About 20 elders sat clustered beneath a giant baobab tree on the outskirts of Kaya Diani. One by one they vowed, in front of both the local and international Press, to shed their blood if that would help them protect their forest shrines from land-grabbers. “Be it with machetes, stones or even with bare hands, we shall fight against those armed with guns. We are prepared to die for our forests”, Mr. Kweli, the secretary of the group, said.
There is mounting pressure on prime land in Kenya’s Coast Province which has resulted in direct conflict between speculators on the one hand and conservationists and traditionalists on the other.
Whereas the traditionalists, mainly Miji Kenda elders appointed to safeguard the sacred forests known as Kayas, have always looked upon the Government for support, this has tended to be lukewarm.
Miji Kenda people comprise the Digo, Duruma, Chonyi, Giriama, Kauma, Rabai, Ribe, Kambe and Jibana. The word “Miji Kenda” literally translates into “Nine Villages” or “Nine Homesteads”.
Government officials, mainly District Commissioners and land adjudication officers, have come under strong criticism for their role in the desecration of the centuries-old forests, around which the (traditional) lives of the Miji Kenda revolve.
During Ramadhan, CFCU allows women from the local communities to harvest firewood from the Kayas.
One Kaya, Timbwa, in Kinondo location of Kwale, is reputed to be the first place in Coast Province where a coconut tree was planted after fishermen found a seed at sea. The forests serve as ceremonial areas, burial grounds for prominent Miji Kenda elders, and as places of worship. Trees and plants taken from them are used for traditional herbal medicine. Scientific sources say over 50 per cent of Kenya’s rare plant species are found at the Coast, most of them have been identified in the Kayas, hence their importance as repositories of rare plant species.
While most Kayas bordering urban areas have fallen prey to development, those in the interior rural areas, though threatened, are comparatively still intact.
There are more than 60 Kayas today. Twenty-three of them have been gazetted as protected national monuments in the Coast Province, under the Monuments and Antiquities Act. But even these are still under threat of extinction due to land-grabbing. The most threatened, include Kayas Diani, Ukunda, Tiwi, Chale, Waa, and Timbwa, whose undoing is their closeness to lush beaches.
Kaya Muhaka, one of the biggest, has survived the onslaught because of the hawk-eyed elders.
The history of the Kayas dates centuries back. The present Kayas are derelict patches of the once vast coastal lowland forest of eastern Africa. Thanks to centuries-old traditions that hold them sacred these patches have survived, cherished by the Miji Kenda as their cultural heritage.
In Chidigo language, the word Kaya means home. Hence the people regard them as their original homes. Prayers to appease ancestors in the event of natural calamities such as disease, famine, drought or flooding, were always held inside the Kayas. And whenever there was an attack by other tribes, the Miji Kenda would run into a Kaya and use its thickness as camouflage for protection against the raiders.
The cultural attachment to these Kayas has, therefore, been phenomenal but this is slowly and painfully being eroded by the younger generations who, out of ignorance and lack of exposure, look down upon the cultural traditions as primitive, and are not willing to be associated with them.
Traditionally, only the top three or so elders’ age-groups were initiated into the secrets of the Kayas. Each age group went up the ladder in sucession, with the passing of the topmost into the next world.
In those days when the communal other than the individual was the driving force, the system was adequate. Today there is need to have the youth educated much earlier so they can be well informed of their people’s way of life before it is too late.
Developers are destroying these sacred forests local communities are desperately fighting to conserve.
Then there is a general feeling among some individuals, mainly in the administration, that the forests stand between them and the vast financial benefits the communities could reap developing the prime land.
These individuals have in most cases been associated with those collaborating with the desecrators of the sacred forests.
There is also the group of religious fanatics who, out of envy and fear of their influence, dismiss traditional rituals as satanic and would not hesitate intruding into the forests to farm in total disregard of the wishes of the traditionalists.
The best example in this sort of conflict is in Kaya Gandini situated south of Mazeras whose eastern reaches have been settled by a group of religious fanatics prompting some elders to take the matter to court for arbitration.
However, the biggest threat is posed by land grabbers who come in many forms. These include politically well connected people as well as (business) tourists who, in most cases, are duped into buying plots in the Kayas.
Recently, a German businessman, Mr. Joe Brunlehner, who owns the Chale Island Paradise and a string of other businesses, was accused by Digo elders of desecrating the Timbwa Kaya when he began prospecting for fresh water for his hotel located on an exclusive Indian Ocean Island, by sinking a borehole in the middle of a forest shrine.
The elders, led by Mr. Abdalla Ali Mwenyenze, the chairman of the Kwale Kayas Committee, accused Mr. Brunlehner of sinking a borehole next to the graves of Digo elders “in total disregard of our traditions, and the risk of killing the forest”.
Ordaining trees is one way in which Buddhist monks are helping save Thailand’s forests.
Mr. Brunlehner’s attempts to legalise ownership of a plot in the Kaya were frustrated when , on Christmas eve last year, the elders confronted a team of surveyors from Kwale District and confiscated their equipment. The equipment was later returned. While Timbwa Kaya is said to have fresh water, (used over centuries by its inhabitants), Chale Island has no fresh water supplies and Mr. Brunlehner has had to use tractor-hauled tankers to fery water to his hotel.
His attempts to sink a borehole were thwarted when the elders chased away the diggers and filled up the hole.
A short while later, his workers were back, this time deeper in the forest to conceal their activities. However, the sound from their machines betrayed them and the elders, accompanied by an official from the National Museums of Kenya’s Coast Forest Conservation Unit (CFCU), Mr. Hamisi Mdudu, caught up with them and stopped the work.
Mr. Brunlehner, who a few years ago was at the centre of another controversy with local elders over his original acquisition of part of the 50-acre Chale Island, confirms he has plans to lay a fresh water pipe from the forest to the island once the borehole is ready.
Armed with a hand drawn map for plot No. 57, and a land title deed in the name of Narriman Khan Brunlehner, said to be his wife, he claims the land on which he was sinking the borehole had been sold to him six weeks earlier.
In Kenya, land title deeds are usually not secured that fast, and he could not explain how he went about this.
Mr. Brunlehner has been told by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) that he may interfer with marine life if he goes ahead with his proposed pipeline. KWS has written to him stopping work on the pipeline untill the full environmental impact of blasting across a coral reef to lay the pipe has been assessed.
What baffles most Miji Kenda elders who still have a strong attachment to the Kayas, is why the Kenya Government allows the forests to be destroyed by its own officers whereas the Arab and British governments preserved them. Mr. Abdalla Boga, the chairman of the Kaya Diani (which originally measured 20 hectares but has now been reduced to a mere two hectares), is a very bitter man.
“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,” he says.
The Kaya Diani spiritual leader, octogenarian Hussein Mwasiwa, bare-chested and with only a traditional wraparound, speaks with a lot of emotion. He promises tough action and urges all the men, women and children of Diani to fight tooth and nail to protect their shrine.
His concerted campaign to save the forest is bearing fruit because the CFCU and the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) which work in conjunction with the elders to save the forests, have just funded the surveying of the forest with the ultimate aim of reclaiming the lost land.
Signs declaring that the forests are protected, have been displayed in prominent areas around them but still some people, either through ignorance, and/or arrogance, go ahead and buy plots there.
Fencing will follow soon and this is expected to keep out intruders and deny those who have already acquired plots inside a chance to develop them. However, this will heavily depend on government support for its success.
The significance of the Kayas was recently demonstrated when elders of Kaya Gandini with the assistance of CFCU and WWF, conducted a ritual to appease the local spirit, Kitsimbakazi, whose apparent anger was demonstrated by the drying up of a pond, nyirinyiri, from which the local community drew water for domestic use.
According to one of the elders, Bakari Ngoka Mbuja, the pond had never dried up for as far back as they could remember. They believed that the problem had been caused by their failure to conduct regular appeasement ceremonies. As a result of the water problem in the village, the local community had been forced to trek long distances in search of water.
The ceremony, which was filmed by both the local and international media crews, entailed rigorous dancing by men and women. A black bull and a ram were slaughtered. The ram was roasted without skinning and eaten whole.
Ceremonies to re-consecrate the Kayas are so sacred guests and journalists covering the event are not allowed beyond certain points. Strangers are forbidden by tradition from entering the forests.
Even among the Miji Kenda themselves, not everyone is allowed to go to the middle of the Kaya. It is made abundantly clear from the beginning that those who came out of their mother’s wombs feet first or those who grew their lower set of teeth first and, worse still, those who had sex the previous night, are not allowed into the heart of the forest where the black ram is slaughtered to the accompaniment of ritual dancing by elders in traditional attire.
It is believed that soon after such ceremonies heavy rain falls if the purpose was as the rain spirits wished.
Although the holding of these functions in all the Kayas has not been as regular as it should be, the main reason in most cases being poverty, WWF and CFCU have been encouraging and sponsoring the communities which reside near the Kayas to undertake the ceremonies.
The CFCU team has been at the forefront in the struggle to preserve these forests. But the going has not been smooth.
The team has had to endure strong political pressure from all quarters, including rich people out to acquire prime land in the forests.
So far, it would appear the conservationists are winning the battle but they require government support, particularly from the local administration.
It would also help if the foreigners wishing to own land in the region sought proper advice so as not to buy land in protected areas.
EDMUND KWENA reporting for Safarimate