Kenya’s Mijikenda people revive sacred homesteads to protect the forest

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  • Kenya’s Mijikenda indigenous people have long revered and protected the forests surrounding their ancestral homesteads, known as kayas, which dot the country’s southeastern coast.
  • Today, the 45 kayas and their surrounding forests face many threats. Illegal logging, mining, agricultural encroachment, land grabbing, and a spate of murders targeting the very elders who protect them have all worn away at the kayas’ biological and cultural integrity.
  • In response, the Mijikenda, with the help of outside NGOs, have launched new efforts to protect the kaya forests, starting with an effort to revitalize their traditional culture among the younger generation.

KILIFI COUNTY, Kenya — Dressed in blue and white traditional regalia, elders walked barefoot along a narrow footpath heading to the Kaya Kauma. The kaya, a sacred ancestral village surrounded by forest, belongs to the Kauma clan of the Mijikenda people. Before passing through the third and final gate to the homestead, a visitor must drop a tiny, leafy branch, obtained at the second gate, at a specific spot using their right hand, as a cleansing ritual.

Past the gate, the elders continued along a well-swept path bordered by green shrubs, to a set of three traditional grass-thatched houses and a small plot of corn. One of the houses was inhabited by an elder charged with guarding the homestead. Opposite the compound stood a mammoth baobab tree sheltering sculptures of the Kauma clan’s five founding ancestors and their wives. These were replacement carvings; the originals had been stolen.

“This is our sacred homestead where we offer prayers for community good health, rain in times of drought, blessing and thanksgiving of the harvest, security and protection over the community, as well as resolve clan disputes,” said Benson Mbaluku, a blue-and-white-clad 90-year-old father of 12. “Walking barefoot neutralizes evil intentions from those harboring them.”

Members of the Kaya Kauma Conservation Group, who are charged with protecting the kaya, its surrounding forest, and the clan’s traditions and practices, meet inside the kaya. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
The carved ancestors of the Kauma Clan stand guard inside Kaya Kauma. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
The carved ancestors of the Kauma Clan stand guard inside Kaya Kauma. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.

Mbaluku chairs the Kaya Kauma Conservation Group, a committee whose representatives are chosen by Kauma clan members as custodians of the kaya, its surrounding forest, and the clan’s traditions and practices.

The Kaya Kauma needs all the help it can get. Like the other 44 government-recognized kayas sprinkled throughout Kilifi and Kwale counties along Kenya’s southeastern coast, the Kaya Kauma faces many threats. Illegal logging, mining, agricultural encroachment, land grabbing, and a spate of murders targeting the very elders who protect them have all worn away at the kaya forests’ biological and cultural integrity. In response, the Mijikenda, with the help of outside NGOs, have launched new efforts to protect the kaya forests, starting with an effort to revitalize their traditional culture among the younger generation.

Refuges for people and wildlife

The kayas are clearings with few or no large trees, surrounded by thick forests.

“Our ancestors negotiated the homesteads from the Boni,” said Mbaluku, referring to a hunter-gatherer group that left the area following a dispute with its pastoral neighbors and now lives to the north in Lamu county.

Just when the Mijikenda moved into the kayas remains unclear; some historians say it could have been as early as the 13thcentury. The kayas originally served the Mijikenda as fortified villages or homesteads, hidden from the surrounding communities as a security measure and often ringed by thick wooden fences. Traditionally, young Mijikenda men using arrows and a protective talisman called a fingo guarded the kayas.

One of the fingos, or protective talismans, guarding Kaya Kauma. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
One of the fingos, or protective talismans, guarding Kaya Kauma. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.

The Mijikenda abandoned the kayas as their main living places in the 1940s, when population growth and improved security enabled them to live closer to their farms outside the forests. But they have continued to revere the kayas as the source of their spiritual beliefs and the sacred abode of their ancestors; each kaya is affiliated with and named after one of the nine Mijikenda clans. Safeguarding these ancestral homes, the Mijikenda have nurtured the forests around them for decades.

The kayas range in size from 10 to around 900 hectares (25 to 2,200 acres). The small, isolated forest patches, often located on hilltops, are spread along some 200 kilometers (124 miles) of coastal Kenya in Kilifi and Kwale counties. They are remnants of the Kenyan coastal forest belt, which itself is part of a larger band of tropical dry forest that once stretched from southern Somalia through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique but has now been largely felled for firewood and farmland.

As forest remnants in a human-dominated landscape, the kayas are important refuges for biodiversity, according to Anthony Githitho, coastal forest conservation and biodiversity coordinator with the National Museums of Kenya in Kilifi county. “Fifty percent of Kenya’s rare species occur in these coastal forests with over half of that occurring in the Kaya forests,” he told Mongabay.

He said the kayas were home to 70 percent of the region’s endemic plants, among them African violets (genus Saintpaulia) and a small endangered tree called Bauhinia mombassae. The Kaya Kauma itself hosts two tree species listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of threatened species: a wild relative of the coffee tree, Coffea zanguebariae, and a boxwood, Buxus obtusifolia.

Millipedes, mollusks, and butterflies exhibit high diversity in the kayas.They are also home to numerous mammals, including wild pigs, baboons, monkeys, bats and small rodents. The NGO Birdlife International designates Kaya Gandini and Kaya Mtswakara as Important Bird Areas, the latter providing habitat for the endangered spotted ground thrush (Zoothera guttata) and Sokoke pipit (Anthus sokokensis), among other species.

Millipedes exhibits high diversity in the kaya forests. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
Millipedes exhibits high diversity in the kaya forests. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
A captive black and rufous elephant shrew (Rhynchocyon petersi), a resident of various kayas. Image by Joey Makalintal via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).
A captive black and rufous elephant shrew (Rhynchocyon petersi), a resident of various kayas. Image by Joey Makalintal via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Acknowledging their biological and cultural importance, since 1992 the government has gazetted 43 kayas as national monuments under the National Museums of Kenya and plans to gazette another two. Of these, it has registered nine as forest reserves under the Kenya Forest Service. Nine kayas were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008.

Gazettement gives the kayas some legal protection. Furthermore, all but the nine forest reserves are registered as community lands. This enables the Mijikenda to use the forests freely as well as to manage them, patrol them, and report any illegal activities to government authorities for prosecution.

While the Kenyan government has been generally supportive of the Mijikenda’s right to own and control the kaya forests, it hasn’t been as accommodating of other tribes with similar claims. For example, the government has repeatedly and violently evicted the Sengwer and Ogiek, both hunter-gatherer communities, from their respective ancestral homes in the Embobut Forest of western Kenya and the Mau Forest Complex of southwestern Kenya, ostensibly to protect the forests.

The Mijikenda govern each kaya according to its own constitution, but some universal rules cut across kayas, such as prohibitions on felling trees and grazing. Elders make the rules for how the communities can use the surrounding forests based on traditions and taboos, and enforce them through ceremonies and rituals.

“Cutting of trees … for firewood and hunting at the kaya forest is prohibited,” Mwanza Mwangiri, a 47-year-old father of six and a Kauma guide, told Mongabay.

“Any cow or goat that finds its way into the forest must be slaughtered and eaten within the forest,” Mwangiri said. “No use of the metal drills or wood at the forest is permitted, or coffins for burial at the forest. And the mining companies are restricted from blowing [explosives] during mining activities as they disturb the ancestors.”

Mwenda Mshindano collects water from a tree in the Kaya Kauma forest. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
Mwenda Mshindano collects water from a tree in the Kaya Kauma forest. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.

But those traditions are under threat from the erosion of Mijikenda culture, according to Mwangiri. “Younger generations are not as keen as their forefathers were on taboos and traditions,” he said.

It’s a common lament among older Mijikenda. “The forests are a tangible heritage of the Mijikenda people. Without them the future generations will never understand who they are,” Mbaluku said. “The younger people see the forest as an economic incentive, but for the older generation it’s a heritage and a source of streams of water supporting the livelihood. Balancing between the two is becoming a hard task.”

Illegal logging, mining, and murder

With a population of about 1.2 million and a poverty level of over 70 percent, Kilifi is one of Kenya’s poorest counties. The majority of households depend on fuel wood for cooking. Many sell woodcarvings to tourists to supplement subsistence farming.

These dire economic conditions put pressure on the kaya forests. Agricultural encroachment and illegal logging for wood, carvings, poles, charcoal and firewood are rampant. During Mongabay’s visit to the Kaya Kauma in late May, illegal loggers felled about eight trees.

Elder Mwanza Mwangiri assesses the timber left behind by illegal loggers at Kaya Kauma. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
Elder Mwanza Mwangiri assesses the timber left behind by illegal loggers at Kaya Kauma. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.

Additionally, the construction of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPPSET) also threatens the kaya forests, since iron ore, ballast and other materials are mined within Kilifi county, according to Lawrence Chiro, the National Museums of Kenya’s coastal forest conservation officer in the county. Kaya Kauma’s elders have repeatedly complained that blasts from a Chinese mining company have disturbed the kaya.

Compounding these issues is a recent spate of killings of elders in Kwale and Kilifi counties, as reported by local news outlets. Since 2015, four elders from the Kaya Kauma alone have been murdered, according to Mbaluku. He attributed the killings to rising demand for land facilitated by a local belief associating elders with witchcraft.

For decades after they moved out of the kayas, the Mijikenda owned land communally, but that changed in recent years when they started owning land as individuals, according to Chiro. Meanwhile, the younger generation has grown more focused on business and urban life. “Everyone wants to own land individually so they can sell,” Chiro said. “Hence the allegations of witchcraft as elders have to be consulted by the youth to sell the land.”

Iron ore mining is a major threat to the forest surrounding the kayas. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
Iron ore mining is a major threat to the forest surrounding the kayas. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
Materials destined for the construction of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (a.k.a. LAPPSET) were sourced close to the Kaya Kauma forest. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
Materials destined for the construction of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (a.k.a. LAPPSET) were sourced close to the Kaya Kauma forest. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.

Reviving traditions, making money

Alarmed by these trends and the erosion of traditional Mijikenda culture, elders from the Kaya Kauma and other kayas have begun educating their communities on the traditional practices conducted at the kayas, and their importance to biodiversity and the people. For the past two years, the NGO World Wide Fund for Nature Kenya (WWF­-Kenya) has been working with the elders to strengthen the kayas’ traditional management systems, restore destroyed forests, improve local livelihoods, and help elders pass their knowledge along to the youth.

Stemming the loss of traditional belief systems and practices that have protected these forests for ages is one of the initiative’s key goals, according to Elias Kimaru, WWF­-Kenya’s project coordinator for Kilifi and Kwale counties. “It’s a key threat to the forests,” Kimaru said. “It threatens the biodiversity, national heritage and traditional knowledge held by the kaya sacred forests.”

But the initiative faces some internal challenges. One is that some kayas do not allow people under 50 to enter. “By the time one becomes an adult of 50 years, they have lost the interest to learn about the kayas,” Kimaru said. “Unfortunately, the locals and some kaya elders do not understand the importance of the [intergenerational] knowledge sharing and exchanges.”

Mwazine Mnyambu Kalige, the sole resident and caretaker of the homestead at Kaya Kauma. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
Mwazine Mnyambu Kalige, the sole resident and caretaker of the homestead at Kaya Kauma. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.

Another challenge, according to Kimaru, is that some kayas have almost entirely lost the traditions that once protected them — the rituals, sacrifices and shrines. Bringing them back from the abyss is a significant hurdle, but one the initiative is working to overcome.

Mwangiri, the guide from the Kaya Kauma, said that although his community had started actively communicating its traditions to the younger generation before WWF-Kenya got involved, the group’s support has helped. Children now learn which sub-clan they belong to, and visit the kaya to learn about the importance of the sacred forests and the practices enshrined in them. Schools have embraced tree plantings on their grounds.

Mwangiri said he believed that to make the project more appealing and sustainable it must be integrated with school activities, for instance by introducing region-wide traditional song and dance competitions.

“There is a huge intergenerational gap. The current generation no longer respects the elders and more so the forest,” he said. “For the sake of the future generation, we have to find new ways to interest the children and hopefully have them walk the path.”

An additional challenge is finding ways to allow Mijikenda communities to benefit economically from conserving their forests. To that end, the Kaya Kauma Conservation Group has been working with the Nairobi-based NGO Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health since 2013 with the aim of packaging traditional medicinal plants from the forest for sale in the region. The group is also looking for funds to establish medicinal gardens at schools so children can learn about the plants and Mijikenda medical traditions.

Kimaru said that as another revenue stream, WWF-Kenya is helping to start an educational tourism program that would bring local and international students to the Kaya Kauma to learn about Mijikenda culture and the kaya’s biodiversity.

A motorcycle parked at a shopping center not far from Kaya Kauma carries a load of charcoal, a major threat to the kaya’s forest. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
A motorcycle parked at a shopping center not far from Kaya Kauma carries a load of charcoal, a major threat to the kaya’s forest. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.

For Mwangiri, fencing the forest to safeguard it from encroachment would be a good first line of defense, but in the long run he said it was essential to improve the economies of the neighboring communities. It’s becoming difficult for the elders to protect a forest seen as an economic resource by the impoverished community around it, he said.

“We hear of projects that buy carbon from trees while helping the locals educate their children and grow economically,” Mwangiri said. “Why can’t we be involved in such projects?”

Kimaru said baseline studies have already been conducted at Kaya Gzombo, a 902-hectare kaya forest in Kwale county, to figure out how much carbon the forest can store. Other technical surveys will follow to pave the way for a pilot project to sell mangrove carbon credits to companies and individuals internationally. “The lessons learnt from the implementation of the project will inform if the project can be carried out in other kaya forests,” Kimaru said.

Despite the pressures threatening the kayas and Mijikenda culture, Mwangiri sees the outlines of a hopeful future. “If we can have sustainable livelihood programs where communities can earn a living to enable them educate their children, perhaps it will be easier to convince the communities on the importance of conservation, respect [for] the elders and [restoring] our traditions and belief system,” he said.

A citrus butterfly (Papilio demodocus) in Kaya Kauma. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
A citrus butterfly (Papilio demodocus) in Kaya Kauma. Image by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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