Catrina Stewart plunges into an ancient forest to discover sacred rituals, medicinal plants
and a way of life that couldn’t be further from beach-style living.
If it hadn’t been raining, I might have been on the beach.
It hasn’t let up for most of the day, so instead I’m standing on sodden leaves in the middle of a forest, and Juma, my guide, asks me to take my trainers off. I give him a withering look as I stand in rapidly-dampening socks. Not to mention I’m wearing a black sack-like cloth around my waist.
I’m dressed like this to appease the spirits for we are entering an area sacred to the Digo people. Kaya Kinondo is one of several makaya along Kenya’s coast, but the only one open to the public. The forests along this part of the coast have mostly disappeared to development, with those protected by the Mijikenda communities, of which the Digo is one, among the few surviving.
As far back as the 16th Century, these forests protected communities at the very heart of them, but by early last century, they had all moved out. They are now protected by a council of elders, and revered as sacred sites for prayers and rituals, and a valuable source of medicinal plants.
Eleven remaining have UNESCO World Heritage status (but not Kaya Kinondo because its land has been partially grabbed), with only members of the Mijikenda community permitted to enter, and then only for sacred rituals.
Before we enter the forest, Juma tells me the rules. “No screaming, no smoking, no drinking,” he says, “and no public displays of affection.” The last makes me smile, for, apart from Juma, I am quite alone.
Different coloured cloths signify different things. Red is for sacrifice, white for peace. The black I’m wearing means simply that I will be recognised by the spirits. As we make our way into the forest, we step carefully over pieces of coral, a reminder that the sea once came much further inland.
We stop at a tree – one of 187 species in this 30-acre forest – and Juma suggests I hug its broad trunk and make a wish. I feel slightly ridiculous doing so, but slip my arms around its trunk. It feels mildly comforting, but I’m glad there’s nobody around to see me.
Meanwhile, Juma has plucked some leaves from another tree – a grey veyer – and he crushes the leaves togethers, and tells me to sniff them. I fling my head back in surprise so strong is the vapour. But at least it might sort my blocked sinuses out. Also within the forest is a ‘pimple’ tree that’s said to be a cure for acne, and the ‘viagra’ tree, which requires little explanation.
Finally, we arrive at the site that once housed four Digo villages. It wasn’t only their position at the heart of the forest that protected them, but also various enchantments or spells weaved around them with the purpose of deterring and confusing any potential aggressor.
The villages have moved closer to the shore, and the clearing is now used for sacrifices. In wet socks, I pad over to a spot where Juma points to the evidence of a recent sacrifice involving a black chicken. The community comes together for rituals during times of hardship. It might be connected to election clashes, a dispute between members of the community, or a plea for abundant rain or fish.
All around us, the forest is silent. It’s hard to imagine that only a few hundred metres from this site is glistening white beach, luxury developments lining the coastline. Kaya Kinondo, at least, is protected, but as development continues apace, I can only wonder how long such sacred sites can survive.
Kaya Kinondo is a 20-minute drive from the main Diani beach. It costs Ksh 1,000 to enter, and a discretionary tip is advised for the guide. Tours include a walk in the forest, and an optional visit to a nearby village and medicine man. Opening hours are 8 am to 5 pm.