By Pascal Mwandambo
When rain clouds gather and the winds blow intermittently, the raffia palms swing leisurely on the imposing rocky hills.
Sometimes when the skies are clear and sunrays pierce through the hilly escarpments, the mood is reversed but the awe-inspiring Taita Hills are unmoved, they remain standing tall like giants in a drunken stupor.
This is the scenic portrait of the skull caves and shrines of Taita. These abodes of the ancestors of the Wadawida are scattered in several rocky hills in the county as if to declare their place in history; as remnants of a rich culture although it is being gradually swept away by Christianity.
Some of these caves are found at Shomoto rock about five kilometres from Wundanyi town.
Skulls of heroes
“Traditionally when an elder died he was buried in a shallow grave and when the body began to decompose it was exhumed and the head decapitated, wrapped in banana leaves and taken to the caves by a seer and close relatives of the deceased,” explains Mzee Musamuli Lenjo, 80, a respected community elder and custodian of culture.
Mzee Lenjo says during war with aggressive neighbours, the Wadawida of yore usually stored skulls of heroes (mang’oni) who died in battle in the caves.
This was to serve as a permanent reminder of their valiant deeds, which were to be narrated to the younger generations.
“When a soldier died in battle, his close lieutenants chopped the head and carried it in a leather bag so that it could be preserved in the caves together with those of the other Taita ancestors,” says Lenjo.
After the skulls were well preserved in the caves, close relatives of the deceased would perform sacrifices at the caves at regular intervals to appease the ancestors and invite blessings to the family and clans as well as keep calamities at bay.