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On Kenya’s Coast, a Struggle for the Sacred

23 / 06 / 2015, IPS News Environment

Travel into the heart of Kenya’s southern Coast Province, nearly 500 km from the capital city of Nairobi, and you will come across one of the planet’s most curious World Heritage Sites: the remains of several fortified villages, revered by the indigenous Mijikenda people as the sacred abodes of their ancestors."If you have evil intentions within this forest, a curse will befall you and we believe that you may not even come out alive.” -- Rashid Bakari, a member of Kenya's Mijikenda communityKnown locally as ‘kaya’, these forested sites date back to the 16th century, when a migration of pastoral communities from present-day Somalia is believed to have led to the creation of several villages covering roughly 200 km across this province’s low-lying hills.Having thrived for centuries, developing their own language and customs, the kayas began to disintegrate around the early 20th century as famine and fighting took hold.Today, although uninhabited, the kayas continue to be worshipped as repositories of ancient beliefs and practices.Thanks to careful nurturing by the Mijikenda people, the groves and graves in the kayas are all that remains of what was once an extensive coastal lowland forest.But they are under threat.The discovery in the last three years of large deposits of rare earth minerals in this region has marked the kaya forests out as targets for extraction, development and displacement of the indigenous population.

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