Nyero Rock Paintings

The rock art in Nyero, archaeologically dated to be as old as the Iron Age some 4,000years ago, gives Uganda a special place in the history of civilization and the evolution of mankind. At Nyero, the Stone Age comes to life and any visitor that has interest in archaeology and prehistoric finds will be fascinated. The paintings, made on the inner surfaces of six rock shelters are widely recognised as some of the finest rock paintings in East Africa.

The Rock Art

The art inscribed on the rocks consists mainly of geometrical forms. Not all can be easily interpreted, but others take the shapes of canoes, the sun, crosses and some vaguely human and animal forms. They are inscribed using red, white and purple pigments that were probably derived from natural materials like red rocks, clay, dung and sap.

The Iteso oral tradition also tells of the Nyero pocket being used by barren women who would lie facing the pocket and pray for children. Traces of smoke from animal sacrifices can still be seen in some caves. The Nyero rock paintings site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in 1997 in the cultural category.

Who drew it

Although the makers and the message of the mysterious rock paintings have never been deciphered, it is agreed that based on the imagination evident in the paintings and on their aesthetic value, whoever drew them was highly intelligent. The most plausible explanation about the paintings is that the ancestors of hunter-gatherer pygmoid people that we now know as Batwa drew them. Indeed, the paintings resemble art that has been found among the Batwa of Southwestern Uganda, and the Mbuti of the Ituri forest in DRC.


Culture – the mysterious rock shelters are believed to have once been sacred places of worship, possibly of a sun god and inside the main shelter called Nyero 2, a small dark pocket between boulders was possibly an altar where gifts were offered to the gods. The current inhabitants of Nyero, the Iteso still follow a long tradition of placing money on this altar to ask for favours with health, fertility and harvests, from their ancestral spirits.

Rock Sites

Other rock art sites – Numerous rock art sites can be seen scattered around this region such as Mukongoro, which is also located in Kumi, Dolwe Island on Lake Victoria, Komuge in Bukedea District, Lolui Island in Lake Kyoga, and Kapiri and Kakoro in Palliisa District. The common theme in all the rock paintings is concentric circles in red pigment. The Nyero rock paintings site is the most accessible, and is a convenient stop over on the way to or from Kidepo Valley National Park

Location – 65kms north of Mbale in Nyero Village, Kumi District

The Imbalu Ceremony

The origin of male circumcision that is today so central to the culture of the Bagisu is debatable, but a dominant tradition tells of how Masaba had to undergo circumcision before receiving a wife from the Kalenjin tribe across the border in Kenya.

Today it is not debatable for a Mugisu boy to enrol for the ceremony that is held biannually throughout Bugisu, and uncircumcised males (basinde) are never regarded as men. This important rite of passage involves the whole community and during this period, the atmosphere in Bugisu reaches a fever pitch with lots of traditional music and dance everywhere. The Bagisu welcome visitors who have been flocking to Mbale for decades to witness this energy charged ceremony.

The Ceremony – For three days before they are to be cut, the initiates are made to dance around the village, to excite and prepare them for the ceremony that is performed in the morning hours, before 10am. On D-day, the initiates have their faces plastered in ash and they wear and they are escorted to the circumcision site by a medley of wild music, whistling, cheering, and dancing from community members.

They stand in full sight of everyone and with the frenetic drumbeat and dancing happening all around them, they are quickly snipped with no anaesthetic. Naturally, strength on the part of the initiates to maintain their composure when the cut is made is celebrated. Throughout the ceremony, enthusiastic crowds encourage the initiates and praise them for their strength.

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