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Becoming a kaya elder is no mean feat

By Patrick Beja | November 1st 2021


Kaya Elders in Likoni, Mombasa County endorse politician Suleiman Shahbal for Mombasa gubernatorial seat. [Robert Menza, Standard]

From good reputation to apprenticeship, they have risen through the ranks to become elders whose blessings matter to most politicians during elections.

The elders do not just bless politicians, but are revered members of the Mijikenda community who provide blessing and interpretation services to the locals. 

To rise to the coveted position of being custodians of the shrines found in Kilifi, Mombasa and Kwale counties is not an easy task, since the positions are not awarded on a silver platter.

One has to grow to a full elder through apprenticeship and must be active, have a good reputation or come from a family of custodians of kayas.

He also has to adhere to the dressing code, ensure no one defiles the shrines by entering with shoes or cutting trees and learn how to conduct prayers.

Age also matters, and in most cases one has to be at least 37 years old to be installed a kaya elder.

Ndegwa, who is also the vice-chairman of Kwale and Kilifi Kayas Committee, says he joined the kaya institution as a guard (askari) in 1991 and rose to the position of secretary of the Kaya Mtswakara Committee (ngambi) in 1994 before being installed chairman in 1997.

Kaya rules

“I was first appointed a guard and quickly grasped all the kaya rules. I could advise old men when I served as the committee secretary but I had to wait before being installed chairman because I was only 35 years old then,” he says. His paternal uncle, Chirapho wa Mgandi, served as a kaya elder at Mtswakara and that gave Ndegwa an added advantage.

When the time came, he was asked to provide a sheep, black, red and white pieces of cloth for the installation ceremony as chairman, and he has remained active since then. He replaced Chilembi wa Mongo as Kaya Mtswakara chairman.

The opportunity to climb the ladder came when the spirit of the late Mgandi appeared in a kaya elder’s dream, asking for a family member to join the kaya institution as a full elder.

“The news was delivered to my family but none of my elder brothers accepted to be a kaya elder. There is fear that if you break the kaya rules you die. I took up the challenge at that tender age,” says Ndegwa.

Kaya Fungo elder John Mitsanze, who is also a researcher on Mijikenda culture, says he joined the kaya institution after he left the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) as a curator out of interest and because he had the time.

“I had the passion and also followed the kaya elders until 2014 when I was installed a full elder. One has to play an active role, understand the rules and be disciplined to rise to this level,” he said.

Outstanding contribution

Unlike Ndegwa and several other kaya elders, Mitsanze is opposed to the act of anointing politicians and other prominent people without proving that they have made an outstanding contribution to the Mijikenda community.

“Anointing these prominent people should be a social contract and not for personal gain. One should get our blessings as a recognition for outstanding service to the community," he says.

"To me, the decision to anoint Raila Odinga does not meet the criteria. What has he done to the community? He was anointed for personal gain.”

But he is in support of the anointing of former Cabinet Minister Karisa Maitha at Kaya Fungo in 2004, saying the politician fought gallantly for land rights, value addition for cash crops like coconut and cashew nuts as well as improvement of infrastructure and public service, especially in hospitals.

World heritage sites

“Even in death, Coast residents agree that Maitha was light to the region. He was outstanding and hence no one opposed when he was installed as a kaya elder and community leader,” says Mitsanze, who also heads the Prophetess Mepopho shrine in Kaloleni, Kilifi County.

Some Kaya forests were put on the list of world heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2008 to enhance conservation for their outstanding universal value.

The kayas were established in the 16th century when they served as fortified homes and burial sites.

The kayas began to fall out of use in the early 20th century and are now revered as the repositories of spiritual beliefs of the Mijikenda people. Kayas are also seen as the sacred abode of the ancestors buried there.

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