Sacred Mugumo tree survives Christianity


An elder examines a Mugumo tree on the border of Yamumbi and Lemok locations in Uasin Gishu County. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG

Last week my cousin Kimani Mbuuru approached me with a rather strange request. He is an elder at PCEA Church Huriangu, Kibichoi and informed me that a group of elders were looking for a quiet place to hold a day of prayer and reflection.

Apparently, they had searched and failed to find a suitable location. With this predicament in mind, Kimani sought my permission to hold the prayers this last Sunday at my shamba in Kibichoi, which is just a stone’s throw away from their church.

I agreed to the request without hesitation, and I asked Kimani whether he understood the significance of that location. There are two giant mugumo trees in my shamba that are more than 100 years old.

My father’s elder brother Njoroge told me many years ago, that the trees were there when he was born around 1913 and the Kiereini clan regularly held cultural and religious festivities under these trees.

I am told by my sole remaining uncle on my father’s side, Mbuuru wa Iraii, that there was a third, even bigger, mugumo tree on the clan land not far away and when it threatened to tip over in 1945, a special sacrifice was made before young men were allowed to cut it down.

Because of its enormous size, it took the better part of three weeks to cut down and the timber was sold to the wood-fired electricity generating station at Ruiru. The timber could not be used as firewood or for building because it was believed that doing so would bring a curse on the people.

More recently, my father warned me that the trees must not be cut down because they are sacred.

The Mugumo (Ficus natalensis/Ficus thonningii) is a rare sacred tree among the Kikuyu. Mugumo is an evergreen type of fig whose wood is unsuitable for lumber or firewood.

The tree can grow as tall as 90 metres (295 ft) in forest or savannah and is invaluable in conserving soil moisture and fertility. Traditionally, the Kikuyu have used the tree for medicine, fruit, rain catchment, boundary markers, sanctuaries, fodder for cattle, and to hang beehives.

In the past people would build rafts high in the branches as places of refuge from invading tribes, in particular, the marauding Maasai (Matthew Karangi Revisiting the Roots of Gikuyu Culture Through the Sacred Mugumo Tree.

The Mugumo trees are known for their size, strength, and power. They are also trees of Ngai, the Kikuyu God, who chose Mugumo trees as places to inhabit when descending from heaven to commune with the Kikuyu people.

The sacred tree and the rituals associated with it validated the Kikuyu peoples claim to land, political power, religious hegemony, and identity to make concrete and material the abstract notion of life.

A close study of the scared Mugumo tree reveals that taking care of the tree is tantamount to taking care of the environment and that when the habitat is destroyed, plundered, or mismanaged, the quality of life is undermined. It is also a symbol of fertility and succession, “ituika”, the passage of one ruling generation to another.

While people traditionally thanked Ngai before the start of the day and when resting in the middle of their chores, the mugumo tree was a sanctuary where spiritual rituals were conducted, and people brought food and gifts to Ngai.

The Mugumo is often compared to modern-day church buildings where people can go to pray and invite Ngai, the owner and source of life, to bless their families and communities with “peace, abundant food, fertile women, healthy children and cattle.” (Karangi, 122).

Notwithstanding the impact of Christianity, the Kikuyu still use their traditional beliefs as part of their cosmology and key in their “religio-philsophical” world is the Mugumo tree. There exists “a strong association between Christianity and the Mugumo prayers and rituals”. (Karangi, 127).

The Kikuyu people literally claim that this tree is part of them. In the past it helped them in defining themselves as a group and acted as a compass by which they could find their way to social and religious integration in times of crises.

Mugumo trees are physically and ecologically powerful. The tree’s roots suspend downwards as ropes do, and through these roots, the Mugumo can suffocate other trees that are in the way of its growth.

The Kikuyu believe that, like themselves, the Mugumo tree is a survivor and it does not need humans to grow. With time it can transform the landscape, people, and identities.

In common with other African communities, the Kikuyu have been working through immeasurable religious and political change within a relatively short period.

Their past is tied to their future through songs and rituals about the Mugumo tree. The songs change to include contemporary messages while eliciting strong feelings connected with the older traditional values concerning health, hope, unity, harmony, wholeness, and communion. (Karangi, 129).

I must be in a very special place to have two Mugumo trees on my shamba. I fully intend to abide by my father’s instructions and to honour these sacred trees in accordance with Kikuyu tradition.