Traditions and practices associated with the Kayas in the sacred forests of the Mijikenda

Inscribed in 2009 (4.COM) on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding

Country(ies): Kenya



Traditions and practices associated with the Kayas in the sacred forests of the Mijikenda

The Mijikenda include nine Bantu-speaking ethnic groups in the Kaya forests of coastal Kenya. The identity of the Mijikenda is expressed through oral traditions and performing arts related to the sacred forests, which are also sources of valuable medicinal plants. These traditions and practices constitute their codes of ethics and governance systems, and include prayers, oath-taking, burial rites and charms, naming of the newly born, initiations, reconciliations, marriages and coronations. Kayas are fortified settlements whose cultural spaces are indispensable for the enactment of living traditions that underscore the identity, continuity and cohesion of the Mijikenda communities. The use of natural resources within the Kayas is regulated by traditional knowledge and practices that have contributed to the conservation of their biodiversity. The Kambi (Councils of Elders) acts as the custodians of these Kayas and the related cultural expressions. Today, Mijikenda communities are gradually abandoning the Kayas in favour of informal urban settlements. Due to pressure on land resources, urbanization and social transformations, the traditions and cultural practices associated to the Kaya settlements are fast diminishing, posing great danger to the social fabric and cohesiveness of the Mijikenda communities who venerate and celebrate them as their identity and symbol of continuity.


Decision 4.COM 14.06

The Committee (…) decides that [this element] satisfies the criteria for inscription on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, as follows:

  • U1: A set of rituals, ceremonials, social practices, cultural values and traditional knowledge about nature, transmitted orally among the various ethnic groups in the Kaya cultural landscape in Mijikenda forest, strengthens community ties and reinforces their common identity, while promoting mutual respect and social justice and ensuring balanced protection of their forest environment;
  • U2: Despite legislation classifying the Kayas as national monuments and creating the forest reserve, leading to their inscription as cultural landscapes on the World Heritage List, and despite the continuing importance of the Kayas for burial and ritual practices, complex forces including modernization, emigration of community members to urban areas and changing land-use practices around the forest are putting the viability of the traditions and practices associated to the Kayas at risk;
  • U3: A safeguarding plan favours the interaction between the natural landscape and its associated socio-cultural traditions and practices, involves Mijikenda communities in all levels of its preparation and implementation, and promotes their social and economic development, thus strengthening environmental management and raising interest among young generations in order to secure the transmission of these traditions and practices;
  • U4: The nomination was prepared with due respect for customary practices governing the element and has resulted from a broad consultation within Mijikenda communities, represented by different social groups including women and youth, Kaya conservation groups and councils of elders whose representatives have given their prior and free consent to the project;
  • U5: The element is inventoried by the Kenyan Department of Culture under the Ministry of State for National Heritage and Culture.



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