National Museums, says it is difficult to strike a balance between people seeking a genuine livelihood while protecting heritage sites.

Ndiema , speaking at Sameta and Gotichaki sites, said it is not only an embodiment of a people's culture but also represented a community's humanity.

"The National Museums can only use present legislation to protect these sites but communities have to come together to find ways of transforming rock art into valuable resources for the country's development," he said.

Ndiema noted that a community that did not appreciate rock art was not likely to conserve it for posterity, adding that such sites had potential to create employment and wealth. Locals say the rock art seen in various parts of Kisii has symbolic significance with the community's past.

"The snake-like marks described the route up this hill. Our forefathers used to play ajua on the rocks as they waited for their colleagues," argues John Onsare Mayieka, 52, a resident of Sameta.

Other elders argue the patterns used to give directions while others say men and women used to grind powder from the limestone rocks for ornamental purposes.

Yet other people claim the cupules were created for use in preparing medicine. "We were told that Kisii men used to grind powder 'embondo' from the granite for use during ceremonies. Some of these patterns have been covered by soil while others have been used as building material," says Meshack Marita, 60.

Ong'esa, an award-winning sculptor, notes: "Despite our calls to the government to protect these sites, little has been done. Countries that have developed have always strived to protect their cultural heritage. We don't want to stop people utilising these stones for economic gain but we are advocating for alternative ways of earning from the sites."

The retired fine art tutor says the rock art in Kisii may have been made by other cultures that occupied the region before as the history of the Gusii community is barely 400 years old. He calls for the preservation of the rock art sites as technology used to study the art form is not yet fully developed.

"There may be findings from future studies that can reveal the history of the region. Similar prehistoric art patterns have been found in Karamoja and other parts along the River Nile. This may have been a language of expression that could have messages for us," he notes.

He said cultural tourism can significantly improve the Gross Domestic Product and create employment in form of tour guides, drivers, interpreters and manual labourers.

"We are seeking funds from Unesco to support a community project that will facilitate the sustainable utilisation of rock art sites in Kisii with a view of protecting them for posterity," Ongesa said.

He said if preserved, more research can be conducted on the heritage sites to unravel hidden historical relationships between communities.

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