What you need to know:
- When the environmental impact assessment was done, one of the recommendations was for the power lines to save this tree in particular and follow the edges of the kaya.
- In Tanzania, there’s only one tree reported. It’s now listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
- The scientists take the coordinates and another tree claims our attention. It is the fragrant Mukilwa shrub, again threatened. The local women fabricate a perfume from it.
Towering coconut trees fan the air, standing stoic among the indigenous trees of the South Coast.
Forty-five minutes after crossing on the Likoni ferry, we turn into the village of Muhaka, seven kilometres inland along a dusty murram road where colourful stitched flags are strung between trees in the Digo homesteads to celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadhan.
At one of the homesteads we are brought to a halt by a gigantic mambakofi tree (Afzelia quanzensis) that is more than a century old. “See the crook in the power line? It’s because of that tree.
SAVE THE FORTRESS
When the environmental impact assessment was done, one of the recommendations was for the power lines to save this tree in particular and follow the edges of the kaya,” says Dr Itambo Malombe of the East African Herbarium at the National Museums of Kenya.
The kayas of the coast are remnants of the ancient, sacred forests of the Mijikenda, who found refuge in the forests which acted as forts against the enemy.
Each of the nine tribes of the Mijikenda then planted the sacred talisman in a part of the forest called the fingo, where only priests and elders were permitted.
We meet up with the villagers of Muhaka at the campsite by Kaya Muhaka to trek into the forest in search of a tree that is listed as one of the 100 most endangered globally.
It is the Gigasiphon macrosiphon — macro because it has an enormous flower. It is surreal in the forest. From the hot air of the coast, we are suddenly in a cool glade with the air very fresh.
Trees tower to the sky and the ground is littered with leaves and fungi of different shapes and sizes.
Said Ali Chidzinga leads the way through the kaya to the tree. We are a motley group of village elders, men, and women clad in colourful khangas and buibui.
For some it is their first time in the kaya. Said, with little formal education, knows all the trees and belts out the names in Latin.
Almost half an hour later, we are at the base of the Gigasiphon macrosiphon — mnyanza in Digo. Said shows us the flowers — enormous white-beige and lightly scented. On the floor lie the seeds.
Standing around the tree, Dr Malombe says, “Between 2008 and 2010 we conducted a general plant and insect survey and that’s when I realised that there weren’t many Gigasiphon macrosiphon.
In Tanzania, there’s only one tree reported. It’s now listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Stepping out of the forest, the bright midday sun envelops us in its heat as we head to the next kaya a few kilometres away.
It is Kaya Gogoni, so different from Muhaka. We walk along the edge of a swamp and into the kaya, shaded by the towering canopies of dazzling trees.
In the very depths of the forest we find our tree. The scientists take the coordinates and another tree claims our attention. It is the fragrant Mukilwa shrub, again threatened. The local women fabricate a perfume from it.
“Each kaya is different,” remarks Dr Malombe as we move out of the forest, careful not to trip over the aardvark holes or jumble through spiders’ webs.
Dr Esther Kioko, an entomologist at NMK, is busy with her butterfly net chasing one. She is here to investigate who pollinates the G. macrosiphon — a mystery.
Driving to Diani, famed for its powder-white beaches and sea-blue waters, we stop at Coast Dishes for an evening meal of Swahili delights — the most delicious mahamri, fish in coconut sauce, and sweet tamarind juice — before we head to Modern Guest House for the night.