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Listing The Sacred Mijikenda kaya Forests as UNESCO World Heritage Sites: “The Long Journey”

L’inscription des kayas sur la liste du patrimoine mondial de l’UNESCO : « le long voyage »
Anthony Githitho
p. 198-217


Les forêts kayas sont une des caractéristiques majeures de la zone côtière du Kenya. Sites refuges et d’habitation jusqu’à la fin du xixe siècle, elles sont aujourd’hui considérées comme « sacrées » et jouent un rôle fondamental dans l’identité des Mijikenda, un groupe linguistiquement apparenté aux Bantous. Durant la majeure partie du XXe siècle, les groupes locaux ont su préserver la sacralité des kayas sans intervention de l’État, situation qui changea avec leur reconnaissance comme patrimoine national, en vertu de la loi sur les musées et le patrimoine national, en 1992. En raison de leur caractère unique et de leur importante biodiversité, l’État kenyan prit par la suite la décision de les présenter à l’inscription sur la liste du patrimoine mondial de l’Unesco. En 1999, elles furent ainsi placées sur la liste des candidats potentiels, point de départ de la préparation du dossier de nomination. Cet article vise à présenter l’ensemble des processus qui ont conduit à la décision de l’Unesco, en même temps qu’il offre un témoignage de première main sur ce « long voyage » vers l’inscription des kayas sur la liste du patrimoine mondial.

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Introduction: the Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests

1The kaya forests (plural Makaya) are situated in the coastal plains and hills of Kenya, and are regarded as sacred by the coastal Mijikenda community. Now occupying a coastal strip approximately 50 km wide and over 300 km long, they are residual areas of once extensive lowland forest. Makaya are relatively small in size, ranging in area from 10 to over 400 hectares. To date, over fifty have been identified in the coastal Counties of Kwale, Mombasa and Kilifi.

2The Mijikenda people are the dominant ethnic community in the coastal region stretching between Kenya’s border with Tanzania in the south, and the northern limit of Kilifi County near the Tana River. They are nine distinct groups (Mijikenda means “nine tribes”), who speak closely-related Bantu dialects sharing about 71% of their vocabulary. The groups are: A-Giriama, A-Digo, A-Duruma, A-Chonyi, A-Ribe, A-Rabai, A-Kambe, A-Kauma, and A-Jibana (the prefix “A” denotes a people or tribe).

3All kaya forests bear the marks of human activity, particularly clea- rings and paths with cultural and historical significance. By definition, they differ from other types of sacred forested sites because of their history or tradition of settlement. In fact, kaya means “home” in most Mijikenda dialects. It is believed that kaya forests once contained hidden fortified villages, where the Mijikenda took refuge from their enemies when they first migrated into the region. The defensive function of these villages was crucial to their survival and was achieved by: (I) siting the kaya within thick forest so that it could only be approached on narrow forest paths; (II) surrounding the village with a strong stockade; and (III) burying sacred objects or fingo, which were essential to the material and spiritual wellbeing of the community, within the kaya, (Nyamweru 1998).

4The kaya forests, with their clearings and sacred sites, are believed to be all that remains of the extensive forests and hidden villages, now preserved as ritual and spiritual sites in the rural landscape. The surrounding land was given over to agriculture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as conditions became more secure and people moved out of the kayas to farm. They are regarded as the resting place of the ancestors; some communities bury their dead in these places even today, as well as conducting various other traditional cultural rituals and ceremonies. The Mijikenda distinguish between “primary” (or initial) kayas, where they claim to have first settled on arrival in the area, and “secondary” ones, which were formed subsequently as the tribes dispersed. Locally, the “primary” kayas are believed to host the protective magic talismans brought from “Singwaya”– the original home of Mijikenda, somewhere north of the Tana River in present day Somalia.

  • 1 The biodiversity values, while mentioned in the UNESCO dossier, were not emphasised: the kayas were (...)

5Studies indicate that the kaya forests are important not only for their cultural heritage, but also for species conservation. Despite their relatively small size, studies on plant biodiversity values (including species rarity, endemism, etc.) have shown that seven out of the twenty highest-ranking forested sites were kaya forests (Githitho 2002)1.

Tab. 1: Mijikenda Groups and their Kayas



Associated kaya

Forests (primary sites first)


kaya Fungo, kaya Jorore


kaya Kwale, kaya Kinondo and others


kaya Gandini, kaya Mtswakara and others


kaya Chony and others


kaya Ribe


kaya Rabai


kaya Kambe and others


kaya Kauma, kaya Chivara


kaya Jibana

Traditional Conservation

6For most of the twentieth century, local communities continued to venerate the forests, and achieved significant success in protecting them against encroachment without any State involvement. Traditional cultural values and taboos were employed to conserve the sites’ sacred cultural and physical integrity. These included prohibitions against cutting or removal of any vegetation and wildlife, and against disturbance of physical features. Individuals who ignored these rules were likely to face the wrath of the spirits and suffer various misfortunes. Such rules also governed behaviour and demeanour within the sites, aiming to maintain an environment of tranquillity and sobriety (Githitho 2005).

Threats to the Kayas

7As the twentieth century progressed, kayas came under increasing threat for a variety of reasons. These included the erosion of traditional knowledge, and the loss of respect for and attachment to traditional values and manifestations. Mijikenda society, in common with other Kenyan communities, was undergoing rapid social and economic changes in the fact of modernization, the establishment of the nation-state and the growth of the cash economy. Local social cohesion and shared values were reduced by migration, education and adherence to non-traditional religions. These changes were coupled with rising populations and increasing demand for land for agriculture, mining, tourism and urban infrastructure as well as forest products. The result was gradual encroachment on kayas for subsistence farming and other developments. Many small sites were severely degraded or lost.

8The kayas became better known in the 1980s, following botanical surveys of Kenyan Coastal forests by the National Museums of Kenya in the 1980s and early 1990s (Robertson 1987; Robertson and Luke 1993). The surveys brought to light the biological richness and diversity of the kayas and underlined the role of traditional beliefs in conserving the sites. They also drew attention to the increased threats the sites faced. Kaya elders and local leaders were emboldened by this interest to call for the protection of their sacred sites, and were supported in these appeals by research institutions and conservation bodies.

National Monument Status and the Coastal Forest Conservation Unit

9In recognition of their rich natural and cultural heritage, legal gazettement of Kaya forests as national monuments began in 1992, under the National Museums and Heritage Act, which covered an initial list of 22 sites. The total number of kaya forests recognised as National Monuments is now 39, including the most important kayas in both Kwale and Kilifi Counties on the south and north Coast. Four were also gazetted as Forest Reserves under forest laws. Today, only a few kayas do not have any legal protection.

10National Monument status mandated the State to support the kaya elders in protecting the sites, using its law enforcement machinery as necessary in addition to traditional laws. In 1992, the National Museums of Kenya formed a unit to care for the sites in partnership with the kaya elders and local community. That new department is still known today as the Coastal Forest Conservation Unit, CFCU. It has two offices, in Kwale and Kilifi, each manned by a small staff.

11Between 1992 and 2000, the CFCU received project funding from a number of sources, but most came from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) for conservation activities for the kayas. CFCU staff were involved in:

  • Expediting gazettement of additional sites to those listed as National Monuments in 1992, in consultation with local communities;

  • Boundary mapping and demarcation of all the sites;

  • Activities to raise awareness about kayas and their conservation in the local areas and among the general public;

  • Promotion of and support for local livelihood and development projects, in partnership with various organizations.

12Gradually, through these and other activities, the kayas became better known regionally, nationally, and even internationally by the early 2000s. There was significant interest in the sites as key examples of cultural values serving to protect nature.

Listing the Kayas as World Heritage Sites: the Global Strategy

13The UNESCO World Heritage List, established by the World Heritage Convention of 1972, is comprised of sites, which are deemed by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to have outstanding universal value for humanity. The sites have exceptional natural or cultural qualities, or both combined, and each is truly unique.

14The World Heritage site remains the property of the country on whose territory it is located, but it is considered in the interest of the international community to protect it for future generations. Its preservation becomes a concern of the global community as a whole. Placing a site on the list not only endows it with global recognition, but also provides an additional layer of protection. Listed sites are deemed to have “integrity” (wholeness or completeness), “authenticity” (genuineness, originality), and meet at least one of the ten criteria listed by the Operational Guidelines for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention:

i. “Represents a masterpiece of human creative genius and cultural significance”;

ii. “Exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time, or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning, or landscape design”;

iii. “To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”; IV. “Is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural, or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history”;

iv. “Is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture, or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change”;

v. “Is directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance”;

vi. “Contains superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance”;

vii. “Is an outstanding example representing major stages of Earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features”;

viii. “Is an outstanding example representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems, and communities of plants and animals”;

ix. “Contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation”.

15This prestigious designation is much sought after by States for their sites, as a badge of high distinction. It is an obvious draw for tourism, and also attracts funding for conservation and research activities. The sacred Mijikenda kaya forests were placed on Kenya’s tentative (candidate) list with the World Heritage Committee in 1999. This was a firm indication of the Country’s intention to have them listed as World Heritage.

  • 2 Europe is still overrepresented on the List.

16Before the 1990s there were relatively few sites of both natural and cultural heritage importance like the kayas on the list, and none from Africa. However, this changed with the implementation of UNESCO’s “Global Strategy for a Representative, Balanced and Credible World Heritage List”, which began in 1994. This strategy aimed to produce a World Heritage List that reflected the world’s cultural and natural diversity. It had been noted that there was a preponderance of cultural rather than natural heritage sites on the List, and that the majority of sites were in Europe2.

17Through a series of meetings and consultations, the World Heritage List criteria were analysed and expanded in scope, to better embrace all human co-existence and interaction with land, as well as spiritual and creative expressions. The movement was best encapsulated in the Nara Declaration of 1994, which among other observations noted that:

All judgments about values attributed to cultural properties as well as the credibility of related information sources may differ from culture to culture, and even within the same culture. It is thus not possible to base judgments of values and authenticity within fixed criteria. On the contrary, the respect due to all cultures requires that heritage properties must considered and judged within the cultural contexts to which they belong.

Depending on the nature of the cultural heritage, its cultural context, and its evolution through time, authenticity judgments may be linked to the worth of a great variety of sources of information. Aspects of the sources may include form and design, materials and substance, use and function, traditions and techniques, location and setting, and spirit and feeling, and other internal and external factors3.

18Kenya participated actively in the process. Meetings that were particularly significant with regard to the kayas were the expert meetings on African Cultural Heritage, held in Tiwi, Kenya, in March 1999, and the Expert Meeting on Authenticity and Integrity in the African Context in Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe, in May 2000. The National Museums of Kenya – CFCU Coordinator, Anthony Githitho, attended these meetings as a Kenyan delegate, and it was at these forums that he began to have an understanding of the World Heritage Convention.

The First Mijikenda Kayas World Heritage Nomination Dossier

The Preparation of the Dossier

  • 4 The tentative list in which Kayas were placed by Kenya in 1999 is simply a list maintained by UNESC (...)

19The first World Heritage nomination dossier for the Sacred Mijikenda kayas as a serial (or composite) site was submitted in early 20054. A nomination dossier is a detailed file containing exhaustive information about a site or sites, and an argument for the universal importance of its unique cultural or natural values. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee then choose whether to list the site, on the basis of the dossier and the strength of its thesis.

20A team was formed in 2004, consisting of Herman Kiriama, Head of Coastal Archaeology at Mombasa, and CFCU staff led by Anthony Githitho. None of the group had any previous experience of this type of process, despite their significant knowledge and experience of kayas from their work. Nonetheless, they were required to beat the annual deadline of the end of January 2005 for nomination and submission. Reference was made to the World Heritage Committee “Operational Guidelines” and other documents, but for a new practitioner the guidelines sometimes appear complex and unfathomable.

21One point that was not clear to the team was whether all kayas should be included in the dossier, or a selection of sites in the best condition. As indicated above known, there are over fifty kaya sites, and they are in differing states of conservation as the result of various historical processes. It was decided that the file should include 36 kayas, including almost all the sites gazetted as National Monuments. This was a very large number for nomination, and would lead to problems later. The list included well-preserved sites, but also kayas facing severe threats from various sources. Owing to their large number, it was also not possible to go into sufficient detail into the value of each individual site. The correct nomination approach is to select the “best of the best”, having “outstanding universal value” as well as authenticity and integrity (wholeness) as they are. The group had assumed wrongly that cases are presented in order to secure protection for them. Due to the strong time pressures, as 2004 drew to a close, the main document was written with less care and attention to detail than would have been ideal. There was also limited time to raise awareness of the nomination among kaya elders and local communities. The document, following the standard format, included sections on:

  • Basic description of the sites;

  • Their outstanding universal value;

  • Comparison with similar sites worldwide;

  • Elaboration on their authenticity and integrity;

  • Description of management;

  • Factors affecting the sites;

  • Bibliography, images, maps and other materials.

22It also included a management plan framework document, which was a key requirement for the document. Although the dossier was submitted before the deadline of 1 February 2005, failure to produce all the required supporting materials and documentation meant that it was only officially accepted by the World Heritage Committee Secretariat by February 2006, one year later. A process of appraisal then began that would culminate in its presentation to the World Heritage Committee in its annual session seventeen months later, in mid-2007.

23Although the nomination was not to come before the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in its 31st annual session in Vilnius, Lithuania in 2006, the CFCU Coordinator attended the proceedings in the Kenyan delegation. At the meeting, the Committee appraised nominations from various countries, after analysis by the advisory bodies. The advisory bodies to the World Heritage Convention include the International Council on Museums and Sites (ICOMOS), the International Centre for Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In the course of these sessions, the shortcoming of the kayas dossier –by then already submitted– became progressively clearer to the Kenyan team. However it was too late to withdraw the dossier, which was already progressing slowly through the system.

24With acceptance of the kayas application in February 2006, the mandatory evaluation mission of cultural and natural heritage specialists was dispatched to the kayas in October 2006. Over a period of one week, CFCU staff took the evaluation mission team to various sites, and introduced them to kaya elders and local community leaders. They also talked to officials of relevant state agencies and non-governmental organizations, both in the Coastal Region and in their headquarters in Nairobi. These included the Kenyan Forest and Wildlife Services, Government Administrative Officers, and conservation organizations like Nature Kenya and WWF.

25The evaluation team was able to observe the wide range of conditions obtaining in the kayas, and also raised many issues during the process. For example at kaya Chivara in Kilifi, they pointed out that the kaya, which is on a hill, had a telecommunication pylon standing conspicuously on its summit. This significantly affected its cultural and visual authenticity, though it was in the dossier list. The mission team’s final report would be forwarded to the World Heritage Committee, to facilitate examination of the kayas nomination.

The 31st World Heritage Committee Session Decision

26Following the evaluation mission, the sacred Mijikenda kayas dossier could finally be presented to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The 31st session was convened in June and July 2007 in Christchurch, New Zealand. Kenya was represented by a delegation led by the then Minister of State for Heritage, which also included the Kenyan Ambassador to UNESCO, the Kenyan Permanent Representative to the Committee, and the Director-General of the National Museums of Kenya, with a technical support team which included the CFCU Coordinator.

27The essential functions of the World Heritage Committee, which is constituted of 21 rotational State Party members, are to:

  • Identify, on the basis of nominations submitted by States Parties, cultural and natural properties of outstanding universal value which are to be protected under the Convention, and to list those properties on the World Heritage List;

  • Monitor the state of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List, in liaison with the States Parties; decide which properties included in the World Heritage List are to be inscribed on or removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger; and decide whether a property may be removed from the World Heritage List;

  • Examine requests for International Assistance from the World Heritage Fund. For World Heritage List nominations, the Committee considers reports and recommendations prepared for each site by the advisory bodies to the World Heritage Committee (ICOMOS and ICCROM for cultural heritage, and IUCN for natural heritage) before deciding on whether a site should be placed on the World Heritage List. There are actually four possible decisions in each case:

  • To inscribe a nomination on the World Heritage List;

  • Not to inscribe (this means outright rejection);

  • To refer a nomination (return to State Party for corrections, further information);

  • To defer a nomination (return to State Party with recommendation to fundamentally reconstitute the dossier).

28To facilitate efficient management of such a large international meeting, the general format of deliberations is discussions based on an issue summary and draft (proposed) resolution or decision prepared beforehand by the Secretariat. The resolution may be adopted with minimal changes, significantly reconstructed depending on the Committee’s discussion, or even withdrawn.

29In 2007, the Committee was presented with a total of 45 nominations, 37 of which were new nominations having not been presented before. The kayas file was considered along with others from all over the world, including three others from Africa and several from Europe, the Americas, Asia and Oceania.

30The reports of the advisory bodies and the draft decisions of the Committee itself are normally shared with participants before the actual deliberations. The Kenya Delegation was therefore not caught by surprise by the recommendations put to the Committee on the kaya nomination for deliberation. The advisory bodies found that the dossier was unsatisfactory on a number of counts as follows:

  • The basis for identification of the 36 sites was not clear. It was recommended that a set of (cultural and natural) criteria be used to narrow down the selection to a manageable number. It was evident that some of the sites were severely threatened and did not satisfy integrity criteria.

  • Comparative analysis of similar sites around the world had not been adequate with respect to both cultural and natural attributes, and more work was needed in this section of the file.

  • Though there was substantial research information on the kayas in existence, it was not reflected in the document, nor employed to support numerous assertions in the text. References/attribution to documentation needed to be made with respect to historical claims and traditional practices.

  • The criteria which, were selected in the dossier for the nomination (3, 4 and 5) were judged not to be optimal, or at least not well argued.

31In general, though, the kayas clearly appeared to have authenticity, and some had integrity as defined by the operational guidelines. However, the dossier did not make a strong enough case. The advisory bodies therefore advised that more work was needed to improve the document, and recom- mended to the Committee that the application be deferred. In effect, this would mean that the State Party should go back and start the process anew, as if no previous nomination existed.

32The Kenyans were prepared for this outcome and had lobbied with other national delegations at the conference, especially from Africa, to support a modification of the deferral proposal. While the Kenya State Party accepted that the dossier was inadequate, it preferred that the nomination be referred, or sent back for improvements and corrections. This would be better than deferment, which provided no timeframe for reapplication. Referral would enable Kenya to bring back the dossier within two years at the most, and the work done so far would not be lost.

33When the kayas discussion opened on the floor, various Member States spoke in support of the nomination, opposing the deferral draft decision as too severe. Although a member of the World Heritage Committee, Kenya itself could not participate in the discussion due to the conflict of interest. Benin observed that some of the statements in the draft resolution seemed to be incorrect, and India suggested that the advisory bodies had not sufficiently advised the Kenya State Party in compiling its dossier. Others, such as Spain, argued that some of the justifications only needed to be expanded and more information sought from the Kenya State Party. It was pointed out that IUCN, which had conducted the evaluation jointly with ICOMOS, had produced a much more complimentary report than the latter.

34In a statement to the Committee, Kenya’s Minister for Heritage Hon Suleiman Shakombo made a strong appeal for inscription of the kayas.

35The general tone the discussion, however, seemed to support referral as opposed to deferral, but clearly not inscription. Canada proposed and received majority support for an amendment to refer the nomination. The World Heritage Committee decision 31 COM 8B 21 decision on the kayas in the 31st session was therefore as follows:

The World Heritage Committee,
1. Having examined Documents WHC-07/31.COM/8B and WHC-07/31.COM/INF.8B1

2. Refers the nomination of the Sacred Mijikenda kaya Forests, Kenya to the World Heritage List back to the State Party to allow it to:

●Carry out documentation and surveys of the cultural and natural aspects of the kayas and historical research from oral written and archaeological sources in order to reconsider and justify the inclusion of the selected sites in the nomination and to justify the application of the criteria.

●Designate all kayas as National Monuments.

●Further develop the draft management plan to integrate the conservation of cultural and natural resources and traditional and non-traditional conservation and management practices, and to support sustainable development initiatives which allow full participation of, and benefit to, local communities.

●In the short term, consider how further protective measures may be put in place to ensure no further erosion of the kayas in the face of threats from development, extraction and poaching.

●Consider ways to identify and protect the settings of the kayas from major developmental threats particularly mining.

3. Recommended the State Party to consider in the future a renomination in the future to add criterion (vi) to represent the sacred spaces and traditional knowledge and practices of the Mijikenda people.

36Although this was as favourable an outcome as could be hoped for in the circumstances, the Kenya delegation was naturally disappointed. However, the challenge was now for Kenya to return with a better-constructed case for the kayas as soon as possible, at least within 18 months.

The Revised Nomination

37On the delegation’s return to Kenya in July 2007, the CFCU counted on having 18 months in which to work on an improved dossier for the kayas. This certainly seemed an adequate timeframe for the assignment, and it was expected that an excellent document would result. However, sometime in September, a decision was made at Ministerial level to submit the revised dossier to the World Heritage Centre by the end-of-January deadline in 2008.

38This unexpected development placed enormous pressure on the CFCU, as the five months remaining did not appear sufficient for the task at hand. In the team’s view, the document required extensive rewriting if it was to satisfy the standards of the Committee, which were now well understood.

Preparation and Submission

39Nevertheless, the CFCU began work immediately on a new document. The first task was to identify a smaller number of high-quality sites, based on consistent criteria regarding cultural and natural value.

40A matrix was developed which assessed all sites on the basis of traditional cultural ritual use and attachment, as well as forest site health and integrity. The analysis was based on field experience and knowledge of CFCU staff, consultations with elders, and existing documentation. The result was a shortlist of 12 sites which, not surprisingly, comprised mainly of primary kayas, which tend to be the best protected by local communities.

Tab. 2: Selected Sites for the Nomination Dossier

Kaya Forest Site

Mijikenda Community

kaya Fungo


kaya Kambe


kaya Jibana


kaya Ribe


kaya Kauma


kaya Mudzimuvya

kaya Bomu

kaya Fimboni


kaya Gandini

kaya Mtswakara


kaya Kinondo


41For the purpose of equity, an effort had been made to include sites from all Mijikenda communities. However, site quality factors meant that kaya Chonyi, the primary kaya of the A-Chonyi, could not be included as it was extensively encroached and degraded, and so lacked integrity. The inclusion of a larger number of A-Rabai sites was a reflection of their superior forest quality and traditional authenticity.

42CFCU staff went to the field to gather and record more systematic information on traditional use and protocols, and to develop maps of the sites in participation with the kaya elders. All the available literature on the kayas was identified and assembled for the purpose of preparing the dossier. Although the stated purpose of the referral had been to provide more information and improve the dossier, in reality a new document was being developed. This was because extensive reorganization of the first dossier was required.

43It fell upon the CFCU Co-ordinator, Anthony Githitho, to compile and write the new document, putting all the material together in the required sections. The pressures to complete the writing in less than five months were immense, especially considering that he had other duties and projects which could not be suspended. It meant that virtually every weekend during that period was occupied by the assignment. Care was taken this time to attribute information and make extensive references to historical and other records, in order to justify the arguments made in the dossier. Particular attention was paid to the section on how the kayas had developed historically, with which the advisory bodies had found fault. Each of the sites was examined and described in greater detail, with supporting diagrams and images. Criterion 6 was also added to 3, 4 and 5 as a basis for outstanding universal value, as suggested by the World Heritage Committee.

44This assignment was pursued against a backdrop of severe political upheaval and instability in Kenya. The 2007 presidential election was fiercely fought, and the results were bitterly disputed between the two main competing parties. The announcement of election results at the end of December 2007 marked the onset of a period of violence and chaos. 1,300 people lost their lives, and the country was threatened with imminent disintegration as the violence took on ethnic undertones. The situation was eventually contained through a political compromise in the first months of 2008. Such events made the compilation of the dossier doubly challenging, but work proceeded steadily.

45By the end of January 2008, against all the odds, the new nomination dossier had been completed, including the main text and various appendices of supporting material. An improved management framework document was also enclosed. The consensus within the Kenyan team was that it was a considerable improvement on the first dossier, and care had been taken with the presentation and formatting. It was duly accepted by the WHC secretariat and prepared for discussion in the 32nd session of the Committee, which was to be held in Quebec City Canada from the 2 to the 10 July.

The Kenya Delegation’s Strategy for Quebec

46As the Quebec meeting drew near, the Kenyan delegation was also developing a strategy to ensure success for the kaya nomination. Nothing was to be left to chance. To conclude discussions on the kayas and other elements of Kenya’s World Heritage agenda, a meeting was held in June in Nairobi. This was attended by the Heritage Ministry and agencies involved in heritage, including the National Museums of Kenya, the Kenya Wildlife Service and the National Committee for UNESCO.

47By this time, the WHC advisory body reports for the kayas had been received. Contrary to all expectations, ICOMOS had recommended that the second nomination again be referred. The recommendations of ICOMOS’s evaluation of the revised nomination were that the State Party:

  1. Undertake a more thorough comparative analysis to appraise all the kayas in order to justify the smaller number;

  2. Withdraw kaya Kinondo from the nomination;

  3. Designate kaya Kambe and kaya Ribe as National Monuments;

  4. Enter into more formal agreements with kaya elders, to establish them as the responsible guardians of the kayas;

  5. Modify the Management Plan to reflect the needs of the nominated sites;

  6. Secure resources for the implementation of the management strategy and plans;

  7. Identify the settings of the kayas and put in place buffer zones to protect them from major developmental threats;

  8. Produce more detailed mapping of the kayas.

48The recommendation on Kinondo was in response to references in the dossier to holiday real estate development neighbouring the kaya, which affected its setting. National Monument status under heritage laws did not change the ownership of the sites, nor did it reduce or modify in any way the traditional authority and activities of the elders. However, the Committee seemed to prefer actual contracts with the kaya elders, which would take time due to the complexity of local community stakeholding and trustee law in Kenya.

49It was highly likely that the draft decision would also follow these lines. While dismayed by the report, the Nairobi meeting felt that these conditions did not constitute a substantial barrier to the inscription of the kayas. They did not preclude the fact that the kayas possessed Outstanding Universal Value; instead, they seemed to focus on ongoing management activities. It was agreed that any referral draft decision based on the ICOMOS position would be vigorously contested by Kenya and its friends, with a view to overturning it. The delegation would also employ the following tactics:

  • A detailed response to the specific points and recommendations raised by ICOMOS would be prepared by the delegation for distribution to all WHC State Party committee members.

  • On arrival in Quebec, the Kenya delegation would brief a meeting of the African delegates in detail about our concerns, so they could raise questions and issues to illuminate the case when the agenda item came up.

  • One or two friendly State Parties would be primed during the specific session to request that Kenya, which could not volunteer on its own behalf, provide information on the kayas case.

  • A short statement would be prepared to be read by the leader of the delegation from the floor, deflecting the ICOMOS comments, and urging inscription of the kayas.

Final Push in Quebec

50The Kenyan team attending the 32nd Session of the World Heritage Committee in Quebec City, Canada (2-10 July 2008), included the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry for Heritage and Culture, Dr Jacob Miaron; the Kenyan Ambassador to UNESCO, Dr Mary Khimulu; the Director of Sites and Monuments at the National Museums of Kenya, Dr Kibunjia Mzalendo; and a small technical support team which included Anthony Githitho of CFCU, who had compiled the dossier.

51Shortly after arrival in Quebec, meetings of the African delegates to the Session were held, as planned, on 2 and 3 July. These were convened by Dr George Abungu of Kenya, who was also the Africa Region Chair. Among the various African agenda items discussed was the kayas. The Kenyan team appealed for support to overturn the expected draft decision for referral, so that the kayas could instead be inscribed.

52Kenya assured the African delegates of the greatly improved quality of the nomination. The team argued that ICOMOS objections, as stipulated in the advisory body reports, appeared to hinge on technicalities rather than substance. Some members present who had read the dossier concurred. All agreed to do what they could to promote the kayas nomination.

53The Kenyans also approached various delegations from outside the Africa region individually, to ask for support for Kenya’s case and provide a briefing package on the kaya nomination. These included USA, China and New Zealand. Other countries were seeking similar assistance for their sites from Kenya, which had good standing in the Committee.

54While the canvassing took place on the sidelines, the team sat through the various sessions of the programme as it unfolded. The early agendas included, as usual, administrative decisions, World Heritage policy developments, emerging heritage issues and challenges, and funding. Discussions then moved to the sites themselves, noting new additions to the candidate lists of various countries, and nomination dossiers which had been accepted for processing and examination in the following year.

55The session on inscription of sites to the World Heritage List is normally placed towards the end of the programme, and is eagerly awaited by all as the highlight of the meeting. Leading up to it, there was a lengthy examination of very numerous “State of Conservation” reports for sites which were already on the list.

56During this wait, the Kenya delegation became concerned when they noticed that the kayas agenda item did not appear in the main list of sites to be examined with regard to inscription. After a period of anxiety, the item was located on an additional “Addendum” list. This led to speculation that the World Heritage Secretariat had not been prepared for the kaya discussion during this year’s meeting, as the dossier come back from the State Party sooner than expected. In any case, it was now on the table.

The Inscription

57The examination of sites for inscription to the World Heritage List began at last, and the cases were considered one by one. There were 48 candidates for inscription that year, of which 32 were ultimately successful. Inscriptions were accompanied by general applause by the meeting, and jubilation by successful State Party delegations, while rejection was marked by genuine distress and disappointment. Intense debates were witnessed where cases appeared to be marginal and could go either way.

58The Sacred Mijikenda kayas nomination came up near the end of the session. As expected, ICOMOS read out the recommendation for referral, arguing that the State Party had not clearly shown in the report how the much shorter list of sites of 12 kayas was arrived at. This was, in fact, an oversight in the dossier. ICOMOS also noted that the earlier comparative analysis had not been improved upon (also correct, as the emphasis had been on selecting the sites and expanding the information given on each one).

59Despite these and other remarks, it became apparent to many Committee members that there did not seem to be a dispute over the Outstanding Universal Value of the kayas per se. The issues seemed more procedural and technical. This made State Members more relaxed about supporting a change of the draft decision to ‘inscription’, or at least not opposing it.

60As planned, an African State Member then asked the Kenyan delegation to respond to the ICOMOS report and provide more information. Dr Kibunjia Mzalendo took the opportunity to read from a prepared rebuttal to the ICOMOS objections. He reiterated that Kenya had prepared a highly competent dossier, selecting fewer sites, as advised by ICOMOS, on the basis of a matrix of cultural and natural values, as well as integrity. The conditions now placed by ICOMOS plainly did not constitute a barrier to inscription, and seemed more like ongoing management prescriptions.

61Dr Abungu, the Africa Chair, also stood and eloquently expressed the frustration of African State Parties, Kenya included, at the slow progress made by the Committee in adding sites from the region to the List. Other members from various regions contributed, focusing the discussion on the question of whether the sites had Outstanding Universal Value or not. There seemed to be general consensus that they did, notwithstanding the alleged shortcomings of the new dossier.

62After significant discussion, the Chair summarized that there seemed to be consensus to change the draft decision from referral to inscription. ICOMOS bowed to the mood of the House, but recommended that kaya Kinondo be excluded from the inscription, due to site integrity issues. There being no objection from any quarter, the motion was amended and, with the fall of her gavel, the Chair announced the inscription of the Sacred Mijikenda kaya Forests on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

63Amid general applause and congratulations, the Kenya Delegation Leader, Dr Jacob Miaron, read a short speech of thanks to the Committee, affirming Kenya’s commitment to protect the sites and faithfully compli- menting the World Heritage Convention as a whole. Shortly afterwards the delegation, communicated the good news by email to Kenya. As they did so, they could not help but reflect on what a difficult and torturous journey it had been to reach this happy conclusion. But it had all been worth it.

Tab. 3: The World Heritage Committee Decision – 8 July 2008

Committee Decision
32 COM 8B.50
World Heritage Committee,

1. Having examined Documents WHC-08/32.COM/8B.Add and WHC-08/32.COM/ INF.8B1.Add,

2. Inscribes the Sacred Mijikenda kaya Forests, Kenya, with the exception of kaya Kinondo, on the basis of criteria (III), (V) and (VI);

3. Adopts the following Statement of Outstanding Universal Value: “Spread out along around 200km of the coast province of Kenya are ten separate forested sites, mostly on low hills, ranging in size from 30 to around 300 ha, in which are the remains of fortified villages, kayas, of the Mijikenda people. They represent more than thirty surviving kayas. 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 people and are seen as the sacred abode of their ancestors. The forest around the kayas have been nurtured by the Mijikenda community to protect the sacred graves and groves and are now almost the only remains of the once extensive coastal lowland forest.”

4. Recommends that the State Party continue with, and complete, the process of developing individual site plans for the nominated kayas, to supplement the strategy and management plan document, integrating the conservation of cultural and natural resources and traditional and non-traditional conservation and management practices;

5. Requests the State Party to:

a) undertake thorough analysis of all the kayas, in order to identify those, which might be added to the serial nomination in due course;

b) designate kayas Kambe and kaya Ribe as National Monuments;

c) enter into agreements with kaya Elders to establish them as the guardians of the kayas;

d) modify the Management Plan to reflect the needs of the nominated kayas, in particular integrating the conservation of cultural and natural resources and traditional and non-traditional conservation and management practices;

e) secure resources for the implementation of the management strategy and plan;

f) identify the settings of the kayas and put in place Buffer Zones with protection from major developmental threats, particularly mining extraction and building construction, and other appropriate measures to protect the wider settings;

g) produce more detailed mapping of the kayas.

6. Further requests the State Party to submit a report by 1 February 2009 on the issues highlighted above;

7. Further recommends the State Party that it supplement the traditional zoning practices which provide for an area of limited utilization on the periphery of the kaya forest, by putting in place formal buffer zones and other appropriate measures, as additional protection from major development threats, including mining, quarrying, and building construction, to protect the settings of the kayas.


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Anonym, undated, Report of the Meeting of the Africa Group in Quebec, Canada on 2nd July 2008 (Internal NMK document).

Anonym, undated, Kenya delegation to the 32nd Session of the World Heritage Committee, Country Position and Strategy, Quebec, Canada, 2-10 July 2008 (Internal NMK document).

Burgess Neil, Clarke G. Philip (eds.), 2000, Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa, IUCN Forest Conservation Programme, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge.

Githitho Anthony, 2005, The Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests of Coastal Kenya: Traditional Conservation and Management Practices, in Thierry Joffroy, Traditional Conservation Practices in Africa, Rome, ICCROM Conservation Studies: 62-68.

— 2006, Report of the Kenya Delegation to the 30th Session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, Vilnius, Lithuania 8-16th July 2006 (Internal NMK report).

— (undated), Brief Report of the ICOMOS/IUCN Evaluation Mission of the Mijikenda Sacred kaya Forests Nomination 1-8 October 2006 (Internal NMK report).

IUCN, 2007, Evaluation of Nominations of Natural and Mixed Properties to the World Heritage List: Report to The World Heritage Committee.

Kenya (State Party), 2008, The Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests: Nomination Dossier for Inscription on the World Heritage List, Rapport d’expertise. Dossier d’inscription sur la liste du patrimoine mondial de l’Unesco, <>, 05/07/2009.

Nyamweru C.K, 1998, Sacred Groves and Environmental Conservation, Frank Piskor, New York, Faculty lecturer St. Lawrence University.

Nyamweru Celia, Kibet Stanley, Pakia Mohamed, Cooke John, 2008, The Kaya Forests of Coastal Kenya: “Remnant patches” or Dynamic Entities?, in Michael Sheridan, Celia Nyamweru (eds.) African Sacred Groves: ecological dynamics and social change, Oxford, James Currey: 62-86.

Republic of Kenya, 2008, ICOMOS Report and Recommendations on Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Nomination to the 32nd Session of the World Heritage Committee: Kenya State Party Response, Quebec, Canada, 2-10 July 2008 (Internal document).

Robertson Suzan A., 1987, Preliminary Floristic Survey of the Kaya Forests of Coastal Kenya. Unpublished Report to the Director National Museums of Kenya and WWF International, NMK, Nairobi.

Spear Thomas, 1978, The Kaya Complex: A History of the Mijikenda Peoples of the Kenya Coast to 1900, Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Unesco, 2005, Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. Inter-Governmental Committee for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. WHC.05/02, World Heritage Centre <>

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1 The biodiversity values, while mentioned in the UNESCO dossier, were not emphasised: the kayas were presented as sites of cultural rather than natural heritage. However, there is a clear reference to the forests’ natural character in the statement of outstanding universal value.

2 Europe is still overrepresented on the List.

3 Voir le site <>, accessed 12 July 2007.

4 The tentative list in which Kayas were placed by Kenya in 1999 is simply a list maintained by UNESCO for each country, and does not include detailed descriptions. Placing a site on the tentative list is an indication of intent by a State to prepare a dossier or file for nomination.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Anthony Githitho, « Listing The Sacred Mijikenda kaya Forests as UNESCO World Heritage Sites: “The Long Journey” »Journal des africanistes, 86-1 | 2016, 198-217.

Référence électronique

Anthony Githitho, « Listing The Sacred Mijikenda kaya Forests as UNESCO World Heritage Sites: “The Long Journey” »Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 86-1 | 2016, mis en ligne le 10 avril 2018, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anthony Githitho

Coastal Forest Unit Conservation National Museums of Kenya, Kilifi-Mombasa

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