The rock paintings of Kondoa Irangi

Part two of three

No one quite knows when the people who lived in what’s now the Kondoa area of Tanzania first started painting in caves and under rock overhangs.

Just how many paintings there are in this area is unknown.

Who exactly painted them is still not completely clear.

Why they were painted and what the paintings mean is either a secret or a mystery.

The Kondoa Irangi Rock Paintings World Heritage Site consists of more than 100 document rock art sites, but this is a rugged, rural area of small villages and few roads, even many of the documented sites are only accessible by a combination of motorcycle and hiking.

There is also the question of how much has been lost. At many sites, you can make out faded paint, hints that there were once more paintings, that the paintings themselves were once more detailed.

How much was painted on other surfaces? Made of of wood or other materials that decay? Painted in places not as sheltered from the wind and the rain? Lost forever.

It’s early afternoon when I arrive in Kolo.

Three large rock paintings sites are not far from the village. We drive for a bit, on a wide dirt road and then a track so steep and rocky that the motorcycle can’t handle two riders and I get off and walk.

Then we hike.

The land is almost wild, but it’s not real, there are no large animals here, the giraffes, antelopes, elephants and rhinos that once lived here were wiped out, a side effect of a British campaign against the tsetse fly.

But they were here, the paintings are clear about that.

One picture appears to show a headless giraffe, is that because the paint faded? I ask. No, the guide says, it was painted that way, after the hunters killed the giraffe, they would have cut off its head.

Other scenes appear to depict more human conflict.

Three men fight over a woman, some interpretations suggest she is being kidnapped.

Are these stories from myth or scenes from life?

The rock paintings of the San people, in modern day South Africa and its neighbours, are mystical, religious. Many San paintings depict the links between our world and the spirit world.

But these are different paintings, different people.

I try to ask the guide about it, about the spiritual significance of the work, but his descriptions of the paintings are always grounded in physical reality, they are scenes of life.

These caves were lived in, he says, they are paintings on the walls of a home.

But other sources suggest these caves were not lived in, that they places of ritual, places where initiations took place.

Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps he knows more than he’s telling because I’m not supposed to know. Perhaps his view has been shaped by more than a century of colonialism and Christianity. Perhaps my view has been shaped by an occidental perspective that sees Africa as a place of mystery and mysticism.

But the paintings are mysterious, elongated figures, people with bizarre hairstyles or some sort of headdress.

Some scenes appear to depict scenes of life, like this one below of elephants caught in a trap. Though that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spiritual connection.

There are many animals in the paintings, they are more detailed than the people. The painters knew these animals well.

They were hunter-gatherers, the people who created these paintings, Bushmen, the guide calls them, but that’s a generic term. It is likely that the paintings were made by the ancestors of the present day Hadza or Sandawe peoples, indigenous groups that maintained hunter-gather traditions long after pastoralists and farmers arrived in the area.

While these paintings are believed to date back more than 2,000 years – and some could be more than 50,000 years old – there are reports of Sandawe men continuing to create similar paintings into the early 20th century.

The ancestors of the Sandwe, if it was them who painted these rocks, are not the only ones to paint here, though. There was another tradition of rock painting, a very different one.

And while the art of the Sandwe and Hadza peoples are very different from that of the San people of South Africa, Lesotho and eSwatini, a hunter-gatherer people who have also been called “Bushmen,” there are some evocative similarities. You’ll have to come back in two weeks to read more about that, though.

We finish the first day before sunset. I stand at the side of the road and wait for a bus from Kolo to Kondoa, where the nearest hotel is located.

It doesn’t come, other people flag down a passing car.

I get a passing tuk-tuk. A man is already in the back seat, holding a sleeping child.

Near the edge of town, the tuk-tuk stops, the driver and the man get out, the man passes the child to the driver, who then turns to me.

“Can you hold my son?” he asks.

The child sleeps well on the bumpy road. I suppose he’s probably used to it.

I spend the night at the Kondoa Climax Annex Hotel, a place of mirrored doors and vinyl furniture.

In the market, I eat barbecued goat, using two toothpicks as a fork, and drink Safari beer.

The next morning, I will take the bus back to Kolo.

Come back in two weeks to read about that in my third and final letter about the rock paintings of Kondoa Irangi. If you haven’t already, you can subscribe, so you don’t miss it.

It’s a story that will take us through thousands of years of history – and thousands of kilometers south to the tiny kingdom of eSwatini.