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Revisiting Eco-spirituality from the Kaya Forests in Coastal Kenya


By John Mwangi

The world stands at the brink of self-destruction while technology is expanding exponentially in ways that are reshaping even what it means to be human. It was a slow violence towards the environment that has now gone out of hand and is fast accelerating towards the tipping point in climate change which when crossed is leading to large irreversible changes in climate systems.

What can we learn, in this context, of the Kaya forests in coastal Kenya, and the ecological wisdom contained in them? In Bantu languages, ‘Ka’ connotes ‘home’. ‘Kayas’ are ancient homesteads built for safety deep in the Kenyan coastal strip forest by the Miji Kenda people, who believed the kaya forests were habitation for ancestors, and spirits as sacred spaces where the natural met with the supernatural.

Recent research hypothesizes that one tree is sufficient to sustain one person with oxygen for a lifetime. With urbanization, all roads seem to lead to the city, yet in this era of climate change we may have to rediscover the wisdom of the forest again. Kayas dwellers and elders of the tropical forests in Kenya are some of the gatekeepers. The forests require rain to thrive, while humans need the forest and other environmental components to survive. The carbon emissions that forests normally absorb remain in the atmosphere in their absence and this is captured in Kaya elders’ spiritual wisdom when they maintain that ‘a forest without trees is a curse.’ I endeavor to speak for ‘forests without trees’ and ‘skies without birds’ but climate change is louder and more eloquent than me.

One of the effects of colonialism on African ecologies was the strong correlation between the exploitation of the environment and the oppression of its natives. Urbanization and commercialization of highly prized indigenous tress have placed Kaya forests and other world forests on a slippery path of rapid depletion courtesy of these human activities. Kaya elders’ spiritual wisdom has well captured this in their language of the forest witty saying, ‘the forest has been shrinking but the trees have kept on voting for the ax because the handle is made of wood where they say with excitement’ look here is one of us.’ The dire effects of climate change point out, as Barack Obama has put it, that ‘this may be the last generation to experience the impact of climate change and may be the last that can do something about it.’ To this effect, Kaya elders’ spiritual ecology, which is composed of rituals, taboos, and totems, asks with a resounding authoritative voice: ‘Where is your ecological consciousness?’ 

My earliest wild recollections of tasting the raw wrath of nature was once during a cold long rainy season at my grandma’s farm in Nakuru, where I took a half dry stick from a nearby bush to keep my little self from the biting cold. I immediately lost my consciousness with a terrible headache and I was told it was a passing-by neighbor who knew of the tree that was never to be used for firewood who smelling the smoke rushed in, pulled me out and revived me back to precious life. The oxymoron is that, what was to sustain my life when valued almost accelerated my demise when wrongly applied. This is the fate our generation is facing, death from ironically the very resource for life, trees. Now alive I can identify with the environmental adage by Martin Luther King Jr, stating that ‘in true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree, is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.’

The three United Nations recognized days for the awakening of our ecological conservation consciousness – World Environment Day, World Forest Day, and World's Earth Day – can be aligned with the wisdom of Kaya ecospirituality contained in taboos or prohibitions, totems comprising of sacred grooves, trees and animals, and rituals which demarcate some spaces as sacred. Forests require to gain resiliency, that is, enhancing the recovery time from short-term perturbations. Kaya spiritual ecologies comes in handy in the form of taboos that prohibit and forbid trees from being cut without kaya elders' permission, while other are never to be cut since they are totems or clans identity objects like fig and baobab trees, with some sacred grooves being out of bounce to non-residents, while other spaces requiring removing of shoes to tread specified routes and avoid hurting totemic flora and fauna.

Kaya forest’s eco-spirituality when revisited is constantly asking 'Where is your ecological conservation consciousness?' Nothing is bringing this rare heritage of kaya of eco-spirituality to the fore more than the present challenges of climate change. This wisdom of the Kaya eco-spirituality of the Kenyan coastal kaya forests holds a significant contribution towards the climate challenges solutions the globe has been desperately searching for but is yet to be fully leveraged upon.

Kaya eco-spirituality demarcates and dedicates kaya forests as sacred spaces, serving worship purposes, burial grounds, and homesteads connecting the dead the living dead, and the yet unborn. The wisdom of Kaya's eco-spirituality is aimed towards achieving the delicate balance that ‘nature had enough for all’s needs but not for all’s greed.’

Today the kaya ecospirituality in terms of taboos, totems and rituals is scanty, not documented and with a few Kaya custodians. This is why it requires the revisiting since it holds the promise to deliver and not to disappoint. Kenya  can leverage her Kaya forest spiritual ecologies matrix for conservation of the environment regional forests.


John Mwangi is a part-time assistant lecturer and researcher on African Ecologies spaces at Laikipia University, Department of Public Affair and Environmental Studies in Nyahururu, Kenya and a member of Christian Scientific Association (CSAK) and of the African Association of Study of Religion (AASR). He participated in the "African Ecologies" workshop, hosted at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, 29-31 July 2023 in collaboration with the Leeds University Centre for African Studies. This blog post is based on the paper presented at the workshop.

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