I grew up thinking that Ukambani was what I knew it to be, dry, no water and a lowland. Until in my adulthood when I got to know that actually a considerable population of Kamba people live in constituencies that have enough rain and they have water all year round.
But my biggest surprise was hills. It sounds weird now saying it loud, but I sincerely didn’t think that Ukambani had as many hills. I remember visiting Machakos and it’s surrounding areas and I just couldn’t believe it, how on earth could a place be so hilly? Not even Kinangop in Central Province where I had studied had as many hills.
And it was this curiosity into now seeing what more I had overlooked about Ukambani that made me want to see Kitui. The furthest I had been to Kitui County was in Mutomo, via the Kibwezi- Kitui road, and those areas just looked as dry as my shags, if not more.
But the one place I had always wanted to go, as long as I can remember, was Kitui. The town itself. But luckily by now my ignorance had received some schooling and I knew that Kitui Central is actually green, unlike the perception people have of it.
I won’t get into much details of my visit to Kitui Central though, because this specific piece is dedicated to Mwingi
As a person who loves travelling, I always have various destinations in mind. A bucket list if I may call it so. As you may already know by now, Turkana has been in my bucket list for a long time now. I hope I get to cross it off soon . And it’s joined in that list by various places and things to see. Towns like Iten made it to my bucket list, alongside activities like snorkelling and sky jumping.
But if there are travel destinations I have come to appreciate, it is the impromptu ones. The ones you wake up, pin point into a random town and go. That was what happened this time round.
I can’t sincerely say that Mwingi was ever in my bucket list. In all honesty, I would probably not have visited it unless work or something specific took me there. But if there is one thing impromptu trips have taught me, it is that you never know what to expect. You could get the surprise of your life. Plus Kenya is the sort of country that you can’t say you have seen it all. It will always, always have some new thing that will blow your mind away.
So when my travel partner and I decided that Mwingi is our newest addition to our travel tales, we of course started scouting the internet on things to see or do in Mwingi. The first 5 answers had to do with Mwingi National Reserve where KWS has a variety of stuff that people can do there including fishing. But there were no pictures of the roads, which is a major factor if you don’t have the land cruiser kind of vehicle, plus we really have seen lot’s of animals these past few months.
But besides one Victor Matara, there was barely nothing else about tourism in Mwingi. On one side, it’s understandable, I mean Kenya is so huge that people will barely focus on lesser known areas, but on the other side, one would expect that the Counties will try and thoroughly market their various destinations, not even to fellow Kenyans, but to their own county members.
Anyway, we still decided to go. Not knowing a lot about the area we were visiting but knowing that even seeing a new place, is enough.
The way to Mwingi is via the Thika- Garissa road. Along the way the vegetation is more of shrubs. We went when it’s raining, so for most of the way, it was cloudy. Which gave the trip such a good eerie feeling..it’s like driving into the badlands. I don’t think I had any expectations, so most of the ride, I let my mind wander and just enjoy the road trip.
Until a few kilometers outside the town. We first saw a Security ‘Academy’ and wondered about it. It’s like encountering a police training unit in the middle of nowhere. But before we could gather our thoughts on why such a large security camp was doing there, we found a roadblock manned by all sorts of officers. The one who was looking at our IDs told us that it was a Multi-agency unit that had been set up, I think due to the frequent Garissa attacks. And given that that’s the road used from Somalia or Garissa, it would make sense. They looked at our vehicle and within minutes we were done. On the roadside were passengers from Nairobi to Garissa who had disembarked to have their IDs checked.
And this is where the surprise began. If you have never been to Mwingi, you really should. Just for the entrance alone. I don’t mean that it has a specific entrance, I just mean that as you are approaching the town, no one needs to tell you that you have arrived. From a few kilometers back, this really outstanding rock formations appear. From a normal shrub vegetation all along the way, to Huge rocks, the transformation is dramatic.
Any thoughts I had been having, disappeared. I couldn’t believe that a town or place, could first of all, be that rocky and two, be that chill about it. Like no one mentioned this. So I start seeing hills from afar. One very sharp hill stood out and it’s like we were driving towards it. And the closer we got, the huger the rocks became and the more.
Mwingi is literally a rock town. Literally. I’m not even exaggerating it. The town itself is surrounded by rocks. Rocks as huge as hills. Like I have never seen anything like this. Machakos town and Namanga and a host of other towns in Kenya are surrounded by hills, but I have never seen a place with such rock formations. It was simply mind blowing. Like I just couldn’t believe it. I think it’s because I had no damn clue getting in it. Or rather, I was expecting to see just another town. Not knowing that Mwingi is anything but just another town.
And to even prove that point further, that town has no colour. You know the way Kenyan towns are extremely colourful? From Yellow buildings to Safaricom’s green drawn everywhere, to red buildings, to houses with colourful gates. Maybe it’s just Ukambani, but as the stereotype goes, kambas love their colours. Hatuonewangi. Just walk to Kibwezi or Wote or any other town.
But this town wasn’t like that. It does have the kawaida colours, but even Total’s red is subdued. If you were to look for the kawaida things, let’s say Shell’s yellow color or Mpesa’s green, you would probably get lost. Because even the few colors that are there, have blended in to almost seem neutral.
Mwingi has this feel of an old unpretentious Somali-Kamba man. I think that’s the best way to describe it. Because that’s how it felt. Laid back. Old but still functioning. As if it had seen a lot or experienced a lot, but it was still alive and fully functioning. Moneyed. You could tell it’s a town with a lot of money. The people almost behave like Eastleigh merchants. Have you ever seen those Eastleigh shops advertising their clothes online? Nope. Yet they thrive. That’s the feel of Mwingi.
It behaves like an independent, unmarried first born. Has been there, seen it all, and is self sufficient.
Anyway, we were starving, so we wanted ready food. And got into this restaurant that seems like it serves travellers, right at the edge of town. When you are on your way to Garissa. And of course, a Biriani is all that could come to mind out of all the options. Their Biriani tasted nice but different. Different from the Nairobi one. But delicious nevertheless.
Outside the hotel were these women selling mangoes. Signifying that the long awaited mangoes season has just began!
We finished lunch and since we still had some hours before finding a hotel to sleep in, we decided to try out one of Victor Matara’s recommendations. Ngomeni Rock.
We sincerely didn’t have a lot to help us know what we were in for. So we opened google map and were on our way. But for the first time since I started trusting google maps for my travels, it actually wasn’t as up to date. We simply needed to know which road to turn off on, from the highway, from there I think it would be a straight line to the destination. So we asked around and got well directed on where to turn off at.
Turns out that besides the rocky formation called Ngomeni, there is also a market there with the same name and to add on to the luck, that day was their market day. I don’t know whether people in other parts of the country have market days, but in Ukambani each town or shopping center has a day where sellers from other centers come and set shop there allowing the locals, even from surrounding villages to come and do some shopping for a large variety of things.
Anyway, so on our way to the Rock formations we were going to see, we encountered several Probox vehicles ferrying people to and from the market. Probox seems like the vehicle of trade in these parts.
I would say we took 30- 45 minutes to get there from the highway. The murram road is actually nice. Like it’s large enough for two or more vehicles and flat enough with no major potholes. If you have driven on murram roads in Kenya, especially when it’s the rainy season, you know how tricky they can get. But dry lands as these, are blessed with Sandy soil, which doesn’t form a lot of mud when it rains. So we were lucky on that regard.
We started seeing this huge rock that seemed as if it had been cut off in it’s middle, some few kilometers before the shopping center. It was the kind of thing that makes you want to get closer and see more. So once we got to the shopping center, we didn’t even waste minutes, we asked for directions to Ngomeni.
I don’t know the exact meaning of Ngomeni in Kamba, but I know it’s used to mean something to do with rocks and water. I might have to ask around what the word can be translated to in English, but I’ve heard it used for sand dams and rock catchments too.
For this specific one, Mwingi does have a lot of rocks. Huge rocks. And it’s a dry land. Some areas more dry than others, but generally people here don’t farm for a living. They would probably starve if they did. So they keep cattle. Goats and cows mostly. And the environment is perfect for it. For cattle keeping that is.
Now, seems like we aren’t the first ones to notice these huge rocks. The British back in 1955 constructed a dam between one of the most weird rocks you’ll find. It’s like a collection of around 5 huge rocks, next to each other. As you already know, rocks don’t allow water to permeate it. They act as iron sheets, the water just flows downstream. So for governments, providing water for people in dry areas where there are rocks becomes really easy. In most cases you build a rock catchment, that’s where you build a low wall all around the rock, and put a pipe to collect the water at the lower wall, to take to your tanks or water storage. It’s like fixing a rain gutter on your roof, except that this time the roof is a rock.
Now for this specific rocks, they were so close to each other, that the British didn’t need to do all that work of building a rock catchment. They simply built a wall to connect one rock to the other. And just like that, you have water collecting there every time it rains. In dry areas like this, it doesn’t rain for too many days, it rains a few days out of the whole rainy season. But the difference between cold and wet areas such as Central Province and this hot and dry areas, is that the rain in these dry areas is shorter but more in terms of millimeters of rain per hour. So you only need a few rainy days to fill up the dam. And in normal circumstances, that’s usually enough to last people and cattle to the next rainy season.
In this specific place, they made a dam. And because people here are cattle keepers, made up a ‘Silanga'( Kamba name for digging up ground so that water collects there for cattle use mostly). So this second water collection point, gets it’s water from dam. From the pictures, maybe you can see some trails of water from the upper wall embarkment.
So in essence there are two small lakes..but one can’t capture them in the same picture, unless you have a drone.
Seeing those water collections made me happy. It reminded me that the water problem in this country is solvable, you need some small money and commitment from the authorities in place.
But seeing the rocks up close was so unbelievable. They seemed so surreal. Victor Matara had mentioned that there are caves too in this area, but it was getting late, the clouds seemed ready to have an downtpour and we were still an hour away from Mwingi town.
So we took some pictures. Climbed up and down some rocks, and started our way back.
But should I ever go back, I’ll go earlier and have a picnic on those rocks..it’s an extremely different environment from anything I’ve ever experienced.
I would say Mwingi Town and Ngomeni, the only place we managed to visit on these Garissa sides, did surprise me pleasantly. In my wildest thoughts I wouldn’t have thought that a place could be so uniquely beautiful. But Kenya does truly hide it’s gems.
The next day we visited more of Victor Matara’s recommendations for Mwingi, and you can find that visit, here.