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From Sacred Grove to Cultural Site: the Role of Socio-Economic Dynamics in the Conservation of Kaya Mudzi Muvya, Kenya

De bois sacré à site culturel : dynamiques socio-économiques et protection de la kaya Mudzi-Muvya
Christin Adongo
p. 218-235


Cet article présente les résultats d’une étude menée dans l’une des forêts sacrées de la côte kenyane, kaya Mudzi Muvya, aujourd’hui ins- crite sur la liste du Patrimoine Mondial de l’Humanité. Comme d’autres forêts de la côte ou de l’intérieur, la kaya Mudzi Muvya, doit faire face à des menaces d’origines diverses (sociales, culturelles, économiques et politiques). Bien que ces forêts aient encore une valeur culturelle et spirituelle très importante, les pressions anthropiques telles que la collecte de ressources non renouvelables les mettent en danger. Le but de cette recherche était d’explorer les influences sociales, culturelles et économiques dans la conservation de patrimoine biologique et culturel de la kaya Mudzi Muvya.

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  • 1 This communication is part of my MSc dissertation and discusses the findings of a study conducted i (...)

1Discourses on sacred groves have shifted from describing them as static relics to understanding them as dynamic systems with historically contingent complexities (Sheridan 2009). This is due to the fact that these groves have been created by human agency, which itself continuously undergoes change. Groves have been widely discussed (Nyamweru 2008; Sheridan 2009; Kiriama 2013; Spear, 1978) as spaces associated with social power, and sites where it is exerted. Maddox (2009) defines sacred groves as “natural areas set aside by local communities for ritual use and protected by powerful spiritual forces”1.

2Although it might appear as though sacred groves are conceptualized uniformly across entire communities, meanings of these sites are often multiple, overlapping and ambiguous, as Sheridan notes (2008). The same sacred grove could carry multiple layers of meaning, depending upon the social, political and economic contexts. As a result, the meanings of these sites are often contested. Kiriama (2010) discusses how our physical being is reinforced by the intangible, discusses how the unseen powerful charms and rituals associated with sacred groves reinforce the existence of the physical sites. Sacred groves have been referred to as natural sacred sites (Nyamweru and Kimaru 2008) or even sacred natural sites (Kiriama 2013). If these sacred groves (including the ecosystem within which the sacredness exists) are seen as dynamic, then natural sacred and sacred natural fall short of adequately describing these sites, for they are hardly always natural.

3Nonetheless, what is irrefutable is that sacred groves are facing significant social, political and economic threats. Land grabbing, encroachment, fragmentation, human population increase and cultural dynamics have all been labelled culprits in the deterioration of sacred groves (Kibet and Nyamweru 2008; Jacobs 2008; Githitho 2005). Other than being sacred, these sites are often also ecological systems containing resources important in supporting livelihoods. Several studies (Githito 2005; Fletcher et al. 2007; Moody 2009; Kibet and Nyamweru 2008) describe the uses of sacred groves, which include provision of wood fuel, timber, charcoal, grazing areas and cultivation. Kaya forests in Kenya are one example of such sacred groves that are continually under threat of extirpation.

4In 2005, Githito described how, while many forests in Kenya underwent degradation, kaya forests remained “the best-conserved forests” owing to their sacredness and significance to the Mijikenda community. The implication was that the Mijikenda, as a community, had a high regard for the forest ecological system due to the sacred value attached to it. For this reason, it was largely unaffected by destructive anthropogenic activities. Kibet (2002) showed that land surrounding the forested kaya was heavily settled and farmed with crops: “Because of land use pressures in the more productive agricultural areas, the gardens are farmed right up to where the kaya begins”. However, recently a study of kaya Bate in Malindi revealed that things were changing (Adongo 2007). Global trends including climate variability, the transformation of livelihoods and lifestyles, ‘modernization’, cultural dynamics and disappearing systems of knowledge, as well as pressure to provide for basic needs, were all taking a toll on the kayas. This study also showed that it was not only the physical kayas that were undergoing change, but perceptions of them as well. The same community who had been documented to deliberately conserve the kayas now showed indifference towards their sustainable use.

5According to Nyamweru et al. (2007), decreasing economic power coupled with population growth have exerted pressure on all natural resources, including the communally-owned kaya forests. At the same time, the indigenous institutions responsible for controlling access to the forest resources have been weakened by the impacts of colonial rule, Islam, Christianity and post-colonial Kenyan policies.

The Rabai kaya forest, kaya Mudzi Muvya

6Kaya forests are small patches of forested land along the Kenyan coast. They range in size from 10 to 400 ha, and are thought to be what remains of a much more extensive forest (Robertson 1993). They were occupied by the Mijikenda, strategically situated inside thick forests (kaya forest) and fortified for security. Each kaya had entrances that were heavily guarded, and was further protected by buried charms with the power to exert negative forces on transgressors. In the late nineteenth century, when the Mijikenda moved out of the kayas to farm outside, they remained under the responsibility of elders with the mandate of controlling use of and access of the kaya (Githito 2005; Ballarin and Githitho this volume). The rich biodiversity of the kaya forests was recognized in the 1980s by the National Museums of Kenya (Robertson 1984, 1987; Robertson and Luke 1993).

7The Mijikenda occupy the three coastal administrative Counties of Kilifi, Mombasa and Kwale. They consist of nine sub-groups, namely: Agiriama, Achonyi, Akauma, Akambe, Arihe, Adzihana, Arabai, Adigo and Aduruma. They share similar dialects and very similar culture (Kiriama 2009; Githitho 2008; Gerheart and Giles 2014). The origins of the Mijikenda is the subject of considerable debate. Oral narratives collected by Spear (1978) suggest migration from a northern homeland (Singwaya or Shungwaya). Spear’s informants told him how their ancestors left their original settlements and migrated southwards due to animosity from the Galla people, drought and famine. They then established settlements called kaya (plural Makaya) on hilltops and inside thick forests. Helm (2002) suggests two alternative scenarios, neither of which includes an en masse migration from Singwaya in the sixteenth century AD. Recent archaeological findings at kaya Mudzi Mwiru provide evidence of a tenth-century settlement (Kiriama 2013). However, it is unclear whether the occupants of this site were ancestors of the Mijikenda, meaning the migration never took place, or whether they are a different group who were displaced by the Mijikenda. Spear documents that by 1940s most of the Makaya had been abandoned (1978). After the abandonment of the primary kaya settlements, the Mijikenda cleared much of the primary forest in the areas surrounding the Makaya (Mutoro 1994). As a result, the Makaya were disconnected from each other. Today, about 50 Makaya have been identified (Githitho 2005; Kiriama 2013), and eleven of these, including kaya Mudzi Muvya where this study was conducted, are now inscribed as World Heritage Sites (Githitho this volume).

8The main aim of this research was to explore kaya Mudzi Muvya through the eyes of the local inhabitants. By focusing on their perceptions and use of the forest, examining resource utilization trends in combination with land use and land cover change detection, I sought to understand and interpret the kaya’s current status and possible future scenarios.

  • 2 In terms of methodology, the following methods of data collection were used to amass qualitative (o (...)

9Kaya Mudzi Muvya was selected for this study for several reasons. It is listed as a World Heritage Site (2008), thus is a protected key conservation area involving multiple stakeholders. It is multifaceted: endowed with both cultural and natural heritages. At the same time, it is a resource to the communities that live around it. It is also one of the kaya forests that are continually degrading. Our concern was as follows: How do the inhabitants of Rabai perceive kaya Mudzi Muvya? How is the kaya used today? How has land use in Rabai changed over the past two decades? How has land cover in Rabai and kaya Mudzi Muvya changed over the past two decades?2

10Kaya Mudzi Muvya is one of the Arabai kayas comprising: Mudzi Mwiru Bomu, Fimboni and Mzizima. The kirabai word for town is Mudzi; Mudzi Muvya thus refers to a new town. Kaya Mudzi Mwiru (black town) is considered the oldest. Mudzi Muvya covers about 580 hectares and is located in Kilifi County. It is situated at an altitude of 30m above sea level in the Valley of Kombeni River, and 300m above sea level at the top of Beyagundo hill.

Fig. 1: Extract from Survey of Kenya topo map sheets 189/3 and 201/1, series Y/731

Fig. 1: Extract from Survey of Kenya topo map sheets 189/3 and 201/1, series Y/731

Scale 1:50 000 wit location and boundary outlines of Bomu/fimboni (The Rabai kayas) and Mtswakara and Gandini (Duruama).

Source: <​en/​list/​1231/​multiple=1&unique_number=1589>, accessed 24 May 2016

11Kaloleni Constituency has a population of approximately 197,033 (Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2009). Marginal mixed farming is augmented by formal employment, casual labour and small-scale businesses. The rainfall pattern here is influenced by the county’s proximity to the Indian Ocean, relatively low altitudes, temperatures and winds. Annual rainfall ranges from 400 mm to 1200 mm in the hinterland and 900 mm to 1100 mm at the Coastal belt, with decreased intensity to the north and hinterland. This determines the type of crop production in each location. Our research, however, was limited to the location of Rabai, inhabited by about 600 households (Rabai chief’s office records, 2011).

12Although most inhabitants in Rabai belong to the Arabai subgroup of the Mijikenda, the area is increasingly becoming multi-ethnic as more Arabai people are selling their lands to outsiders before moving into the neighbouring cities of Mombasa and Malindi.

Socio-economics dynamics in kaya Mudzi Muvya

13Being a bio-cultural heritage and also a world heritage site, multiple state and non-state actors are involved in kaya Mudzi Muvya in one way or another. The following categories of stakeholders were identified:

  • Users: these are the people (individuals or groups) who use the kaya forest. The users identified during the study were: local households, commercial loggers, medicine men, kaya elders, external fortune seekers, and tourists.

  • Custodians: These are the people, groups of people or state actors mandated directly or indirectly, either culturally or statutorily, to protect or take care of the kaya forest. In this group there are: kaya elders, National Museums of Kenya/Coastal Forests Conservation Unit (CFCU), Kenya Forestry Service, Kenya Wildlife Service, National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), Ministry of Tourism, and the local administration.

  • Managers: In this category are those who are directly involved in the daily responsibilities of managing, controlling access to, and conserving the kaya forest. CFCU (Coastal Forest Conservation Unit, National Museums of Kenya) and the kaya elders collaborate in the management of the kaya Mudzi Muvya.

14Two categories of user groups were identified: those reliant on the kaya for spiritual reasons, and those dependent upon the kaya as a resource that supports their livelihoods. Kaya elders still regard the kaya forest as a sacred place; they hold regular meetings and occasionally perform secretive rituals in the forest. A relatively new category of spiritual users is the kaya elders’ clients, who range from prominent politicians, especially during elections, to affluent businessmen hoping for good fortune, to individuals seeking revenge on their adversaries. On one occasion, the elder I was due to meet with cancelled our appointment, because a politician showed up unexpectedly requesting his services. Initially, the elder had agreed that I could watch this event; however, on consulting with the politician, he was not comfortable being seen.

15As a resource, kaya Mudzi Muvya provides wood and non-wood products to the local and neighbouring populace who depend on them. Wood fuel for domestic use is directly collected from the kaya forest and used for cooking and heating. It often consists of dead trees, broken branches and fronds. Sometimes experienced collectors, who sell their fuel wood locally, deliberately dry trees by debarking them, to ready them for collection a few days later. Harvesting live trees is illegal, according to both the kaya elders and the CFCU statutes governing forest management. Harvesting for commercial purposes, however, targets specific tree species, most often indigenous, due to their high calorific value that ensures high returns. Honey is the predominant non-wood product harvested from this kaya forest, and was introduced alongside an eco-tourism project implemented between 2007 and 2009 as a sustainable commercial use of the forest (see Ballarin this volume).

Tab. 1: Weekly, monthly and yearly estimates of the average quantity of wood fuel collected from kaya Mudzi Muvya, in comparison to the amount collected from farms and quantity of wood fuel purchased locally per household



Average No. Of trips/week/HH

Average Quantity (Kg)/trip/ HH

Total quantity (Kg)/HH/wk

Qty/HH/month (tonnes)

Qty/HH/year (tonnes)








On Farms













This table indicates that an average of 33 tons of wood fuel is harvested weekly (for the 660 households), excluding timber extraction for building or commercialization. 67 % collect their wood fuel directly from the kaya forest; 10 % purchase logs both locally and from the nearby market; and 23 % augment their collected wood fuel with purchases, made either locally or at the market centres

16Firewood collected directly from the kaya forest is often limited to one load (mzigo) of approximately 25 kg per collector. The 10 % of people purchasing locally acquire their wood from more established harvesters who target older trees (through the debarking method mentioned previously), focusing on specific species considered to have high calorific value in order to maximize on their profits. A third category of harvesters uses power saws, targeting the neighbouring cities of Mombasa and Malindi and specializing in charcoal production and timber. 100 % of these more established harvesters (the people who do the actual cutting) are men, though it should not be overlooked that they may be exploiting the resources for others (employers), some of who may be women. This was not determined at the time of study.

Tab. 2: Some of the preferred species that are specifically targeted for different uses


Most preferred species: also deliberately targeted

Wood fuel

Ficus bussei, Flueggia virosa, Croton pseudopulchellus, Grewia spp, Crabia brevicau-data, Cynometra suaheliensis, Milletia usaramensis, mnyanyani, Albizia adianthifolia, Afzelia quazensis, Paramacrolobium coeruleum, Borassus aethiopum, Dalbergia melanoxylon and Albizia adianthifolia, Craibia brevicaudata.


Azadirachta indica, Senna singuena, Cassia abbreviata and Combretum schumannii, Combretum hereroense.


Afzelia quazensis, Azadirachta indica, Grewia spp, Flacourtia indica and Tamarindus indica.

17Plant species that are widely used for medicinal purposes were also documented. These are used either to remedy or palliate physical ailments or conditions supposedly caused by supernatural factors, such as witchcraft, as well as during important cultural or spiritual rituals, such as cleansing. Most of these species are used in combination with others.

Tab. 3: Widely used medicinal plants (both at household level and by professional medicine men)

Local name


Botanical name

Plant part used

Curative use


Croton pseudopulchellus

Decoction of burnt leaves and roots

Used in special rituals to

drive away evil spirits.


Trichilia emetica

Seeds, an infusion roots

Emetic - lethal in over- doses.


Grewia holstii

Branches, young trunk

Cultural significance – used as a grave marker for important elders.


Ormocarpum kirkii

Crushed leaves

Eases headaches.


Borassus aethiopum


Applied to wounds.

Mkula usiku

Clerodendrum hildeb- randtii

Roots; leaves are also pounded.

Chest medicine (roots). Fish bait (leaves).


Allophylus rubifolius


Cure for people possessed with evil spirits.


Uvaria acuminata

Root decoction

Used against dysentery.


Annona senegalensis

Root decoction

Treatment for stomach upsets.


Erythrina abyssinica


Brew tonic tea to clear worm infections.


Ochna mossambicenisis

Root decoction

Relief for Stomach aches and diarrhoea.


Clerodendrum incisum

Leaf decoction

Used against headaches.

Mwangala nyuchi/Chi- vuma nyuchi

Abrus precatorius

Leaves, roots combined

with other species

Used during special rituals and to ward off evil spirits, to prevent bad fortune.


Ficus bussei


Forms strings used by traditional birth attendants.


Piliostigma thonningii


Used to prepare cough medicine.


Combretum hereroense

A decoction of roots and leaves

Cures bewitched people, or cures and fattens thin children.


Craibia brevicaudata


Ash is used to treat

stomach ache, wounds.


Vernonia zanzibarensis

Leaves, bark and roots

Medicine for livestock.


Senna singuena


Stomach pains.


Terminalia spinosa

Leaves, roots

Concoction with other species used in rituals to eradicate evil spirits. Also used to as a grave marker for important elders.


Root decoction, leaves, bark

Used against fever, or to eradicate evil spirits.


Azadirachta indica

Bark, roots, leaves

Cures a variety of ailments (skin conditions, cough, fever, stomach upset, measles, acne).


Root decoction

Offers protection against evil spirits and ghosts.


Stychnos spinosa

Roots, fruits

Stomach ailments and ulcers.


Combretum schumannii


Stomach ache


Commiphora africana

Root, bark, resin, leaves

Insecticide, insect repellent, wounds treatment.


Flaucourtia indica

Bark, roots

Treatment of wounds.

Tab. 4: Breakdown of respondents’ professions













Self employed






18The activities in Table 4, even farming, are most often small scale and attract low returns. This explains the lack of diversity in alternative fuels, and the consequent overdependence on wood fuel. Commercial harvesters continue to exploit the forest, citing poverty as the primary driver. For example, the survey showed that households earning less than 500 Kenyan Shillings (about 5 euros) each day harvested more wood fuel from the forest than those earning more. Households earning over 500 KES a day also had alternative fuels, such as kerosene and charcoal.

  • 3 For an analysis of the role of women in the kayas, see Nyamweru 2003.

19Gender plays a major role in the distribution of wood tasks. Although it appeared that more women than men are present in the forest, collecting firewood, it is the men who are causing degradation and biodiversity loss at a greater scale, through selective cutting. Women focus on collecting dry wood that they can use immediately for cooking, and so spend their energy breaking branches and twigs off dead trees and collecting dry wood. The men, meanwhile, identify specific trees that would make good-quality wood, charcoal or poles. While women carry their harvested products on their backs or heads and rely on implements such as panga (a type of machete), the men cut wood with power saws and use trucks to carry their harvests. The major difference in the scale, frequency and style of harvesting between men and women comes from the fact that men take on wood fuel or timber harvesting as a full-time job. Therefore they devote more energy, usually the whole day, trying to make a living; women, by contrast, are looking for fuel to support one of their roles as fulltime home managers – cooking.3


20Several factors determine how people perceive the kaya. These perceptions are influenced by age, duration of residence in the area, religious inclination, and user type. Overall, 67 % of respondents regarded the kaya forest as being important, while the 33 % said that is was not. The level of importance was linked to individual benefits gained from the kaya forest; that is, the perception of the kaya forest for each different category of user was based on the benefits they accrued from it. For instance, while the loggers said the kaya was very important to them because they drew their livelihoods from it, the kaya elders’ perception was linked to the spiritual value of the kaya to themselves and the entire community. Those who felt the kaya forest was not of any importance also gave the reason that this was because they did not get any benefits, whether economic or spiritual, from the kaya.

21While one section of the population views the kaya as a forest resource for exploitation, the other views it in terms of cultural and/or spiritual functionality, and bases their opinion on whether or not it is worth conserving on this view. Respondents who had lived in Rabai the longest (over 40 years) proclaimed an attachment to the kaya, while those who had lived in the area for a shorter time seemed not to care about it. People who have lived there for under 20 years – these are non-Aravai people who have bought land and settled in Rabai – comprise about 30 % of the population.

22Age also plays a significant role in the use and conservation of forest resources in the kaya Mudzi Muvya. The study observed that the younger population (those under 35) regarded the kaya as being either culturally unimportant, or important only to the elderly. The younger people’s perception of the kaya as culturally/spiritually insignificant to them plays a role in their resource harvesting practices. 100 % of respondents actively involved in selective harvesting for the neighbouring markets of Malindi and Mombasa are under 40 years old.

23Attempts to determine the perception of the kaya forest in relation to the respondents’ religious beliefs indicated that, of those who said the kaya was either not important or important only to the elders, 70 % were Chris- tians. Although the category of Christians was not further subdivided into individual denominations, they were subdivided into charismatic and non- charismatic. The majority of Christians here (80 %) are followers of the Anglican church of Kenya (ACK). It is here at Rabai, just 300 metres from kaya Mudzi Muvya, that Dr. Ludwig Krapf, a Missionary from the Church Missionary Society (CMS), established its first church in 1844 (Tinga 2007; Ballarin 2013 and this volume). 100 % of those identifying them- selves with the charismatic doctrine also felt that the kaya is an evil place that does not deserve protection. To them, any attempt to conserve this forest means acknowledging the evil deeds (sacrifices, rituals, idolatry) happening in the kaya, which would eventually unleash God’s wrath upon the community.

Land use and land cover dynamics

24With changing land use patterns, some of which have encroached into the forested area, the size of kaya Mudzi Muvya has reduced. This change in the landscape’s character has been attributed to increased population, which results in the need more cultivation land and wood products. Figure 2 below shows change in the forest cover (in hectares) over time.


Fig. 2: The forest cover trend for kaya Mudzi Muvya between 1990 and 2011

Fig. 2: The forest cover trend for kaya Mudzi Muvya between 1990 and 2011

26The greatest loss of the kaya area was from 8.1 to 2.7 ha, representing a 66.5 % decline. The least change (4 % decline) was between 1990 and 1995. It can thus be inferred that the rate of decline of kaya Mudzi Muvya has increased with time. Cropland and riverbed have both declined, at rates of 29 % and 8.5 % respectively. Barelands and settlements have comprised the highest increase, at 441.6 %.

Tab. 5: Percentage changes in land cover/land use in the study area between 1990 and 2011

Land cover

Cover (Ha)



% change









Other forests












27The land cover land use analysis shows a decline of forested area, including the kaya itself. The greatest loss, between 2003 and 2010, can be attributed to population increase. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics records the highest growth rate during this period in 2009, when it was 3.05 %. According to the field survey, this is also the period when many immigrants bought land in this area and settled; the research showed an increase in bare lands and settlement. With the increasing population, we may expect that cropland would increase correspondingly to meet food requirements. However, the analysis indicated a decline, since most of these farms have old coconut trees, which are continuously being cut down without being replaced.

Kaya Mudzi Muvya Today

28Changes in the use of the kaya forest, its role in people’s livelihoods and the cultural dynamics surrounding it, have culminated in contested meanings of the kaya by different user groups. Furthermore, multiple state actors often have conflicting and overlapping mandates or policies, and sometimes duplication of efforts. They are not trained to manage resources for spiritual or even cultural reasons. The challenge is coordination between these multiple stakeholders, each with different interests, mandates and policies, contributing to inefficiency in bio-cultural resource management. The kaya today seems to be losing its appeal as a means to express the group identity. With the emergence of individual agency shaping perceptions, the perception of the same kaya forest varies across different user groups. This impacts on trends of land use, and consequently the status of the forest.

29Different utilization patterns all have different implications for the forest area, species diversity and richness. For example, cutting down whole grown trees, as commercial harvesters tend to, does not allow for quick regeneration, as most of the species targeted are indigenous and very slow-growing. This contrasts with the practices of pruning branches and collecting dead wood or broken twigs from the forest, as women often do for domestic use. More than 80 % of the population in Kenya use wood fuel as their main source of energy. The charcoal market is therefore a lucrative one. With youth unemployment rate of 40 % in 2011, which has since risen to 67 %, the loggers of kaya Mudzi Muvya view the forest as crucial in sustaining their livelihoods. Charcoal market exploration therefore brings tangible economic benefits for the Rabai community.

30Why is it that, despite the presence of all these stakeholders involved in managing the kaya forest and even the kaya elders who supposedly confer user rights and access, kaya Mudzi Muvya is quickly degrading? With the weakening of traditional institutions, perhaps there is need for the kaya elders to revitalize their powers. They cannot be seen solely as spiritual leaders of the community, because very few people believe in that today, but must instead act as custodians of the kaya forest, and thus retain the power to grant access and determine user rights. Sacred groves are seen as places of power (Sheridan 2009; Ballarin this volume). In the case of kaya Mudzi Muvya this continues to be true, but now there is an emerging new form of power supported by the sacred entity – economic power. It is still the same powerful spiritual custodians who grant access to loggers to exploit the forest. As Mitzange and Giles (2014) showed for other kayas, corruption exists amongst the kaya elders themselves. While commercial loggers pay bribes to access the forest, local women sometimes pay with sex in exchange for their debarked wood fuel Mizigo (loads) and pangas. Certain rituals performed today are not for the benefit of the community – such as those conducted for politicians and others seeking prosperity or revenge – and these services pay very well, I am told. Perhaps those wielding the sacred power also use it as a means of claiming ownership over the resource. Castellanet and Jordan (2002) caution that we must avoid idealizing indigenous culture and its supposed “harmony with nature”, as numerous examples show that peoples are quite able to destroy their natural resources after contact with the market economy, dominating cultures and modern technologies. Jordan and Castellanet (2002) suppose that anthropologists have not yet found any conclusive link between indigenous religion and management of natural resources. However, many respondents I spoke with felt that the kaya forest did not belong to the community but to the kaya elders: Why won’t the ancestors punish the kaya elders for their aberrant behaviour and for allowing unsustainable activity, at least inside the kaya?

31Kiriama (2013) discusses how Christianity, Islam and abandonment of the kaya have influenced the culture change. Dudley et al. (2009) explore the link between protected areas, faiths and sacred natural sites. Christianity has strong teachings against idolatry, and thus does not accept the idea of sacred sites. This study gave evidence of these sentiments. With time, the kaya has ceased to have the same value and perceptions it had during its occupation and since its abandonment. Some charismatic Christians even associate traditional healing with witchcraft. This value continues to de- preciate. The Kenyan coast is mainly Muslim, and proliferation of Islam amongst the Mijikenda has also contributed to a changing culture. Kibet and Nyamweru (2008) argue that Islam has a positive attitude to environ- mental conservation, because its principles enable for easy co-existence with indigenous traditional religion.

32Sacred natural areas such as kaya Mudzi Muvya contain bio-cultural resources of great significance to a large portion of the local population. Despite their values as cultural sites or even spiritual areas, they remain susceptible to degradation, owing to their function as vital natural resources that support livelihoods. Households on the edges of kaya Mudzi Muvya forest depend on it for wood fuel, building poles and medicine, both for domestic use and for commercial trade, as a means to sustain their livelihoods. Pimbert and Pretty (1995) suggest that, in some instances, lack of attention to human needs has resulted in further acts of encroachment, sabotage or the unnecessary destruction of natural resources and biodiversity. In kaya Mudzi Muvya, an eco-tourism venture established to bridge this gap might be a way, not only to combine the needs of the local inha- bitants with conservation demands, but also to ensure sustainability of the kaya forests by halting current degradation trends. While world heritage sites like Angkor are threatened by tourist activities, the managers of kaya Mudzi Muvya believe eco-tourism could save it.

33Strong associations between income, age, religious inclination, household, and resource use give an indication that alternative livelihoods should be aimed at reducing poverty levels. Environmental education and the promotion of alternative fuels are some means by which to ease direct dependency on wood forest products, and consequently decrease exploitation. Clearly, these factors disregard the fact that kaya is a sacred area and should be valued as such.

34The example of kaya Mudzi Muvya has shown that cultural and/or spiritual inclination could contribute to either the preservation or the degradation of a natural resource, emphasising the complex interrelationship between nature and culture. Most importantly, none of the identified socio-cultural and economic factors occur in isolation; rather, a confluence of them elicit more severe consequences for kaya forests. Continued utilization without appropriate management interventions may lead to significant landscape and phytosociological changes, including reduced biodiversity through loss of expansive forestland.

35Kiriama (2013) argued that the distinction between sacred and natural concerns is arbitrary; both are involved in a symbiotic relationship where one cannot do without the other, as in the case of sacred groves. The case of the kayas shows strong tendency towards the coevolution of cultural and ecological factors, as well as social and historical trends The external factors (perceptions, socio-economic and political dynamics), which at some point cease to be external and become very much a part of the system, make this question more complex. The medium (forest) that accommodates the sacred (charms/spirits in the case of kaya Mudzi Muvya) and which therefore upholds its mystery and secrecy, can be negotiated. This means that, even without the medium, the sacredness remains; for it is not the medium that defines the sacred, but the sacred that defines the medium. Some studies (Sheridan 2009) even show that spirits can agree to relocate. Such places are very much capable of being reinvented, even after the disappearance of the grove. For me, kaya Mudzi Muvya has long ago transitioned from sacred grove to cultural site.

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1 This communication is part of my MSc dissertation and discusses the findings of a study conducted in one kaya forest called kaya Mudzi Muvya between 2008 and 2011. This kaya is located in the hinterland of Kenya’s coastal region in Rabai, and is one of the eleven sacred kayas that have been inscribed in the World Heritage List of 2008 and opened to the public through an ecotourism program funded by the Embassy of France in Kenya. Data collection was used to amass qualitative (opinions, feelings, knowledge or input) and quantitative data (resource use trends) as appropriate in this case study.

2 In terms of methodology, the following methods of data collection were used to amass qualitative (opinions, feelings, knowledge or input) and quantitative data (resource use trends) as appropriate in this case study. Ground trothing was significant in establishing some truths on the ground, either discussed by my informants or from secondary literature. Purposive sampling technique was used to identify relevant people to interview. The idea was to choose some key informants who would best answer to the questions I was probing. These included: kaya elders, traditional healers, timber harvesters, charcoal manufacturers, fuel wood collectors, farmers, the Coastal Forests Conservation Unit officer, the local chief, and the National Museums of Kenya’s Rabai heritage manager. The data types collected depended upon the category of informant. One focus group discussion was arranged with the council of kaya elders. This was very informative with regards to, among other things: their structural organization; their roles in relation to the kaya; the criteria for being a kaya elder; responsibilities, daily activities, rules and regulations of access; the evolution of the kaya system; rituals, ceremonies and concerns. A household survey was conducted through questionnaires. Simple random sampling enabled a survey of 150 house- holds in 11 villages around the kaya forest. This survey was particularly helpful in determining the fuel wood harvesting trends and targeted species at the household level. In terms of species identification, once I had listed the species preferred and targeted for different uses according to the informants (these were in the local kirabai dialect), the elders recommended me a guide who they felt had immense knowledge of kaya tree species. Together we went into the kaya forest and he showed me each of those species. For those I could not identify, I made a herbarium, which I later used to identify them.

3 For an analysis of the role of women in the kayas, see Nyamweru 2003.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Extract from Survey of Kenya topo map sheets 189/3 and 201/1, series Y/731
Légende Scale 1:50 000 wit location and boundary outlines of Bomu/fimboni (The Rabai kayas) and Mtswakara and Gandini (Duruama).
Fichier image/png, 319k
Titre Fig. 2: The forest cover trend for kaya Mudzi Muvya between 1990 and 2011
Fichier image/png, 73k
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Christin Adongo, « From Sacred Grove to Cultural Site: the Role of Socio-Economic Dynamics in the Conservation of Kaya Mudzi Muvya, Kenya », Journal des africanistes, 86 : 1 | 2016, 218-235.

Référence électronique

Christin Adongo, « From Sacred Grove to Cultural Site: the Role of Socio-Economic Dynamics in the Conservation of Kaya Mudzi Muvya, Kenya », Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 86 : 1 | 2016, mis en ligne le 10 avril 2018, consulté le 24 janvier 2019. URL :

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Christin Adongo

Doctorante EHESS

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