Decolonizing Family: The heart of the Kaya

Tags: Family Well-being, Cultural Heritage, Kaya, Mijikenda People, Community Empowerment


Economics has its linguistic roots as the management of the household: A group of people creating a commitment toward each other’s well being. When considering the origin of non-market based economics and traditions of resource coordination and mutual aid like Mwerya or Chikola that represent our recent or ancient human heritage, we are led on a journey back to family and toward the concept of Kaya.

Kaya, among the Mijikenda people in Kenya, refers to a traditional homestead, clan, or village that speaks to a cultural, religious, and historical significance. The Mijikenda, meaning "nine cities" in Swahili, is a group of nine Bantu-speaking ethnic groups living along the coast of Kenya, each with their own distinct culture, language, and customs.

A Kaya typically consists of a settlement, surrounded by a sacred forest. Within the Kaya, the layout is designed to accommodate various structures for living, socializing, learning, planning and celebrating. The Kaya serves not only as a physical space for living but also as a symbol of unity and identity for many people.

Culture spread from family and our connection with nature. The forests surrounding the Kaya are considered sacred, and they are believed to be the dwelling place of ancestral spirits. These forests play a vital role in maintaining well-being via ecological and cultural balance.

Over time, many Kayas have been abandoned due to urbanization, migration, and social changes starting with colonization, but they still hold a strong connection to the cultural heritage of the Mijikenda people. Efforts have been made to preserve and protect these sites, and several Kayas have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

As the home itself became subject to foreign markets as forced by colonialism - the family unit itself became atomized and commodified units of labor and potential future labor (husband, wife and children). The modern post-colonial family could be conscripted, repurposed, drafted, or reallocated at the whim of the state or employer class. The family, as a sole atomic unit, alone from the clan or tribe, could be manipulated and controlled.

Breaking up strong clans, creating in-fighting and tarnishing the name of families was a common tactic to sew division among people to divide and conquer. Until today our state-run education systems encourage/force us to prepare our children, like gladiators, to compete in foreign markets with little to no tools for collaboration.

What is the opportunity?

While we can’t idolize the past, we know that groups of neighbors and businesses can and did commit toward mutual aid in various ways – like the creation of a mutual credit in Mwerya or Chikola.

Can we heal our family traumas while also decolonizing them? Even as modern forces of globalization and technology further atomize the family and community, it is crucial to acknowledge that the past was not perfect and that challenges and inequalities have existed even within traditional systems, but as we look beyond our current market economy and back home, what can we learn from our ancestors and from the heritage of the Kaya?

Could we imagine Our clan - Our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews as well as distant relations and adopted friends – as a huge collaboration for mutual well-being? If science has taught us anything - it is that we are all family of distant relatives after all.

If we can see back to the tears that ripped our families and clans apart, can we at least teach the next generation what was once possible and could be again? Can we stop seeing through the eyes of the market and for a moment feel the heart of the Kaya?

Communities can work together to heal from historical traumas, strengthen family bonds, and promote well-being in a way that honors and preserves their cultural heritage. Here are a set of activities based on the importance of re-examining and re-evaluating traditional family and community practices for promoting well-being:

  1. Community-based education: Establish educational programs that emphasize the history and cultural practices of local communities, including the concept of Kaya, as well as other relevant traditions from around the world. This approach can help foster a sense of belonging and identity among community members and encourage intergenerational learning.

  2. Intergenerational mentorship: Create mentorship programs that connect younger and older generations within families and communities. This can facilitate the transfer of traditional knowledge, values, and practices while also encouraging mutual understanding and respect across generations.

  3. Community gardens and shared spaces: Establish community gardens and other shared spaces that encourage collaboration and interdependence among family members and neighbors. These spaces can serve as venues for traditional practices, like collective resource management and mutual aid (e.g. the Mijikenda Mwerya and Chikola), as well as opportunities for cultural exchange and learning.

  4. Family therapy and support groups: Offer family therapy and support groups that specifically address the impact of historical traumas, colonization, and social change on family relationships and dynamics. These services can help families heal from past traumas and work together to create a more supportive and nurturing environment.

  5. Local economic initiatives: Encourage the development of local businesses and cooperatives that prioritize the well-being of families and communities over profit. This can include promoting mutual credit systems like Mwerya or Chikola, as well as other forms of non-market-based economics that focus on collaboration and shared prosperity.

  6. Cultural preservation and revitalization: Support efforts to preserve and revitalize cultural practices, languages, and traditions that have been lost or marginalized due to colonization and social change. This can involve documenting oral histories, supporting traditional arts and crafts, and advocating for the protection of sacred sites like the Kaya forests.

  7. Policy advocacy: Advocate for policies and legislation that promote family well-being, community resilience, and cultural preservation. This can involve lobbying for greater investment in social services, education, and housing, as well as policies that support the rights and autonomy of indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups.

Ending here with "FAMILY" as an acronym to highlight and remind us of the role that it played, plays and can still play, in human wellness, cultural heritage, and optimal well-being.

F - Foundations of Well-being: Emphasizing the importance of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health within the family unit.

A - Ancestral Connections: Recognizing and valuing the wisdom, customs, and traditions passed down through generations, connecting family members to their heritage.

M - Mutual Aid: Encouraging a supportive and nurturing environment where family members care for each other and help one another grow and develop.

I - Intergenerational Bonds: Fostering strong relationships between different generations within the family, enabling the sharing of knowledge, experiences, and values.

L - Love and Compassion: Cultivating a loving and compassionate atmosphere within the family, promoting empathy, understanding, and emotional well-being.

Y - Youth Empowerment: Supporting the education, development, and growth of children and young family members, ensuring they are equipped to contribute positively to their community and society.