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Why sacred tree stands in the way of new stadium in Nyeri

By Lydiah Nyawira | Published Thu, February 15th 2018 at 00:00, Updated February 14th 2018 at 21:45 GMT +3
The fig tree (Mugumo) at Ruringu Stadium in Nyeri has been a bone of contention between a contractor and elders [Kibata kihu, Standard]

A lone fig tree seems to have defied monstrous earth-movers and bulldozers in the ongoing rehabilitation of the historic Ruringu Stadium

The stadium is famous for hosting one of the most nostalgic moments in Kenyan history, when the last batch of the Mau Mau fredom fighters surrendered their weapons to Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta. 

Contractors working round the clock to upgrade the stadium have uprooted a large number of indigenous trees that stood on the grounds, but have been stopped in their tracks by a lone fig tree that is shrouded in history and culture. 

While all other obstacles, including power lines, have been cleared to make way for the multi-million-shilling project, this 'mugumo' (fig tree) remains standing, its bare branches silhouetted against the blue skies.

The contractor wants it felled but a group of elders and veteran Mau Mau fighters have sworn to defend it.

The stadium's Sh480 million upgrade is expected to result in a world-class sporting facility. But for the elders and the last remnants of the Mau Mau, the tree is priceless.

Blocking entrance

According to the designs of the new-look football stadium and running track, the tree is blocking the entrance to the grounds.

"The plans are clear and the tree is in the way. I am seeking a way to resolve the issue," said Sam Mwaniki, the contractor.

But elders from the Kikuyu community said the tree was of great cultural and historical significance and should not be cut down without consultation.

The veteran freedom fighters said the tree's majestic stature was proof that it was sacred.

“It is the tallest tree (here) and it is revered as a holy shrine," said former Mau Mau Captain Nderitu Wambugu.

Besides, the tree was planted by no less than President Daniel arap Moi on October 28, 1978, during his first public rally in Nyeri after taking over the presidency following Mzee Kenyatta's death.

There are only three fig trees left standing on Ruringu Stadium grounds, all planted by Kenyan presidents - Jomo Kenyatta, Moi, and Uhuru Kenyatta.

But even if it was planted by somebody else, the tree at the centre of the stand-off would still be a 'mugumo' - the most sacred tree among the Gikuyu.

“Even owls, which according to many cultural customs are a bad omen, do not perch on that tree,” said Rware Council of Elders Chairman Gakuo Matu.

“It was our place of prayers to God and we cannot take it lightly just because some people do not understand our cultural practices."

The elders said they were ready to intervene in the stand-off, but that the tree, not the contractor, would have the final say.

Mr Matu explained that elders must be consulted when a tree is planted and also when it falls or is about to be removed.

“It must be removed with respect and allowed to decay naturally,” he said.

“Anyone who dares to circumvent the ceremony and consultations surrounding the tree will cause calamity,” added Kikuyu Council of Elders Nyeri Chapter chairman, David Muthoga.