Kayas or makaya (singular kaya) are the sacred forests of the Mijikenda people (more about the tribes that make up this people in the MIJIKENDA tab).

They are located along the southern coast of Kenya, in two districts: Kwale and Kilifi. They are the remains of Kenya’s coastal forest belt – part of a band of tropical dry forest that once stretched from southern Somalia through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique, but has now been largely cleared for fuel and farmland.

To this day, these forests are a living legacy of the people’s history, culture and religion. They are regarded as the ancestral home.

For centuries, these once vast tropical lowland forests have shielded the fortified villages built in them – also called kaya – from attacks by other tribes.

The kaye, created in the 16th century, were abandoned in the 1940s. As early as the 19th century, with the decline in external threats and population growth, Mijikenda groups began to establish new settlements outside the kaya forests. However, they still revered it as a source of spiritual beliefs and a sacred ancestral seat.

Because tribal elders continued to live in the old settlements and care for the kaya forests, they were able to preserve them from oblivion. They are still used today as ceremonial sites, burial grounds and places of prayer, as well as growing plants with medicinal properties.

Today, many kaya forests are still central to existing communities, and rules established centuries ago often remain a powerful force in restricting access and regulating conduct.

Over 50 kaya have been identified in Kwale, Mombasa and Kilifi counties. Each measures, according to various sources, between 30 and 300 hectares or 10 to about 900 hectares.

Each tribe belonging to Mijikenda, namely Chonyi, Kambe, Duruma, Kauma, Ribe, Rabai, Jibana, Giriama and Digo has its own kayas. However, only a few of them are open to visitors.

Originally, the practices of cutting down trees and other forest vegetation (apart from collecting medicinal herbs), as well as grazing animals and deforestation for farmland were categorically prohibited within the kaya.

There are many myths and beliefs told from generation to generation aimed at protecting these sacred forests. There is a widespread belief that the forests are inhabited by spirits, and that cutting down a tree with a machete can cause a leg injury that can only be cured in a special ceremony. It is also believed that food cooked on kaya wood can cause illness, and that a dwelling built with wood from this forest will collapse.

Due to the protected status of the forests, they have become a biodiversity habitat, home to many rare plant and animal species.

According to Anthony Githitho, coastal forest and biodiversity conservation coordinator at the National Museums of Kenya in Kilifi County, as remnant forests in a human-dominated landscape, kayas are important refuges for biodiversity. “Fifty per cent of Kenya’s rare species are found in these coastal forests, more than half of them in kaya forests”.

However, in recent decades, kaya forests have been shrinking in number and size. The main reasons for this are the growing tourism industry, the industry’s demand for natural resources and the growing population of residents, and the consequent demand for agricultural land.

Reduced respect for traditional values, brought about by poverty among other factors, has also taken its toll.

Intensive deforestation for agricultural purposes and logging necessitated the designation of 38 kaya forest areas as national monuments. Fortunately, the government and non-government agencies recognised the threat to the forests and the importance of protecting them to ensure the future of their cultural and biological values. Currently, local communities are taking care of the forests.

Recognising their biological and cultural importance, since 1992 the Government has declared numerous kayas as national monuments under the National Museums of Kenya and plans to list more. Of these, nine have been registered as forest reserves under the Kenya Forest Service.

The Kenya Gazette provides kayas with some legal protection. In addition, all but nine of the forest reserves are registered as community lands. This allows Mijikenda to freely use and manage the forests, patrol them and report any illegal activities to government authorities.