What you need to know:
- The Kinyaga, Kiperus and Kailukush are said to be the first families to have settled in this forest.
- According to elders, the three escaped the inter-Maasai war centuries ago and settled on Mt Kenya as hunters and gatherers.
- They formed the Ilngwesi clan, which means "people of wildlife," through intermarriage.
We had a smooth drive from Nairobi to Nanyuki town until we eventually came to a section of road that was so narrow and covered in broken stones that we weren't sure we could drive through. There are not many people who use the road. During our journey on that lonely road, barely any vehicles came by us.
Finally, we arrived at Mukogodo Forest, an indigenous dry forest at the border of Laikipia and Isiolo. A lot of activities were going on here. Homes are kilometres apart. The forest measures over 30, 000 hectares and is home to a pastoral community and wildlife.
One of the families living here is 48-year-old Ann Kirobi. She was not born in this forest but she came when she got married. We found her at her Manyatta home inside Mukogodo Forest cradling and feeding a baby in her arms. She is a herbalist, a skill she acquired from her husband, who gained knowledge from his mother.
“There are herbal medicines we use to treat different conditions. Some treat joints and bones. I boil them and give residents because everybody deserves a healthy life,” she says. During the interview, she skilfully demonstrates how she prepares the herbal medicine, mentioning that she has mastered the art of uprooting a part of a tree she wants for herbal medicine after which she returns the soil and covers the roots.
That has ensured that the trees do not dry up for the more than two decades she has been utilising and conserving the forest. “Our work here is to take care of the forest because it is helping us a lot. Without protecting it, we cannot even get honey easily. The forest is home to large populations of bees,” she says.
Ann says herbal medicine is very bitter. However, her clients are unaware of it because what she serves them is sweetened with honey. Beekeeping is another activity the community engages in as a way of conserving the forest. Ann is the chairperson of Ngireson Leisaila Kiro, a women's group comprising 38 members. They are involved in honey harvesting, eco-tourism, and fuel wood collection that they derive from the forest.
“We only collect the dry branches that fall. We know that without this forest, the first challenge will be where to get medicines from. Besides that, we won’t get water, fresh air and a lot of things will go to waste,” she explains.
The Kinyaga, Kiperus and Kailukush are said to be the first families to have settled in this forest. According to elders, the three escaped the inter-Maasai war centuries ago and settled on Mt Kenya as hunters and gatherers. They formed the Ilngwesi clan, which means "people of wildlife," through intermarriage.
Since then, they have been living within the forest, with the occupants marrying and having children, a continuation of the generations. As a result, the number of clans has increased to four: the Ilngwesi, Makurian, Kurkuri, and Lerkkurk. To them, this is a community forest that each generation inherits and protects.
Nginiwa Ledupa, 71, an Ilngwesi resident, says he has lived here his entire life. He grew up watching his father take care of the forest. There was no formal education back then, and he has never been in a classroom despite speaking Kiswahili fluently with a Maasai accent.
According to him, elders have the supernatural power to curse whoever destroys the forest, a cultural belief carried forward from one generation to the other by those aged 40 years and above. “None of the cursed families survived. That caused fear among many residents who had no option but to protect the forest.
“It is our great-grandfathers who have protected this forest. We grew up and took over from them. Back then there were few people and livestock. Nobody could destroy the forest. Anyone who deliberately destroyed this forest is no more due to their stubborn actions,” he said.
However, the old methods of protecting the Mukogodo Forest are no longer working in favour of this pastoral community anymore, making the forest more vulnerable to climate change. That is because the growing population and increasing livestock have led to strangers invading the forest from the outside. Wild animals like elephants have also led to the destruction of these indigenous trees.
“People are migrating from Isiolo, Samburu and other areas to this place,” he says. The Ilngwesi, Makurian, Mukogodo, and Sieku (ILMAMUSI) communities formed the ILMAMUSI Community Forest Association (CFA) in response to these climate change challenges.
Mukogodo Forest was registered as a CFA in 2008. Its formation has given pastoralists here power. They now report those who destroy the forest to the community forest rangers who patrol the forest for legal action. “Our children are now going to school while we get education on various forest conservation methods. Anybody visiting the forest must also report to the CFA office before accessing it,” says Mr Ledupa.
The association conducts continuous awareness and unites members with other environmental stakeholders. At the same time, members have formed tourism, honey harvesting, herbal medicine, pasture, and water user groups to ease communication and representation in the association.
“These user groups have holistic management plans. For example, they do rotational grazing within the forest. Beekeepers continue to protect the hardwoods, where they hang their hives,” says Edward Kiperus, CFA security coordinator.
Leaders organise meetings with the communities and devise strategies for increasing harvests while conserving the forest.
“The four communities have their own governance and management committee selected from every clan. They have also employed community forest rangers from the different clans of the association. In the committee, there are chairpersons,” he says.
Kiperus, 54, says ILMAMUSI CFA is currently on a mission to plant 10,000 trees by 2026 in the surrounding schools. The trees fill the gaps caused by outsiders and wildlife animals as part of the association’s restoration process.
“I have a team of 12 armed community forest rangers who patrol daily to monitor the progress and protect the trees. We also plant grass in the degraded land,” he says
Kenya’s forest cover is about 12.13 per cent, with the government aiming for 30 per cent by 2032. However, obstacles are impeding the country's progress toward its goal.
Joyce Nthuku from Kenya Forest Service (KFS) says factors contributing to deforestation include demographic patterns, population growth and changes in land use due to different reasons. She says besides planting trees, KFS is pushing for inclusiveness to restore the degraded ecosystem.
“Our main stakeholder is the community surrounding the forest. We have identified these communities surrounding every government forest and developed CFA,” she said during this year’s World Earth Day event at Karura Forest.
"There is forest management agreement so that these things are documented and they have a guide on which direction we are going to take.”
KFS collaborates with CFAs under the Kenya Forest and Management Act of 2016. Although the Mukogodo is a gazetted forest, the government has allowed indigenous and local communities to use and conserve it. The people of Mukogodo value the forest for this reason.