Imagemory by JC Niala

To mark the publication of Shalimar Davina Quinlivan has invited a series of writers and artists to contribute work to The Clearing, exploring the themes of her book – migration and the meaning of place. In this essay  JC Niala visits Kitum Cave in Kenya.



Imagemory: Tracing Our Ancestors in Kitum Cave



Growing up in a household where five different languages circulated (English Kiswahili, Luo, Samia and French), perhaps it is not surprising that my brothers and I added our own. It doesn’t have a name, but it is mostly sung. This is something we didn’t notice until my oldest brother got married and his wife asked, ‘Why do you sing to each other?’


We still don’t have an answer.


My favourite word in our language is imagemory. It is a cross between the English words – imagination and memory, but it means something a little different. It means a memory you have of something that happened, but you haven’t remembered it correctly. It is not a false memory – the intention behind remembering it in the way you have is a good one. Maybe a better way to explain it is that it is better to remember something, even if the memory is not quite right, than not to remember it at all. It is after all a memory that is true to you.


Imagemory took me to the Kitum Cave, in Mount Elgon in Kenya during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was tracing my father. Kitum Cave appears like an open mouth in the mountain. The mouth looks as though it is in the middle of saying something. Not quite a smile, its expression nevertheless is amused as if it’s trying to draw you into conversation. My father was killed in an accident, and it felt as though his departure was mid-conversation. I have been picking up the threads of that conversation by travelling to places that we went to together, either just the two of us or as a family.


I remember a magical visit to Mount Elgon when I was a child and we saw the elephants pick their way into and through the Kitum Cave. Kitum Cave is the only place in the world where elephants go underground. They scrape the walls of the cave for mineral rich salt. I remember holding my father’s hand as we stood in awe watching the elephants padding silently across the cave’s soft floor. I remember my father telling me not to make a sound. It is of course, imagemory. My father did take us as a family to Mount Elgon and Kitum Cave, but we would not have been watching the elephants (though he would have told me about them) because they ‘mine’ the salt at night. Even in the daytime, inside the cave it is completely dark.


Mount Elgon is an extinct volcano that was formed by cooling volcanic rock. It is within Mouth Elgon National Park which straddles the Kenya Uganda border. Surrounded by tropical rainforest, birdsong echoes from its giant Podocarpus, Elgon teak, and elegant rosewood trees. It’s a forest sprinkled with desire paths that lead one down steep banks and part the trees to give way to cascading waterfalls. Waterfalls that envelope your attention masking the birdsong. The streams of fresh water are so inviting that you find yourself drawn to step into the breath-taking cool of the natural shower.


I remember playing in a waterfall.


The return to Mount Elgon and the Kitum Cave was again a family trip. This time with my partner, Peter, and my father, Okelo. This is not imagemory. My Luo peoples have a practical way to bring back our ancestors through the specific language of naming. If you name a baby after a deceased loved one, then your loved one returns. Okelo is my daughter and my father. There are many things that I could tell you about how I know my father has returned, but now I have told you about imagemory, there will naturally be a question in your mind. Let me tell you this instead, my father was always trying to get me to face my fears. One of the last books he bought me was Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers.


Since she came into being, Okelo has been doing the same.


Driving up the mountain to Kitum Cave we had two guides. The human one in our car who walked us through the rainforest pointing out the names of plants that we were seeing and advising us of their use. The second was an elephant who walked calmly ahead of the car as we kept a respectful distance. The elephant took us in for a brief moment before she disappeared into the bushes. It felt as though once she had noted we knew how to get where it was we needed to go, she could dispense with her slow welcome. We had arrived at the national park early and coupled with the pandemic meant we did not come across any other human beings.



Standing at the entrance to Kitum Cave and our human guide continued with his commentary. ‘People used to live here,’ he started, before telling us about previous generations who had taken shelter and made homes in the cave. I wanted to know what had happened to the people. He said that they were moved when the Mount Elgon National Park was created. I believed him and yet I was incredulous – I knew about the mountain elephants, but my father hadn’t told me about the mountain cave people. Surely, he would have told me about the mountain cave people. Surely, I would have remembered.


Peter eagerly strode ahead into the darkness, while Okelo moved closer to me. She could sense my fear. I didn’t say anything out loud, but Kitum Cave has been called a ‘Hot Zone’. In the 1980s two different people died after visiting Kitum Cave. A middle-aged man and a young boy. They didn’t know each other and their deaths though seven years apart were identical. Bleeding from every orifice, in Nairobi hospital, they drew their last breaths. The likely cause was Marburg Virus, and the suspected source was bat guano from Kitum Cave. In the intervening years, Kitum Cave had been closed off to the public and thoroughly investigated. Marburg is an ancient and deadly virus with a kill rate of over eighty per cent. It is also relatively rare. Despite concerted efforts, Marburg was not found in the Kitum Cave. It was eventually declared safe, and visitors returned, just as we were doing. Except, this was during a pandemic, and stories of bats and viruses were merging in my mind even as Peter moved further into the darkness. Our guide turned to look at Okelo and me. Okelo reached for my hand.


We exchanged birdsong for bat song and the floor of the cave was soft beneath our feet. It was not a straightforward walk. We are tall people and had to crouch down in places and pick our way through the rock, some parts of which were unstable, the odd bit coming loose. ‘Well done, Mama,’ the teenage Okelo offered encouragement. She whispered to me as the guide continued to talk about the mountain cave people and their entangled lives with the elephants. The people who lived there would have had a life that was an intricate dance with the elephants. Part of the time they were asleep the elephants would have been ‘mining’. In the small hours, everyone would have gotten their rest. Elephant dung would have been a great fertiliser for the crops those that lived there would eat.


We reached our hands out to trace the white marks made in the rock by elephant tusks from where they ‘mined’ the salt – fresh marks that indicated life. Marks that were superimposed onto petrified logs, and bones of crocodiles, elephants, and hippos. The fresh elephant marks are palimpsests of lives that existed before. Kitum Cave was once a rain forest that has since been petrified. Seven million years ago when Mount Elgon erupted, it covered the rain forest in ash. Touching the walls of the cave it was as though time had collapsed, my fingers reaching through to another time. My daughter and father’s fingers entwined in mine.


Our guide came from near the national park and, although he did not say it explicitly, his ancestors must have been the mountain cave people, the people whose stories had been erased by the unnerving beauty of the cave. A beauty now meant to cater to tourists and foreign exchange and become part of the country’s so-called development. Kenya is a country whose landscape is covered with these invisible stories, triggered by the idea that conserving the land necessarily means removing from it the people who have been its guardians for centuries.


When our guide paused, I asked him to switch off his torch and together we all stood in the comforting darkness, our ancestors within our reach, and I realised that my fear had vanished. We carried on the rest of our walk through the cave in silence. On the occasion the light accidentally fell on a bat – it would respond with a searching trill of chirps that would ricochet around the walls of the cave filling it with rich sound. The air inside the cave otherwise deliciously still.


We emerged from Kitum Cave an hour and a half after we had entered, back into the brilliant, orange-tinted sunlight of an equatorial December hot season. I could no longer feel the thumping in my chest as I had done when we entered the cave, and my breathing was considerably slower. On our drive down the mountainside, I was pulled back into the present moment from conversations with my father as Peter slowed down to a stop after taking a corner. There, as if to say goodbye, in the bushes stood an elephant mother and her child.





JC Niala is a writer and anthropologist who has lived and worked in Africa, Europe and America. Her play The Strong Room was shortlisted for BBC Africa Performance and her film Wazi? FM has won many awards including an EU award for promoting peace and cultural understanding. A version of Field notes from an African anthropologist was awarded the Frank Allen Bullock Creative Writing Prize 2020 at Oxford University. Her forthcoming book A Loveliness of Ladybirds explores colonial history, urban allotments and natural history through her own life growing up in Nairobi, Kenya. Shortlisted for Canongate’s Nan Shepherd Prize in 2019, the book will be published by Little Toller Books in 2023.


Shalimar, a Story of Place and Migration by Davina Quinlivan, is out now.


Photographs by the author.

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