If you go seven times round the mysterious Nzambani Rock, in Kitui, you will change your sex to the opposite gender, so the legend goes.
Ivia ya Nzambani — as the ‘magical’ rock outcrop that rises above all other physical features around Kitui is known in the local language — has an interesting fable of a woman who turned into a man after going around it seven times.
The rock itself was originally a girl (Nzamba) who turned into the stone. This happened so long ago, that no one knows exactly when.
We are told that the spell that changed Nzamba into a rock could still affect us — my wife and I — if we, as well, walked around the rock seven times. Musyoka the guide tells us that it takes about 45 minutes per trip. That would mean taking more than five hours to complete the journey.
I make a mental note that should I make this trip and change into a woman, I would need another round of seven trips to change back to who I am. It would take 10 hours walking non-stop at a constant pace — technically an entire day.
The terrain is rough and steep and my wife cautiously assumes it is infested with deadly snakes. The guide confirms it but tells us that they spray some substance in the bush around the rock to keep the reptiles at bay, though only from the side that visitors approach it. My wife does not think this type of adventure is anything a normal person would do.
It is strange the way mythology blends with reality here. The stone looks like a giant work of art, carved and placed in the middle of an open country, imposing its presence on the little villages below and the town just eight kilometres away.
This is the stone which, if I were to walk around it, I would turn into a woman as legend would have. I imagine of that possibility and ask our guide if anyone has made such a trip recently. He says he has not seen anyone complete the seven trips.
He says it is possible to do it and I could try. But I have little time here, not enough time to take a day doing something that I think is almost pointless, except to prove a claim steeped in magical realism. Maybe I will do it when I have more time.
Some of the older generation of residents revere the stone’s sacred bearing: Our guide, who is a man in his middle ages, tells us that men would come here to perform ritual sacrifices whenever calamity struck around the region.
He points at holes in the rock where burnt animal offerings would be made. The younger generation, while they marvel at its beauty, are sceptical of its gender-alteration ability.
There is obviously a lot to wonder about this stone. Musyoka describes Nzambani rock as if he was talking about a person. “Unaona pale, ndio titi la mama” (You see, there, is the breast of the woman), pointing to a protrusion on the giant Nzambani rock. He says the other breast fell down in 1952, referring to a relatively smaller stone at the foot of the bigger Nzambani rock. “The girl is Nzamba,” he says.
I am curious about the etiology of the name, given that Nzamba refers to a rooster in the local language, and is a male name. But Musyoka confirms that it is indeed the rock-girl’s name.
Long ago, he says, two young girls went out to fetch firewood. One of the girls, at the time wearing animal skin, found a smooth round stone on the ground that she picked and put on her bosom. She intended to give it to her grandparents to ground tobacco.
The small stone started growing on her soon after. She turned into a rock that continued growing to the giant structure that it is now, and anyone going around it would turn their gender, just as it happened to the woman who turned in to a man so long ago.
By some accounts, the Nzambani rock has continued growing to date, though there is hardly any evidence of that. The stone stands about 600 feet tall. There is an enormous steel structure that built about two decades ago that ladders up to the stone’s upper surface. The structure can be seen from afar and appears almost like an extension of the stone. It is the only way to get to the top.
Climbing up the steel structure is a thrill or a scare depending on your composure. The metal frame cranks and squeaks as you climb up. It appears to sway a little once you are way above ground. The long stairwell follows the stone gradient all the way to its upper surface.
The top, finally, is a field, most of it covered in grass. Where the stone is bare, there is graffiti, some with names of groups or individuals who made it here. It is a mark of achievement for arriving at the figurative heaven of Kitui.
There is a slight breeze, but it can be deceptive. Our guide tells us that a structure built to shelter visitors from the elements was recently brought down by strong winds, and only stumps of what was there remains.
At the edge of the rock there are several lonely wild aloe plants, two of which have bloomed with bright red flowers.
I sit here to marvel at the world below, at the houses and other structures that appear tiny, dotting the green and dry landscapes of Nzambani.