The cutting of a branch of a fig tree has caused anxiety among a section of the community here for the past two weeks, and today they hope to find closure.
None of the men who will have important roles to play in the ritual at this Nairobi surburb today has been having sex since the bad news of the fall of a mugumo branch broke... or so they claim.
The sheep, chosen to die to save the people of Dagoretti, will be tied up and hung upside down, its terrified face pointing in the direction of the great Mt Kenya, and only young, morally pure boys will allowed to eat the roast mutton
Friday an interesting ceremony will take place at a township a few kilometres west of Nairobi. A sheep, a special sheep, will be slaughtered. Prayers will be said. Chants chanted. Demons chased away. Ancestors appeased. And forgiveness sought.
The ceremony will attract people from far and wide, but it is not the kind you have in mind. Still, it will be a very, very important ceremony.
There are two narratives as to why that ceremony has to be held today. One goes thus: A few days ago, the fellows working at the Dagoretti office of the Kenya Red Cross felt a tree growing in their compound was becoming a menace, spreading its thick foliage all over their little compound and generally making the tending of their garden a nightmare.
And so they called a man and asked him whether he could trim the tree for a fee. He said “of course”, and cut off the offending branch.
The other narrative refutes this; the branch was not cut, but fell off the tree by itself. It had overgrown its anchor, the weight of its foliage too heavy for the mother trunk, and so the inevitable had to happen. And that inevitable was it crushing down into the green Red Cross office compound.
Whichever way, a branch came off a tree at Dagoretti, and the place has never been the same since then. Today, therefore, the elders in this quiet settlement hope to apologise to the tree, the soil on which it stands, and the ancestors who have gone before them.
This will be serious business that has taken about two weeks to plan. Men will lift their hands and bow their heads in supplication, praying to their god and asking for forgiveness for failing to protect this tree. There will be blood. And fat. And gut contents. Libations.
Harrison Waithaka, chairman of the Dagoretti council of elders, says a wether (castrated male sheep) “with no blemish” will be slaughtered. The knife for the job will first be purified through an elaborate ritual, and anything that will come into contact with the animal, including the utensils that will collect its blood, must be okayed by the elders.
The sheep, chosen to die to save the people of Dagoretti, will be tied up and hung upside down, its terrified face pointing in the direction of the great Mt Kenya.
Once slaughtered, its innards will be inspected to ensure there is no sign from the ancestors that it is a tainted animal. The elders who chose the animal for this special occasion might have missed something, says Waithaka, but the ancestors are always hawk-eyed.
Should something be found wanting about the animal’s internal organs, then it will have to be set aside and another one slaughtered for the ritual.
The man slaughtering the sheep, selected carefully from a team of candidates by the elders, will carefully collect the blood, which will then be mixed with the contents of the bowels.
After that, the carcass will be placed on a crackling fire and a container placed underneath it to extract fat, which will then be mixed with herbs to form a sacred concoction. This, alongside the Kikuyu alcoholic brew, muratina, will be sprinkled on the site as libation.
Although in most cases the meat from such sacrifices is not eaten, today’s peace offering will be extended to young boys, and young boys only. Their fathers won’t eat the meat, and neither will their mothers. The elders, too, can’t touch the roast mutton.
“Nobody else, not even the one roasting the meat, will eat it,” says Waithaka. “He, and it has to be a he, cannot even lick his fingers and touch the meat! Only young boys will eat the meat because we consider them morally unsullied.”
Because the few young boys chosen to feast on the special animal cannot complete the job, the rest of the meat, together with all the utensils used in the ritual, will be thrown into a ball of fire and burnt to chars.
As the fire consumes everything, the elders will retreat to watch how the smoke behaves. They expect it to rise directly into the skies as a show of confidence from their ancestors that they have done well. Should it, however, just dance around and scatter all over Dagoretti, the whole affair will be regarded a failure. They will have to slaughter another sheep.
All this because a tree branch has fallen off a tree.
A tree? You ask.
Yes, a tree.
This, though, is not any other tree, but the revered mugumo, or fig tree. To the unititated, this is just another tree, another trunk that rises from the bowels of the earth and climbs into the skies, its branches spreading out like giant, outstretched arms.
But to the Agikuyu, the mugumo, just like the heap of rock and soil that rises 5,000 metres above sea level near Nanyuki, and after which the country is named, is a matter of life and death, a sacred object that must be held in veneration.
That veneration includes handling and treating the tree and all that pertains to it, including the poor, fallen branch, with utmost care. The elders will not step on it, and women, considered slightly more sullied than men in this interesting culture — will not get anywhere near it.
It is a double standard of life, culture and tradition that most women have learnt to live with, but it is not lost on all. Also, the requirement that the men handling the sheep, like the sheep itself, must be chaste has been overtaken by events. The sheep, castrated at a young age, might be chaste, but scarcely are the men calling the shots.
And so they have bent the rules a little bit to accommodate that small matter; because they are not chaste, they will make the effort to remain sexually pure prior to the ceremony. None of the men who will have important roles to play in the ritual at Dagoretti today has been having sex since the bad news of the fall of a mugumo branch broke.
Or so they claim.
“Having sex just days to the ceremony is considered dirty for those who will be around the tree,” explains chairman Waithaka. Other adherents of the Agikuyu tradition were asked through the media, in keeping with tradition, to also abstain.
“Such abstinence will cleanse us in preparation for the ritual, and anybody who has been involved in activities that negate inner morality during this period of mourning cannot be present at the scene of the ceremony.
“They may wait outside the compound, but they can’t come near the tree. If you have sinned, you cannot step on the grounds. You must first go and cleanse yourself, otherwise you will go away with a curse hanging on your back.”
All this business of supplication and libation and abstinence started two weeks ago, when two elderly women heard a power saw buzzing in the Red Cross compound. Curious, they made their way into the compound to find out what tree was being cut.
To their horror, they told DN2, they found some men had already finished felling a branch of the tree which stands in the compound and were in the process of turning it into timber.
A neat pile of the rendered timber sat in the compound when we visited; neat, well-cut, but untouchable. Because you do not make a bed out of a mugumo if you are a sane man.
ATONEMENT FOR SIN
They called the elders within the Dagoretti township, and then sat at the scene, guarding their special tree and cursing in low tones.
“We were very disturbed when we got here, not just because of the cut branch, but also because those who did it should know better as they are Kikuyu,” says Amos Ng’ang’a, the deputy of the Dagoretti elder’s council.
The following day, the scene was a beehive of activity as men and women from near and far streamed in to witness the horror. They also informed Mr Evans Gicheru, the manager of the Red Cross society, that he had presided over a very bad thing, and that he will have to atone for his sins.
Gicheru is said to have wanted to make office furniture out of the timber. He belongs to the Mucera clan of the Agikuyu, and no known member of that clan will be allowed at the ritual scene today.
Also barred from attending is the Muithaga clan, to which the man said to have sawed off the branch belongs.
Both Gicheru and his worker, though, have been given a new leaf; they will go to the elders after the ceremony and plead for forgiveness for assaulting the abode of the Agikuyu god, Ngai. It is expected that they will be forgiven.
Waithaka, the chairman of the local elders, says that, other than being a part of nature, the Mugumo is a canvas on which their culture and early religion is painted. Its presence, physically and symbolically, has a divine meaning.
And this is not just any other tree. Word has it that the mugumo, and many others in the compound, were planted by the country’s founding president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, who is said to have lived here briefly.
The elders, therefore, cannot understand why anyone would want to hurt this imposing cultural, religious and social monument.
To many people, the falling of a tree is an ordinary, natural occurrence. But not to the Agikuyu where the mugumo is involved. For mugumos do not just fall.
The tree is physically and ecologically powerful, hence acquiring the name “the strangler” because of its tendency to smother other trees for its survival. In cases where it starts out as an epiphyte on other trees, it grows its roots downward to envelop the host tree while still growing upward to reach into the sunlight.
Eventually, the mugumo suffocates other trees that may stand in the way of its growth, killing the host to grow in splendour.
It is for this reason that it has been used by the Kikuyu community as an analogy for power, according to Prof Godfrey Muriuki in the book, A History of the Kikuyu. Prof Muriuki posits that the mugumo is held in so much awe as it is believed to symbolise power.
And in Dagoretti today, a group of men and women will gather to protect that power.
Tree is central to Kikuyu mythology
THE MUGUMO IS tied to the roots of Gikuyu cosmology and worship. In fact, the story has been passed down generations of how the Agikuyu originated in a garden bursting with the life of the tree.
This myth of origin reads not-so-differently from a story in the book of Genesis in the Bible, which talks of a Garden of Eden and God appearing to Adam at a grove of fig trees.
The Agikuyu believe that God, from atop the Kiri Nyaga (The Mountain of God), christened Mt Kenya by the British colonialists, pointed Gikuyu to the land below and instructed him to go to a specific spot to the south of the mountain.
There he met a beautiful woman called Mumbi. After the awkwardness of the introductions, they realised they needed each other and became husband and wife.
“By intuition, it was under the mugumo that Gikuyu went to thank God for Mumbi and for the abundance of food and life that he was enjoying,” narrates a lively Kuria Kamau, a Dagoretti cultural elder.
“This is the genesis of our ancestry. We have the mugumo tree to thank for our beginning and progression,” Waithaka, the elder’s chairman, butts in.
“It is the symbol of life. And wherever there is a mugumo tree, God is nearby.”
And so it is in the tribe’s collective psyche that, under the mugumo and facing Mt Kenya, they can commune with God at any time by praying to him.