We visited Embu in February 2024 and we can't wait to go back to explore some more.  See below descriptions of Njukiri, Kiang'ombe and Kirimiri.   Thanks to Steven Kameti and Josemarie Nyaga for their great photos.

Embu town is located on the South Eastern slopes of Mount Kenya and spans various ecological zones from the highland areas with lush forests to the lower, drier regions. The town's geography includes a mix of fertile agricultural land, which supports tea, coffee, and macadamia farming, as well as semi-arid zones. This diverse landscape contributes to Embu's rich agricultural output and scenic beauty, making it a significant hub for both commerce and tourism in the region.

Tree Safari to Njukiri Forest – where we see a community forest association in action.

It is February and the forest is full of butterflies. As we follow our guide down a winding path towards the river, delicate white and red flowers drop, from tall Peacock flower trees, onto our heads. 

We hear the roar of a river below us as we walk through a grove of young Meru Oak trees: easy to recognise as their leaves are like fingers on a hand.

We arrive at the edge of a steep valley and look down at the fast-running river and rocks below. Wobbly canopy bridges cross the river. You can even zipline across if you feel brave!

This is Njukiri forest, the forest of the bees (njuki means bee in Kikuyu): five hundred acres of protected forest spanning Embu and Kirinyaga counties. It’s an important water catchment. The river Rupingazi passes through this forest before winding its way down to the drier areas in the East where it provides water to many people. The forest is also considered sacred. People come here to pray at a special rock near the Muthigire town entrance. Luckily for us all, this important forest is cared for and protected by not one, but four, community forest associations.

Community forest associations, or CFAS, are groups of local people who work together with government to manage the forest.  CFAs first started in the 1980s and they are on the increase. In 2022 there were 256 CFAS with an estimated membership of 3 million people (Chief Conservator of forests, Julius Kamau quoted in kenyanews.go.ke).  The CFAS protect the forest and carry out a range of activities ranging from butterfly farming, honey productions, planting crops and young trees together to regenerate areas of forest that were previously cleared and running ecotourism projects. All of these are activities that bring local people an income while conserving and even enhancing the forest.

You can support the work of the Njukiri forest associations by visiting the forest as a tourist.  A good entry point is Ndunda falls camp just a few kilometres outside Embu town.  CFA members, including our guide Ephantus Murage, are doing a great job, not only conserving the forest, but replanting indigenous trees around the campsite and labelling trees along the path to help visitors learn to recognise them. 

Is there a CFA near you?  If there is, why don’t you try and find out more about what they are doing to protect your local forests? Please share any good ideas you find with the Tree Safari.

Entering the forest. Our guide Ephantus Murage

The CFA has labelled trees in the forest

Ndunda falls cottages

Tree planting in Ndunda falls camp

Meru Oak (Vitex keniensis) leaves

Mutikani tree (Strychnos mitis)

The smooth, fluted trunk of the Mutikani tree

Find out more about Community Forest Associations in Kenya

Follow these links to find out more

Karura forest 

Mikoko Pamoja, Gazi bay

Kijabe environmental volunteers

Arabuko forest 

Mount Kenya trust

Find out more about the PELIS approach to increasing forest cover here

Tree list, Njikuru

Croton megalocarpus

Croton machrostachus

Tiger tree (invasive?) ???

Avocado, guava, tea trees (forest edge)

Nandi flame

Sycamore fig

Meru Oak, Vitex keniensis

Mutikuyu tree, Strychnos mitis

Cabbage tree (Cussonia spicata)

Black sweetberry (Bridelia micrantha)                 

Peacock flower tree, Albizia gummifera

Long podded Albizia (?) Albizia schimperiana

Giant bamboo

Tree Safari to Kiang'ombe forest – where we learn that sacred groves are not only our heritage, but could be a key to our healthy future ...

East of Embu there is a region of rolling hills, sandy paths, rocky streams and waterfalls. The homesteads are surrounded by mango trees and when we visit, in February, everyone is eating mangoes!

The tallest hill in the in the area, Kiang'ombe, stands at 1800 metres above sea level, and is sacred to the Mbeere people who live in this area.  In the past, people would hide their cattle up on the hills when raiders came to the area. That's how it got its name which means ‘hill of the cows’ (ng'ombe is the word for cow in Mbeere and kilima means hill in swahili).

Kiang'ombe hill is home to a large number of indigenous trees and shrubs. Many of them have important medicinal properties. In the past, it was common to use plants to prevent and cure illnesses. Medicinal plants grew all over the country and were carefully protected because people knew their value.

During the colonial era, children went to schools that followed a curriculum developed by Europeans. They learned about the important of exotic trees the colonials had brought with them to Kenya, like mangoes and avocados. But there were no classes or books about the value of local trees. As the number of people in Kenya grew, more and more land has been cleared for agriculture or building. As most people didn’t know about the value of the medicinal plants many of them were cut and their habitats destroyed.

But our ancestors were not wrong! Over time, people have realised that many important medicines do indeed come from Kenyan trees and shrubs. Today scientists are investigating the bark, leaves and roots of Kenyan trees like the lucky bean tree (Erythrina abyssinica) and the black plum (Vitex doniana), which we saw at Kiang'ombe for their ability to treat many illnesses including malaria, cancer and respiratory conditions.

Luckily for us there are some places where medicinal trees and shrubs were protected and can still be found: sacred forests and hills like Kiang'ombe!  People protected these areas because of their cultural and religious significance. Now we realise that they are valuable for our health too. A survey in Kiang'ombe in 2015 (see link below) found 51 species of trees and shrubs that were used by people in the past for medicine.   

We should be grateful to our forefathers and elders for protecting these sacred forests. Now it is our turn to make sure they continue to be protected, not only for their beauty and rich biodiversity but also for the potential good they can do for humankind.

Visiting Kiang'ombe

Though it is close to Embu, the roads to Kiangombe are in very poor condition (time of writing 2024).  We recommend getting a tour company, like Embu tours, to arrange your visit.

Tree list Kiangombe

Chocolate berry or Black plum tree (Vitex doniana)

Lucky bean tree (Erythrina abysinnica)

White bauhinia (Bauhinia petersiana)

Velvet-leaved combretum (Combretum molle)

Euphorbia bussei

African star chestnut (Sterculia africana) 

Red pod terminalia (Terminalia brownie)

Wild custard apple (Annona senegalensis)

Find out more about sacred groves  and medicinal plants 

Brokensha and Glazier studied trees, their ceremonial importance and medicinal value in Embu region. They described two trees which were particularly important to Mbeere people: Melia volkensii Mukau, and  the giant Albizia (Albizia coriaria) Mukorowe.  Both these trees were regarded as clan property and could not be cut without permission.  Look out for their book:

David Brokensha and Jack Glazier 1973  Land Reform amongst the Mbeere of Central Kenya.

The ethnobotanical survey of Kiang'ombe was carried out in 2015.  The reference for the paper is ' Ethnobotanical and vegetation survey of kiango’mbe and Kianjiru Hill Forests In Embu County, Kenya *Waiganjo, B.W1, 4., Githae, E.W2., Warui, C.M1., Opiyo, E.A3 .   You can download it here.

Check out some of the other sacred groves Tree Safari has visited