28-03-2021 by Freddie del Curatolo
In the midst of Dante's celebrations, I found myself in a not-so-dark forest where the straight path was non-existent, which was not bad either because at least one could not go astray.
African paradises are very different from a song by the Supreme Poet, but it is the poetry of Nature that can be admired at Kaya Kinondo, the "home" of the Digo tribe, one of the nine that make up the Mijikenda ethnic group. The Digo were the ones who moved further south after the exodus from the Shingwaya hills on the border with Somalia around the 13th century. The story goes that the Giriama were the first to stop, settling along the banks of the Sabaki River, six other tribes (Chonyi, Jibana, Ribe, Rabai, Kambe and Kauma) settled in the hills and forests of the Kilifi hinterland, the Duruma pushed on towards Mariakani and Mazeras and the Digo reached as far as Mombasa and Diani.
Here they found a forest that in those days reached as far as the sea (evidence of which is the coral and sandy soil, even though today it is only a couple of kilometres from the ocean) and which allowed them to establish the 'home' of their ancestors, the so-called 'Kaya'. The Kaya is the secluded, inextricable place where traditional rituals can be performed, white magic exercised and a sort of "plant hospital" at hand, thanks to the knowledge of the sorcerers and shamans of the properties of each individual native plant.
Kaya Kinondo has remained like this for centuries and progress, which has arrived here in a minor way but is still evident in the expansion of tourism, has increasingly reduced and isolated it. Until a few years ago, the elders of the neighbouring villages still used to go there to meet in their secret society, the "Vaya", to sanctify their ancestors and perform rituals. Today, Kaya Kinondo is protected and preserved by a Digo association which transmits the Mijikenda culture and its traditions and promotes them as conscious tourism linked to the area. The guide who accompanies us into the forest asks us to wear a black sarong (kanga) as a sign of respect for the ancestral souls, who, according to the animist concept, reside in the heart of the centuries-old trees and in the recesses of the dense bush.
Not much is left of the places of worship and magic; the real beauty of the Kinondo forest lies in the trees and their stories. Endlessly branching ficus create fascinating passages and twists and turns between lianas and natural hammocks, the roots of some imposing Bombax become huge snakes that spread through the ground for metres and metres. Each younger plant is a living pharmacy. We breathe in antibiotic leaves, antihistamine roots, essential resins and barks which, processed, can become either remedies for dermatitis or fabrics with which the ancient Digo people covered their private parts. An endless catalogue of names, references to customs and sources of salvation for entire generations.
All of this is experienced while wandering around with a stick, chasing away snakes and other less beneficial presences, and listening to the chirping of dozens of rare bird species.
Until a few decades ago, elephants also came to the Kaya Kinondo forest to taste some of these specialities for herbivores, and pythons and black mambas hid among the rocks and bushes.
A visit to Kaya Kinondo is interesting precisely to learn about the history of a place that is both an enchantment of the purity of equatorial nature and a reserve of legends, natural sciences, evocations, traditional recipes, ethology and ethnology. In short, to lose oneself pleasantly in the peace of the senses while absorbing knowledge.
Kaya Kinondo can be reached from Diani by heading towards Kinondo Beach.
The entrance fee with compulsory guide for non-residents is Kes. 800, for residents Kes. 400.
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