The scramble for Thim Lich Ohinga begins

Thimlich Ohinga archeological site. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Two clans have locked horns over the history of a famous cultural heritage site that is fast becoming a major tourist destination.

Recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) as a World Heritage Site last year, Thimlich Ohinga features an array of traditional architecture, art and culture.

The site is steadily attracting visitors worldwide. And as the dollars begin streaming in, one clan is crying foul, claiming that it has been locked out of the list of the site’s traditional owners.

The Kadem clan, which claims original ownership of the site, has protested that its name is missing from the list of documented ancient owners.

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Governor Okoth Obado ignited the debate last week when he called on the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) to rework the history of Thimlich Ohinga.

“Most of the stories we have heard through generations are inconsistent, hence the need to embark on an extensive archeological study to determine the original occupants of the site,” said Mr Obado. 

The area is currently occupied by the Kanyamwa clan, which inherited it from the Kadem clan. The two clans border each other in Nyatike.

Ondiek Odiero, a Kadem elder, said the clan was not happy with being left out in the history of the site.

“We are the ones who fought and defeated the Kanyamkago clan from this area where we lived until early 1990s. Our brothers from Kanyamwa then came calling, and we mutually agreed to let them stay there,” said Ondiek.

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A number of clans are said to have made some contribution in the establishment and preservation of the site at some point in its history.

Current occupants

According to the National Museums of Kenya, the Kanyamwa are the current occupants of the site after displacing the Kanyamkago.

The records indicate that the Kanyamkago displaced the Kabuoch, who had displaced the Wagire. The Wagire had displaced the Kamageta clan from the site.

Earlier, the Kamageta had displaced the Watongo who had also displaced the Wawegi. Wawegi had displaced the Watori who are considered to have been the original occupants of the area.

However, the Kadem clan now fears that it might be locked out of any benefits accruing from the site, which is fast picking up as a major tourism destination.

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The clan is demanding that its contribution to the site’s establishment be officially recognised.

However, other clans have opposed any changes to the site’s history records.

“It is true that we got the site from Kadem, but by the time the researchers came to document the history of the site, the Kadem people were here and did not dispute anything. Why come up now?” said Ochiel Adiang’, one of the elders of the Kanyamwa clan.

Dr Emmanuel Ndiema, one of the researchers who helped document the history of the site, admitted that he was aware of the emerging issues, but said the process of documenting its history was still ongoing.

“More research can reveal more information which can help enrich what we already have, we are very flexible to partner with scholars who can still do more work to help build the information bank of the site,” said Ndiema.

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Thimlich Ohinga consists of five units; Kochieng, Kakuku, Koketch, Koluoch and Kogong’, all enclosed between massive stone walls representing traditional African homesteads and located inside a thick indigenous forest.

The stone walls, which are 4.2 metres high and between 1.5 and 2 metres apart with watch towers commonly referred to as batteries, are believed to have been constructed 500 years ago.

Between the walls lie a rich history of the clans, from their houses and cow sheds to traditional sports.

Last week, the site hosted the World Monument and Heritage Day, further reinforcing its position in the world map after Unesco’s recognition.

Reaping benefits

Area residents have begun reaping the benefits of the site, with both the county and national governments investing millions in its upgrade.

Already work is going on to connect electricity, water and other infrastructural works at the site.

Its curator, Kelvin Somoire, said he was ready to work with more scholars to polish the history of the site.

Somoire said not much has been written about the site, and that a lot of information might still be lying undocumented.

“We need more scholars to help us dig up more information about the site,” he said.

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UnescoNational Museums of Kenya