Kaya elders guard sacred forests to fight grim effects of climate change

A section of  Mrima Forest in Kwale County. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Mijikenda traditional elders known as Kaya have taken up their positions on the front line in combating climate change through the conservation of their sacred forests.

And as pressure continues to mount from intruders hell-bent on encroaching the vast forests, the Kaya elders are now pleading with the government and other non-State actors to help fence the forests and issue them with title deeds.

“Forests have been an integral part of our lives for centuries. They protect us, soothe us, and listen to us. Without Kaya forests, we will lose our soul and identity,” says Tsuma Nzai, a Kaya elder who is also the coordinator, director and custodian of Mijikenda traditions at Magarini Cultural Centre in Kilifi county.

Nzai says there are attempts to reverse the gains made so far in protecting Kaya forests, which are considered sacred sites since time immemorial.

To preserve the forests, Kaya elders now want the government to deploy Kenya Forest Service officers to protect the sites, which they say face destruction by charcoal burners and land developers.

Records indicate that the thick canopies encircling the sacred Kaya forests once shielded the Mijikenda people against attacks from their enemies until the 1940s, when the community began living outside the forested sites.

The forests were then protected as the ancestral homes of the Mijikenda, while the trees helped the community escape the negative effects of climate change, such as drought and land degradation.

Elders who spoke to The Standard said that protecting the forests with the ongoing drought and widespread hunger at the Coast is a great challenge, especially in Kilifi county, where residents are grappling with poverty and the glaring effects of climate change.

Already, the elders have taken voluntary measures to protect the Kayas because of their religious and cultural significance.

For the Mijikenda community, the violation and exploitation of their sacred forests by other communities does not just threaten their livelihoods, but also their spiritual well-being and way of life.

According to Mijikenda beliefs, any act of desecration on these forests could spell a curse to the whole community.

This is what has pushed the Kaya elders to enforce laws to protect the sacred Kayas.

Nzai says the enforcement of rules is based on inflicting curses and other spiritual sanctions that have a powerful effect on the rural community associated with the Kaya forests.

The rules include a ban on cutting down of trees, restricted access of livestock inside the Kaya forests, and prohibition of defecating or urinating within the forests.

“Pregnant women, people who have engaged in sexual activity the previous night, menstruating women and young babies of less than six months are not allowed to enter Kaya forests,” says Nzai.

Infringement of laws imposed by the Council of Elders attracts a fine which includes a special sacrifice to appease the gods.

The elders listed some of the barriers to environmental conservation as the belief that the outcome of rain is predetermined by God, lack of reinforcement of environmental laws and by-laws, and dependence on traditional rituals associated with rains and natural calamities.

Although the main motivation for local people to preserve sacred groves is for their spiritual and cultural significance, biodiversity and habitat conservation is still a significant by-product.

The community’s Council of Elders is tasked with ensuring that the community members uphold these conservation rules.

“Without culture, this forest would not be here, and without the forest, the culture would be eroded,” says Mwinyi Mwalimu, Chairman of the Mijikenda Kaya Elders Association.

He adds that through conserving sacred places by avoiding practices like charcoal burning and deforestation, they can combat climate change.

The Kaya elders have also passed the rules on to younger generations to allow them understand the different functions and roles of the forests.

“As a child growing up in the rural areas of Kinondoni, I learnt that there are restrictions in accessing and playing in specific areas. From my grandfather, I learnt that sacred Kayas are the burial places of our ancestors’ souls and bodies,” says Mwalimu.

“There are almost no physical barriers around the Kaya forests, but the taboos, myths, legends, and stories surrounding these places are so frightening that they form a subconscious hedge of fear and respect around them,” says Grace Mbodze, a 27-year-old community member.

To help the communities earn a living, several initiatives have been put in place including farming of tree nurseries, beekeeping, culturally sensitive eco-tourism, and trade in traditional handicrafts.

The activities have also enabled the community to diversify and increase its income sources through cultural tourism attracting both local and international tourists.

One such project that started in 2001 is the Kaya Kinondo Ecotourism Project, where guides conduct tours of the Kaya forest, educating visitors about the forest’s medicinal plants and the traditional practices of the Mijikenda community.

The entry fees collected are used to fund local schools and other community projects, while local women groups operate an adjacent handicraft market.

Kaya Fungo chairman Mwaringa Chuma, 81, says he cannot fathom a life without the forest.

“We have history, science, and prayers through the Kaya. Every Kaya forest has two types of shrines: The vigango shrine and the main shrine which is respected and only accessible to community elders. Access to the forest is limited to the elders; outsiders who desire to access the forest must pay a fine to cleanse the forest after they have visited it,” Mwaringa says.

Unfortunately, the Kaya forests are experiencing significant degradation and illegal encroachment, mainly for firewood and charcoal production. There is also a nearby quarrying operation that locals and researchers say is polluting local water sources and could one day force the forest protectors to leave the area.

The National Environmental Complaints Committee (Necc), mandated to investigate environmental degradation, issued an internal report in 2020 stating that Kaya Kauma is “currently facing extinction due to quarrying activities in the area”.

Kenya Forest Service Officer at the Arabuko Sokoke forest, Silas Tsuma, says several plans are underway to protect the Kayas.

“Sometimes we have heavy rain and flash floods. Without the Kayas, the soil would flow down, leading to the displacement of people,” he says.

Kelly Banda, an environmental activist in Kilifi, says the government should consider deploying forest service officers to protect the Kayas at the Coast.

Kaya forests are spread out in Kilifi, Mombasa and Kwale counties, and are currently being protected by members of the Mijikenda community instead of the forest officers.

Mijikenda Kaya Elders Association spokesperson, Ms Sidi Kumbata, has called on the government to issue title deeds to all Kayas at the Coast.

“Recognising indigenous peoples and local communities as partners in conservation shall bolster our collective global fight against biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation and climate change,” says Kumbata.

Early this week, Kaya elders launched an environmental campaign to enhance forest conservation in the Coast region.

The programme dubbed ‘Kaya na Mazingira (Kaya and the environment)’ seeks to use a transformative empowerment approach to trigger community-led solutions for better environmental outcomes.

The campaign strategies include planting drought-resistant crops, domestication of wild foods and medicinal plants; re-introduction of traditional farming methods; and planting large areas of resilient traditional crops that are drought tolerant.

Kilifi county government and the National Museums of Kenya have been working jointly to help rural communities in the county to protect their forests, preserve the botanical riches they hold and promote the cultural heritage they represent among the youth.