Kaya Forests

Report By
Amberly Polidor
Celia Nyamweru for reviewing prior to publication.
August 1, 2004
August 1, 2004

Along the southern coast of Kenya, the sacred kaya forests of the Mijikenda tribes are a living legacy of the people’s history, culture and religion. For centuries, these once-extensive lowland forests shielded the homesteads, called “kaya,” of the Mijikenda from invading tribes and served as burial grounds and places of sacred ritual and prayer. Social taboos prohibited the cutting and removal of trees and other forest vegetation for all but a few select purposes. Because of the forests’ protected status, they became repositories of biodiversity, harboring many rare species of plants and animals. Although the Mijikenda eventually moved out of their original settlements, the forests have continued to serve as ceremonial centers and burial grounds. However, in recent decades the kaya forests have been shrinking in number and size. An expanding tourism industry, industrial demands for natural resources, and a growing population in need of farm land are claiming kaya forest land. Diminished respect for traditional values, spurred by poverty, has also taken a toll. Fortunately, the kaya forests and the Mijikenda people are aided by a collaboration of government and nongovernmental agencies, which have recognized the threats to the forests and the importance of protecting them to ensure the future of their cultural and biological treasures. Nevertheless, challenges persist in the struggle for kaya preservation. Abdalla Boga, a member of the Kaya Diani elders’ group, one of many that has suffered serious threats from land developers, said, “I spend sleepless nights when I imagine that this kaya will one day disappear due to (the activities of) greedy human beings, and that we shall have nothing to show our future generations.”

The Land and Its People

The kaya forests are the domain of the nine Mijikenda tribes: the Giriama, Digo, Duruma, Rabai, Kauma, Ribe, Jibana, Kambe, and Chonyi. Although culturally and linguistically distinct, the tribes trace their history to a common forced migration from southern Somalia. According to oral history, they began settling in the hills and plains of the Kenyan coast at least three centuries ago to escape the marauding tribes that had driven them from their former settlements. In order to protect themselves, the Mijikenda built their homesteads in clearings within thick belts of forest. The entire community lived within the central clearing, which was accessible only by a few guarded paths through the forest. A protective talisman called a fingo, which represented the community’s identity and history, was buried at a secret spot within the kaya clearing. Burial sites were located within the surrounding forest, and shrines often honored the graves of great leaders. Ancient trees and other unique landforms also held ritual importance. Social taboos, enforced by the kaya elders, regulated activities that could damage the kaya forests and sacred places. Cutting trees, grazing livestock, and collecting or removing other forest material was strictly forbidden. Villagers stayed on traditional paths to avoid disturbing vegetation and secret sites. The only permitted activities were the collection of medicinal plants and the use of forest materials to build ritual structures. A code of behavior, emphasizing decorum, respect and self-restraint, also protected the forest. Those who broke the rules typically paid a fine of livestock or fowl, which was then sacrificed to placate the offended spirit. Illness and other community misfortunes often were attributed to an unconfessed offense.

In the 19th century, as external threats diminished and populations grew, the Mijikenda groups began to establish new settlements outside the kaya forests. Surrounding areas were increasingly cleared for farming and livestock grazing, but tribal elders continued to live at the old settlement sites and care for the kaya forests. Thus, the kayas and surrounding patches of forest were preserved and continue to be used as ceremonial sites, burial grounds and places of prayer, as well as a source for medicinal plants. Today many kaya forests are still the focal points of existing communities, and taboos often remain a powerful force in restricting access and regulating conduct. Because they have been protected over many generations, kaya forests are rich in biodiversity and high in conservation value. More than half of Kenya’s rare plants grow in the coastal region; most have been identified within the kaya forests, which comprise about 10 percent of Kenya’s coastal forest, and some are found only in the kayas. The forests also harbor rare and endemic species of birds, reptiles and insects. To date, surveyors, working with local communities, have identified more than 50 kaya forest patches in the coastal districts of Kwale, Mombasa, Kilifi and Malindi. Kaya forests range in size from approximately 20 to 2000 acres.

Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts

Over the last 50 years, an ever-growing demand for land and resources has dramatically reduced the size of the kaya forests and completely wiped out some smaller groves. In some forests, trees are felled for building materials, carving wood and fuel. In others, land is dug for the mining of iron ore or cleared for agriculture and livestock grazing. Expanding urban centers encroach on several forests. And along the coast, where pristine white sands and turquoise waters entice foreign visitors, kaya forests have been the victims of hotel and tourism development. A growing population and widespread poverty have increased the rate of destruction: when communities are struggling to meet their most basic needs, they may see their forests first and foremost as a resource, regardless of spiritual or cultural values. A decline in knowledge and reverence for the kaya tradition, fueled by these societal changes, has exacerbated the problem, particularly among the younger generation. External cultural influences have a strong effect on youth, who often view cultural traditions as primitive. The spread of Islam and Christianity also has had a negative impact on the preservation of traditional practices.

In recent years, as sacred sites have become increasingly recognized for their key role in biodiversity conservation (see Indian Sacred Groves), researchers have begun to document and catalog the sacred kaya forests and conservation initiatives have increased. In 1992 the Kenyan government began to recognize kaya forests as national monuments under the Antiquities and Monuments Act. As the state agency responsible for the management of national heritage, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) created the Coastal Forest Conservation Unit (CFCU) in 1992 to collaborate with local communities in caring for the kaya forests. The CFCU, in partnership with local communities and with support from the World Wide Fund for Nature and other nongovernmental agencies, has implemented a multifaceted conservation program.

Throughout its existence, the CFCU has worked to map the kaya forests, inventory their biological diversity, and document social and cultural information. As an initial goal, the CFCU worked to secure national monument protection for all the forests. To date, 40 sites have been officially recognized as national monuments; their boundaries are identified and signs announce their legal status. This protection, however, has proven to be weak. Designation of a kaya forest as a national monument places restrictions on land use but doesn’t change ownership status, hence forest land may be owned by individuals or agencies that aren’t a part of the local community and its values. Use restrictions are often ignored, and enforcement can be difficult. Furthermore, courts have declined to recognize trees as national monuments in certain cases where land-use violations have been legally challenged. Therefore, the NMK is seeking to alter national laws to include tougher penalties and to be more applicable to natural sites like the kaya forests. In the meantime, the CFCU implemented a kaya guard program, by which select community members patrol and keep watch over the forest to prevent illegal exploitation. Kaya elders handle minor offenses by imposing traditional fines, while major offenses are passed on the CFCU to pursue court challenges. The CFCU has also sought to support and legally strengthen the role of the elders and to empower Mijikenda communities as a whole.

An important element of the CFCU conservation program is its education and awareness activities, which seek to revive interest in the kaya forests and strengthen the status of traditional social and cultural values while also incorporating new values, namely environmental awareness and conservation. Small grants have helped communities hold traditional religious ceremonies in the kayas. In order to successfully revive traditional knowledge and practice, communities must also have access to alternative livelihoods that don’t exploit the forests. To that end, the CFCU has initiated programs to help farmers establish small tree nurseries or beekeeping operations. It is also working with communities to develop culturally sensitive tourism activities and an associated craft trade, which is especially important to women in the community. One such operation is the Kaya Kinondo Ecotourism project, started in 2001. Kinondo guides conduct tours of the kaya forests, educating visitors about the forest’s medicinal plants and the traditional practices of the community. Visitors follow a strict code of behavior — including a prohibition on shorts and miniskirts — and certain areas are off limits or excluded from photography. Entry fees aid schools and other community projects, and women’s groups operate a craft market.

In 2008 the “Sacred Kaya Mijikenda Forests” was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The inscribed area includes 11 separate forest sites spread along 125 miles of coast, including the Giriama, Jibana, Kambe, Kauma, Ribe, Rabai, Duruma and Kinondo kayas. This designation will help to further strengthen protection for the kaya forests. UNESCO helps countries protect their World Heritage sites by providing technical assistance and professional training and supporting public awareness-building and conservation activities.

What You Can Do

Volunteer with The Leap, helping the CFCU with conservation and ecotourism projects in the kaya forests. Volunteers work on designing information displays for the visitor center; construction, painting and landscaping; marketing the project to tourists; and conducting biodiversity research. The organization is based in United Kingdom, but the program is open to people of all ages outside the United Kingdom as well.

If you are considering visiting Kenya, please read the Ecotourism Society of Kenya’s guide to responsible travel as well as our list of ideas regarding ethics of visiting sacred sites.


Githitho, Anthony N. “The Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests of Coastal Kenya and Biodiversity Conservation.” In The Importance of Sacred Natural Sites for Biodiversity Conservation. Paris: UNESCO, 2003. (PDF)

Kagendo, Faith. “Kaya Guard Programme.” The Colobus Trust.

Kaya Kinondo Ecotourism Project. Kaya Kinondo Ecotourism Project.

Kwena, Edmund. “Fighting to the Bitter End.” Safarimate.

Tortell, Philip, ed. “Conservation and Ecotourism.” In Eastern Africa Atlas of Coastal Resources: Kenya. Nairobi, Kenya: U.N. Environment Program, 1998. (PDF)

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “Sacred Kaya Mijikenda Forests.” UNESCO World Heritage Center.

WWF. “Protecting East Africa’s Coastal Forests.” WWF.