Celebration of Teso culture at ancient rock art site

Thursday January 16 2014

Rock art boulders at Kakapel. Inset, rock art at Kakapel. Photos/Courtesy of Tara

Rock art boulders at Kakapel. Inset, rock art at Kakapel. Photos/Courtesy of Tara 


East Africa is full of surprises. When you think you have seen all the world class attractions, it throws another gem at you.

It is Boxing Day 2013 and I joined the Kenya Wildlife Service crew in Kisumu on a trip to Kakapel, near Malaba on the Kenya-Uganda border. We were going to attend the annual Teso cultural festival and visit the Kakapel ancient rock art site in the same neighbourhood.

About 160km from Kisumu, we reached Amagoro, the main town, from where we branched onto a dusty murram road heading to Kakapel, some 12km from Amagoro. The road was full of people walking or on boda-bodas, hurrying to the cultural festival.

We had been surprised back at Mumias and Bungoma towns, when we asked for directions to Kakapel. All we drew were blank stares and we were even misdirected. It goes to show how little awareness there is of what is going on or exists around people within a radius of just a few kilometres.

Twa art

The first I heard of Kakapel was through the Trust for African Rock Art (Tara), and I have since been intrigued by the ancient art of the Twa, hunter-gatherers who 2,000 to 4,000 years ago used granite stones as a canvas to portray the world around them.

There were elephants, giraffes and a myriad other wildlife species living where today the Teso, a plains-Nilotic people related to the Karamojong and the Turkana, grow cassava, maize, millet, bananas and sorghum around the same rockscape.

Kakapel rock art site is jointly managed by the National Museums of Kenya and Tara. A 700-foot glistening grey granite monolith towers above the site.

It seems like the whole world is here for the festival. Standing in the shadow of the monolith is a cave shaded by trees – with figures of giraffes, elephants, tortoise shells, concentric circles and more, sketched on it.

It’s encouraging to see so many people visiting the millennia-old gallery.

In his book African Rock Art, Paintings and Engravings on Stone, David Coulson, the executive chairman of Tara said: “The first time that I became aware of Kakapel site was when the well-known Kenya naturalist and film maker, the late Joan Root [a Tara supporter and adviser] came back from a visit to Uganda in 1996 and showed me a picture she had taken of the paintings. I travelled to Kakapel in 1997 together with Tara founding trustee Alec Campbell, which was when we first recorded the site. We published photos and a drawing from that visit in our book.”

The late Dr Osaka Odak from the University of Nairobi was the first person to write a paper on the site, and published it in Azania, the annual scientific publication on archaeological discoveries and debates in Africa.

In 2002, Coulson and the president of the Ford Foundation, who were then supporting Tara, went to see the Kakapel paintings. The site had been vandalised, with graffiti all over it.

“As a result we suggested to the National Museums of Kenya with whom we have an understanding, that they should gazette the site as a national monument, which they did,” Coulson adds.

Some time in 2004, Tara raised money from mobile phone company Safaricom to bring in an expert restorer from the United States to clean off the graffiti at the site, and in 2005 Kenya’s then minister for national heritage Najib Balala, visited Kakapel with Coulson to promote it as a tourist site.

Since 2004, Tara has discovered other paintings at Kakapel.

“There are different styles of art,” said Anthony Odera, the NMK site manager. Schools and communities are encouraged to visit the site to learn about the importance of rock art.

“The concentric circles could be symbols for rain-making or fertility. The Abasuba people still use them on Mfangano Island where there are two rock art sites — Mwanga and Quitane. You see the same concentric circles there, which could mean that the same people, the Twa were there too,” Odera said.

I talk with some of the people attending the festival, curious to know their views on this unique art. “It’s probably God who did the art,” says Baraza Eclagi, a Teso farmer who says he’s known about the site since he was a child.

Twelve-year old Esther Etyang from Kakoli Primary School gives an interesting observation. “This rock art has a teaching. It shows how people lived some time back, in caves, and they painted to let us know they lived here and what was there. I would like it to be preserved so that future generations can see it.” When I ask her how old she thinks the rock art is, she replies “I think 100 years old.” I smile, waiting for her to discover the true age. 

Young polytechnic students join in the chat. “This is a great cultural day for us because we can study about our art and culture,” remarks 19-year old Caroline Amusolo, a second-year nursing student at the Masinde Muliro University about 50km from the site.

“If we have the knowledge about the site, we can tell others about the rock art and our culture from the old days,” she said.

For most of the people there, it’s either their first or second time at the festival and to see the art. The culture of the older generation, the youngsters tell me, is preserved in the dances they have seen the wazees perform, the food they ate and what they used as implements and utensils.

“I don’t eat the ‘old’ food. Today we eat modern food like rice, chapatis, spaghetti and use modern cutlery and dishes, not calabashes,” Amusolo said.

A few metres away, Paul Sanda Emolot, the prime minister of the Iteso kingdom and a representative from Uganda of the Teso king, joins the dancers in the final jig of the day before the speeches. He’s here to deliver the king’s message and is very much the dignified representative clad in a flowing cream-coloured robe with a garland of green-leaves around his neck.

“The king is 81 years old and too old to travel,” said Joseph Eseme a teacher at Rwatame Primary School. The king is known as Emorimori.

“The Teso kingdom covers eastern Uganda, part of western Kenya, southern Sudan and a few areas in DR Congo,” said Ekirapa Okwara, a businessman. “Uganda has about two million Tesos, the largest population of the kingdom, while in Kenya we number 400,000. We have a council of elders and ministers serving the kingdom.”

“But we’re marginalised in Kenya,” he added. “We don’t have a single college or any kind of institution. There’s no piped water here and no investment in infrastructure. Since this centre was opened 10 years ago, we haven’t developed it further even though it’s an ancient rock art site.”

While we chat, Patrick Omutia the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Social Services, Culture, Sports, Gender and Youth, addresses the gathering. He announces that the national government together with the county one, will open the first public library in Busia County, and that the cultural centre will be expanded and will include fencing the centre and the rock art site. He also promises to develop a cultural centre for the neighbouring Sabaot community in Mount Elgon district.

This is all with a view to promoting the area with its fascinating landscape of rocks, hills, the lake and culture as a filming destination in Africa.

But that’s not all. There will be talent centres in all the counties. A football stadium will be developed in Malaba and 200 footballs distributed in Teso South and Teso North districts respectively.

To develop the national stadium, Omutia encourages the people to donate 50 acres of land (there was laughter when he first stated 50,000 acres) for the project.

It seems like the Teso kingdom is ready to fast-track to the modern world even as it preserves what its past offers.