By Eric Lungai
Vihiga County is the second smallest county in the country with an area of 563 km², beating only Lamu to the last position. It has a population of 590, 013 according to recently conducted national census. It has four main sub-ethnic groups of Maragoli, Tiriki, Teriks and Banyore who have diverse cultural traditions.
The county has five constituencies namely Vihiga, Hamisi, Sabatia, Luanda and Emuhaya, with 25 wards and its headquarters located at Mbale. The county is sandwiched between Kakamega to the North, Kisumu to the South, Nandi to the East and Siaya to the West.
One can access Vihiga by air or road. It is about 360kms from capital city, and only 20kms from Kisumu International Airport. The region is hilly and enjoys a fair climate throughout the year.
The county has great potential for domestic and international tourism, with varied sites that include forests, hills and knolls, heritage areas, bird’s sanctuary and rock art. There exists a rich culture with Maragoli festivals observed annually, Tiriki Cultural Circumcisions performed after every five years and rainmakers of Bunyore. Of note is that this is the county that has produced the cream of Kenya’s rugby players. The legendary footballer Joe Kadenge, who died earlier in 2019, also called Vihiga home. We highlight a few areas within Vihiga with touristic appeal.
Exploration of the county’s natural heritage begins at the ‘beginning’ with a journey to caves believed to be home of Mulogoli, the founding father to the populous Maragoli sub-ethnic group. While the caves are inhabitable in this age, venturing in alone invokes fear and reverence for the man who chose to turn the dark belly into his home.
Situated on a stony hill at Lyagidaywa Village in Mungoma location, the stones that make up the roof of what is considered a shrine by locals looks outright dangerous. Despite the appearance, one has to manoeuvre in darkness for more than 100 metres before arriving at the first room. Mulogoli's Camp (the caves), is as organised like a modern house, with seven sizeable rooms underneath the stones.
There is the altar (Muvwali) where he used to pray, the prophetic drum's place (Mungoma), the cave (Muluhano) where he slept, the springs (Kidaho) where water is easily accessed, the cemetery (Vilindwa), the arms' store (Mulisiagalo), and the assembly hall (Muluhya).
“Mulogoli, also called Mulaguli meant prophet. He had a special drum for his godly prophecy, Eng'oma, which unfortunately lost its power in 1920 when Machayo, the operator, died. This incident coincided with the invasion of the area by missionaries,” says David Kisia, one of the custodians of the Maragoli culture.
It is easy to succumb to fear so the services of an experienced guide to lead you through the maze and assure you of your safety is obligatory. Besides, there are rules that visitors have to adhere to.
"One cannot go into the caves where Mulogoli used to live if they have sired twins or they have a record of being involved in immoral vices such as adultery," says Kisia, who inherited the guiding gig from his father.
Those who may want to venture in alone will find navigation difficult because it is pitch dark inside. The recommended time to visit is at sunrise because the caves face the east.
It is believed that a huge snake guards the caves going without a guide or with a tainted past may result in considerable harm. As a result, only a few elders have had a chance of venturing into the caves. Many women around the place, young and old, have not had an opportunity to go inside the caves, thus only enjoy the view from out, for fear of the unknown.
Despite the sweaty affair of conquering the hills to reach the caves, many veterans and aspiring politicians in the region often make a pilgrimage to the caves to receive blessings from their ancestor before they embark on their journey.
Rainmakers of Bunyore
Leaving Mungóma caves, head to a little village located in Ebusiekwe Hills in Emuhaya constituency. Here, you will have an encounter with a rainmaker clan known as Nganyi. Joseph Kutilo, one of the rainmakers believes that a woman, from Banyala wa Ndombi in the neighbouring Kakamega County, they married bequeathed them the science of making rain.
The elders impress that the area hosts three shrines on an acre of land where rain is made. For a visitor to access the ‘secret’ shrines, however, the elders insist on a sacrificial lamb. The rainmakers descended from the legendary Nganyi, who died in 1918 and the shrines are believed to be graves of successive rainmakers.
The elders walk to the shrines facing east late at night (around 11 pm to 4 am) carrying special herbs and plead with the gods to bring rain so that the area can avoid tragedy. If a breeze blowing to the east follows the prayer then the interpretation is good news of rain; if it blows to the west, it is believed that ancestors have declined the offering and the exercise must be repeated another day.
Kenya Meteorological Department has built a radio station (Anyole FM) next to the rainmakers’ shrines.
Footprints of Jesus
Located in Matsigulu sub-location, Gevera stone is a striking religious tourism site. It is believed that Jesus stepped on the stone, hence commonly referred to by locals as ‘Foot of Jesus.’
Mama Rasoah Kavai, the owner of the farm where the stone is located says tourists visit the site to pray, with many indigenous churches visiting it often for worship. Visitors, in some instances, carry water from the site that they believe solves their spiritual and marital problems as well as performs other miracles for the faithful.
According to Mama Kavai, a church leader identified as only Peter of Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG) church from Kisa area of Kakamega County discovered the stone in 1965 during a meditation mission in the area.
The stone bears footprint marks and imprints of a padlock. Locals say the padlock secures the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God. They further insist that the stone has inscriptions, which are fast fading, that are an indication of end times.
Former Governor Moses Akaranga, who was a frequent visitor to the site, notes the region is the headquarters of many major churches including Friends Church, PAG, Church of God in East Africa, African Divine Church, Africa Israel Nineveh, among others, perhaps a statement qualifying the region’s divine asset. Despite the interest it generates, the site faces destruction because of erosion, neglect and human interference.
Kenya experienced a gold rush in the early the 1930s, fueled partly by a geologist’s report to a colonial office that suggested that possibly as much as half of the gold being prospected in Kakamega was being wasted by amateur techniques. A large nugget called the Elbon Nugget would be the result of this rush. As you can imagine, Vihiga lies in the same belt as Kakamega and hosts its fair share of gold mines located across Viyalo in Sabatia and Muhudu in Hamisi.
Chairperson of one of the pits used for mining at Viyalo, Mark Bululu, says some of the pits have been in existence since 1950 and are handed down from one generation to the next. Groups of up to 200 people work a single mine and visitors flock the region to either to witness the process or to purchase raw gold.
Apart from physical sites, the region is blessed with several sightseeing points.
The equator, for instance, crosses the county at Gambogi market, a few kilometres from Kisumu. A swamp located here never dries up even during the severest of droughts. A few metres from Gambogi market, on your way to Serem, there is the Hill of Vision at Goibei, where visitors have a clear view of Nandi escarpments and the vast hills in Hamisi.
Maragoli Hills, which were a vast forest until the late 1990s, now covered with granitic tors offers an extensive view of the county. Kisumu and Kakamega are visible from this perch and during the night, Mt Elgon can be sighted. The hills also offer a hiking challenge and have been the location organising Festival of the Hills on it often to open a new year.
The county further has many forests, but notably Kibiri Forest, an extension of Kakamega Rain Forest, where at least nine rare birds can be found.
Tiriki Tropical Gardens and Forests in Shamakhokho managed by Victor Mwanga who takes visitors on a bamboo tour showing them how to plant the grass and value add.
Where to Stay
- There is only one tourist class hotel, Sosa cottages, situated at Gisambai market near Majengo. The hotels offers a variety of services, has villas for large families, executive rooms and single rooms. Rates at the hotel go from Sh5500 to Sh19000.
- Recently opened Enzogu Hotel located along Mbale-Gisambai route offers the best ambience for food and accommodation. The hotel boasts conferencing facilities and is located placed just outside town for revellers who like serenity.
- Broad Park Hotel is strategically located at Mbale town. The hotel has 120 executive and deluxe rooms. Conferencing facilities are available.