Abandoned as it is, Thimlich Ohinga, can easily be described as the Great Wall of Kenya.
Thimlich Ohinga is a Luo (or Dholuo) word which means ‘the fortress in the frightening dense forest.’ Scary, isn’t it?
All the same the structure dating back to the 16th Century is located in the Lake Victoria Basin in Western Kenya.
It is the largest and most well preserved of 138 known sites of similar stone enclosures in the region, which served a defensive purpose for the local iron-working agro-pastoralist populations.
The site, spread over 21 hectares, is composed of 5 main stone enclosures built without any mortar. Each of the main enclosures is composed of several inner enclosures and a number of stone lined pathways.
The largest, called Kochieng, is 140 meters in diameter and has two main extensions and six inner enclosures, or kraals.
The other enclosures are called Kakaku, Koketch, Koluoch and finally the small enclosure of Kodongo, a little under 200 meters south of the main cluster.
Iron smelting and iron working took place just outside of the northern wall of the main enclosure.
Surviving walls range from 0.5 to 4.2 meters in height, and 1 to 3 meters in width and feature some small observation platforms or buttresses.
The exact dating of the site, as well as the identity of the original builders remains unclear.
Apparently it seems to predate the arrival of the Luo, the current inhabitants of the region, and the site has been abandoned and reoccupied several times over the course of its lifetime.
Generally, a 15th to 16th century date is most often cited for its construction, though later 17th century radiocarbon dates, as well as an earlier Late Stone Age occupation based on lithic finds are also cited.
Thimlich Ohinga has often been considered a historic Luo site.
However, historical research and oral tradition attest to a diversity of occupants and interaction of different peoples.
Successive occupation by different groups has been the norm in the Lake Victoria Basin and likewise the history of Thimlich Ohinga is characterized by periodic occupation and out-migration until the site was finally abandoned in the early 20th century.
According to oral tradition, the earliest inhabitants are said to have been Bantu groups including the Wagire and Kamageta.
The Nilotic groups which passed through the now archaeological site include the Kabuoch- Kachieng, Kadem, Kaler, Kanyamwa and Karungu.”
Although a very superficial similarity could be noted to the famous site of Great Zimbabwe, several thousand kilometers to the south, there does not seem to be any relation between the two, which actually use very different construction techniques, and should be considered distinct traditions.