In praise of human variety

Xenophilia opening page remarks


Publications by Guy Ottewell



Kaya: forest enceintes

The Mijikenda people on the coast of Kenya live in makaya (the singular form is kaya). These are villages ringed by forest, or, we might say, groves with villages at their hearts.

"Many of them were originally fortified villages surrounded by thick belts of lowland tropical forest. Access to the village was limited to one or two paths through the forest, and use of the forest vegetation was limited to gathering of medicinal herbs. Cutting of trees for timber, grazing of livestock, and clearing for farmland were strictly prohibited. These rules were enforced by the kaya elders, who were also responsible for the care of the sacred objects (fingo) which were buried in the kaya and were believed to be essential for the well-being of the community. The kaya forests were also places for prayer, not only by the elders on behalf of the community but also by individuals seeking help in problems facing their daily lives." (This is from an article by Celia Nyamweru in Cultural Survival Quarterly, Fall 1996.)

Each village is a clearing with a thick green wall; it is tightly embedded in its own sacred grove. Some are on coral islands along the coast, and the prayer offerings are placed in the crevices of the ringing coral cliffs.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, population increased, and the threat of attack by other tribes decreased, so that many Mijikenda moved out, establishing villages outside the makaya. But the elders continued to live and be buried within the ancestral forests, which the people continued to respect and protect, so that they continued to grow luxuriant and dense. When the other forests of the coastal plain began to be cleared with increasing rapidity, as in so much of the world, the kaya groves survived as islands of indigenous vegetation. They afford much-needed protection to Kenya's rare trees and shrubs, more than half of which are in Coast Province, and some of which have already gone extinct.

From the 1960s onward (Kenya became independent in 1963) development of the coastal strip for tourism has proceeded apace. Communal tenure of land is being replaced by Western systems of individual ownership. The kaya forests are being bought by German developers, who cut down the native trees and put up tourist resorts, well provided with thatched verandas, imported palm trees, restaurants, bars, night clubs, and carnivals. Kaya elders protested, tried to demarcate their groves with fences, appealed to politicians. Unfortunately it was often these same politicians who were contriving the privatization of the land and selling it to the developers. Over Nyamweru's article ("Sacred Groves Threatened by Development") appears a photograph of a large sign outside the kaya of Diani:

Wir suchen noch Nachbaren
für unsere Traumvillas

—"We're seeking more neighbors, for our dream villas."