- Digging around the historical escarpment begun two years ago, with one small van coming for sand, today bigger and more trucks turn up.
- Many of the sand buyers come from Kisii and Nyamira towns, however more transverse from as far as Homa Bay.
At the foot of Manga Hills, Jomo Kebwaro, 40, lifts up his mattock to dig out a boulder from the low end of the cliff. He says the mattock has not left him for two years now since he discovered the 'gold'.
He says the activity helps him shoulder the family bills.
Like many of his friends crushing stones around the hills for sale to builders, Kebwaro is certainly oblivious of the ecological danger he is subjecting the escarpment to. The hills straddle Kisii and Nyamira counties.
Kebwaro says they wake up at dawn to work and feed the appetite of the growing construction industry. It doesn't matter where as the destruction goes on.
"In turn, we get money too to feed our families ," he said.
Not far, columns of trucks wait in turns for their fill as an army of other men crush the boulders.
The digging around the historical escarpment begun two years ago, with one small van coming for sand, today bigger and more trucks turn up.
Many of the sand buyers come from Kisii and Nyamira towns, however more travel from as far as Homa Bay.
The intensity of human activities around the heritage site has now stirred some clamour especially from environmentalists and historians who want it protected at all costs.
The sand harvesters complicate efforts to conserve it as they live around the escarpment.
Many of them draw quick small income from selling what their hands lay on: sand and loose chippings. The human activities have been intensifying with environmentalists feeling nature is being disturbed.
"Sooner or later it will destabilise the entire escarpment and disturb the nature around it big time," Patrick Lumumba, a nature enthusiast says.
Lumumba, who is the Kisii county secretary, says very few leaders are calling for the conservation of the escarpment.
"It is not just for it's aesthetics - for it provides a quiet ambience away from the hustle and bustle of towns especially for nature lovers and mountain climbers - but also for its heritage value," he said.
Kisii University vice chancellor John Akama speaks of Manga as a hill that is inextricably linked with the history of the Gusii community.
Sakawa, the community's famed prophet, hailed from the villages nearby and so does Peter Tabichi, the winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2019.
"There is a rich cocktail of myths and legends about it that are delicately dovetailed with the historical past of the community. This actually stirs some hangovers in some of us who love history," the VC told the Star at his office.
Akama spoke of 'Engoro ya Mwaga' - a bottomless pity atop the escarpment that is treated with an aura of mysticism.
Nobody for sure has discovered if the said depths lead any further than the basement of the hill, but myths tied around it inform conversations on conservation.
Thick knots of grass and bundles of sticks are found at the the pit's entrance.
Villagers say this is a tradition for those who visit it. It is viewed as a sign of goodwill to the ancestors or appeasing the bad spirits.
At one end of the basement is Lake Okari, which has morphed into a swamp. It's underground cisterns are said to feed Lake Victoria.
Atop the east end, huge boulders hung precariously in pristine beauty. Underneath, a religious group gathers to pray. Others, kneel at the base of a gigantic cross erected by the Catholic Church to do confessions.
Akama says the site attracts all into it and they all find some meaning to life.
"The religious, irreligious and animists often escape into. It is a place that certainly holds more than what has been written or said. This is why it pains to see how it is slowly entering dereliction.
"Soon, it will be gone if no intentional efforts are made to reverse the degradation," he said.
Lumumba, on his part, says all is not lost. He has contacted his counterpart in Nyamira to begin the escarpment's recovery efforts.
Whether the effort would bear fruit, he says he is not certain but vows to lead talks to fight for its conservation.
First targeted are those who are harvesting sand and digging up the boulders supporting the base of the escarpment.
"We want efforts directed to preserve the virginity of the remaining portion of historical site," Lumumba said.
Manga is not just falling to the mattock alone and the unscrupulous gravel sellers, a few land grabbers are also said to be weighing in for their slice of cake.
The human threats, coupled by uncoordinated responses from the county governments to market the heritage as a tourist destination, slowly erode conservation efforts that could be the windfall to help uplift the lives of residents.
"With sustained and proper marketing the escarpment can turn its granite rocks into bread for the residents and the region as a whole," Lumumba said.
Sandra Kemunto, a young entrepreneur from Kisii in partnership with Ufanisi Resorts, has established a tent camp at one end of the escarpment with a view of tapping into its tourism potential.
Reaping is not soon but the idea has shown bright prospects.
She said the tent camp - Ufanisi Sky - that she has envisaged, though on trial right now, forms part of the larger effort.
There are many more similar sites in Gusii region that if put on the map can fuel conversations on the region’s tourism potential.
Kemunto says while the hotel industry is still robust in Kisii, getting people to go into the thickets of Manga Hills and savouring its beauty demands more.
"As investors we must begin to think outside the box, look into how we can create other revenue streams. This can only be done through effectively marketing.
"If this succeeds it's going to be like icing on the cake for the larger tourism industry in our region," she said.
At Ufanisi Sky camp where the Star visited, a few residents with shillings to spare escape to the hills for barbecue and beer.
However, that is barely enough to meet the bills. Her team is still reaching out to more people who want to escape the cities for a weekend of fun.
"We want people to know that Kisii can offer more than a date out to adventures in our small wilds in hills like Manga and Sameta.
"If we go this direction, we can turn the tide of fortunes for tourism," she said.
The fame of Manga Hills dates back to the 18th century when the Gusii migrated from Uganda to Mt Elgon, Luhyaland, Migori, Kabianga and eventually Gusii highlands.
Akama says Manga did provide safety to the community during the impeding raids.
"It was like a fortress providing safety to the hundreds who had already moved from Kabianga near Kericho," he said.
Down below, the fertile valleys were ideal for the community's farming ventures. With magical views of the of the skyline.
A trip to Manga Hills is rewarding with a distant but calming view of Lake Victoria. The sparkling blue waters are distinctly visible, about 60km to the nearest shoreline at Homa Bay.
The disappearing misty waters extend to Dunga beach ecotourism spot in Kisumu, about 150km from Kisii town.
Kisii Governor James Ongwae says tapping such sites for tourism remains at the heart of his administration.
"Conference tourism is picking and it is time we tried to market such sites too," he said.
He says he has instructed his officers to tell those harvesting sand around the mountain to stop.
"I think if we fail to preserve the historical sanctity of Manga, then we would be doing a disservice to the posterity," the governor said.
(Edited by Bilha Makokha)