Travel: Kaya – The sacred forests of the Mijikenda

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The Mijikenda Kaya forests. Image from http://www.4gress.com/sights/entry/100684.html

I was recently watching a series named the book of Negroes and it was intriguing to say the least. One of the most interesting things was the culture and history that went into each place that was described. To hold with such high esteem the location of one’s origins is to proudly declare your heritage. This, the fact that it has a story behind it, is one of the reasons I love the Kaya Forest.

The sacred forests of the Mijikenda people are called kaya (plural makaya). Many of them were originally fortified villages surrounded by thick belts of lowland tropical forest. Access to the village was limited to one or two paths through the forest because it was considered bad luck to use any other routes, and use of the forest vegetation was limited to gathering of medicinal herbs. Cutting of trees for timber, grazing of livestock, and clearing for farmland were strictly prohibited. These rules were enforced by the kaya elders who were also responsible for the care of the sacred objects (fingo) which were buried in the kaya and were believed to be essential to the well-being of the community. The kaya forests were also places for prayer, not only by the elders on behalf of the community but also by individuals seeking help in problems facing their daily lives.

The Mijikenda Kaya forests. Image from http://www.4gress.com/sights/entry/100684.html
The Mijikenda Kaya forests. Image from http://www.4gress.com/sights/entry/100684.html

The most sacred part of these forests is the Kaya itself, the central clearing known as the home of the community. This was preserved as a sacred place and burial ground where the villagers were buried after death. The graves of great leaders were buried separately and treated as shrines. The Mijikenda people believed that the spirits of the dead still reside there and their presence can be felt to this date. A powerful protective talisman referred to as a “Fingo” above was brought by the Mijikenda with them following their displacement was buried at a secret spot near the central clearing. A few old trees and unusual land forms such as caves also have spiritual significance.

The Mijikenda Kaya Forests consist of 11 separate forest sites spread over some 200 km along the coast containing the remains of numerous fortified villages, known as kayas, of the Mijikenda people. The kayas, created as of the 16th century but abandoned by the 1940s, are now regarded as the abodes of ancestors and are revered as sacred sites and, as such, are maintained as by councils of elders. The site is inscribed as bearing unique testimony to a cultural tradition and for its direct link to a living tradition. As such, they are now protected by traditional laws and maintained by councils of elders.

Wildlife in the Kaya Kinodao area has been identified and can be visited as part of ecotourism project. While plant species identified are 187 plants, bird species are 48, and butterflies 45 species. The Colobus monkey and Golden-romped elephant shrew have also been reported.

Entry in to the forest was dictated by the traditional rules set by a governing body called the Ngambi formed by elderly members of the community. This governing body was primarily concerned with its management, conservation and utilization of the biological resources in adherence to the traditional beliefs about the sacredness of the forest.

For a lover of nature and plants as well this is a little haven. The Kaya forests are botanically diverse with a high conservation value as determined by two surveys carried out by the National Museums of Kenya. More than half of Kenya’s rare plants are found in the coastal region, especially in the Kaya forests.

To read more on the Kaya Forest check out Brand Kenya.com, African World Heritage Sites, Magical Kenya, and Cultural Survival.org

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