In the retelling of Africa's struggle against colonialists, caves feature among crucial fighting posts. Many were used as a passage to different destinations or as hideouts for freedom fighters.
In Tanzania, among the caves that are most talked about are Mapango ya Amboni — Amboni caves — in Tanga.
Tanga is as historical a coastal city as they come: Its location (near Pemba and Zanzibar Islands), for example, made it a vital trading centre for ivory and slave trade in early 19th century.
Indeed, in the dying days of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, Tanga played a crucial role in the resistance against Germany East Africa but, in 1885, the town fell under the latter’s territory.
It’s the same colonialists who discovered limestone in the now famous Amboni caves.
Amboni is a corruption of Mboni, whose land was next to the caves and the Germans, keen to grow sisal, took it away, then acquired mining rights over it.
In their operations, the officials announced their discovery to the colonial authority, who in turn declared the region with precious limestone a conservation area in 1922.
This past week, I joined members of Switzerland-based Fondation Botnar on a tour of Mapango ya Amboni some eight kilometres north of Tanga on the Tanga-Mombasa highway.
At the gate, we were received by Hashim Kaaya, a tour guide, who told us of 13 stations inside.
There are 10 caves, say geologists, but only one is used for guided tours. The reported length of the longest cave is 755 metres.
Like many such places, Amboni is replete with myths, which may explain why traditional rites are still held there to date. The local people regard the caves as supernatural features, where divine powers have resided ever since the caves were formed.
The first chamber of the Amboni caves has religious significance as it is used as a shrine for prayers and sacrifices by local communities, the Sambaa, Bondei, Digo and Segeju.
Various items are put in the chamber by the villagers during prayers as gifts to the spirits locally referred to as “Mizimu”.
Away from the religious aspect, there are several attractions, including rock Drawings depicting the head of a lion, a bird, a crocodile, an elephant, and a leopard.
There are also shapes of a ship and a map of Africa.
Caves are incomplete without bats, and Amboni has its fair share.
According to our guide, legend has it that in 1941, a foreigner ignored the advice of the locals about how far inside he could go and tried to explore the depths of the caves with his dog. While the dog was later found in Tanga, the foreigner was never seen again.
The Amboni caves are currently being maintained by the Tanzania government through the Department of Antiquities in the Ministry of Tourism and Natural Resources since it was handed over in 1963.