To many, the Kaya forests represent the rich traditional Mijikenda culture. The word Kaya, in most Mijikenda languages, means home. Kaya forests are blocks of pristine forest scattered across the Kenyan coast. They once contained hidden fortified villages where Mijikenda communities took refuge from their enemies when they first moved to the region. A specific Mijikenda sub-group occupied each of the Kaya forests that bore cultural and historical significance.
Dakatcha Woodland – the northernmost Miombo (Brachystegia) forest and the breeding site for the Kilifi (Clarke’s) Weaver – hosts five Kaya forests: Singwaya (Kauma), Dagamra (Chonyi), Bura (Kambe), Bate and Mayowe (Kambe).
“These Kaya forests had shrines that were considered sacred. One had to fulfil certain traditional rites before being allowed to enter the forests,” says Shadrack Mwarabu, a Kaya elder and chairperson of Kaya Singwaya.
Every year, before the onset of the rainy season, Kaya elders would go to the shrines to pray for rainfall and a good crop, adds Mwarabu. Some of the cultural beliefs and practices encouraged the conservation of Kaya forests. For example, the strict rules for accessing the forests significantly minimized disturbances. Trespassing into the Kaya forests was believed to attract the wrath of ancestral spirits. This fear served as a deterrent to would-be poachers, illegal herders and firewood collectors. Damaging any part of the sacred forests would also draw reprimand from Kaya elders.
Over the years, a lot has changed. The once-respected traditional practices associated with the Kayas are declining, exposing the forests to degradation. In Dakatcha, only a handful of elders, like Mwarabu, maintain a cultural connection with the Kaya forests.
“Many elders have abandoned their Kaya traditional roles after being falsely accused of practising sorcery and other harmful things. We risk losing our sacred forests and rich Mijikenda cultural heritage,” says Mwarabu.
Currently, a new Kaya committee exists in Dakatcha. The committee acts as a consultative forum and has overseen the establishment of non-cultural local conservation groups for the five Kaya forests in Dakatcha. These community-led groups are championing the conservation of sacred forests and their unique biodiversity. Working closely with Nature Kenya, the groups are conducting environmental education and awareness, linking communities to conservation partners and promoting the adoption of sustainable nature-based enteprises like beekeeping and climate-smart agriculture to boost community livelihoods.
To enhance the sustainable use of Kaya forests, the conservation groups have established apiaries in some forest sections. Plans are also underway to re-establish some of the Kaya cultural practices and to seek formal protection of the sites as national monuments.
The Kaya forests in Dakatcha host several coastal birds and mammals. They include Fischer’s Turaco, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, the Golden-rumped Sengi and others.