Mfangano Island, Kenya
Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa, and at 69,484km², the second largest in the world by surface area. Sitting in a depression in the plateau between the eastern and western valley branches of the geological East African Rift System, its shores are in Uganda, Tanzania, and to the south-east, in Kenya. Mfangano Island, rising 300m out of the lake near the Kenyan shore, is home to some of the most prominent rock painting sites in the country, featuring abstract patterned paintings thought to have been created between 1,000 and 4,000 years ago by hunter-gatherers. The rock paintings on Mfangano Island are found at two principal sites: in a cave near the sea known as Mawanga, and at a rock shelter further inland called Kwitone.
Mawanga is a roughly triangular limestone cavern, about 18m wide across the mouth and 12m deep. The roof slopes sharply to the back towards a raised platform against the rear of the left wall, on which 12 images of concentric circles and spirals in white and red have been painted. Kwitone has similar paintings, situated at one end of a long overhang in a sandstone cliff, below the shoulder of a ridge. The rock art at Kwitone is at the far end on the shelter wall, several metres above a cleared floor section. The paintings here feature 11 distinct shapes including concentric circles and oblongs. One of these is a prominent sunburst pattern in brown, with rays emanating from the outermost band. The images are larger than those at Mawanga, averaging around 40cm in diameter, and less faded, exhibiting more brown pigment, although both sites appear to reflect the same artistic tradition. These are finger paintings, with pigment probably made of haematite or white clay mixed with a natural binder such as egg white or urine. There is evidence that the surface may also have also been prepared prior to painting, by polishing, and that some of the images may have reapplied or retouched over time.
The circular shapes seen here are typical of an apparent wider East and Central African rock art tradition featuring a preponderance of circular motifs, usually attributed to people known as the Batwa, a Bantu-origin name for a series of culturally related groups historically living around Africa’s Great Lakes region and more widely throughout Central Africa. Like the San people, who are known to have been the creators of most of the famous rock art of Southern Africa, Batwa were traditionally hunter-gatherers, and are considered the most ancient indigenous populations of the area. In the early 20th century, it was proposed that East African rock art of this tradition could have been the work of ancestral San people, but it is now generally assumed to be of Batwa origin with, for example, possible parallels to be seen in the symbolic iconography with contemporary barkcloth designs of the related Mbuti people from the Democratic Republic of Congo (Namono, 2010).
Further examples of apparently Batwa origin rock art can be seen in neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania, a reminder that contemporary political borders do not reflect physical partitions in the spatial coverage of rock art traditions. Lolui Island, about 50km north west of Mfangano Island and in Ugandan waters, is another important Lake Victoria rock art environment, featuring both painting sites and rock gongs (sonorous natural percussive instruments with the wear of use) which seem to be associated with the painting sites. There are also numerous sets of cupules—ground circular depressions in the rocks. Some of these are referred to locally as Omweso, due to their bearing some resemblance to the depressions used for holding gaming pieces in the so-named local variant of the Mancala-type board games played widely throughout eastern Africa. However, their original significance and use is unknown. Cupule sites are also found on the Kenyan mainland and on Mfangano island. Many of these are clearly anthropogenic, however an unusual phenomenon is to be noted in the spectacular array of naturally formed cupule-like depressions in the limestone of Mawanga cave. This may remind us to exercise caution in ascribing ‘rock art’ status to all apparently patterned rock formations. The cause of these multitudinous small depressions is so far unknown.
The rock art sites of the eastern Lake Victoria region retain spiritual connotations for the communities living around them, even if their denoted modern significance differs from that envisioned by the original artists. The modern inhabitants of Mfangano Island are the Abasuba people, a Bantu language-speaking group unrelated to the Batwa who have nevertheless appropriated the sites as arenas of spiritual importance. Members of the Wasamo clan in the area around Mawanga remember their having used the site for rain making rituals until a few decades ago, with red and white pigment apparently representing the moon and sun respectively. Soot on the cave roof may indicate other recent human activity there. When the archaeologist James Chaplin—who first investigated the Kwitone site in the 1960s—visited it later, he was told by local Wagimbe clan people that they also held the paintings there to be associated with some taboos, and connected it with ancestor worship. These beliefs reflect events of the recent past, as the Abasuba only moved into the area in the last 400 years. This followed an earlier occupation by Luo peoples, prior to which habitation by the Batwa is assumed. The local importance of the sites is highlighted in their stewardship by the Abasuba Peace Museum, which fosters a continuing relationship with the sites and those who live around them.