The view from the Karurumo area of Kangema in Murang’a County is simply stunning.
In the company of retired Catholic priest, Father Joachim Gitonga, we are looking for places of historic interest, including shrines, that will help us put Murang’a County’s history in its proper context, and presumably give us a clue as to what the future holds for it.
There seems to be no better person to talk to about Murang’a’s past than Fr Gitonga, a man widely recognised as the top chronicler of Murang’a lore, and also much respected as the founding Principal of the Murang’a College of Technology.
Acting as our guide, Fr Gitonga patiently takes us through a pageant of Muranga’s intriguing history.
The county, which according to the 2009 census has a population of 942,581, played a leading role during Kenya’s struggle for independence, and indeed celebrated Mau Mau generals like Mbaria Kaniu, Kago and Matenjagwo came from there.
After independence the Murang’a region continued to produce leading national figures, in the process earning the reputation of being the source of bare-knuckle politicians whose epic battles are still fresh in Kenyans’ memories.
Some of them, like Isaac Gathanju and Joseph Kang’ethe, have national heroes status by having streets or roads in the capital named after them.
Others, like Bildad Kaggia, who was a member of the famous Kapenguria Six, fell on hard times after falling out with Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, because of his decision to join Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s opposition Kenya People’s Union.
Kaggia’s home near Saba Saba, which he built in 1966, is still in an impressive state, thanks to the renovation carried out by the government some years ago. There is also a mausoleum where members of his family are buried.
At the house we found the affable Agnes Wanjiku Mbugua and her son, Bildad Kaggia Mbugua, who is named after his illustrious grandfather. Agnes is the wife of Kaggia’s youngest son, Chrispus Mbugua, who died in 1999.
Deep in the valley below lies the grave of Karuri wa Gakure, one of Murang’a’s most illustrious chiefs. Said to have been born in 1840, he died in 1916, just a year after he was baptised by the Italian Consolata Catholic fathers he had warmly welcomed into his kingdom.
Meandering our way down the steep winding roads that lead to it, we make our way through a maize field owned by his descendants, and finally come to the grave after jumping over a tricky wooden barrier.
On the grave, located at Tuthu, is a picture of the chief, which according to an inscription was taken by the Rev Fr F. Perlo on September 16, 1902.
Not so far away from Chief Karuri’s grave, and higher up on the slopes of the Aberdares, is a place popularly referred to as “Mwisho wa Raha”, whose Kiswahili translation is “The end of fun”, and which marks the western extremity of Murang’a County.
It is the point from where any pretence of a fun journey ends, since a traveller has to contend with the mountain and mud.
This is excellent if chilly trout-fishing country, and from that elevation one can see the Mathioya river slowly flowing from its source in the Aberdares. At a ramshackle canteen and on a good day, the proprietor, Nduati wa Mutegi, sells roasted trout and salmon fished out of the Mathioya below.
Beneath Mutegi’s canteen, slightly obscured by thick undergrowth, is a cave in which veteran Mau Mau Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi used to hide during his many forays from his operational bases in the Aberdares.
The Catholic influence in the area is epitomised by the nearby memorial of the first Mass, celebrated on June 29, 1902, whose 100th anniversary was marked with the erection of a huge new cross to replace the old memorial.
Origin of the Agikuyu
The Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga, reputed to be the place of origin of the Agikuyu, is about nine kilometres from Murang’a town. The shrine is rather run down after the abortive attempt by the local authorities to put up a commercial hotel there. The ruins of that aborted project are an eyesore after the branches of the surrounding trees fell on them.
Not far away is the first female chief in colonial Kenya, Wangu wa Makeri’s place of origin at the eponymous Wangu location in Koimbi. Contrary to popular legend, Wangu wa Makeri was a modern and even fairly well-educated colonial chief, and not the distant mythical figure she is widely believed to have been.
We learn that she was actually a run-of-the mill chief appointed by the British authorities at the recommendation of Chief Karuri.
Back to the much-maligned first female chief, Wangu’s descendants that we spoke to at Koimbi told us that Chief Karuri had at first earmarked the position for her husband, one Makeri wa Mbogo, a wealthy man and agemate of the chief’s who had eight wives, with Wangu being the first.
When the man declined to take up the position, it was given to Wangu, who is today remembered as an extremely heavy-handed administrator especially towards the menfolk.
As for her descendants, the surviving ones we talked to informed us that Wangu had two sons, Jacob Muchini and Moses Maina. The former inherited her position as a chief, and the later, who died in 1994 was a well-known figure around Koimbi.
Her office still stands, complete with the safe in which she used to store firearms and taxes. There is also a small cell where she is reputed to have whipped erring men while seated on the backs of other men.
Mugo wa Kibiru, is yet another semi-mythical figure from Murang’a, who has gone down in Kikuyu lore as the seer who predicted the coming of the white man whose gun he compared with a rod that emitted fire. He is also said to have foretold the building of the railway, which he compared to a long snake winding its way across Kenya and beyond.
Far from the mystical picture of Mugo wa Kibiru, we found out that he was a well-known figure in Murang’a remembered many people. He has descendants living in his area of origin at Kariua in Gatanga.