Carefully tucked on a jutting rock shelf inside a chilly dark ancient cave at the hilly Mwanda village of Wundanyi is a trove of macabre trophy; hundreds of white-washed human skulls that eerily gleam in the spooky gloom of the cave.
These skulls belong to revered leaders, heroes and other notable members of the community from centuries ago whose selfless deeds of valor and sacrifices elevated them to be honored within the community and beyond.
At a time the world is getting rapidly modernized, the preservation of human skulls as deified memorabilia might appear like a ghoulish practice but to the local residents, the skulls form a key part of the community’s cultural identity that strengthens traditions and reinforces attachment to the arcane ways of the ancestors.
The Chair for Domestic Tourism Association (DTA) Mr. Livingstone Mgenyi explains that Taita skull caves have great cultural significance for local communities owing to the deep historical and spiritual links the caves have. He adds that esoteric rites and other secret rituals performed by selected elders before allowing outsiders’ access to the skull caves only adds to the mystifying influence clinging to these traditional sites.
The rites are mandatory to clean outsiders and allow them into the hallowed grounds of the cave without having them suffer harm from incensed ancestral spirits
These rites include not wearing shoes when entering the cave and slaughtering a goat to appease the restless spirits roaming in the undisturbed darkness. While leaving the caves, it is forbidden to glance behind.
“The caves are special sites where the remains of the community’s heroes are safely stored. They have their strict rules before one enters. These are great historical assets for this county,” he explains.
Promoters of domestic tourism argue that Mwanda and other skull caves in Taita remained one of the most underexploited and under marketed cultural assets despite its vast tourism potential. Other skull caves are found scattered in selected villages in Sagalla in Voi; Funju in Wundanyi and Ndemwa in Mwatate.
While Taita-Taveta County is widely regarded as a sleeping tourism giant, little progress has been made in marketing other diverse tourist products the region possesses. There is just a fleeting mention of the ancient World War 1 battlefield sites, a cursory talk on cultural caves and casual discussion on homestays in the scenic Taita hills.
A key reason attributed to this lackluster effort to market such emerging products is the presence of Tsavo National Park; a world-famous magnificent wonder whose unmatched bush tourism experience easily eclipses other not-so-famous tourism products.
“Tsavo is too famous. Most tourists have a wrong perception that Taita-Taveta has nothing else to offer but the wildlife and thrills of Tsavo. We need to show them other rare products. We have World War 1 battlefield sites, the skull caves and excellent homestays facilities,” says Mr. Mgenyi.
To promote cultural tourism, the national government, through the National Museum of Kenya (NMK), has moved in to bolster rare historical sites to increase their global visibility in a move expected to attract droves of local and international tourists into the region.
Deputy Director for National Museum of Kenya in Coast Region Mr. Athman Hussein says a comprehensive survey on cultural heritage sites across Kenya had identified Taita-Taveta as a region endowed with rich cultural-historical sites that called for special attention.
He noted that the ancient skull caves were a rare product with potential to propel the county into international fame. He further disclosed that archeological research showed that the only other country where such skull caves in the hills are to be found is Peru in South America.
“The caves and the elaborate ritual associated with them are very rare. They only have their equivalent in Peru. This points to a great potential for promoting tourism,” explained the official.
Athman stated that to preserve their uniqueness, plans were underway to have the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) confer the status of World Heritage Sites on selected sites in Taita-Taveta County. Top in the list are the World War 1 battlefield sites and ancient skull caves.
Already, NMK says it has forwarded a dossier to UNESCO asking for The Ruins of Gede in Kilifi County to be upgraded into a world heritage site.
“We are done with Gede. Our next agenda is Taita-Taveta County. These extremely valuable sites qualify to be under World Heritage Sites because the battlefield sites and the skull caves are very special,” he explained.
Conferment of World Heritage Site status to the little-known skulls caves is expected to propel the county into instant global fame. With the massive attention world heritage sites receive from tourists, scholars and researchers, the move by NMK is seen as the most practical solution for marketing the region to an international clientele.
According to UNESCO, a site qualifies for the status of a World Heritage Site if it has outstanding universal, cultural, historical, natural and archeological value. This conferment of status also allows critically endangered, rare and valuable products and sites to get special protection from degradation as a result of human activities or natural activities. The sites can either be classified under natural sites or cultural sites.
Kenya is a signatory to two UNESCO conventions; the 1972 Convention of The Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage and the 2003 Convention for Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Already, Kenya has seven sites classified as World Heritage Sites. They are Lake Turkana National Park and Mt. Kenya National Park. Both parks were conferred this status in 1997. In 2001, Lamu Old Town became a World Heritage Site followed by Mijikenda Kaya Forests in 2008. The Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley and the famous Fort Jesus became world Heritage sites in 2011 while Thimlich Ohinga Archeological Site was upgraded in 2018.
There are 17 more listed sites in Kenya waiting for UNESCO’s nod to be conferred with world heritage site status.
By Wagema Mwangi