Kaya forests (Ma–Kaya) are found in coastal Kenya, along a strip that is approximately 50 km wide x 300 km long. They are residual areas of once extensive, lowland forest that are relatively small in size, ranging from 10 to 400 ha. There are currently 42 Kaya forests found in the counties of Kwale, Mombasa and Kilifi that are regarded as sacred by the Mijikenda community.
All Kaya forests bear a rich history or tradition of settlement. The word Kaya means home in most Mijikenda dialects. All ‘true’ Kaya forests once contained hidden fortified villages where the Mijikenda took refuge from their enemies when they first migrated to the region. These citadels are thought of as the resting places of their ancestors and still bear marks of human activity, particularly clearings and paths that have cultural and historical significance.
Some communities still bury their dead and perform various other traditional rituals and ceremonies in Kaya forests. For example, at the beginning of the Mijikenda year, before the rainy season, Kaya elders go to the shrines in these forests to pray for rainfall and to pray over their crop seeds.
There are a number of cultural beliefs and practices of the Mijikenda that have helped conserve Kaya forests:
- Kaya shrines are only accessible to bonafide Kaya elders. Trespassers risk inviting the wrath of ancestral spirits, thereby deterring would-be poachers, illegal grazing and firewood collection.
- Local community members are afraid of damaging any part of Kaya forests for fear of being summoned, grilled and reprimanded by the elders. The elders are looked upon with trepidation for being able to curse or expel a defiant individual from the clan.
- Mijikenda communities also hold mentoring sessions (known as dhome) for young men and women in Kaya forests. Here, life skills are taught to youth transitioning from childhood to adulthood and these include teachings on the wise-use and management of natural resources.
- For curing diseases, local communities are still very dependent on medicinal herbs, havested in Kaya forests.
- Income-generating activities like cultural dancing and tours are also incentives for the conservation of Kaya forests.
- Big trees mark the boundaries of Kaya forests, and felling them is prohibited. There’s a belief that bad luck will befall anyone who dares to cut down such a tree.
Kaya forests continue to be conserved by communities, and they play an increasingly important role in the protection of coastal birds, such as, Fischer’s Turaco, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, African Golden Oriole, Plain-backed and Uluguru Violet-backed Sunbirds, Sokoke Pipit, and Spotted Ground Thrush.
Examples of Kaya forests: Kaya Chonyi Forest Reserve and Kaya Jibana Forest Reserve in Kilifi County, Kaya Kwale and Kaya Bombo in Kwale, and Kaya Shonda in Mombasa County.
This article by Gibson Kitsao Mwatete appears in the current issue of Kenya Birding magazine.