Above: From the arch of the mosque near Fumo Liyogo’s grave near Kipini on the tip of Tana Delta – Rupi Mangat
Published: Saturday Nation magazine 16 November 2019
It’s a quiet brook at Kalota on the tip of the delta that is Kenya’s largest, the Tana. It’s here we hop on to the boat belonging to the Ozi Community Conservation Area that is supported by Nature Kenya, the country oldest natural history society started in 1909 by like-minded naturalist.
It’s a pretty sail down the delta to Kipini where the river meets the ocean. Narrow channels that span 130,000 hectares weave around a jigsaw of wetlands and sand dunes, mangrove forests and savannah grasses, mud flats and oxbow lakes. It is rich in water birds, hippos and crocodiles that there isn’t a moment to doze off.
Local Pokomo fishers in their narrow dugout boats float languidly on the earth brown river waiting to empty their fish traps while the farmers tend to their field. Lanky Orma pastorals bring their cattle, goats and sheep to the core of the delta to graze. We hop off the boat to step into the river-edged villages like Ozi. In the late afternoon, the river mouth widens and we catch our first glimpse of the Indian Ocean at Kipini. It’s a commanding view.
Kipini was once an Arab stronghold where the sultan diverted the delta’s water to his vast plantations of spices and rice that could have rivalled Seyyid Said’s Spice Island i.e. Zanzibar.
It forever changed the original course of the river to Kipini, a tiny Swahili village of single-storeyed houses lined neatly in rows complete with the baraza and veranda. Modernity has crept in with electricity and motor bikes.
We’re directed to Mama Lucy who owns a simple but tastefully furnished house complete with a courtyard and Swahili-inspired deco near the mouth of the delta neighboured by the century-old colonial administration building that is an imposing structure but falling apart.
Searching for Fumo Liyongo’s Grave
On my first visit in 1997, l heard about Fumo Liyongo the legendary hero who lived somewhere between the 9th and 13th centuries and buried near Kipini. Mama Lucy confirms it.
“It’s easy to find. Just ask the villagers at Tosi,” she says.
A ten-minute drive down the murram road and we are at Tosi marked by a mosque and motley of single storey houses. To our amazement none of the villagers claim to know about Fumo Liyongo’s grave.
Just at the point of despair, a Kenya Forest Service car appears. The men do not know about the grave but they know someone at Kipini who would know.
They return ten minutes later with a woman called Nashene Barisa and Abdalla Masoud to take us to the grave.
A few minutes’ drive away we were on a narrow bush-filled path to the grave of Fumo Liyongo.
There is nothing to show save for the foundation. “Yes because all the stones have been stolen,” she tells. “But this is the foundation. See how tall he was,” she says striding across the length some 12 feet long.
“There,” she points further down the dense green bush lined by the blue ocean, “is where he lived.”
This gets exciting. Back in the KFS car, we near Tosi and with a young Hassan Said Hassan a pupil at Kipini Secondary School as guide, we follow him through a thicket which suddenly opens to a magnificent ruin of a mosque. It’s so unexpected that we stand transfixed.
The Legend of Fumo Liyongo
Born of noble blood, he was a celebrated poet of legendary strength. It didn’t go too well with his brother, Mringwari who was chosen ruler on his father’s death. Mringwari imprisoned Liyongo. Liyongo escaped and became ruler in a new state, respected for his bravery and justice.
He was invincible. And there was a secret to it which only he and his mother Mbowe knew. In an act of betrayal, Fumo’s son heard it and told his uncle for promised power.
Fumo Liyongo could only be killed by a copper nail or pin piercing his navel which saw his untimely death.
More on Fumo Liyongo
His epic story is recited in nine Swahili poems first written down in the late nineteenth century. Muhammad Kijuma, one of the greatest Swahili poets known as the Socrates of Lamu, composed the ninth poem from The Epic of Liyongo in 1913.
Guide to Kipini
Fly or drive to Malindi. Drive to Manjila near Garsen and take the turning to Lamu. Contact Nature Kenya office firstname.lastname@example.org or call +254725401684 to arrange for a guided tour to Fumo Liyongo’s site including the bigger state beyond the mosque and for the boat to sail the delta via Nature Kenya’s Site Support Group, Ozi Community Conservation Area. The guides know their birds and all.
In Kipini, stay at Lucy’s. Call 0724 332288.
From Kipini you can drive on to Lamu, 50 kms north.