Ondiri: Swamped with beauty and endless myths
By Kiundu Waweru
It’s a fine morning as we go down a slope, passing through tall dewy grass and bushes.
Shortly, the slope ends, and we immediately, feel the changed temperature. The air is now crisp and cool.
Excitedly, we rush to our destination, a flat space with tall grasses and reeds. The ground is soft and soggy and as you step in, and one gets the sinking feeling that the land beneath is shifting.
Welcome to Ondiri swamp, barely a kilometre from Kikuyu town. The swamp is an interesting natural phenomenon that is shrouded in mystery and myths.
For instance, the locals say if you sink in, you will be found at Lake Naivasha. Nevertheless, the locals use the swamp, which is the source of Nyongara River that later flows to join Nairobi River, for recreation, farming and even drawing water for home use. Others go there to enjoy the serenity of the place or for meditation.
According to our guide, Francis Wainaina, the natural springs are believed to contain healing powers.
As a result, traditional religious groups, some from as far places as Turkana go there to bathe in the waters as they pray.
On the day of our visit, we witnessed members of a traditional group in Kikuyu washing their faces, hands and feet with deep reverence.
Ondiri swamp stands on a piece of about 30 hectares and its waters stretch down a 10-kilometre course, according to hydrologists. Local lore has it that the swamp was initially an open lake, and that one of the early white explores "discover" named it the "Old Lake," and which locals corrupted to Ondiri.
Subsequent human activity has accelerated soil erosion and siltation. Different stakeholders have an interest in the swamp, including environmentalists who are pushing for its gazettment as a wetland that will ensure its conservation.
According to Wainaina, who works with Millennium Community Development Initiatives (MCDI) which is at the forefront of conserving the wetland: "Ondiri is the only quacking bog in the country, and second deepest wetland in Africa after Doula, Cameroon.
"It has potential to provide income to small scale farmers, mulching material in vegetable farms and plant nurseries, habitat for flora and fauna species and rare birds like crested crane, red-throated wryneck and Yellow Bishop, which would provide tourism income among other benefits."
Wainaina, however, says that the destruction of the ecosystem that dates back to the colonial era has seen even the vegetation, reeds and the grass, harvested as forage. Even bird species have taken off.
"The stakeholders around, local farmers, hospitals, schools and civil society activities are reducing the wetland’s waters. There are about 45 unmetered water pumps and the indigenous trees have been replaced with eucalyptus that has been grown along the riparian and consume a lot of water. Also, the ecosystem is threatened by dumping of solid waste, the Kikuyu Town lacks a sewerage system and there are fears of seepage of pollutants from septic tanks," laments the environmentalist.
In 1990s, there were spirited conservation efforts that failed due to lack of community ownership and enforcement, Wainaina adds.
"This place can be marketed as a tourist site, and the Water Resource Management Authority (WRMA) is enforcing the rule of not farming in the riparian, that is 30 metres from the ecosystem. This will ensure planting of trees, which the Water Resources Users Association has already embarked on. Also, there are plans to fence in the swamp," Wainaina adds.
Indeed, Friends of Ondiri have joined hands with the management of Kikuyu Country Club and planted trees along the riparian area. Revellers at the club get a thrill, as they go down slope with lovers holding hands to marvel at the earth-shaking phenomenon.
Other stop there to picnic or enjoy a barbeque in the wild bush, while experiencing the Ondiri swamp cool breeze.
On the far end, from where the water bursts off from the wetland to flow in a tributary course that joins the Kikuyu springs and later the Nairobi river.
Residents balance precariously on logs placed over the swamp, which they use as a bridge to cross over to the other side. Nicholas Oktoi, a resident says, "When it rains, this area is impassable. In fact, a lot of people have drowned here, and some are taken all the way to Lake Naivasha."
Wainaina recalls that a few months ago, three boys from Thogoto drowned as they swam in the swamp.
"Truant boys digs off the macrophytes making a hole in which they dive and swim underneath the floating peat. If you do not identify the light from where you dived in, you will float away to darkness. It is said Ondiri is Lake Naivasha’s breather, a kind of an underground outlet," he says.
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