SWARA

Delta Willis explores the rich cultural heritage in the rock art of Kenya’s Turkana community.

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As Mary Leakey wrote in 1996, “Rock art is Africa’s greatest and least known art form. The continent has the richest variety of rock art anywhere on earth.” Like many treasures of African heritage, including wildlife, this asset is disappeari­ng. Tanzanian rock paintings near Kondoa occurs in caves and on rock faces overlookin­g valleys, as happens in Namibia’s splendid site, Twyfelfont­ein. In 1951, Mary Leakey balanced atop a ladder to trace many Kondoa paintings, including depictions of elephants, kudus, wild dogs and hyenas. The paintings show a transition from hunter-gathering to agro-pastoralis­ts. One of Mary Leakey’s favourites was a “pipe player,” with notes falling out the end of the pipe. This is among many tracings housed at Nairobi’s National Museum.

Now the museum turns its focus north to the rock art of Turkana. In 2016, with support from the Italian Embassy and Italian Cultural Institute in Nairobi, the museum launched a plan to protect art in the region. The area is under threat from a dam on the Omo River, which flows into

Turkana. Completed in 2015, it disrupted life along Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley, where the Ethiopian government sold land for sugar and cotton plantation­s, which would siphon off more water.

“Rock and cultural heritage, in general, is threatened from various sources both anthropoge­nic and natural;” says Emmanuel Ndiema, Head of Archeology at the Nairobi National Museum. “There is increased demand for developmen­t both by government and investor sector in these arid regions focused on building infrastruc­ture to extract new energy sources (oil, wind, hydroelect­ric) in Turkana basin, presenting a challenge of heritage conservati­on in culturally sensitive areas such as Turkana basin. It’s not only the Omo pressure, it is from all corners.”

In June 2018, the UNESCO World Heritage committee included Lake Turkana National Parks on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The Turkana region is an outstandin­g laboratory in Africa’s Cradle of Humankind. A fossil skeleton known as The Turkana Boy was found on the west side of the lake, and several hominid skulls, including 1470, on the east side. Research at the Turkana Basin Institute is led by Mary Leakey’s granddaugh­ter, Louise, and her daughter-in-law, Meave Leakey, who helped Mary compile the book .

When a rock art site is discovered, scientists help determine the age of the art, and which people may have been the artists.

For new rock art research at Turkana, Italian archaeolog­ist Savino Di Lernia teamed up with his Kenyan counterpar­t, Emmanuel Ndiema. They were accompanie­d by photograph­er Paolo Torchio, a frequent contributo­r to .

On September 19, his photograph­s featured in an exhibit at the museum, where the Italian ambassador, Alberto Pieri, vowed to “make Kenyans more aware of this beautiful heritage.” After he spoke, Mwamra Stayrich, praised the Loiyangala­ni Desert Museum, which opened in 2008.

IN JUNE 2018, THE UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE COMMITTEE INCLUDED LAKE TURKANA NATIONAL PARKS ON THE LIST OF WORLD HERITAGE IN DANGER.

“This rock art has opened my eyes,” she began, proudly claiming that Turkana culture is “more rich than Maasai.” The El Molo, Rendille, Samburu, Turkana, Dassanatch, Gabra, Borana, Konso, Sakuye, Garee, Waata, Burji, Sidama and Somalis live in the region. Their lifestyles are described at the desert museum, a 10-minute drive from Loiyangala­ni town. Many photograph­s in the museum are by David Coulson, who explored Turkana rock art for decades. His seminal book , is a majestic survey of magnificen­t sites across Africa, and his foundation Trust for African Rock Art or TARA, remains at the forefront of building awareness.

Loiyangala­ni draws its name from the Samburu language, “a place of many trees.” It will be a huge undertakin­g to make sure rock art does not vanish as the trees did.

In Marsabit County, there are three main rock art sites: Surima located between Loiyangala­ni and South Horr, Marti located between Loiyangala­ni and Mt Kulal, and Afgaba, located along the northeaste­rn edge of the Chalbi Desert.

Most Turkana art was made by the Ndorobo, related to Pygmies (also known as the Batwa) of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They were forest dwellers. Why you wonder, would they live here? A thousand years ago, large areas of this landscape were forested, which explains why the art depicts animals that no longer thrive in this arid region, particular­ly giraffes, which held special significan­ce for these people. Beyond giraffe, the artists favoured geometric circles and spirals, which relate to their ancient mythologie­s.

“Animals in rock art were usually painted or engraved because of what they symbolized and meant to the artists;” says David Coulson. “Different animals were important in different hunter-gatherer cultures. For example, the San or Bushmen of South Africa regarded the eland as a king of beasts with the power to bring rain. As a result, they painted and engraved eland more than any other animal. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe Bushmen regarded the elephant and the kudu as

the greatest, but the animal that was most highly regarded across almost every ancient African culture seems to have been the giraffe. Across the continent, giraffes were not only painted more frequently but were also drawn more beautifull­y and were often drawn larger than other rock art animals. There is a lot of evidence that they were ‘rain animals’. The biggest single rock art image on earth is a 27 foot-tall giraffe engraving which I recorded in southern Algeria in 2001, believed to be around 8,000 years old.

“Meanwhile many other hunter-gatherer artists used what we call geometric symbols, rather than animal symbols and these geometrics are found all over, but not published so much because people don’t know what they are. Perhaps the most common geometric symbols are concentric circles and spirals. I have just returned yesterday (September 25) from Cross River State, Nigeria, where we have been documentin­g anthropomo­rphic basalt monoliths, maybe 700 years old, which are often decorated with concentric circles. We have found evidence in some places where we’ve worked that concentric circles were connected with fertility rituals, but there is a lot more research to be done on this subject.”

At the Loiyangala­ni Desert Museum, there are (huts) where visitors can stay overnight. On a cloudless evening, you might see the many stars and galaxies that feature in one of Paolo Torchio’s exquisite photos, and contemplat­e whether our heavens, the African sun, or fertility rituals inspired the concentric patterns of Turkana rock art.

For more informatio­n https://africanroc­kart.org

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 ??  ?? ABOVE: Giraffe and other animals express a time when the area was forested. Across Africa, giraffes were painted more frequently than any other animal.
ABOVE: Giraffe and other animals express a time when the area was forested. Across Africa, giraffes were painted more frequently than any other animal.
 ??  ?? BELOW: Primitive stick figures and animals may have been painted at different times. Cave art is generally considered to have a symbolic or religious function, sometimes both. The exact meanings of the images remain unknown.
BELOW: Primitive stick figures and animals may have been painted at different times. Cave art is generally considered to have a symbolic or religious function, sometimes both. The exact meanings of the images remain unknown.
 ??  ?? ABOVE: Human stick figures and giraffe with very long necks.
ABOVE: Human stick figures and giraffe with very long necks.
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