Indigenous or local knowledge refers to a complete body of knowledge, know-how and practices maintained and developed by peoples, generally in rural areas, who have extended histories of interaction with the natural environment. These sets of understandings, interpretations and meanings are part of a cultural complex that encompasses language, naming and classification systems, practices for using resources, ritual, spirituality and worldview. It provides the basis for local-level decision-making about many fundamental aspects of day to day life: for example hunting, fishing, gathering, agriculture and husbandry; food production; water; health; and adaptation to environmental or social change. Non-formal knowledge in contrast to formal knowledge is handed over orally, from generation to generation, and is therefore seldom documented.

 It is the dynamic way in which the residents of an area have come to understand themselves in relationship to their environment and how they organize their folk knowledge of flora and fauna, cultural beliefs, and history to enhance their lives The indigenous peoples of Kenya live in areas that are rich in biodiversity. The knowledge of indigenous peoples is often enshrined in rituals, ceremonies and magic, thus underlining how culture, language, religion, psychology and spiritual beliefs cannot often be separated from their understanding of the natural world. This knowledge has passed through generations and assures the survival of the forest environment, its component parts, and the people and cultures dependent upon it and the ecosystem as a whole.

Despite all these positive advantages of indigenous technical knowledge advantages, there are some which are major setbacks to biodiversity conservation, as portrayed through various Kenyan cultures and cultural practices through totems, superstitions, and myths. Some practices promote the killing of wildlife species thus formal knowledge in biodiversity conservation is essential and critical in suitability in that formal education in biodiversity conservation promotes sound cultural practices.

The Kenya government’s efforts to incorporate indigenous knowledge into the formal education curriculum in the post-colonial era has partly been aimed at confronting power, authority, and prestige of western knowledge which subordinates indigenous forms of knowledge in formal schooling. This approach is one of the ways in which the government has tried to empower its citizens to take control of their own development.

 Incorporating indigenous knowledge in formal education signifies the recognition of the power of the role of both the individual and collective agency of change that is found in the potential of using multiple forms of knowledge in solving current problems inflicting Kenyan communities. The pluralistic approach to knowledge systems requires that different forms of knowledge and methods be authenticated and embraced in the school system and that no one system is used as a benchmark for other knowledge forms. Yet the integration takes place in the school environment that already privileges western epistemologies against indigenous epistemologies, a condition that continues to create hegemony in Kenya’s school knowledge construction. This has often created contradictions between what is intended by the curriculum reforms and what is actually implemented in classrooms, resulting in incongruence between students’ indigenous experiential knowledge and formal school knowledge. 

Therefore, attempts to indigenize the curriculum in Kenya have met with little success and have been implemented superficially. The expansion of western formal education created a situation where traditional education in colonized societies was portrayed by colonial powers as ineffective in managing biodiversity, lives and welfare of colonized peoples and communities.

Teachers’ attitudes toward and beliefs about the value and potential contribution of indigenous knowledge to sustainable development define how they integrate this form of knowledge into the formal school curriculum.

 Some of the challenges in the integration of indigenous knowledge in formal education arise from teachers’ lack of faith that such a curriculum can actually contribute significantly to addressing the socio-economic needs of the country. Teachers’ inability to integrate indigenous knowledge in their practice may also be resulting from limited knowledge on what aspects to integrate. Although teachers are entrusted with the responsibility of fostering indigenous knowledge in the learning institutions of Kenya, there is no guidance on what aspects of culture are to be integrated into the curricula.

Although some indigenous knowledge is lost naturally as practices get modified or are left unused for long time periods, the current rate of loss can be attributed to modernization and cultural homogenization. The current educational systems that believe macro-level problems can only be addressed through the global knowledge pool and the slow growth of institution supporting grassroots innovations are also obstacles therefore to avoid more cultural erosion its essential for indigenous knowledge to be integrated into formal education curricula.

Kenya has sound existing research and academic institutions that could potentially play a vital role in promoting, recognizing, developing and protecting indigenous knowledge as well as incorporating it successively with formal education systems within its curriculum. This would water down to the grassroots level, ultimately leading to economic benefits.

Indigenous peoples and local communities have much to contribute to global discussions concerning sustainability and have a right to participate in matters that may affect them. As proponents and practitioners of both biological and cultural diversity and biocultural diversity, indigenous peoples and local communities have unique insights into possible solutions that can promote biodiversity conservation both locally and globally.

The Mijikenda Kaya Forests consist of 11 separate forest sites spread over some 200 km along the coast containing the remains of numerous fortified villages, known as kayas, of the Mijikenda people. The kayas, created as of the 16th century but abandoned by the 1940s, are now regarded as the abodes of ancestors and are revered as sacred sites and, as such, are maintained as by councils of elders. The site is inscribed as bearing unique testimony to a cultural tradition and for its direct link to a living tradition.

A glimpse into one of the forests

There are today over 60 Kayas in Coastal Kenya, but since the 18th century, local communities have moved out of them to live in surrounding villages, continuing to use the sacred forest as their primary place of worship. Kaya Kinondo remains of great historical and cultural importance.

Kaya Kinondo is one of few makaya (sacred forests along the Kenyan coast) that visitors are allowed to enter. This 30-hectare forest located in Diani beach, just south of Mombasa, the seniormost forest for the Digo community. The forest is maintained by the Kaya Kinondo Ecotourism Project.

Visitors to Kaya Kinondo enjoy a guided walk into the forest during which the community shares information on the Kaya and other aspects of the local culture. They also get the opportunity to visit Kinondo village and interact with members of the local community, including the medicine man. Other activities that are available here include performances, sale of handicrafts and visits to the local school.

Every visitor to the forest has to tie a black cloth on them

Environmental conservation and cultural preservation

Today, there are 11 Kayas that are listed as UNESCO National Heritage Sites. Kaya Kinondo is not one of them since it is partially grabbed, but it is thanks to the ecotourism project at Kaya Kinondo that the others gained in exposure, attracting worldwide attention.

The project is also a great conservation initiative. There is minimal destruction since, according to their beliefs, spirits would attack anyone destroying nature. Insects are not disturbed. Even fetching firewood is not allowed according to local traditions. If a branch of a tree or the tree itself falls, it is simply left to rot, remaining part of the ecosystem. Needless to add, hunting is not allowed.

Kaya Kinondo Ecotourism Project carries out a wide range of environmental conservation efforts to preserve the forest. These include afforestation and raising awareness on the Kaya’s importance.

The community uses a set of rules both to safeguard the Kaya’s sanctity and to protect their culture. For instance, entry into the Kaya is allowed only on certain days, according to a traditional calendar. Visitors are not supposed to litter, smoke or take anything away from the Kaya. Moreover, there are still some sections of the Kaya that one is not allowed to venture into. 

Kaya Kinondo is reported to harbour 52 bird species and 192 plant species. The current pristine status of many Kayas demonstrates the important role that social taboos have played in biodiversity conservation over time; these forests have remained intact due to taboos that prohibited tree felling, livestock grazing and extraction of forest product.


The Digo people show us a beautiful example of environmental conservation and cultural preservation managed at the grassroots level.

 The next time you’re enjoying the sandy beaches at the coast take some time off to visit one of the Kaya forests, a culture that has survived modern day civilization without being changed or eroded.