At a glance, the Nyeri Museum in Ruring’u, on the outskirts of Nyeri Town, might not appear to offer much, yet behind it lies a rich history.
The building, which looks like an ordinary residential house, once served as a native law court, and dates back to the pre-independence period.
It is here that rulings for serious crimes such as murder and robbery were made. It was built in 1924 and began functioning a year later.
It is not clear how the name Ruring’u, the area in which it is located, came about; but some people say that it is a mispronounciation of the word “ruling” by the local residents.
The area’s association with the legal term is attributable to the fact that it hosted the first law court in Nyeri set up by the British colonialists.
It was here that African were tried using customary law under the segregationist British colonial policy.
The court was initially run by British settlers, but local elders were later incorporated to arbitrate on civil matters.
The courtroom has a medieval times design, where the judge and elders sat on one end, and relatives and witnesses around the room, leaving an open space in the middle.
The accused would stand at the centre at the end opposite the judges and elders.
Among the items from the colonial era on display at the museum are the heavy metal helmets and shields used by court askaris. And on the walls are photos of the askaris in the colonial uniform, with the trademark khaki shorts.
The museum’s collections offer a glimpse into what might have led to anti-colonialst activism, which culminated in the country’s independence.
Historians say the court eventually came to be known as “Igoti ria mahu”, which means “pregnancies court” in the Kikuyu language.
“Most of the civil matters that were heard here were related to pregnancies. Usually, men were brought here for impregnating teenage girls or sleeping with other men’s wives,” says Mr Njuguna Thuita, a guide at the museum.
Those found guilty would either be fined or sent to detention camps as punishment, he adds.
The courts gradually become obsolete in the 1970s after the old Nyeri Law Courts were built in Nyeri Town.
Consequently, the precolonial courthouse was converted into a meeting hall for the defunct Nyeri Municipal Council.
Today, the former courthouse houses the National Museums of Kenya offices and exhibits Kikuyu cultural artefacts.
However, this iconic national monument was almost lost to a private developer intent on converting it into a nightclub.
“A few years ago, a local businesswoman tried to convert the building into a club. Construction had started but the National Museums of Kenya intervened and it was stopped,” Mr Njuguna says.
Less than 200 metres from the museum stands another important monument, Ruring’u Stadium, which played an important role in the country’s fight for independence.
At the end of the Mau Mau uprising in the 1960s, it was at the stadium that the freedom fighters surrendered their weapons.
The country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta ,personally offered amnesty to the Mau Mau warriors to surrender their weapons at the stadium, which saw more than 2,000 fighters return from Mt Kenya and Aberdare forests.
Sadly, the stadium remains in a deplorable state despite much talk about the need to renovate and preserve because of its historical importance.