More than a century after the slave trade ended on the Swahili coast of East Africa, caves that were used as ‘slaveholding pens’ remain as relics in Shimoni, a sleepy fishing village near the sea border with Tanzania.
The historical caves in Shimoni, which is a former slave post in Kwale County, stand out as a living testimony of the dark days of slavery and have turned into interesting tourist attraction feature at the coast.
Local folklore has it that people trying to escape the marauding slave hunters initially used the natural formations to hide.
The caves were also a sacred site used by Kaya elders for prayers and to offer sacrifices long before the invasion of slave traders.
During the peak of the slave trade, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the caves were used as a place of confinement for the captured slaves before shipment to slave markets in Zanzibar, Pemba in Tanzania, and Oman on the Arabian Peninsula.
This is evidenced by old iron shackles and the metallic studs stuck to the walls with chains dangling from them where slaves who attempted to escape were fastened.
The caves’ rock and geological formation, rich slave history, colonialism, as well as the presence of an indigenous forest cover, rich in flora and fauna at the top, make the caves as well as the shimoni area a rich haven for research catering to many different disciplines.
Currently the caves are under the Shimoni Slave Cave Management Committee (SSCMC) which manages the heritage site on behalf of the community with technical assistance from the National Museums of Kenya (NMK).
Patrick Abungu, a senior curator with the NMK says the Shimoni caves are made of natural coral reef that has become dry land over the ages.
He said Shimoni played a significant role in the slave trade due to the presence of massive caves that were used as slave pens by the traders for their human cargo before shipment to Zanzibar market in neighbouring Tanzania.
The curator says siltation is blocking off access to other caves in the interior leaving only a few entrances in scattered places.
He says the caves are open for tourists and researchers as a memorial to the slave trade era and that the local community manages the heritage site on behalf of the NMK.
Abungu pointed out that the integrated management of the site by the community encourages relevance and proper safeguarding by all for posterity.
The curator says since it is a community project, all proceeds go to several other community initiatives like sponsoring bright poor students, buying drugs for local dispensaries, paying salaries for school and madrassa teachers and other community needs.
“Shimoni Slave Caves project is a good example of successful public-community co-management initiatives with tangible benefits and empowerment” he pointed out, adding that NMK is determined to ensure local communities utilize the heritage resources within their areas.
He was speaking when he hosted the Shimoni port project implementation team under the leadership of the Kwale County Commissioner (CC) Karuku Ngumo.
The multiagency team held its inaugural meeting in Shimoni to commence preparations for the construction of Sh.500 million Shimoni fishing port whose construction is spearheaded by the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA).
“We need a heritage impact assessment to be carried out before the project and hope that the proposed fish port will not interfere with the heritage sites around Shimoni” he said.
Athman Omar Munga, an NMK trained guide says the natural caves that are five kilometers long were used as a waiting pen for captured slaves from the hinterland.
He says there are several caves joined together and believed to extend some five to seven kilometres inland.
Munga says the captured slaves were put on dhows and taken to main slave auction markets in Zanzibar and Pemba islands in Tanzania before they were shipped off to places like Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, India and Turkey among other destinations.
“Many died while being tortured, castrated or simply suffocated as they awaited shipment and their bodies were thrown into the Indian Ocean,” says Munga as he vividly explains the sorry tale of the victims of slave trade.
The tour guide says a section of indigenous people to this day use a secluded part of the caves as a shrine (kaya).
He said they hold the caves to be sacred and over the years, prayers are conducted at the shrine by a traditional priest.
“In fact the last local priest died a few years ago and the indigenous people are yet to appoint a replacement,” he said.
Sacrifices to the gods seeking divine intervention are also been conducted here.
There is a dedicated chamber with paraphernalia that includes red, white and black cloth ribbons, rosewater bottles and incense for these rituals.
The red ribbon symbolizes the god of the mountain, white the god of the ocean and black the god of rain and they all subordinate to the mighty deity known to the locals as Mwanangoto,” he said.
Shimoni caves form part of the heritage landscape that includes slave history, a shrine, unique rock structure, four species of bats and indigenous forest inhabited with birds and rare Colobus monkeys.
The other elements of significance at Shimoni include the colonial buildings erected by the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) in the later part of the 19th century during the war to stop the slave trade in the region.
By Hussein Abdullahi