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Kaimosi: The 'sacred' forest where wicked dare not step in

WESTERN
By Benard Lusigi | November 8th 2021

Locals cut down trees near one of the 54 indigenous forests in Kalwani village alongside Tiriki forest in Vihiga County. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

It is a hot afternoon and four elderly men are seen walking stealthily inside Kaimosi forest. You may think they are searching for prey. 

These are elders from the Tiriki community and they are in the forest for a routine inspection. The forest is considered sacred by members of the community. It is here that the community conducts all its rituals hence their keenness on conserving the forest.

The woodland means everything to members of the Tiriki community. It has key cultural sites which the community has over the years protected. The elders’ mandate includes preserving the forest and no one is allowed to play with it.  And if you know you are wicked in any way, please avoid Kaimosi forest. Don’t enter or trespass into the forest or else, you will not live to tell what happened to you, according to Thomas Ingara, the chairman of Tiriki elders caucus, the custodians of the local culture.

It is in this revered forest that Tiriki boys stay for weeks after they have been circumcised. Their stay in the forest forms a key part of their rite of passage. During that period, the initiates are usually taught customary laws. They are also taught survival skills as they transition into adulthood. Circumcision among members of this community is conducted every five years. It is one of the most important events in the community’s calendar. 

Locals elders told The Standard that the community used to circumcise both boys and girls until 1969 when female circumcision was abolished by many communities.

“Preserving this forest is an assignment we carry out dutifully. It is central to our lives and our way of life. Through this forest, we are able to remember and promote our culture which transcends centuries. The forest is close to our hearts,” says the 86-year-old Ingara.

Here at least 54 smaller indigenous forests, which are extensions of Kaimosi forest, have been in existence for between 101-200 years and the elders have been in charge of protecting them. “All of them are registered by the Government but we are the ones who take care of them.”

Among things one must never do in the forest is logging and charcoal burning. The fear is that these may interfere with the cultural sites in the forest. Charcoal burning is not even allowed near the forest, says Ingara.

“Whoever cuts down a tree without justifiable reasons must be punished. Even women are not allowed to fetch firewood inside the ‘sacred’ forest. Those found are slapped with heavy fines. Those who default on the payment of the fines face dire consequences,” he says. 

According to him, it is only the elders who have the power to determine who accesses the Kaimosi forest and who doesn’t.

“Those who defy the elders and trespass into the forest run mad and in worse situations, die. It is that serious,” claims Ingara.

Thomas Ingara, chair of Tiriki cultural and circumcision custom with a special garment as a guardian of the 54 Tiriki cultural forests and culture. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

He says those fined a goat rarely live to see another day but those told to give a sheep by the elders have a chance of surviving. “Usually, a black goat symbolizes disaster while sheep symbolizes peace and lesser punishment.”

“We found the rules in existence and we have no plans of changing them. Doing so would be at the expense of our culture and traditions and we are not willing to do so,” says Ingara.

“Our forefathers came up with these rules to protect the indigenous forest because it is critical in preserving culture. We inherited everything they did the way they did it and we are happy with that.”

“This forest hosts our cultural values and practices and is also home to different wild animals,sides some of the most valued trees in this community, which are indigenous.”

Folklore has it that Tiriki gods gave powers to 30 elders who were mandated to protect the forest and punish anyone who tries to destroy it.

“That group of elders is respected and feared in equal measure. No one goes against whatever they say, especially regarding our culture and the forest,” says Ingara.

Some people have accused Tiriki elders of practicing witchcraft. However, according to Ingara, those making the accusations are doing so out of their lack of understanding of the Tiriki culture.

“There can never be any truth in that. All that the elders do is in the interest of our people and our culture and there is nothing like witchcraft.”

He adds: “Assuming the elders had relaxed or even set aside the rules that govern the community; we would have no culture and Kaimosi forest and related smaller forest would be long destroyed. Where would that have left us?”

“And if we allow our culture to disappear, what will happen to our future generations? What will our young people be referring to? What would they base their decisions and actions to? It would be a disaster.”

And not every elder qualifies to join the team of 30 that oversees the community’s culture. “One must have a track record of planting and tend to indigenous trees,” says Ingara.

“That means, it is not just about planting the trees. One must nurture the trees until they mature otherwise, you will not be allowed to take up leadership.”

“Those who attempt to take over leadership through the backdoor don’t live long enough to tell their stories. If that person does not die, he becomes mad. That is how it is.”

And the forest, so valued by the community does not have a fence. Reason? Tiriki community elders watch over it, according to the elder. 

“For over two centuries, this forest has not had a fence. We believe our gods and ancestors have and continue to watch over it because that is where they live,” says Ingara.

Members of the Tiriki community believe their gods of circumcision, also called Itumii, dwell in the sacred forest and fiercely guard it against intruders.

“In fact, the gods decide the punishment given to trespassers or those who violate our culture,” says Ingara.

Ordinarily, no one, besides selected elders, is allowed to access the forest for five years after every circumcision season.

“No one collects firewood or even herbal medicine from the forest during the forbidden period. Only elders can be allowed to go inside the forest to collect herbal medicine if need be and they do it with the permission of the gods.”

Morris Amusavi, also a Tiriki elder, says culture and traditions have helped conserve the forest and cultural sites inside it.

“People enjoy clean water, fresh air, and abundant rainfall because of this forest. I would like my children and their children to enjoy the same environment,” the 60-year-old tells The Standard.

“You have heard about the effects of global warming as a result of climatic changes. I am happy that the elders have achieved a lot in conserving Kaimosi forest and the water catchment areas therein.”

And to Ingara, protecting the forest and preserving the cultural sites has not been a walk in the park for the elders.

“Western culture is a major threat to our local cultures. Some people are running away from our culture and beliefs our forefathers left us with and carelessly embracing foreign culture,” says Ingara.

He says even the Government does not respect culture. “Their focus is on the Constitution which they think can solve all problems. They also need to consult our cultures on some matters,” he says.

“There have been cases of licensed logging. Many people in many parts of the country are also encroaching on forest land. This is a major challenge to conservation efforts. We urge both county and national governments to intervene and help in conserving forests, including supporting our efforts to conserve Kaimosi forest.”

“We hope there can be an arrangement where researchers and visitors to forests are charged some amount that will be put in a kitty that can be used to conserve the forests and promote local cultures,” says Ingara.

Tiriki is an agro-pastoralist indigenous minority community that is resident in what remains of their ancestral lands in Vihiga, Kisumu and Nandi counties.

Vihiga Governor Wilber Ottichilo has indicated that his administration will fund the construction of cultural centres meant to promote culture across the county.

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