To some, these are places for purification and healing, vigils, and other religious experiences. But to others, they are virgin lands waiting to be grabbed or utilised “profitably”.
Sacred sites in Kenya are now facing their biggest fight for survival. The Africa Biodiversity Network (ABN), a Thika-based lobby that has conducted numerous studies on sacred forests, says the biggest threats include farming, mining, bioprospecting and land grabbing for different industries.
Several studies have identified sacred sites, mostly forests, as important cogs in biodiversity conservation in Kenya.
With this in mind, ABN has successfully marshalled elders from the Tharaka, Meru, Maasai, Kamba and Kikuyu communities, who have now formed a network to protect these sites that include forests, mountains, rivers and trees. During a recent meeting organised by the lobby in Marimanti, Tharaka Nithi County, the elders said many of the sites have already disappeared.
“Sacred sites were considered important places where ancestral spirits were said to reside and where different important community ceremonies and rituals were and are held. But Christianity and modernity is now diluting such cultural customs and people are embracing other doctrines,” says Mzee Mathenge wa Iregi, a Kikuyu elder from Nyeri county.
However, all is not lost. A few of the sites are still intact and continue to play a role in conservation.
In Kenya, culture-based approaches to protecting ecosystems are recognised in the Constitution, which recognises the rights of people, including marginalised and indigenous peoples, to participate in a cultural life of their choice. Mathenge says the failure to respect sacred sites has had a direct impact on the lives and well-being of communities of present and future generations.
The 84-year-old mediator, as he calls himself, names the famous fig tree (mugumo tree in Kikuyu) saying it should never be cut.
He says that sacrificing a goat under a fig tree is still considered a way to ask for rain from God.
“The prayers through our ancestors do work. Nowadays, we are experiencing a lot of problems both in the country and with nature because we have turned away from our traditions,” he says, adding that these rituals are carried out in sacred places such as mountains and forests.
ABN coordinator Simon Mitambo says culture and ecological diversity are intricately bound together.
“It is only through restoring peoples strong and deep sense of connectedness to nature and all that lies within it, that will people in Africa find way to be resilient and to sustain their land and other natural resources,” he says.
Moses Ole Simel, an elder from Narok, says the rich Maasai culture has helped conservation of forests.
“It is important to uphold these sacred sites for the future generation. However, urbanisation is slowly diluting the African culture and a lot of things are getting lost. I am proud of my culture and so should the young generation. Our dressing is admired all over the world and young people should be proud of who they are. Other communities in Kenya are now embracing their culture and traditional dressing and this is good,” says Simel. He urges elders to facilitate teaching of local languages in schools to help in conservation.
“Narok is a vast county and there are many sacred sites including Meduuigi sacred site in Olokulto, Mau area, where it is believed that a tree will bleed if it is cut. It is believed to have the presence of God,” he says. Others include Emururuai site in Loita ward where morans are promoted into elders, Oloitokitok sacred site where circumcision ceremonies are held and young boys graduate into morans. Kipanken and Olemegili sites are believed to be homes of the god of the Sonjo tribe in Tanzania.
According to Mzee Naftali Kianga, an elder of the Ganakina clan from the Tharaka community, Kathita River in Tharaka Nithi has spiritual linkage to the ancestors.
Kianga says the river, which runs east from Mount Kenya, cutting across Meru and Tharaka, is slowly drying up, but people still revere it because it cuts through more 10 sacred sites along its course.
“We want young people to go back to their traditions and not be urbanised until they forget where they came from,” says Kianga.
Elder Munguti wa Kabibia from the Kamba community says the community still has some special places in the area where they offer sacrifices during drought, outbreak of diseases and also during thanksgiving.
He names Kivaa area where the elders go to the hills every August to perform prayers by sacrificing goats to get good rains and good harvest.