Kilifi County is located along the Kenyan coast, north of the city of Mombasa. The county is home to Kaya elders from the Mijikenda community. The Kaya elders’ preference for upholding their traditional religious practices makes them unique. However, Kilifi County has gained notoriety for the murder of elderly people on suspicion of witchcraft. in the past, there have been allegations linking youth to these killings.
One of the factors contributing to this phenomenon is a misunderstanding of how local African traditional religion works. Majority of youth fail to appreciate or understand the Kaya Elders’ religious rituals/rites. The major concern the youth have is the fact that they do not understand the concept behind the traditional elders’ activities in the sacred forests, which may include sacrificial prayers seeking intervention on behalf of the community for things like rainfall or protection from communal calamities.
In this regard, Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance, a member of Faith to Action Network, organized an interfaith youth camp in Kilifi County in the last week of December 2022. The one-week interfaith youth camp, which attracted 100 participants, was held at the Bahari Girls High School in Kilifi County and brought together young people from various religious, cultural, and social backgrounds living in the county. The goal of the camp was to increase young people’s social understanding of religious diversity while also encouraging them to participate in peace building and human rights protection. Leadership, tolerance, and diversity were all prominent themes in the Camp’s program. These are the basic ingredients for developing youth capacity in two areas: advocating for the reduction of human rights violations associated with religious belief and promoting religious diversity and tolerance for a peaceful, secure, and cohesive society.
To help the youth understand the Kaya elders and put an end to the killings, during the camp, the youth were made aware that the Kaya elders’ practices are simply carrying on the age-old mantle of protecting forests, which are considered repositories of the Mijikenda people’s spiritual beliefs and seen as the sacred abode of their ancestors. This enabled the youth to appreciate the practice of the elders and it was marked a starting point of appreciating their cultural practices.
Additionally, Kilifi County has a historical Muslim-Christian interaction. However, depending on where and how one lives, not everyone is truly exposed to the culture of ‘the other’. Take Juliet Pola, a 26-year-old camp participant who was from a Christian background; she admitted that despite being born and bred in Kilifi town, she never really had close interactions with Muslims before this event. But after staying with Muslims for a whole week during the camp; working together in team activities, sharing meals and sleeping together, she says that it helped her acquire a whole new perspective.
Juliet, a model with a fashion sense, says that spending time with her female Muslim camp-mates and closely observing how they adhered to the Islamic dress code (the buibui and hijab) gave her a new appreciation for the attire. “I’d never really interacted with Muslims before, but this experience taught me a lot” (about Muslims). “I’ve grown to appreciate Muslim women’s dressing styles because I believe it humbles people and it’s just really nice,” she said. Juliet appreciated more aspects of Islamic culture; she also learned about the differences in how Muslims and Christians observe their prayers.
Apart from learning about the Kaya elders and embracing religious diversity, the young people in attendance were inspired to take on leadership roles. Phelicia Kibibi, announced her decision to run for a leadership position with the Kenya Youth Federation – Kilifi Chapter in a WhatsApp group of camp members a few weeks after the event, in January 2023. Phelicia attributed her newfound motivation to the youth camp lessons. She said:
“I’m here proudly thanking KMYA for the lessons they gave us. I never thought that I would vie for any leadership position, but through them I got the courage to stand for a seat in Kenya Youth Federation as we learnt that a leader is light and hope. I will light up Kilifi County and be the voice for all the youths in the county.”
This youth activity was part of the Joint Initiative for Strategic Religious Action (JISRA). The Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance is collaborating with Faith to Action Network to support faith-based communities in their social role and potential to contribute to the promotion of freedom of religion and belief (FoRB) as well as the fight against (religious) violence and discrimination. This is done through participating in interfaith coalitions, demonstrating that different religious traditions can unite in their vision of a better and more just society.