Meet the shrines holding together remnants of Africa's largest coastal forest

Wooden carvings representing deceased Mijikenda elders
One Earth
Kilifi, Kenya
Meet the shrines holding together remnants of Africa's largest coastal forest

A century ago, a walk through the Kaya Kauma forest in Kenya’s Kilifi County would have been unrealistic. Wandering through its thick forest cover would have led a traveler to end up in Somalia or Mozambique, two countries located in two different regions of the African continent.

The 75-acre fragment is among the last remnants of what was once Africa’s largest coastal forest.

Thanks to the Mijikenda community’s culture and beliefs, parts of the rapidly declining forest have survived the scramble for agricultural land, mining and land conversion for building residential complexes to respond to rapid urbanization.

The destruction of forest cover has been listed as the third-largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, the most prevalent of all greenhouse gases.

In Kenya, entering a forest and clearing it is only allowed when gathering medicinal herbs and carving a kigango (a wood carving planted in a shrine to represent a deceased special Mijikenda elder). The community’s council of elders are tasked with ensuring that the community members uphold these conservation rules.

Hiliary Kalama
Hillary Mwatsuma Kalama (holding a fly-whisk) together with his fellow elders who are tasked with protecting the Kaya forests stand behind a Vigango shrine / Credit: Janet Murikera

According to 67-year-old Hillary Mwatsuma Kalama, a Kaya elder and the chairman of the Kaya Kauma, the forests have remained sacred to the members of the community due to the presence of prayer shrines within the forest.

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

This tradition of showing deep respect for the forests has been passed down to younger generations.

Tom Kombe, a 27-year-old radio presenter who grew up in Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city, is one of the young people who ascribe to Christianity but hold the forest in high regard.

Tom Kombe
Tom Kombe, 27, a Kenyan radio presenter who believes in the scared value of the Kaya forests poses at the Baraka FM studio / Credit: Janet Murikera

“If I have to go to our sacred forest, I have to be accompanied by the Kaya elders and it has to be on a specific mission, maybe praying for rain or praying for peace in Kenya. The respect I have for my culture cannot allow me to cut a tree inside a Kaya forest,” Kombe says.

Kenya has nine forest fragments: Kaya Duruma, Kaya Kambe, Kaya Kinondoni, Kaya Giriama, Kaya Chonyi, Kaya Ribe, Kaya Rabai, Kaya Kauma and Kaya Jibana. Together they cover a total of 1530 hectares. All forests are all listed as UNESCO world heritage sites.

According to Lawrence Chiro, a conservation officer with the National Museums of Kenya, the national body mandated with preserving Kenyan heritage, the Kaya forests are a perfect example of the important role indigenous communities can play in fighting climate change.

UNESCO marker
A UNESCO sign board stating the logic behind the listing of the Kaya Kauma forest as a heritage site / Credit: Janet Murikera

“Without culture, this forest would not be there and without the forest, the culture will be eroded. By conserving places like these which they hold so sacred by avoiding practices like charcoal burning and deforestation, they are able to combat climate change.” Chiro says. 

In developing countries, forests have been identified as the most effective buffer to climate change.

Kenya’s pledge to the Paris climate change agreement indicates that the East African country hopes to increase its forest cover from 6% to up to 10% by 2030.

However, deforestation has been a huge problem in Kenya with officials from the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), the national body mandated with protecting forests, often blamed for aiding illegal timber rackets to operate inside government-protected forests.

In 2018, the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Natural resources banned logging and tree harvesting and fired several KFS officials over their alleged involvement in the illegal timber rackets.

But while things may look rosy for the Kaya elders, the very same culture they defend so fiercely has in recent times come back to haunt them as elderly people in the Mijikenda community are routinely killed on accusations of practicing black magic, which is blamed on misfortunes such as drought and deaths of young people.

According to Patience Kadzo, a program officer with Caring for the Old Kilifi, a local NGO that works with elderly people who have fled violence in their homes, at least eight elderly people are lynched in the Mijikenda community every month. 

“This is a socio-economic problem fueled by the scarcity of farmland and youth unemployment because no one can prove an accusation of black magic. In most cases, you find its family members involved and it has to do with the scramble for family land and resources” Kadzo says.

According to Chiro, the spate of murders is among the biggest challenges facing the conservation of the Kaya forests.

“Old people are shying away from the activities of the Kaya council of elders because of such attacks and hence you find the forest oversight councils are weakened,” Chiro says.

Butterfly project sign
A sign acknowledging the recently launched butterfly farming project at the Kaya Kauma forest / Credit: Janet Murikera

The latest development forced the National Museums of Kenya and other organizations involved in the conservation of the Kaya forests to explore income-generating opportunities for young people living around the forest.

In 2019, a butterfly farming project targeting people living near the forest was launched, and Chiro says there are plans to explore carbon trading as an alternative income-generating opportunity.

This story originally appeared on One Earth on 2 Jan. 2020. It was produced following a workshop on wildlife trafficking and conservation as part of the Earth Journalism Network's East Africa Wildlife Journalism program.

Banner image: Wooden carvings representing deceased Mijikenda elders in the Kaya Kauma forest / Credit: Janet Murikera

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