Let me begin by posing this rather provocative question: are the Mijikenda sacred forests–the kayas– still relevant? Put it in another way, do we still need the kayas and kaya elders?
The answer, of course, depends on where you stand, but first, let me briefly outline the roles of the kayas and kaya elders during the days of yore. This is particularly significant for those readers who have heard and read about the kayas but have no idea about the kayas ’origins.
The sacred forests of the Mijikenda people are known as kayas. Inside the kayas are buried protective talismans known as Fingo. The Fingo are cared for by kaya elders who are the protectors of the traditions of the Mijikenda people. According to legend, the Mijikenda brought the Fingo from Shungwaya, their ancestral home on the border with Somalia.
THE NINE TRIBES
The Mijikenda still believe that the spirits of the dead reside inside the kayas and their presence can be felt to this date. The nine Ethnic groups that make up the Mijikenda are the Giryama, Chonyi, Kambe,Duruma, Kauma,Ribe,Rabai,and Jibana who inhabit the north coast and the Digo and the Duruma who reside on the south coast. Each of these groups has a kaya.
Aside from cultural symbolism, the kayas have also served a political role. This role manifested itself in 1914 when the British bombed the largest of the Mijikenda Kayas, Kayafungo, during the Giryama Resistance led by the lady worrier, Mekatilli wa Menza.
Over time, Kayas have survived human destruction. Traditionally, kayas are inhabited by spirits. Nothing found inside them should be destroyed. This means that conservation of the forests was aimed at preserving the survival and sanctity of the Mijikenda people.
Because of their special significance in protecting the environment, 11 of the Mijikenda kaya forests have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. According to UNESCO, the Kayas are now revered to as the repositories of spiritual beliefs of the Mijikenda people and are seen as the sacred abode of their ancestors. The Kayas provide focal points for Mijikenda religious beliefs and practices, and are regarded to as the ancestral homes of the different Mijikenda people, and are held to be sacred places. As such they have metonymic significance to Mijikenda and are a fundamental source of Mijikenda’s sense of ‘being-in-the-world’ and of a place within the cultural landscape of contemporary Kenya. They are seen as a defining characteristic of Mijikenda identity.
With this glorious narrative, why have lost their glamour? Why have kaya elders, protectors of our cultural heritage, lost their way?
One explanation is that the kayas have been politicized. Kaya elders have been used by unscrupulous politicians who have sought cheap publicity through false anointment to claim supremacy over their communities. Kaya elders have also been partisan in their approach to politics. They have preferred certain politicians at the expense of others; yet communities look upon them for blessings.
Kaya elders have allowed the kayas to be polluted. In the days gone by, foreigners were forbidden from entering the kayas, today strangers have been allowed in as if this had been the norm. Money speaks.
Traditional practices have also been flouted in the kayas. Youths have turned themselves into elders of the kayas. In the olden days being a kaya elder was a rigorous process. Those aspiring to be kaya elders underwent a rigorous process through the rika system, or age set. Today, most kaya elders are there by default.
Kaya elders have failed to serve communities. For example, during the recent long dry spell, kaya elders were expected to galvanize communities and offer traditional prayers for the coming of the rains. They failed to do this.
These weaknesses notwithstanding, the Mijikenda people need the kayas. They are the repositories of our culture, the sacred homes of our ancestors and traditional prayer sites. They are the pride of the Mijikenda identity and to our sense of belonging.
What needs to be done is to support the Kaya elders against political manipulation. I have visited Kayafungo, Kaya Kauma and Kaya Godoma and what I learned was that these protectors of our sacred forests desperately need basic necessities like food, shelter, water and even clothing. Unfortunately, Mijikenda elected leaders and professionals have abandoned these leaders, leaving them at the mercy of politicians who manipulate them for their selfish ends.