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Visit Thim Lich Ohinga (Frightening, Dense Forested Fortress)

Story from: Africa.com

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Thimlich Ohinga is a complex of stone-built ruins in Migori county, Nyanza region, in Kenya.

Near the Macalder Mines, the landscape, vegetation, and other wildlife combine with archaeology for an African savannah experience that is well worth the 40-minute drive over very rough murram roads, three and half hours from the Kisumu International Airport. The journey is through beautiful countryside, scattered with small Luo settlements. The site lies on a gentle sloping hill 46-km northwest of Migori town. Its exact geographical location on the map is at grid reference 019 474 on sheet number 129/4.

According to UNESCO, there are a total of 138 sites containing 521 structures mainly concentrated in the Kadem-Kanyamkago areas – Karungu, Gwasi, Kaksingiri, Kanyamwa, and Kanyadoto. This amazing complex of dry-stone structures is believed to have stood for over 550 years.

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Photo: Courtesy of the National Museums of Kenya

The main enclosure has walls that vary from 1.0 to 3.0 meters in thickness, and 1.0 to 4.2 meters in height with a few low, narrow defensive gates remaining intact despite occasional earth tremors. The structures were built from undressed blocks, rocks, and stones set in place with the densely packed stones interlocking.The surrounding area is occupied by the Luo people.

There is evidence of excavation since the last inhabitants moved out around 1925. The results of this and extensive oral history research enables one to tell a rich story of the place’s history and functions. For me, the treasure of the site is a stone game board between a sharpening stone and a grinding stone; these show the existence of a tightly knit community sitting in comfortable proximity. None of the dwellings survive, but an excellent reconstruction outside the main gate gives visitors a clear picture of how the community lived.

Photo: Courtesy of the National Museums of Kenya

‘Thimlich,’ means “frightening dense forest,” in Dholuo; the language of the Luo people. ‘Ohinga,’ means “a large fortress,” in Dholuo.

According to oral history, the Luhya or Gusii, who spoke a Bantu language, possibly inhabited the area in the 13th or 14th century before they mysteriously vacated some time right before, during or after the expansion of the Luo into the area 300 years ago.

The architectural style of the Thimlich Ohinga mirrors that of the Great Zimbabwe Empire, although smaller in size. The other contrast is that Great Zimbabwe architecture was built with shaped stones, however, like Thimlich Ohinga, the utility of mortar appears to have been avoided. Thimlich Ohinga is an example of defensive savanna architecture. It portrays stone-built homestead practices and a communal, centralised system of control.

Oral histories posit that Thimlich Ohinga was constructed by the then-inhabitants to serve as protection against outsiders in Kadem, Karungu, and the Kanyamwa areas, as well as from neighbouring ethnic groups in Tanzania.

Thimlich Ohinga was abandoned by the original builders, for reasons not yet known. As time went by, other communities moved into the area between the 15th and the 19th centuries. Those who lived within the complexes maintained them by repairing and modifying the structures.

The re-occupation and repair did not interfere with the preservation of the structures. Aside from being a defensive fortress, Thimlich Ohinga was also an economic, religious, and social hub.    

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Photo: Courtesy of the National Museums of Kenya

Archaeological research performed by the National Museums of Kenya has unveiled the manufacture of goods like pottery, and also yielded human and animal bones.

Inside the fort are partitions of various kinds like corridors, smaller enclosures and depressions. Some of the compartments include games sections where men played games like ‘ajua,'(named after the seeds used as game counters is a very popular gambling game in western Kenya and is also played in eastern Uganda) and grinding stones where women ground grain. Also built were livestock pens for cattle, sheep, goats, chicken, ducks, guinea fowl and retaining walls for gardens.

The entryways were purposefully made small so that potential intruders would be quickly subdued by guards in a watchtower near the entrance. It is easy to scan the whole complex from the watchtower built from raised rocks.Inhabitants of Thimlich Ohinga also had smaller side forts which had houses, meal areas, animal pens, and a granary.

Official records show that the first written document on the site was done by Neville Chittick, former Director of the British Institute of History and Archaeology in East Africa, in the 1960s, whereas the National Museums of Kenya researchers began working at this site in 1980. During that period, the site was referred to as Liare Valley after the valley to the northeast of the hill. In 1981, it was gazetted as a National Monument under its present name, Thimlich Ohinga, because its previous name did not describe the exact location of the site. Thimlich Ohinga’s strategic location forms a perfect stopover for those on their way to or from the nearby Ruma National Park, Gogo Falls or the Macalder gold mines.

Photo: Courtesy of the National Museums of Kenya

Getting to Thimlich is quite hectic without your own transport, though not completely impossible (with patience). By road from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA)  to Migori it is 378KM (7 hours 36 minutes). Take the Migori-Muhuru Bay/C13 or Migori-Nyarongi Road. Alternatively, head 12km down the Homa Bay–Rongo road then turn right at Rodi Kopany township, heading southwest through Mirogi to the trading centre of Miranga. The site is signposted from there.

If you do not have wheels, take a matatu (Public Service Vehicle) from Kisii towards Isebania on the Tanzania border and hop out at Suna. Take another matatu from here towards Karungu and ask to be let out at the junction for Thimlich Ohinga or Miranga (you might find a matatu going directly from Suna to here). From the junction, hunt about for any kind of transport to the entrance of Thimlich Ohinga.

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