Mastermind: The burial ceremony that left a village tongue-tied

Wednesday March 18 2020

Wilfred Murungi, who founded the Mastermind Tobacco company. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


When Mastermind Tobacco tycoon Wilfred M’iti Murungi died, the entire village expected an epic burial where national leaders would troop in to pay homage to one of Kenya’s reclusive tycoons.

It was never to be.

The villagers in his Magutuni village home in Maara, Tharaka-Nithi County, were left speechless as the burial that lasted for just an hour was attended by eight people, with friends and many relatives shut out.


So reclusive was Murungi that after he died, even the villagers were kept away from his burial ceremony.

If there is a ceremony that stood out this year, it was the final send-off of Murungi — the man who built Mastermind Tobacco Limited and gave British American Tobacco (BAT) a run for its money.

Murungi started Mastermind Tobacco in the late 1980s and grew it into a multibillion shillings venture.

During his burial on June 11, heavily armed police officers from Magutuni and Chogoria police stations were deployed at his opulent home, and at Kiurani Primary School where two choppers — one ferrying the casket containing his remains and the other with his children — landed.

The casket was hastily offloaded from the chopper into a luxury six-wheeled Mercedes Benz hearse, giving villagers who were peeping through the Kei apple fence no chance to see the remains of the man they referred to as “Master”, derived from his company name.


Hired grave diggers were asked to leave and wait outside the gate, and called back to fill it up with soil after the casket had been lowered.

The grave diggers told the media that they did not see the casket because the grave was already half-filled by family members when they got back. There were also no printed eulogies, neither was there any cooked food or drinks.

Not even journalists, who turned up in large numbers to cover the send-off of the great investor, were allowed to film the event. Only those with long camera lenses managed few shots through the fence.

Locals told the media that a similar scenario was witnessed during the burial of Murungi's wife Joyce Ithiru, who died in 2012. The ceremony was attended by only 40 relatives and close friends. Murungi did not attend his wife’s burial.


Despite the fact that the Ameru tradition dictates that a man should be buried by his clansmen, not a single member of the Arua clan, to which Murungi, belonged was allowed to participate.

Months after his demise, villagers are still in shock, with some doubting whether the tycoon who used to support many children by paying school fees and funded several public projects really died.

Mr Joseph Mutembei, a neighbour and a beneficiary of Murungi’s charity work, told the Nation that having not witnessed Murungi’s remains lowered into the grave, he still hopes to see him one day.

“Murungi was our village hero. He supported many people, especially farmers, by making sure they have a ready market for tobacco,” Mr Mutembei said.

After Murungi’s death, more than 200 people, who were working at farm in the village lost their jobs.

The 30-kilometre Keeria-Magutuni-Kathwana road that was awarded to a company associated with Murungi in 2018 at a cost of Sh1.3 billion has since stalled.


Another company associated with the tycoon was lined up for a tender to build the proposed Maara dam at Sh6.2 billion. It was already working on the Sh300 million Kirumi Kiamujari irrigation project in Maara constituency that has also stalled.

Before he died, Murungi was troubled by a Sh2.9 billion tax claim demanded by the Kenya Revenue Authority. He had indicated his willingness to dispose of 12 properties in order to raise Sh1.54 billion in part payment.