Kayas are sacred forests of the Mijikenda community living at the Kenya Coast.
Mijikenda literally means nine homes or villages of the nine-sub-tribes, namely – the Giriama, Chonyi, Duruma, Digo, Rabai, Kambe, Jibana, Kauma and Ribe.
The nine sub-tribes form the Mijikenda community, who predominantly live in Kilifi and Kwale Counties in the Coast region.
Although they speak the same language, each sub-tribe has its own dialect.
The Mijikenda are renowned for preserving their cultural identity for generations. Through the revered kayas, the community has since time immemorial been conserving the sacred forests.
A Mijikenda belief that cutting a tree in the kayas could wipe out an entire family has over the years been a major weapon in conserving the forests.
Only Kaya elders appointed by the community could penetrate into the forests as ordinary people feared ending up being bitten by deadly snakes.
The Kayas comprise 11 separate forest sites spread over 200km along the Coast containing the remains of fortified villages of the Mijikenda.
Created in the 16th century, but abandoned by 1940s, the Kayas are regarded as the abodes of ancestors and are revered as sacred sites, and are maintained by a council of elders.
In 2008, the Kayas were inscribed in the list of World Heritage Sites by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
The sites are inscribed as bearing unique testimony to a cultural tradition and for its direct link to a living tradition.
The Kayas began to fall out of use in the early 20th century and are now revered as the repositories of spiritual beliefs of the Mijikenda and are seen as the sacred abode of their ancestors.
Forests around the Kayas have been nurtured by the community to protect the sacred graves and groves and are now almost the only remains of the once extensive coastal lowland forest.
The Kayas provide focal points for Mijikenda religious beliefs and practices and are regarded as the ancestral homes of the nine sub-tribes.
As such, they have metonymic significance to Mijikenda and are a fundamental source of Mijikenda’s sense of being-in-the-world and of place within the cultural landscape of contemporary Kenya.
They are seen as a defining characteristic of Mijikenda’s identity.
Since their abandonment as preferred places of settlement, Kayas have been transferred from the domestic aspect of the Mijikenda landscape to its spiritual sphere.
As part of this process, certain restrictions were placed on access and the utilization of natural forest resources.
As a direct consequence of this, the biodiversity of the Kayas and forests surrounding them has been sustained.
The Kayas are under threat both externally and from within the Mijikenda society through decline of traditional knowledge and respect for practices.
As a collection of sites spread over a large area, they are associated with beliefs of local and national significance.