• Shimoni Slave Cave has an underground pass that empties out to the famous Three Giant Sisters Caves located in Fikirini village in Tswaka, Kwale county.
• After the departure of the Arabs, elders from the Digo community created a small traditional shrine (Kaya) in the caves for spiritual rituals.
It can take you 30-45 minutes to go from Ukunda to Shimoni in Kwale county, having paid Sh150 for the whole matatu ride.
My main agenda in Shimoni was to visit the Kisite Mpunguti Marine Park and Reserve.
On your way to the marine park, you easily get to see the entrance to the Shimoni Slave Caves.
Having never been to the caves and with an unexplained fear of bats, I decided to take a small detour and learn.
At the entrance, with a fee of Sh100, I am met by my tour guide, Nassir Juma, as he leads the way down the wooden staircase to the entrance of the cave.
We walk to the first end of the caves, where Juma starts off by explaining how the Shimoni Slave Caves are connected to other slave caves.
Shimoni Slave Cave has an underground pass that empties out to the famous Three Giant Sisters Caves located in Fikirini village, Tswaka.
These are Kisimani, Mdenyenye and Pangani caves.
Back in the 18th to 19th centuries, Juma said, Arabs used to capture slaves and, while using any of the three slave cave entrances, would lead them through the 5km underground pass before reaching the Shimoni caves.
The latter was considered as a “go-down” for slaves, who would be traded at any time by the Arabs.
“They would be sold and transported to Ugunja, Zanzibar,” Juma said.
I wanted to take the 5km walk to the Three Giant Sisters Caves but unfortunately, sand silt brought about by ocean water had completely barricaded the passage, making it impossible to go through.
In case you are interested in moving from Shimoni to Fikirini to see these other three caves, you can decide to walk through the thickets for about 5km.
Alternatively, you could pay Sh150-200 on a boda boda, where you will cover 7km before arriving at your destination.
As I continue with my tour, I find it hard not to notice the bats flying around.
For centuries, the Shimoni Slave Caves were in existence as they were naturally forming before explorers discovered them.
When ocean water flows into the cave, it enters either from the top or bottom.
As it enters through the top, the water is sometimes mixed with rain water, and when it dries up, the salt remains and forms stalactites, which grow from the cave ceiling downwards.
When it grows from the cave floor upwards, it forms stalagmites.
“When the stalagmites and stalactites meet, they form what we call a limestone pillar, which forms a greater part of the formation of the caves here, apart from dried reefs and fossils that have been piling up for centuries,” Juma said.
On my right, I see a well that is believed to have existed during the slave trade era.
Juma said it gets its water from underground channels, which directly link to the ocean, as well as water that comes from the three-foot well.
Moving on to a different section of the cave, Juma shows me an area where I can see a lot of bats on the ceiling of the cave.
He notices I am uneasy as a good number of the bats start flying around where we were standing, sort of acknowledging our presence.
“These are fruit bats. They are harmless. They usually leave in the evenings to go hunting for fruits like bananas, pawpaw and even mangoes before returning to the cave very early in the morning,” Juma said.
As he waves his torch at the ceiling, I can see more than 100 small bats clustered together.
There is a corner where rusting chains are visibly seen nailed to the wall.
“This area was used by the Arabs as a torture chamber for the slaves,” Juma said.
“A slave would be chained, both legs and hands, to the wall as they received their punishment.”
Slaves brought into the cave would be given tende (dates) as food and they would get drinking water from the well.
To prevent water from entering the caves, the Arabs had erected a wall at the ocean entrance of the Shimoni caves.
When the commercial practice was abolished, the Arabs brought down the wall.
“Because of the silt, we are unable to go through the cave hole that pours out into the ocean. This was where the slaves would walk through before boarding the ships. From here to the shore is just about 20m, so it’s not that far,” Juma said.
After the departure of the Arabs, elders from the Digo community within the area created a small traditional shrine (Kaya) in the caves for spiritual rituals.
It has now been more than 20 years since the elders stopped performing traditions from the Kaya, but it is still considered a holy ground.
Juma and his team of three other guides regularly check the shrine for money left behind by tourists and the community, who come to offer prayer and money.
“Before, when there was no rainfall or when someone fell sick, the wazees used to come here to pray,” Juma said.
“You can see so many bottles here. These are rose water bottles. It was the only thing wazees used to come with in here.”
In the shrine, there are also black, red and white pieces of cloth that are tied around sticks and dug into the ground.
Juma tells me that in the Digo and Mijikenda communities, these coloured pieces of cloth often have meaning.
“Even if people think that red symbolises danger, here it symbolises drought. The white cloth means clearing of the sky and the black means harvest,” he said.
“We always say thank you for visiting us. When you meet your friends, encourage them to come visit us. Feel free to donate to support the community by leaving something in the shrine.”