The Mijikenda Kaya Forests

The Mijikenda Kaya forests are not just patches of green; they are living testaments to centuries of culture and conservation. Before we delve into the significance of these sacred forests, let’s journey through time to understand their origins.

Kaya forests and sacred groves are widespread along the Kenyan coast, spanning at least three counties: Kilifi, Mombasa, and Kwale. Today, there are over 60 known and identified Kayas in the region.

Ancient Fortified Settlements

Kaya forests are more than just forests; they are fortified settlements established by the Mijikenda people. These settlements were their sanctuaries, hideouts, and strongholds during turbulent times. Pursued from their ancestral home in Singwaya (believed to be in South Somalia), the Mijikenda sought refuge in these forests. They also chose them for their access to food and water sources. Today, these Kayas hold not only the graves of community forefathers but also community sacred charms known as “Fingo.”

A Response to Urbanization

As the Mijikenda population grew and urbanization encroached, the Kayas faced challenges. To protect their beloved forests, the Mijikenda began to open and acquire the forested areas surrounding these fortified settlements. This led to the emergence of Kaya forests, including primary Kayas, which are the oldest settlements among the nine Mijikenda subtribes, and secondary Kayas, formed due to population growth and clan rivalry.

The Primary Kayas include:

  • Kaya Fungo – Giryama
  • Kaya Kauma – Kauma
  • Kaya Chonyi – Chonyi
  • Kaya Jibana – Jibana
  • Kaya Ribe – Ribe
  • Kaya Bomu Fimboni & Mudzi Muvya – Rabai
  • Kaya Gandini & Kaya Mtswakara – Duruma
  • Kaya Kinondo – Digo
  • Kaya Kambe – Kambe

Protecting the Kayas.

To safeguard these sites, the Mijikenda communities enforced traditional rules that upheld the use and sanctity of the Kayas. They believed that ancestral spirits dwelled in the Kayas, offering protection and guidance. The Kayas were not only a place of refuge but also where the community communicated with their ancestors through offerings and prayers, which constituted their primary form of religion before the arrival of Christianity and Islam. Additionally, the Kayas served as burial sites for the departed, rendering them sacred areas.

Traditionally, the local host communities were the primary protectors of the Kayas. They upheld a set of traditional bylaws overseen by the supreme council of elders, known as Ngambi. This council, composed of clan leaders, foretellers, and medicine men, determined when and why cultural processes should take place. These elders played a pivotal role in community unity, land allocation, farming and hunting seasons, and the enforcement of the traditional calendar.

Communities also employed strong men to guard the Kaya sites, selectively extracted and domesticated medicinal and food plants, hunted species according to clans, and respected certain animal species as royal.

The Traditional Calendar

The traditional calendar is divided into a four-day week:


Kualuka – First day of the week


Kurima Phiri – Second day of the week


Kufusa – Third day of the week


Chipalata – Fourth day of the week

The Chipalata is a day of rest, where no cultural activities, farming, fishing, or hunting occur. However, cultural dances and socialization gatherings are permitted.

Legal Protection

Today, most Kaya forests enjoy legal protection from both national and county governments. Following an extensive survey by the National Museums of Kenya and other partners, the Kenyan government gazetted these sites as National Monuments. The Coastal Forests Conservation Unit, under the National Museums of Kenya, enforces these laws, with the sanctity of the sacred Kaya forest still upheld. Access to these sites is preserved for the local community.

Functions of National Museums of Kenya- Coastal Forests Conservation Unit

1. Conducting plants survey and other research work on forest flora and fauna.
2. Gazzetement of Kaya forests after survey in partnership with local communities.
3. Education and awareness programs to the general programs on importance of Coastal Forests and the kayas.
4. Coordinating partnerships in conservation of Kaya forests.
5. Mediation of community disputes around boundaries of kaya forests and community leadership around Kayas.
6. Restoration of trees around kaya forests through nursery establishment, enrichment planting and species diversification.

UNESCO Recognition:

In a testament to their importance, nine Mijikenda Kaya forests have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. These Kayas are not just forests; they are living repositories of intangible cultural heritage. Their preservation ensures the continuity of rich traditions and the protection of unique biodiversity.

Mijikenda Kaya forests in the UNESCO heritage list include:

    • Kaya Gandini
    • Kaya Mtswakara
    • Kaya Fungo
    • Kaya Chonyi
    • Kaya Kambe
    • Kaya Ribe
    • Kaya Kauma
    • Kaya Mudzi Muvya
    • Kaya Jibana
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