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Youth engagement in intergenerational dialogues has remarkably contributed to the enhancement of conservation efforts in the Kaya Sacred forests in Kilifi. In a landmark achievement that has contributed to breaking of a longstanding cultural norm whereby youth and women were not allowed to access the Kayas, the elders are now working hand in hand with women and youth in undertaking conservation activities in the Kayas thanks to the dialogues.

With the support of UNDP through the GEF Small Grants Programme, the Institute for Culture and Ecology (ICE) has been working in partnership with communities in Kaya Fungo, Kaya Jibana, and Kaya Rabai and various other conservation stakeholders to enhance collaborations amongst gender groups for sustainable community-led conservation. The dialogues aimed to educate the youth on the importance of Kaya conservation as well as their role in conservation of community-conserved protected areas. In an effort to harness indigenous knowledge in the conservation of the Kayas, youth, elders, women, and stakeholders were engaged in the development of eco-cultural maps and calendars, tree planting, intergenerational and stakeholder dialogues, and exchange visits to Kivaa Hill, a community-conserved sacred forest in Machakos County. These activities were aimed at exposing youth, the elderly, and women to various aspects of conservation and creating a platform for indigenous knowledge exchange.

Youth engagement in eco-cultural mapping in the three target Kayas provided exposure to the status of the forest in the past (before they were born), the present and also gave them an opportunity to draw the future they wish to see in relation to Kaya conservation and protection. Through the eco-mapping process, the elderly played a key role in painting a visual picture of the past, hence giving youth an opportunity to understand the purpose of conserving the Kayas and their role. Development of eco-calendars exposed youth to the past seasons before the destruction of the Kayas; the present status where seasons have depreciated due to climate change and forest destruction; and an illustration of a future they hope for once the Kayas’ original conserved status has been achieved. These highly interactive exercises exposed youth to the history of Kayas and demystified the purpose of participating in community-led conservation efforts.

Giving an account of the past, Baya Nzaka, an elder from Kaya Rabai, observed, “Previously, youth used to attack us on our way to the forest. They didn’t understand why we were concerned about conservation and protection of the Kaya. Some of our fellow elders were killed and our offices razed down by youth who accused us of being witches.” In a rejoinder, Mwawara Garero, a Kaya elder, noted that they were glad that the relationship between the elderly and youth had really improved and that they were now working together to conserve the sacred forests. He says the elderly used to live in fear whenever they would visit the forests since youth viewed them as enemies for preventing them from illegal logging, which they felt was their right.

Rita Mjeni and Justine Mnandi, both Kaya youth, have been involved in intergenerational dialogues, eco-cultural mapping and calendars, and exchange visits. Through the interactions with the elders and capacity building trainings undertaken, they are now well versed with the activities in the Kayas and are now actively involved in conservation of the forest and on community owned land. Rita says, “I am glad to have been part of these activities. I now have a clear understanding of why youth should engage in conservation. The status of the forest had really depreciated since when I was young to this date. Trees were being cut down at an alarming rate, which exposed the forest to lots of deforestation. We are suffering consequences resulting from deforestation since rain patterns have decreased drastically, threatening food production and security. I am hopeful that the collaboration between youth and the elderly will address these issues. Youth are already engaged in tree planting and supporting the elderly in reafforestation and securing the forests by patrolling. We also hold youth dialogues to sensitize our fellow youth on the dangers of abusing the forest. There has been great improvement in conservation efforts three years after the intergenerational dialogues commenced. We are delighted that youth are now empowered to take up the mantle from our ageing fathers and grandfathers who have been custodians of the Kaya forests for the longest time. “

The Kaya forests are of high cultural, spiritual, and livelihood significance to the coastal Mijikenda communities where they are situated. Culturally, they represent the spirit of togetherness. Kayas are viewed as sacred places and are believed to be the abodes of ancestors. The elders conduct rituals in the Kaya Forest to appease the spirits. They believe that there is a spiritual connection to anything that happens to the Mijikenda people, whether it be rain, drought, calamities, birth, initiation, death, or any other occurrence. Previously a reserve for male elders, Kayas have now been opened to youth and women through the guidance of the elders. This is quite significant to conservation efforts since each of the groups has a role they undertake in the well-being of the sacred forests. ICE continues to engage Kaya communities in conservation and monitoring and is hopeful that the collaboration being experienced will transform the forests to a much-improved state.

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