Keeping ancient site pristine, safe

Saturday May 4 2019

Thilich Ohinga

The plaque marking the official inscription of Thimlich Ohinga in the World Heritage List. PHOTO | FRED OLUOCH | NMG 

FRED OLUOCH
By FRED OLUOCH
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The 20-year wait for the inscription of Kenya’s Thimlich Ohinga into the World Heritage List was worth it, but now the difficult task of maintaining it as a global site has begun.

Dr Isaiah Onjala, who started the campaign to include the unique 14th century cultural landscape in Migori County, 180km southwest of Kisumu in western Kenya, in the Unesco World Heritage List, says the campaign was sometimes energy-sapping.

“But now we can look back and realise that our efforts were worth it,” said Dr Onjala during the official inauguration of Thimlich Ohinga as Kenya’s 7th World Heritage Site on April 18.

The ceremony, held on the International Day for Monuments and Sites, was marked with pomp and colourful cultural dances by the community as well as sensitisation on the need to promote awareness of the diversity of the world's cultural heritage, its vulnerability and need for their protection and conservation.

Thimlich—a rare example of early defensive savannah architecture made of neatly arranged dry stone wall without the use of brick and mortar—was inscribed in the Unesco list in June 2018, joining other Kenyan sites and monuments on the list—the Kenya Lakes System, Mount Kenya, Lake Turkana National Parks, the Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests, Lamu Old Town and Fort Jesus in Mombasa.

Thimlich Ohinga is an exceptional testimony of settlement patterns and spatial community during an important period in the migration and settlement of the Lake Victoria Basin between the 16th and 17th centuries. It was gazetted as a National Monument in 1981.

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Its listing on the Unesco List is a major boost to the country's western tourism circuit because it is strategically located on the mainstream tourism circuit that begins from the famous Maasai Mara and Serengeti game reserves in Kenya and Tanzania respectively.

Thimlich is under the management of the National Museums Of Kenya (NMK), and the latter is now charged with making sure it avoids the fate of Lake Turkana National Parks, last year when it was put on the endangered list because of development projects that negatively impacted on the lake’s aquatic biodiversity.

Dr Amina Muhammed, Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Culture and Heritage, while noting that the inscription of Thimlich is another opportunity for the country and region to showcase its outstandingly rich heritage to the world, also warned that the managers of Thimlich will have to learn lessons from mistakes made at other sites.

“Quarrying, logging and unplanned developments on or near the site must be discouraged,” she said.

Buffer zone

Unesco recommended the expansion of the property boundary, definition and legal approval of the exact demarcation of the extended buffer zone, establishment of a single database to compile documentation regarding archaeological excavation results, conservation activities and associated oral traditions as further measures to safeguard the site.

Other recommendations were for the government and NMK to establish a monitoring system and define how the monitoring exercise results can be fed into an established database, and undertake a comprehensive Heritage Impact Assessments for any infrastructure developed in and around the property, before permissions for these are granted.

Kenya is required to submit a report on the implementation of the Unesco recommendations by December 1, 2019.

Besides conservation challenges, Thimlich lacks basic infrastructure such as all-weather roads, eateries and accommodation, which has kept tourist visits, both local and foreign, to a minimum.

Migori Governor Okoth Obado committed the county to complying with the Unesco requirements.

The Thimlic Ohinga site is complemented by the Mugabo caves, the white sandy beach of Muhuru Bay, the crying stone of Chinato and the Legio Maria shrines at God Kwer, which are not yet fully exploited.

The nearby Lichota airstrip in Migori town is a handy for light aircraft dropping and picking visitors.

A challenge to NMK now is to have the factual historical account of Thimlich told and recorded. So far, the accounts are not consistent with the local oral tales.