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UNESCO decries torching of Cultural Centre in Kenya World Heritage site

One of the recently torched structures at the Rabai Cultural Centre within the Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests World Heritage Site in Kenya  © Julius Mwahunga/KNATCOM

On 16 September 2021, the community living around the Rabai Cultural Centre within the Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests World Heritage Site in Kenya  woke up to news of the shocking torching of the Centre by unknown arsonists. The Rabai Cultural Centre was founded under the ideals of the Sacred Kaya Forests of the Mijikenda as a pillar to support the conservation and safeguarding activities of the Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests World Heritage site, forest resources, and biodiversity. The fire destroyed the main structures of the cultural centre, which also provided a means for transmission of the “Traditions and practices associated with the Kayas in the sacred forests of the Mijikenda,” which was inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2009.

The Kayas, which are the repositories of spiritual beliefs of the Mijikenda communities, and are seen as the sacred abode of their ancestors, have been inscribed in two critical UNESCO listings: 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests, which consist of 10 separate forests spread over some 200Km along the Kenya coast containing numerous fortified villages, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2008. As a collection of sites spread over a large area, they are associated with beliefs of local and national significance.

The Kenya National Commission for UNESCO has reached out to the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa to support the emergency response and recovery of the Rabai Cultural Centre and Village, and a proposal is currently being developed to solicit international assistance for the site, which could include rebuilding the center, developing a disaster risk management plan, community awareness raising and safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage practices.

These unfortunate acts of torching the site have greatly disrupted the source of direct and indirect livelihoods for many household communities at the Kaya Sacred Forests. The Kenya National Commission appeals to UNESCO and other stakeholders concerned, for support to restore the Rabai Cultural Centre, and undertake the required cultural rituals of cleansing ceremonies, to reinstate the Centre to its former state.
Dr. Evangeline Njoka, Secretary-General, Kenya National Commission for UNESCO
UNESCO condemns these heinous acts of destruction of the Kaya Rabai Cultural Centre and will work closely with the national authorities and the Kenya National Commission for UNESCO, to identify funds for emergency response, and secure support for the restoration of the sacred heritage site and safeguarding of traditional community practices.
Prof. Hubert Gijzen, UNESCO Regional Director for Eastern Africa and Representative to Kenya