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 remembe