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The Mfangano-Rusinga Island Complex

Date of Submission: 12/02/2010
Criteria: (iii)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Department of Museums, Sites and Monuments of the National Museums of Kenya
State, Province or Region:
Nyanza Province
Ref.: 5502

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party



Rusinga: S00 24 05 E34 10 00

Mfangano: S00 27 23 E34 02 05

Mfangano-Rusinga Island complex is located in Lake Victoria, South - west Kenya. The area is classified as semi arid to semi - humid type and has a bimodal rainfall pattern. The vegetation is variable but dominated by a combination of thick forest trees and shrubs down slope, while the hilltop is dominated by patches of forest and grassland. The inhabitants are the Abasuba people, a sub tribe of the Bantu of East Africa who have been largely culturally influenced by the more dominant Luo through interaction and intermarriage. Mfangano Island derived its name from the term 'okuwangana' which means to unite in Abasuba, or a place where people united. The name might have originated due to the fact that Mfangano Island provided refuge to groups that were conquered in the mainland by the more populous Luo peoples. Between four and eleven generations ago, the following groups lived in the island: the Wagimbe, Wisokolwa, Kakimba-Wiramba, Wasamo, Wagire, Wakula, Wakinga, Wakisori, Wakisasi, Waozi, Walundu, Wiyokia, Walowa, Waganda and Wakiaya. Mfangano Island is known for its ancient rock art sites, sacred sites whose description is provided below.

Rock paintings sites

Mfangano Island is known for its ancient rock art, possibly 2,000 years old and thought to have been created by early forager-hunters, the Twa people. The Twa people, also known as Batwa or pygmies, have been described as the forgotten tribe who live in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Three sites on Mfangano Island have legends attached to them; one or even two of the sites are still in use. The art in the sites comprises almost solely of sets of concentric circles in two or all three of the colours red, white and black. The paintings are typical of what is sometimes termed "Twa" art that stretches from northern Kenya in a broadening trail southwards to spread across Africa from Northern Mozambique to Angola, and to cease north of the Zambezi River.

Kwitone rock art

The site is a concealed 40 metre long overhang just below a high shoulder on Itone Hill and in the custodianship of the Wagimbe clan (Abasuba). The art, almost entirely at one end of the shelter and painted over a ledge three metres above a cleared floor, consists of sets of alternating red and white concentric circles, some with "spokes" between the two outer circles and concentric ovals. A depression on the ledge below the paintings can retain water (or hold a food offering), and two smooth areas beside it suggest extended human use. Because of the inclination of the ledge they were probably made neither because they were used as seats nor by passage. The rock must have been touched many times either with the hand or with a cloth or hide. The site is associated with supernatural powers and miraculous events by the local residents. The site was used for rainmaking.

Mawanga rock art

The site with an art on a panel covering about eight square metres, consists of sets of concentric circles, mainly in alternating white and black with visible images superimposed upon each other. A natural formation in the base rock resembling fingerprints, situated below a low overhang near the rear of the cave, is locally known as the "Hand of God". The wall and roof at the back of the cave are also covered with spectacular natural cupules. The Wasamo clan elders' belief that the paintings were made by their distant ancestors to represent designs on their shields. To scare their enemies, their ancestors, used the cave and shields for defense during fights when they vanquished other Abasuba clans: the Walundu, Waozi and Wasasi. Because the paintings represent the shields and because of their use in victories, they still retain special rainmaking powers. The paintings acquire additional power from the "Hand of God" which, to this day, has healing properties. When the sick place their hand in the natural formation they receive some benefit.

Sacred sites in Mfangano Island

A total of 36 different types of sacred sites exist in Mfangano Island of which 19 are still intact and can be located. Though the other 17 can be described as extinct, their history is still told today by the elders. Most of the sites are linked to rain making traditions and represents the link between the people and God. The local people believe that the sacred groves for example, warn the people of the impending danger, usually by producing a distinct noise or by having a fog overcast. The community would then acknowledge the warnings and appease the spirits through offerings of animal sacrifices. The sacred forests are also ancestral landmarks that instill discipline and unity among the local people, the Abasuba.

Rusinga Island

The island is rich in fossils and the skull of 'Proconsul Africanus' found here by anthropologist Mary Leakey. This anthropoid ape lived on the island three million years ago.

More than 100 species of bird have been recorded around the island, some of which are endangered. In the island are also the giant monitor lizards that are so huge in comparison to any other monitor lizards in the entire region.

The island complex has a large concentration of rock art sites confined to three areas within the Island and remain outstanding in terms of quality and diversity.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

(iii), (vi): The sacred sites of Mfangano and Rusinga have continued to bear symbolic and religious significance to the current occupants of the area, a tradition carried through the generations from the earliest known occupants of the island. They are still utilized for ritual purposes associated with healing and rain making ceremonies.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The sites are traditionally conserved by the Abasuba community through members of specific clans who are the caretakers of the sites. The sacred sites have continued being used to date by traditionalist for performance of rituals. To date there are committees that have been appointed by the Abasuba Community Peace Museum to control and manage access to the sites.

Comparison with other similar properties

The rock art of Mfangano is comparable to the Nyiro and Kondoa rock art as they tell the story of an early group of hunters and gatherers that may have preceded the present occupants of this region and spread from northern Kenya all the way to southern Africa. The rock art is generally attributed to the Twa pigmies and referred to as Twa art. These sites contain a collection of rock art images some of which are of a high artistic value.