Kayafungo is a fortified, traditional shrine treasured by the Giriama, who live in Kilifi County on Kenya’s coast.
The story of its unusual powers has been repeatedly told for decades such that locals, politicians and the young generation seeking divine intervention and the good things in life throng the place located in a quiet neighbourhood in Gotani village in Kaloleni Sub-County.
A visit to the kaya reveals how tough traditional rituals have stood the test of time. Whoever wants to enter the shrine must conform to the rituals, lest the spirits that live there get angry and punish them.
I visited the shrine to get a glimpse of the kaya, which was named the best managed and preserved of the nine Mijikenda kayas by the Kenya National Commission for the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 2017.
As per tradition, visitors take some precautions before entering the more than 500-acre forest.
Before we started the journey to the shrine, Wilson Karisa, a traditional herbalist, said a prayer.
The man, in his mid-sixties, danced energetically, sweating profusely as his feet hit the ground rhythmically to the drum beat in the scorching heat.
I later learnt that the dance performed at the entrance of the kaya was to appease the gods in the dense forest and alert them that there were visitors waiting to enter it.
RITUAL FOR GODS
“If we don’t perform the dance and the ritual at the entrance, the gods will be furious and we might not enter the forest. But they are now happy and we can go and sample what nature has given us inside the forest,” said the chairman of the kaya, Mzee Charo Mlewa.
But there were more rules to come as we entered the forest. First, you must follow a narrow path in single file and never overtake another person, no matter how slow they might be.
The rule is that the order in which you started your journey to the shrine is the order in which you must arrive at the sacred site under a huge tamarind tree, near two small, mud-thatched huts in which all the clans of the Giriama tribe are represented.
The distance from the entrance to the main shrine is about 500 metres and is roughly a 15-minute walk.
No cameras are allowed inside because a single flash ''will infuriate the gods'', who will punish those present.
After we had walked for about five minutes, Dadu Kituku, the kaya vice-chairman and officer in charge of the kaya protocol, who was leading us, stopped and said: “Pick up either a twig or a grass stem and hold it in your left hand because that is what will serve as your security. Holding it means you cannot be harmed by anything. Even a snake will not come near you.”
As we drew near our destination, Mzee Kituku stopped and showed us where to put the twigs before making another announcement.
“If you stumble on a stone, you must apologise to it by saying, ‘Pole, sikukuona’ (Sorry, I didn’t see you) because that is not a rock but the gods protecting people from harm,” he said.
OLD TAMARIND TREE
Fortunately, none of us stumbled on a stone so we arrived safely at a large, open ground under a huge and old tamarind tree.
We sat in a circle as we waited for directions from the elders.
This is one place where you don’t make any move without the elders’ guidance.
After 10 minutes' rest, we were again ushered into another section dotted with mud-thatched houses in which the elders live.
On our way there, we came across a thicket which Mzee Mlewa said we should not even point at since it would mean instant death.
“Only spiritual elders can go into that thicket. Nothing goes there and comes out alive. That is where the lives of the Giriama people lie,” Mzee Mlewa said, making me more afraid.
After our tour of the forest, the elders led us out. But they told us that was not the last of their duties.
“Now, as you go, we will return to our gods tonight, talk to them about your visit and conduct a cleansing ceremony before the day ends. If we don’t do that, we will not be at peace,” Mzee Kituku said.
In 2017, the Kayafungo received a Sh750,000 cash award, a trophy and other awards from Knatcom after it was named the best-managed and maintained of the nine Mijikenda kayas in the annual event.
The Knatcom chairman at the time, Dr Rashid Aman, said that the award was meant to promote the management and conservation of the sacred forests Unesco recognises “as world heritage sites and their traditions and cultural practices recognised as intangible cultural heritage that need urgent safeguarding”.
During the award, the Knatcom Secretary-General, Dr Evangeline Njoka, said that her organisation was seeking to promote the advancement of peace and conserve the sacred forests.
Politicians and leaders from the Coast and other parts of the country have visited the shrine, among them former Coast political kingpin Karisa Maitha.
Mr Maitha started off as a Mombasa political activist, before being elected councillor, and later MP, which saw him become one of the most powerful politicians at the Coast after freedom hero Ronald Ngala. He is now deceased.
Some people believe that his fortunes took a turn for the better after his visit to the kaya, where he was blessed by the elders.
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