The Prayer Hut at the start of the Kaya Kinondo trail

I am currently staying in a little BnB on the coast of the Indian Ocean. There is a cat purring on my veranda; comfortably seated on one of the chairs. Let’s just call it a Mombasa Cat. It is very early in the morning and still dark outside. It’s a little eery and causes my brain to float back to yesterday and a trip to the Kaya Kinondo project not far from here; just outside of Mombasa, Kenya.

The Kaya Kinondo ( is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a place of great cultural importance in particular for the Digo people.  It is a sacred forest where people can visit and many have come to share their problems. Juma was our guide and has an intensity and passion for this place and its trees that  gives you goosebumps.

Starting around the 16th century, some people started moving from southern Somalia along the coast and settled in the Coastal region of Kenya. These people are called the Mijikenda and are divided into 9 tribes who all share a common language. They ended up in various Kayas  along the way where each village group settled. These forests or Kayas offered an ideal location where people could settle. They relied on hunting and fishing as opposed to farming. There was the added bonus of these dense forests to help protect them from other tribes like the Maasai, the Gala, the Somalis and others who were always attacking. There was more protection with the help of the spirit world. The spiritual leaders from the villages would bury a pot in a sacred spot that contained special herbs, medicines and plants mixed with spirits. This location is considered to be the most sacred of all and is the place where people can come to talk about their problems and seek spiritual guidance.

The first thing that happens if you visit here is you are given a length of black cloth that is draped around your middle and is basically floor- length. It is meant to show respect to the spirits. Juma gave an introduction to the place before entering as well as some sensible rules and we were off.

My first impression of this forest is lots of tangled underbrush. Surprisingly there is coral all over the place which speaks to how high the Indian Ocean’s level was at one time. We approached a small thatched hut and Juma tells us this is the place to offer a prayer of safe-keeping. He does just that and we look at each other curiously wondering if this is for real. It doesn’t take long to see that for Juma and many others in Kenya this is a powerful place.

For me, looking down so as not to trip, being on the path and not being on the path looks exactly the same. I asked Juma how he could tell where the path was. He said: “The elders told me where to go.” He continued:  “It is very easy to get lost in The Forest. Some people came on the day when the big tree came down. They didn’t want to wait for me and decided to go into The Forest. They told me ‘we got to here but did not know which way to go. We were lost’. They had to go back and wait for me.”

The big tree about which he spoke was the tree planted by the founder of this Kaya about 600 years ago. It came down in the wind. It represents a huge problem and there will be spiritual leaders from across the region coming to a meeting to talk about it. I asked if this tree falling was bad news. Juma shook my hand which he did as confirmation that you were on the right track.

As with many of my other experiences in Kenya, I spent much more time listening than speaking. The case for the supernatural qualities of this place is compelling. Take the ‘hugging trees’ for example. One is for both sexes and one is for men only. I went for it. I gave that tree a big old hug and came away feeling some of the energy that Juma said could be gained from it. Yes, for a moment I did feel a little silly but once I jumped down, the happiness persisted. Nothing wrong with that.

Juma’s knowledge of the trees seemed boundless as he explained about the Strangling Fig tree that makes its home in another tree and eventually kills it. There were also trees like a type of palm whose seeds were basically planted by a receding Indian Ocean.

The Forest has been known to give people an edge. One of my fellow walkers told me that rumour has it that Kenya’s current president, Mwai Kibaki visited The Forest with a spiritual leader to ask for help in winning the election. He won the election. He also apparently, I was told, didn’t come back to say thank you. He had a car accident and a subsequent blood clot in his injured leg. I’m just saying.

I asked Juma if a spiritual leader was compelled to take somebody to this Holy place if he didn’t feel that they were a ‘good’ person.    “The elders and spiritual leaders know about you even from before your first word. They know your name and where you came from. They know who you are.”

It is the same spirits who know that we are visitors here and who have confirmed for Juma that we will be safe.

When we return to the office where we had met Juma for the first time, it is bustling with activity. There are two interns from Kenyatta University, Stella and Peter who seem pleased to be at Kaya Kinondo as part of their Tourism and Travel program. There is a shop of sorts selling local wares and there are trees available for planting. It is a conservation  project to be sure but it also is important on a larger scope. The money raised from Kaya Kinondo, according to the website,  goes to various projects including 2 local primary schools, supporting women’s employment initiatives and cultural activities and ceremonies as well as buying shares in a bank. If you needed any more convincing, taking care of one’s community is powerful.

The Mombasa Cat outside on my verandah starts to meow. Legend has it that they have supernatural powers too. We noticed the cats seemed to be better fed here than in other places I have seen and legend has it that if you harm a Mombasa cat on purpose, it can change forms (like becoming a mean-spirited human) and come back to you in retaliation.

Hmm…where did I put that tuna for kitty?

The mind is a beautiful thing. As urbanized as I am, I am just as vulnerable to the ‘what ifs’ as anybody as I hear the cat and think about the trees.

As much as The Forest is beautiful, the real beauty for me was in letting go. There is power in acceptance.