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Kenya: Rock Art Connects Past and Present

19 November 2013
Art etched in rock (David Coulson/TARA)

Namoratung’a rock art

“The Kerio Valley rock art is a visually spectacular reminder of Kenya’s cultural heritage. Conserving these beautiful sites helps us explore Kenya’s past and enhances Africa’s extensive oral history tradition.”

— U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert F. Godec

Just outside the remote town of Lokori in Kenya’s Kerio Valley, an ancient burial site called Namoratung’a contains some of the world’s oldest art. Hundreds of etched stone grave markers dating back more than 2,300 years can be found throughout the site. Engraved with designs similar to those still used by neighboring Pokot, Samburu and Turkana communities to brand livestock, the ancient grave markers are among the most rich and diverse rock-art sites in the world.

African rock art is one of the world’s oldest surviving art forms. As former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated, African rock art is “one of the oldest and most extensive records on Earth of human thought,” adding that it represents “the very emergence of the human imagination.” In fact, by the time humans began to use written language, African rock art had been in existence for thousands of years. Beyond its artistic merit, rock art is an invaluable anthropological resource that offers a rarely seen glimpse into the minds of our most ancient ancestors.

Although ancient rock art is now protected by law in most countries, these unique, fragile and irreplaceable works are too often threatened by theft, vandalism and thoughtless handling. In Lokori, local residents were unaware of the art’s significance or vulnerability until recently.

In 2009, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi granted $53,200 through the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation to the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) to raise awareness of the art’s value and help restore and protect the site for future generations. Since August 2009, TARA has been implementing a community rock-art conservation project in Lokori not only to ensure long-term conservation of the Namoratung’a site, but also to promote responsible tourism to the area through local infrastructure development and engagement with the community.

In collaboration with National Museums of Kenya scientists, project coordinators worked at the Namoratung’a site to establish links between the art and contemporary local customs. A workshop and exhibition were created to encourage community members to learn, share and compare notes about their heritage. Since the project was launched, more than 100 community leaders and youth have received training through workshops and seminars.

In addition to surveying and documenting the rock-art engravings, TARA worked with local stakeholders to develop a management plan for the site and equipped two community-based organizations with basic camping facilities so that locals can cook for visitors to the site and offer basic services. These activities are generating income for local community members, helping to alleviate poverty and raising living standards.

Local people now recognize that the rock-art site is a resource that can be of benefit to Lokori. As one participant said, “Because of these rocks, new things have come up — cars are coming here, something that never used to happen. People are visiting here; we never used to see them. Schools have been opened because of the Namoratung’a site. So the rock-art sites are very important.” TARA hopes the project will benefit not only residents of Lokori, but the whole of Kenya.

Man sitting on rock etched with art (Terry Little/TARA)

A young man rests at Namoratung’a, an ancient burial site, amid rock art with etched stone markings dating back more than 2,300 years.