They live on, decades later They are museums in themselves, keeping stories from an era all but forgotten. The two trees, dark and calloused and textured with age, stand on a spit of land off a gravel road in Kagumo village, about 15 kilometres south of Othaya town in Nyeri County.
They stand side by side, their branches leaning in as if sharing a dark secret, which they might well be.
The pair, a mururi and a mukurwe, two of the most enduring indigenous trees endemic to Central Kenya, is perhaps the most present reminder of one of the most haunting and dark chapters of colonial Kenya – the years immediately after the declaration of the Emergency by the British colonial government in 1952.
The Mau Mau uprising had caught fire across the land, and to stem its rise, the British forced entire communities from their homes and herded them into enclosures, which came to be known individually as gichagi.
They forced the locals to dig a 6ft deep, 10ft wide moat-like trench around the settlement. The trench was rigged with spikes, effectively nipping the lifeline to food and other supplies for the insurgents.
Then, in 1954, the colonialists cobbled a tree-house like watchtower between the two trees, in which sat a hawk-eyed guard looking out over the rolling land, ready to sound the alarm for any suspicious movement. The observatory, was manned in shifts round the clock.
HISTORY HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
Unless you are familiar with the history of the freedom struggle, history, specifically the drama that played out on this piece of land, these two trees mean nothing to you.
While on a tour of the National Museums of Kenya, Nyeri branch, I was astonished to find out that while no gate charge is collected, the visitors’ log was spotty, the gallery hall with its prized trove empty.
And in the case of the trees that held the beacon, the story is much bleaker: there is nothing documenting the drama that played out here; most of the people who lived through that dark period are either long dead, while the living are hardly ever consulted. In the developed countries, such trees would be listed as landmarks, with accompanying historical notes.
Curiously, the trees stand adjacent to Kagumo Secondary School, a mixed day school. Recently, I decided to engage some of the students.
The questions: give me the native names these two trees and are you aware of events that occurred here? Only one of the 10 students I polled could name the mukurwe.
“A watchtower, up those trees?” came the wide-eyed response from one of them. “I didn’t know that.”
KEEPER OF THE MEMORY
I wouldn’t have fared any better than the students, were it not for a retired teacher and voracious reader named Wanjohi Wahome. Mr Wahome was a teenager when his family, along with others, was forced into a camp. He vividly remembers the bird-nest of a house perched high up in the trees.
“To go to school, you would have to be escorted by the army,” he offered. “The people were let out of the gichagi for one hour per week – one hour to fetch food that was supposed to last the family a whole week,” he said
Mr Wahome, a historian who has written a story of the various local clans, tracing their names and peculiarities, wishes more people were interested in the history hidden among the trees.
“If only people recognised and appreciated history, this place would be a landmark,” says Mr Wahome.
“How will future generations know of the horrible years many of us lived through?”
This particular camp lasted until 1961, when it became apparent that self-rule was inevitable. The families were relocated, some back to their former homes, while others were assigned portions of land elsewhere.
The observatory was torn down, but to their credit, the authorities left the trees in place.
Mr Charles Gatu, a man well-versed in local history, and whose father, Waititu Kamaru, was the first post-colonial chief of the then Othaya Location, says that inside the trees’ bark one can still see nail marks where the workmen had pieced the watchtower.
Six decades is enough time for the landscape to have changed. The land is denuded of indigenous trees, and that the two trees, arguably the oldest in the region, still stand is a feat.
Under the green-black eaves of the two trees is the Africa Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA). It was among the first native religious groupings whose foundation was an affront to orthodox Christianity, welding bits of African culture into Christian formulary.
Years before White man thrust the Bible into the hands of the people, this patch of land which is owned by the church, was a hallowed shrine. When the rain tarried, or a malevolent wind fanned with bad tidings, men of good standing lit a fire at the base of the trees. The blue smoke of an unblemished lamb wafted skywards, carrying prayers to Ngai, the deity.
It appears somehow fitting that the church and the two trees reside in the same plot , like matching bookends; in a certain sense we have moved on, but what was still is.
“Were it not for the fact that the church owns this piece of land, these trees would be long gone,” Wahome said. “There was some kinship, the essence of worship shared by the church and the trees.”
A few months before the government imposed the three-month logging ban, an ever-green tree locally known as muroha, was chopped to the ground not too far from here. The gigantic tree, with its cathedral-rafter like branches, had been part of the landscape for so long that in its absence, the spot it had occupied is disturbingly bare. While the owner had every right to cut the tree, the action seemed to portend a possible dark episode: erasure.
A few months ago, the Nyeri County government revealed that it intends to mark historic sites in the county, starting with Kahigaini in Tetu, the site where Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi was captured, and have them upgraded to landmark status, or have their presence acknowledged beginning in June this year.
Mr Anthony Maina, the assistant curator at the Museums of Kenya, Nyeri, says that it’s about time. “There are so many sites, buildings carrying rich stories that people need to know about,” he says.
During a conversation DN2, Witima Sub-location Assistant Chief Maina Gititia said that it is important that young people grow up knowing their roots.
“A site like this could be a vital learning point in history, allowing the younger generation to appreciate the cost of freedom, and foster patriotism,” he said.
For several years a family of hornbills made their home in the branches, their discordant music interrupting most afternoons. The birds no longer live here, and are so rare to find as to be considered nearly extinct. But the trees live on, brittle and stubborn; they stand as if reprising a role they played more than 50 years ag, even without the watchtower, looking out over the rolling land.
If plans hold, the trees, suspected to be more than a century old, will bear a badge, with ticker-tape barbed wire circling the base of their trunks, and to cement the new status, a sign bearing a brief history of the role they played.
And the past, no matter how grim, will come out of the dark musty shadows, and into official lore, from the unknown to the known.