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Mijikenda's sacred forests under threat from drought and mining

Hillary Kalama walks stealthily through an ancient footpath that leads to a sacred patch within the Kaya Kauma Forest. Once in a while, he makes sudden stops to inspect fresh cow dung before peeping through the thickets.

Kalama, is an elder and chairperson of Kaya Kauma, one of the Mijikenda Kayas Forests that consist of separate forest sites spread over some 200km along the coast.

These forests contain the remains of numerous fortified Mijikenda villages dating to the 16th century known as Kayas.

But while the Kayas are severely fragmented, they remain sacred sites that are maintained by a council of elders, a situation that has kept them intact over centuries.

However, mining, drought, grazing within the forest, and charcoal burning threaten the Kayas.

“It is disheartening that people are now sneaking in cattle to graze inside the Kaya. This should not be the case,” Kalama says.

While the forest is still regarded as sacred and only a few are allowed to access some areas, Kalama says the intrusion has opened the way for illegal activities. 

“This is disrespectful. They poach trees and now they are grazing in the forest. The Kaya is also threatened by mining since it is now surrounded by quarries,” he said.

Kayas are national monuments under the National Museums of Kenya and are under the protection of the Kenya Forest Service.

In 2008, nine Kayas were listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as world heritage sites.

Besides being world heritage sites, the Kayas are also home to threatened and endemic species among them African violets. Within Kaya Kauma, are endangered species like elephant shrew among other species.

While the Kayas are repositories of spiritual beliefs of the Mijikenda and are seen as the sacred abode of their ancestors, developments like quarrying are threatening their existence as they override the traditional beliefs and the council rules.

“Using explosives in quarries disturbs the ancestors, that is what we believe but now that they are all over and we think they should be controlled. Those who take the cattle into the forest should also be punished, just like those cutting down trees for charcoal, as per the rules that still apply to date,” Kalama says.

Coupled with eroding beliefs in taboos and impacts of climate change that have seen the region experience drought, Kalama says it is a challenge keeping people out of the sacred forest, a situation that has led to more illegal activities.

“It has been almost two years without sufficient rains, the trees are even drying up and people sneak in their livestock and poach trees,” he added.

Nature Kenya Coast Regional coordinator Francis Kagema said Kaya Kauma is one of the 42 pockets spread from Kilifi to Kwale counties, representing the remaining fragments that initially made the coastal forests. The forest and the species within it, he says, are however threatened.

“These pockets of forests are small and far apart and the population of species is diminishing, a situation that presents a lack of genetic diversity to sustain populations. The risk of extinction of these species is very high. The status of the Kayas is also deteriorating every day because the culture is eroding and taboos that protected them are no longer respected,” Kagema says.

While Kaya Kauma is one of the few Kayas with springs that feed into the Nzovuni river, one of the few permanent rivers in Kilifi, Kagema says the cultivation of crops along the river is also a threat to its survival.

“Danger of springs drying up is so real as a result of destruction. The spring feeds River Nzovuni, one of the few permanent rivers in Kilifi but people are now farming along this river. This Kaya forest needs protection and is a matter of urgency,” Kagema said.