Each Mijikenda tribe has a traditional kaya central settlement, a fortified village in the forest ranging from 12 acres to three square kilometres in extent, usually built on raised ground some distance from the coast, but sometimes right by the shore. Some Mijikenda peoples built only one kaya while others built secondary kayas or even whole clusters. The kayas are considered to be the dwelling places of ancestral spirits, although they are now sacred glades rather than fortified villages.
In theory, each kaya contains a fingo – a charm said to derive from the Mijikenda’s ancestral home of Shungwaya. Most fingo have been lost or stolen for private collections of “primitive art” or loft-converters’ ideas of interesting objets d’art – like the grave posts called kigango (vigango in the plural) that also used to be a feature of every kaya.
Today, many kayas are neglected, but they are still remembered and visited by tribal elders. Along with the belief in their sacred qualities comes a local conservation tradition: undisturbed and uncultivated, they represent a unique biological storehouse on the East African coast. A WWF-backed botanical research programme, the Coastal Forest Conservation Unit, run by the National Museums of Kenya, is slowly mapping out the kaya ecosystems. In 2008 the kayas were collectively inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More than twenty have so far been given legal status and paper protection, and elders are being encouraged to reassert their authority over them before property developers move in. There may be more than fifty altogether, though some could be so small that they will disappear under the bulldozer before anyone remembers them.
The first kaya to open to visitors is Kaya Kinondo on Diani Beach.