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Monday, November 2, 2009

Visiting The Old And The New In Shimoni Forest

Yesterday in Shimoni forest was one of very mixed feelings.

In the morning we had set out with GPS to record the locations of all of the new roads, plots and clearings that continue to emerge in Shimoni forest. These are the result of developments that are in the pipeline, or for the more extreme cases are underway already. We wanted to plot it all on a GPS map so we could get a feel for what is happening on the larger scale. The results were alarming, the way points highlighting a well organised matrix of plots that cover the entire coastline. This information is going to be included in a disturbance report that will be submitted to Kenya Forest Service and other stakeholders.

Later in the day however two of us went with the Chairman of Friends of Shimoni Forest to visit a couple of the scared Kaya's that have been part of the human landscape in Shimoni forest for hundreds of years. In addition to the biological value, Shimoni forest holds cultural value to the Digo and other Mijikenda tribes that live along the coast. The traditional inhabitants of these areas still practice ancient rituals and ceremonies at the Kaya's located deep within the forest. These Kaya's are the ancient burial grounds of their ancestors and offerings in the form of gifts, prayers and sacrifices are given to the spiritual inhabitants of the Kaya's, which have been passed down through generations and are of utmost importance to their users.

We are not allowed to visit the Kaya's without an 'mzee' (elder), so we met up with the Mzee in Anziwani village who guided us in to the forest in search of the Kaya's. As we approached the sacred place we had to remove our shoes as the Mzee recited prayers to the spirits asking for permission to enter. The first Kaya was a cave with a well, where the villagers in the past used to collect water and pray. We sat next to the cave while the Mzee quietly explained the history and legends of the Kaya. The second one we visited was a very strange coral rag formation, like a small ravine or gorge, close to the beautiful mangroves. This Kaya was marked with old flags and again we removed our shoes and listened entranced to the myths and rituals borne of this natural, spiritual place.

The reason for our visit was to help Friends of Shimoni Forest set up guided walks through the forest. The tours would include visits to the shrines, followed by a walk through the forest to see the birds, monkeys and other animals that inhabit this biodiversity hotspot. Friends of Shimoni Forest intend these tours to raise money for their community-based organisation by harnessing eco-tourism, and plough the money back in to community projects that will aid the protection of the forest. They also hope the endeavour will raise awareness of the importance of the forest locally, nationally and internationally.

We were very moved by the Kaya's, their history and the respect that members of the community still show them. Very few outsiders have ever been allowed to see the Kaya's and we did not take this privilege for granted. Hopefully together with Friends of Shimoni Forest we can get guided walks up and running and take a step closer to saving this endangered forest.