To bring in the New Year, I joined a couple of friends in Kakamega Forest, a place I have been meaning to visit for a long time. There I met a couple of members from Kenya Forest Conservation Corps, a newly established local non-government organisation (NGO) working on conservation projects in the forest.
Kakamega Forest is the last patch of equatorial rainforest left in Kenya and is located in the west near the border with Uganda. The forest is under threat from neighbouring villagers cutting the trees to produce charcoal, the primary cooking fuel used in East Africa. The forest is seen as a resource for local people who use it for firewood gathering, vines are collected to use as ropes, bark is used for medicinal purposes and also to make blankets, cattle graze and thatching grass is collected.
The forest covers 45 square kilometres and sits 1600m above sea level. An average of 2.08 metres of rain falls every year, with rainfall heaviest in April and May. It is home to 380 species of trees and plants, including 125 tree species. The forest contains some of Africa’s greatest hardwood trees such as Elgon teak. Brush-tailed porcupine, bush pig, giant water shrew and hammer-head fruit bat are some of the animals found in the forest, as well as a flying squirrel that can fly up to 90 metres. There are approximately 350 species of birds as well as butterflies and snakes which normally can only be found in West Africa. There are over 40 species of snakes and 45% of all recorded butterflies in Kenya can be found in Kakamega Forest. Seven kilometres of trails allow hikers to enjoy the forest. In 1930, Kakamega was the centre of Kenya’s gold mining industry. The forest has been protected since 1933, but panning for gold in the forest’s rivers is still common.
Kenya Forest Conservation Corps has applied for 1000 hectares of land to conduct afforestation projects. They are also planning to set up an eco-lodge where guests can enjoy the forest, especially those interested in studying the natural remedies available from the myriad of plants in the forest. I met Gibson and James, two members of the KFCC. They are dedicated to protecting the forest and finding alternative sources of income for villagers, so they are not reliant on destroying the forest to produce charcoal. The carbon credits scheme provides a good opportunity, as companies can pay the local people to plant trees on their behalf to offset their carbon usage.
James’ plans for an eco-lodge is to incorporate a full cultural experience with drumming workshops, traditional dance performances, story-telling, and the food will all be organically grown and locally sourced. He is passionate about the healing benefits of natural foods and plans to set up specialised tours to educate people about the natural remedies to be found in the Kakamega Forest.
The forest is such a beautiful place, the serenity only disturbed by the calls of the Black and White Colobus Monkeys playing in the trees overhead. On the early morning, we went for a walk in the forest. The trails are not signposted, so there is the risk of losing yourself if you forget your direction. But most trails eventually lead back to the accommodation or main gate and even when we got a little bit disoriented, the peace of the forest could not allow us to get too upset. We found a viewing platform and climbed up for a view over a clearing…. and got us a bit closer to those noisy monkeys!
The accommodation available near the main gate is simple bandas (small traditional-style huts) with shared bathroom facilities (hot water is available on request). There is a kitchen where you can self-cater or get the staff to prepare your meals. The central dining banda is a large comfortable communal space where guests can relax and share stories of their forest experiences.
Kakamega is a bit of a hidden treasure, off the main tourist path. Most people imagine vast open savannah when they think of Kenya. But Kakamega Forest provides a unique contrast that I can only recommend.