Thimlich Ohinga, the unique 600-year old site

Saturday April 15 2017
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Built in the 14th century, Thimlich Ohinga is one of the few examples of the early defensive savannah architecture that became a traditional style across East Africa. PHOTO|FRED OLUOCH

Thimlich Ohinga, an archaeological site in Migori County some 180km southwest of Kisumu City, is an important historical landmark in East Africa but is barely known beyond the immediate vicinity.

Built in the 14th century, Thimlich Ohinga is one of the few examples of the early defensive savannah architecture that became a traditional style across East Africa.

Despite having been built without mortar, the expansive structure, on a 52-acre piece of land, is still standing, except for a few sections that have been destroyed by weather, human and animal activities. The dry stone-wall structure was gazetted as a national monument in 1981.

This 600-year old historical landmark is now a candidate for listing in the prestigious World Heritage List of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

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Thimlich Ohinga’s walls consist of meticulously arranged stones, with lintels supporting the entrance. PHOTO| FRED OLUOCH

Being on the World Heritage List means that a cultural site or landscape has been recognised for its unique universal value to humankind.


Once listed, sites cease to be the property of the host country and become a global property, benefiting from funding from Unesco and other donors.

Kenya would gain financially as well as technically through programmes in education and conservation, publicity and international assistance.

According to the former director of the British Institute of Eastern Africa, Paul Lane, who is also a professor of Global Archaeology at Uppsala University, Sweden, and is assisting the excavation team, it was necessary to build such large enclosures with walls one metre thick to act as a defence against hostile communities or wild animals.

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Prof Paul Lane at Thimlich Ohinga. PHOTO: FRED OLUOCH

The walls also acted as a symbol of authority, marking the fort as a centre of political power and wealth; leaders of those days competed among each other to come up with the biggest enclosures.

“The stones signifies that a lot of labour was required and took years to build. So either the communities had a good food producing economy to sustain the labour force, or the political system could force people to work on a communal effort where there was a consensus that such enclosures were necessary,” said Prof Lane.

Archaeological records show that Thimlich had two phases of occupation. The Thimlich Ohinga landscape is a living testimony to a unique cultural tradition.

The magnificence and layout of the site point to the evolution from simple to complex structures.

The influence of this development went beyond Thimlich to neighbouring areas.

As a village complex with a symbol of leadership, it became the centre from which territorial conquests into neighbouring areas were conducted. It also developed as an administrative centre where leadership consultations and labour organisations were carried out.

Other important activities also took place at the site including exchange of goods, farming, and veneration of the gods. The site therefore functioned as a small urban centre, combining administrative, social welfare and economic activities or functions.

These functions continued until the last groups occupying the site broke from the traditions when colonial rule interfered with their systems. 

The abandonment of the site then became inevitable, leaving it as a place for occasional visits to commune with the ancestral spirits.

Indigenous architecture
Thimlich Ohinga is an outstanding example of local architecture characterised by a three-phase dry stone laying technology that is not known to exist anywhere else in the region. The complex is composed of four main enclosures — Kochieng, Kakuku, Koketch and Kolouch.

The walls consist of meticulously arranged stones of irregular shapes and sizes. They were constructed in three phases that ran concurrently where the outer and inner phases of the walls were joined together using a middle third phase consisting of smaller stones that pressed down the ends of outer and inner stones.

Due to the lack of distinct shapes in the stones used, the walls do not exhibit any course line, as is common in modern stone walls.
The walls range in height from 1.2m to 4.2m. They were built without mortar and have many complementing features that have made them survive for several centuries.
The stones were simply put together using an interlocking system that enhanced stability.

The average thickness of the walls is approximately one metre, increasing at the entrances to about 2m to 3m. This was a stability technique used to create maximum strength at the gates.

The walls had no foundation but this was mitigated by use of buttresses for protection of the enclosures from strong winds as well as the effects of slope, humans and animals.

Further, purposely selected elongated slabs were used at the gates as lintels to support the weight of the stones above the entrance.

The structures include gates 1m wide and 1.5m high, which was a defensive and technological innovation. One had to stoop when entering the gates and there were watch-towers adjacent to the gates.

A similar style of construction is found in the Great Zimbabwe, a stone structure from which the Southern African country draws its name. It can also be compared with the walled cities of the Middle East in Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the Surame Cultural Landscape in northern Nigeria.

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Charles Otieno, Thimlich Ohinga’s site manager. This 600-year old historical landmark is now a candidate for listing in the prestigious World Heritage List of Unesco. PHOTO|FRED OLUOCH

When The EastAfrican visited the site recently, a team of archaeologists from Kenya and Sweden were busy trying to meet the conditions of the Unesco World Heritage Committee, which requires more excavations in order for the site to be rated.

Led by Dr Emmanuel Ndiema, the team includes Dr Christine Ogola and senior researcher Wycliffe Oloo. The Unesco World Heritage committee requires the Kenyan application to involve one international expert.

“We are optimistic that the site will be included on the World Heritage List because archaeological data that was missing is now available,” said Dr Ndiema.

Prof Simiyu Wandiba from the University of Nairobi’s Department of Archaeology, who carried out the first study of Thimlich in 1986, is also on board, as is Dr Isiah Onjala from the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University.

On the site are cattle kraals that have not yet been excavated. The team is analysing soil samples to determine whether it contains high concentrations of phosphorous and nitrogen, associated with animal secretions. Artefacts found on the site indicate that there were many livestock pens.

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An artefact found at Thimlich Ohinga. PHOTO: FRED OLUOCH

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An artefacts found at Thimlich Ohinga. PHOTO|FRED OLUOCH

Thimlich Ohinga means “frightening, dense forest” in the Dholuo language.

The stone structure enclosure has walls ranging from one to 4.2 metres in height, built of loose stones and blocks without any dressing or mortar. Archaeological records show some materials found on the site are more than 600 years old.
Communities that moved into this region between the 15th and 19th centuries repaired and modified the walls, but did not interfere with the architecture and preservation of the structures.
Dr Ndiema says that Thimlich is the only monument in Kenya that has regional importance in terms of its historical past. There were migrations to the area from Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Other Kenyan historical sites on the World Heritage List include Lamu Stone Town, Mt Kenya,  Sibiloi National Park in Turkana — which is rich in fossil deposits — and the Mijikenda sacred forests at the Coast  (commonly known as the Kaya Forests).

During the first quarter of the 20th century, the Ohingnis (the plural for Ohinga) was abandoned en masse.

No more stone structures were constructed and consequently some walls were reduced to mere traces of circumferences or disappeared altogether. Thimlich Ohinga is one of the few stone structures that survived.

“We know that from 1700 to 1900, the Lake Victoria region was a beehive of trade. We want to find archaeological remains of some of the commodities that are not found in the region to link it to the regional economy,” said Prof Lane, who also researched the Gunda (abandoned settlement enclosures) in northern Nyanza region associated with the Luo migration from Sudan.

Prof Lane says that unlike Great Zimbabwe, which has four different architectural styles, Thimlich has only one.

“The similarities are superficial and there is no suggestion that the architecture came from the south, or that there was interaction between them. Humans are inventive and can produce similar technology without having any form of contact,” he said.

It is one of 138 sites containing 521 stone structures that were built around Lake Victoria. The larger village enclosures were used by larger communities with political authority, and the smaller ones by families.

Thimlich is the largest, and best preserved and is gazetted as a national monument. A third of the ground is covered by enclosures.

Thimlich Ohinga is one of the leading tourist attractions on the western circuit. Its strategic location is a perfect stopover for those on their way to or from the nearby Ruma National Game Park, Gogo Falls or the Macalder gold mines.