Rekindling a Deserved Culture-Historical 1st Watha Festival, 3rd June 2017

The breathtaking sunrise beckoned to all dwellers of the semi-arid landscape of Bondeni in Taita Taveta announcing that the day was here. The yellow branches of the beautiful tall acacia trees swayed in the cool South-Easterly winds as it blew ushering all to attend one of the 1st ever biggest event to take place among the Watha People of the villages around Mt. Kasigau in Taita Taveta.

The Watha Festival had finally arrived! Eager to begin the festivities, hundreds of men, women and children poured into Itinya Village, next to Maungu town along the Voi-Mombasa highway excited to see what the day would bring. The festival drew about 200 people in total including 10 representatives invited from each Watha community from 5 locations around Taita Taveta County, namely: Birikani village, Kajire village, Itinya village, Kisemenyi village and Shirango/Makina village.

Other notable attendees were 9 Watha elders who serve as advisors for the mini-festival and 8 members of the organizing committee drawn from Waldena – the umbrella Watha Community Development Committee. Both the festival advisory and the organizing committees work under the auspices of the Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW).

The Watha people are a rare Cushitic tribe regarded by anthropologists as ‘hunter-gatherers’. Recent testimonies indicate that the Watha are more “bushmen” than hunter-gatherers. The Watha once occupied the vast region now under the jurisdiction of Tsavo East National Park and Tsavo West National Park. The tribe is legendary for hunting of elephants with the most powerful traditional hand-made bows in the world.

Unfortunately, wildlife managers and conservationists have largely ignored the unrivalled Watha Cultural reverence for pristine wilderness areas, their unmatched respect for wildlife, and their deep indigenous knowledge of and practices for nature conservation.

The event aimed at revitalizing and reinvigorating the Watha Culture and heritage as intricately linked to wildlife and nature. The mini-festival was set up as the first exhibition of Watha cultural ways of life. All traditions incompatible with laws and codes of public behaviour were excluded without compromising the authenticity and originality of the Watha culture. Further, discarded practices due to persecution, victimization and stigmatization of the Watha since the aggressive anti-poaching campaigns were rekindled at the festival.

The objectives of the festival were:

  1. To demonstrate authentic Watha cultural lifestyles such as cookery, food preservation and storage, dress codes, poetry, songs and dances, weaponry etc.
  2. To review a conversation about the need to review the current state of Watha culture, Watha people and Watha heritage in the Tsavo region and create an inclusive roadmap for promoting the welfare of Watha people and culture.
  3. To invite stakeholders in the public service, wildlife, social services and political fraternity in Taita Taveta County to the festival for a Watha cultural experience and consequently obtain their consensual buy-in for promoting the Watha culture as a factor of community integration in the county from then henceforth.

The images below demonstrate the different stages of the festival from the opening prayer to the closing prayer well demonstrating the culture of the Watha people.

Sessions: Invocation Ceremony-(Arrival, Prayers and Lighting Fire); Identifying social belonging; songs and dance; cookery and consumption; bow & arrow competitions; speeaches and thanksgiving.

Both Young and Old arrive at Itinya village for the festival Elderly persons join in solidarity as they arrive for the festival Watha, men and women burst out in jubilation as they arrive at the festival Watha women join in the entry dance to venue
Participant to event bows in prayer Watha Elder leads in Prayer Watha Elder leads in Prayer Watha Elder leads in prayer
Watha men prepare to make fire using elephant dry dung Applying friction on stick and dung to create sparks of fire Directing the lighted small flame towards wind direction Dung beginning to smoke
Dung lit and ready for placement on the ground Positioning the lit dung on the ground Adding firewood to increase the flame A ready Watha fire in readiness for cooking
Watha identifying their different social belonging-clan Elder identifying clan members Bondeni Watha People’s Dance Men joined by women in a Watha dance
Elderly Watha tries his hand on the bow and arrow competition 2nd Elder tries his hand on the bow and arrow competition Members of Watha watch in wait for their chance in bow and arrow competition Winner of bow and arrow competition jubilated by members of his clan for the win
Waldena leader gives a speech during the closure of event Local leader gives a vote of thanks during closure of event Nominated MCA gives a vote of thanks during closure of event Josphat Ngonyo (ED-ANAW) gives speech and vote of thanks

Songs & Dances:

Watha Culture is coded in a wide variety of songs and dances expressing worship, lamentations, lullabies, mockeries, seduction, triumphs, fertility, crisis and calamities. During the festival, 5 villages competed in singing the following songs and dances: Gerarso, Soghor, M-apira. The winning village, Bondeni, was awarded a full set of Watha Culture uniform of Bondeni.

Food Exhibition:

Watha people are meat specialists and therefore experts of preparing, preserving and storing all types of meat. The festival demonstrated different methods of preparing, preserving and storing meat for either short term use or to last fresh for at least 3 years without refrigeration. Participants tasted different kinds of unique Watha meat foods such as: Fon goghes, Fon jido, Fon wado and Fon jida of dada. They also had an opportunity to drink bulbula after the meal.

Archery sport:

Watha people are synonymous with bows and arrows. The Watha are prohibited by National Laws from harvesting wildlife for food, especially by use of bows and arrows. However, the Watha are renown archers with “in-born” marksmanship. These skills were demonstrated at the festival. Watha marksmen from 5 villages competed for the bull’s eye (Garra), the heart (Shiro bupha) and the flank (lukha) trophies at the festival. The Gerarso song from Bondeni (the winning village) was sung by all participants as the closing anthem of the festival.



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