Kaya Kinondo is just a few kilometres from Diani beach where I have been staying for the past ten days but it is a million miles away in outlook.
Diani is a sprawling strip of resorts, hotels and bars stretching south from Mombasa. It is, frankly, rather gaudy – a paradise of white sand and warm Indian Ocean that is sanitised by the commercial interests of companies controlled from outside Africa.
The sacred forest of Kaya Kinondo, the ancient home of the Mijikenda people, is, thankfully, now protected from commercialism by the UNESCO World Heritage status which was bestowed upon it in 2008 and operates as a non-profit organisation which seeks to protect, preserve and pass-on the culture of the Digo tribe.
Digo is just one of the nine tribes that make up the Mijikenda. It and the others – Chonyi, Duruma, Giriama, Jibana, Kambe, Kauma, Rabai and Ribe – are connected by the kaya, which simply means ‘forest’ in Swahili.
It forest is an ancient place, one which the Digo believe gives them a real connection to their ancestors. As a result, there is a certain amount of ritual involved before entering the kaya. Visitors must wear traditional clothing, a black sarong called a kaniki. They must promise not to disturb the forest in anyway, something made abundantly clear when our guide, Masud, accidentally brushed against a spider camouflaged against the bark of a tree which caused him to apologetically say “sorry to bother you my friend.”
Most strikingly, the guides, all members of the Digo tribe, must hug a tree before entering the forest to tell their ancestors that they are approaching with visitors.
The trees have special significance to the Digo. Some of them are as much as 600 years old and will have been cared for by many generations stretching back to to when the Mijikenda first inhabited the kaya after leaving their homeland in southern Somalia. The roots reach down to the graves of their forebears who where buried in the kaya before it was abandoned as a settlement in the 1940s.
I, too, cannot resist hugging a tree which Masud tells me will answer any wish I make. And make a wish I did, but like any good wish I did not tell him, and won’t tell you, what I wished for. I will only say that Masud told me that the power of the tree is so great that even if I wished for six wives my wish would come true (he had previously found it amusing that it is illegal to have more than one wife in the UK.)
Symbolism apart, the kaya is a glorious ecosystem with 187 spices of plants, some of which can only be found in this 30 hectare forest, 32 bird species, 45 varieties of butterfly, as well as monkeys, antelopes and squirrels.
It is a unique experience, one that gives you an insight into the cultural lifestyle of Kenyan tribes, a lifestyle that has been all but lost just a few miles away.