Significance of Kayas to the Mijikenda people

You have probably heard about the kaya and its association with the Mijikenda people. But do you know what it means? Or the significance it has to these people?

Kayas are the original settlements of the Mijikenda people.

The Mijikenda used to live in Shungwaya (singwaya), present-day Somalia. However, famine and insecurity forced them to migrate south along the Kenyan coastline. They broke into different factions as each group found a suitable settlement for themselves. These settlements became the first villages of the Mijikenda.  They were located in deep forests to protect them from attacks. It is these original villages that we refer to as kayas. They are central to the Mijikenda culture because of their association with their ancestry. They serve as sacred grounds for conducting rituals and prayers to their ancestors. You can find additional information on the area coverage of kayas in a previous article,  Mijikenda tribe of Kenya.

Kayas as a cultural preservation tool

Modernization and formal education, have progressively led society away from the traditional mode of life. People travel far and beyond for education and economic pursuits. In the process, they get influenced by modern traditions. Most children born in the modern age, for example, lack proper cultural orientation relying only on the information contained in school textbooks. Unless these traditional values are practiced at home, children grow up with only a veneer knowledge of their cultural practices. A cultural heritage, therefore, creates public awareness and establishes a pathway for people to reconnect with their culture. In knowing this, the Mijikenda people have for centuries preserved their kayas with kaya elders tasked with disseminating this knowledge to the public. When you visit any of them, you will not only get a sense of where your ancestors lived, but will also appreciate how they lived and where they were buried.  These efforts have contributed to the growth of cultural tourism in the region. Currently, 10 of these Kayas are categorized as world heritage sites. The Kayas have become a reliable source of cultural knowledge for locals, tourists, and researchers.

The misconception of Kayas and witchcraft

Recently we have witnessed several unfortunate incidences of maiming and killing of the elderly among the Mijikenda people. The top reason associated with the attacks is witchcraft. What is most worrying, however, is how easy people would believe such accusations without questioning their authenticity. This is because official investigations revealed that most accusations were falsified to cover up other heinous intentions. They accused them of witchcraft to attract public sympathy. This shows how cultural ignorance exposes us to manipulation by unscrupulous individuals in society. Read our previous article Giriama tribe of the Mijikenda to see how rituals and sacrifices were common in traditional Mijienda traditions.

Investigations revealed that youth allurement to quick riches through land sales is a major contributor to this trend. Since most elders preferred to preserve their land, impatient youth would eliminate them to gain access. For them, economic progress would be achieved by selling the family land. What’s sadder is that even after selling, most use the money for trivial things and end up falling back into the same life of poverty.

Religious intolerance is another factor that fuels hostility toward these elders. Most religious people believe their faith to be the only one acceptable to God deeming all others wrong. Yet in reality, we interact with people from different religious backgrounds in all facets of life. Most of the elderly in the Mijikenda community, for example, still adhere to traditional religions. Therefore when religious leaders refer to traditional religion as the practice of witchcraft, it could create hatred for traditional religions and those who openly identify with them. This puts a target on the elderly who still believe in it.

Kayas as an Environmental preservation tool.

I recently visited Kaya Kinondo in Kwale county and marveled at the flourishing biodiversity in the area. This is the same for all other kayas. Though people no longer live in the forests, the Mijikenda perceive these places to be the spiritual abode of their ancestors. To honor them, they placed restrictions on access and utilization of forest resources. The Mijikenda believe dishonoring these places would attract curses unless one is cleansed after a suitable punishment has been given out by the kaya elders. This has resulted in a robust environmental conservation initiative that has attracted global recognition. Because the whole community identifies with these forests they all participate in preserving them. This collaborative approach has prompted both government and global environmental partners to recognize kaya elders as the official custodians of these forests.

The political significance of kayas

The kayas are viewed as a cultural identity of the Mijikenda community. As a result, Kaya elders command great influence over the people. So much that politicians would love to have the backing of these elders. It is believed that the kaya elders have been influencing political decisions since the 1940s. They are believed to have influenced the success of several political leaders from the region like Karisa Maitha, Ronald Ngala, and Robert Matano who were coronated and crowned kings of the Mijikenda people. Holding this title earned them the respect, adoration, and support of all Mijikenda.

As custodians of culture, kaya elders have built a strong political network to push for the preservation of the Mijikenda traditions. This network has enabled has given them an audience with not only one but two presidents to discuss their issues, president Uhuru Kenyatta and the late former president Mwai Kibaki. This helped in advancing their course because aside from government support, their plea attracted global interests, and a few years later, the Kaya forests were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

It is also believed that Kaya elders could influence political unrest. They are believed to have esoteric wisdom of the spirit world. This grants them the power to influence war as the people would believe that it was sanctioned by God and therefore believe that are likely to win. The youths will be taken into the forest for oath-taking before being on the battlefield. The kaya Bombo clash of 1997, for instance, is believed to have been backed by kaya elders.

Kayas, therefore, have been closely guarded treasures among the Mijikenda people. It is a source of identity and power for them and has influenced the growth of their culture in the modern world. although it is easy to forget our culture, it is not that everything has been lost. If we look hard enough we will find ways to reconnect with our roots. For the Mijikenda people, the kaya is a great place to start.

Pictures of the Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests of Kenya


Frequently asked questions on the Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests of Kenya

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