No one dares cut a branch from a fig tree covered with creepers at Mwiyembekho village in Khwisero.
William Okumu, 83, says even living next to the tree, known among the Abakisa clan as Omulundu can be precarious.
“Whenever a branch falls off due to natural causes, it should be left to rot. Whoever takes it away risks being struck by lightning,” says the chairman of Khwisero Elders Council.
“The tree, estimated to be over 200 years old, is considered sacred by the locals who hardly move near it. It is said that it stands on a shrine where our forefathers made sacrifices and prayed,” says Okumu.
According to him, the tree means a lot to the Abakisa and Abasamia clans living at Mwiyembekho. The latter migrated from Busia County to settle in Khwisero many years ago.
Some of the elders vividly recall the price some individuals who attempted to mess up with the tree suffered some five decades ago.
In 1970, it is alleged that Samuel Ebulileria, a local, lost his two casual labourers. They were allegedly struck by lightning after chopping some branches from the fig tree.
But it did not end there. Jennifer Ingolo, 96, the widow of Ebulileria discloses that lightning struck their house days after the death of the two workers. “It was a double tragedy for us, we lost both the workers and a house, a clear indication that our ancestors were not happy with pruning the fig branches,” she told The Standard.
Her husband died a couple of years later but Ingolo is not sure whether to tie the demise to Omulundu. “We knew the lightning that killed our workers had everything to do with the revered tree, ancestors would not forgive trespassers,” said Ingolo.
“Elders used to frequent a shrine under the tree that served as a court where charges were read out to wrongdoers and judgment passed. They also visited the place to pray and consult on matters affecting the community.”
The place remains out of bounds to locals and random visitors save for respected elders with a good grasp of history, according to Mzee Okumu.
He confides that whoever committed incest would be led to the shrine under the tree where a sharp stick was pierced through both ears as punishment. “You’ll hardly hear of an incest or rape case reported in this village because of the punishment,” he says.
William Matenya, 73, says only elders of repute were allowed to sit under the tree and give direction to the community in times of crisis. “The tree was considered sacred and the shrine under it holy, so whoever came closer including the elders were expected to be beyond reproach,” he says.
When he was, 50, Matenya said some elders who were perceived righteous sat under the tree but were struck by lightning. Afterwards, word went around that they had been accused of incest.
The tree is not only associated with death. People also visit it to seek blessings, but such visitors must be in the company of elders.
“People seeking leadership posts visit the tree to seek blessings, a host of former and current MPs love to come here during the electioneering period,” says Matenya.
Matenya says the fig tree is also medicinal. It is used to purify blood and treat stomach complications.
The elders said they were planning to have the place fenced off and preserved as a museum where future generations will learn about the community’s customs.