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The Waatha people of Kenya


Indigenous people are known to have a very close relationship with nature. Their lives and livelihoods are often intertwined with it. Over the many years of their existence, they have developed strong systems and practices to ensure its continuity.

The People

Many of you will have heard about the Mijikenda people and their sacred Kaya Forests in Kwale County which I have written about in my previous blogs. There is another group I’d like to tell you about in this blog: the Waatha people.

Forgotten about for decades in Kwale and parts of Kilifi County, it’s currently estimated that there are less than 500 Waatha people living in Kwale County. Waatha lives and spiritual connectivity revolve around Kilibisi, a 500 ha forested hill that rises to about 850 metres above sea level in the hinterland of Kwale landscape.

The Forest

Section of Kilibasi hill. Waatha children resting. © Ahmed Mbarak.Section of Kilibasi hill. © Ahmed Mbarak.

The hill is steep and rocky and formed in such a way that deep cave-like shelters have been created. Rocks at the base of the hill have weathered into water retaining “kettle holes”, which are the only dry-season water resources in this otherwise arid area. The forest is rich in biodiversity, and in particular some rare trees species. The lower slopes are covered by species that thrive in drier conditions, whilst on the higher slopes the forest is denser. There’s lots of moss and lichens because moisture laden air blows inland from the coastal strip.

The Spirits

The Waatha have an incredibly strong bond with the forest, which contains many features that have deep spiritual and cultural importance and are cherished dearly. The chairman of the group Mr. Galgalo Guyo Galgalo explains this vividly,

“I still remember when I was a small boy in the early 70’s, my grandfather would lead the entire community to pray in the forest…he offered sacrifices and objects to appease God and powerful spirits that dwelled in the hills, asking for blessing, for good harvest, fertility of the land, and good health for the community. We still undertake these rituals to date. That way, we feel connected to our past, to our land and to our forest”.


The Language

The Waatha’s language further serves to underline the importance of their relationship with nature – there is enormous diversity in the vocabulary they have to describe it. For elephants, for example, they have words to describe tusk shape and size, habits, age and temperament. It is this strong bond with nature that has enabled the Waatha to remain united as a community despite their dwindling numbers and the challenges they face.

African elephantAfrican elephant © Greg Armfield / WWF-UK

The Challenge

In recent years, one such challenge has been drought. As you may have read in the news, drought has been a big problem in Kenya recently. Unfortunately the Waatha have also suffered. Mr. Galgalo explained that in the past, even during the longest drought, the water never used to dry. Now things are changing, “our land is becoming drier and drier, we are experiencing longer dry spells, and for the first time the water in the hill is drying more frequently”.

But the Waatha are a resilient community! They have formed a group called ‘Kilibasi Youth for Action’ and the main aim of this group is to preserve their culture, their land and their forest. Key to doing this will be the strengthening of traditional management systems and practices – and we’re keen to help!

The Next Step

Waatha children resting. © Ahmed Mbarak.Waatha children resting. © Ahmed Mbarak.

We’ve been working with the Waatha to identify and mobilise partners who can support this community to strengthen their voice and rights, and secure the forest on which their lives and livelihoods depend. Watch this space!
You can learn more about WWF’s social policies and work with indigenous communities here.

WWF’s work in Kwale-Kilifi landscape is part of WWF’s Coastal Kenya Programme, which is gratefully supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery and Size of Wales. We are very grateful for the continued support.

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