The ''sacred'' tree that stands in the way of development

A mugumo tree said to be sacred hangs dangerously at Ngiriambu village. [Munene Kamau/Standard]
A tree believed to be sacred has stirred controversy during the ongoing construction of a road promised by President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2014.

Construction of the Kianyaga-Kiamutugu road, promised by Uhuru after his convoy got stuck in mud when visited the area in July 2014, began in earnest last month after stalling for some time.

However, a gigantic fig tree standing between the two towns now poses a headache for the contractor and residents.

The contractor has left the tree, revered by the Kikuyu community as sacred, leaning precariously, after residents insisted that it could not be brought down before special rites were conducted. 

"The Mugumo tree (fig tree) is important in the entire Mt Kenya region. Even today elders go there to pray and sacrifice. It should not just be brought down by any human activity," said Ndambiri Njui, 85.

Many of his generation insist that bringing down the tree to pave way for the road before conducting the special rites would be breaking a taboo, and would bring untold consequences from the ancestors.

“This is a sacred tree, that is one thing we still hold dear. Back then, a ram would be specially slaughtered and all the meat, including the skin, burnt to ashes under the tree. As the smoke whirled and rose over the tree, the god of Kirinyaga would feast on the meat. Within a few hours after the ritual, heavy rains would follow," said another elder, Bernard Kathanga.

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The spectre of breaking a taboo has rattled the Chinese contractor working on the road.

According to an employee of the Chinese firm who spoke to The Standard, the section where the tree stands will be by-passed until the contractor and the elders reach an agreement on how to deal with the tree.

"We will wait for a decision on the way forward before we can tackle that section, for now we are not going to touch the area," said the employee.

Stirred opposition

The issue has divided elders from the area, with one group saying that the tree must come down to pave way for the road. They claimed the matter had brought unnecessary delay to the road's completion. The second group is adamant that the tree cannot be brought down without special rites being performed first.

“Yes, the Mugumo tree is viewed by the Kikuyu as sacred, but this one is hampering the construction of an important project, I do not see the need for rituals before it is brought down,” said John Njoroge.

Another elder, who did not wish to be named, accused his colleagues of trying to blackmail the contractor.

“Some beliefs and traditions have been overtaken by events and should be discarded, more so when no group of elders has ever performed any ceremony near or at this tree,” he said.

As debate rages on, parents fear that the precariously leaning tree might cause an accident if it is not brought down soon.

“As you can see most of its roots have been dug out. What if it falls on schoolchildren or on vehicles?” posed Ladiah Muringo.

Meanwhile, construction of the road that had initially stalled is progressing after Uhuru intervened in July this year.

Attending Governor Anne Waiguru traditional wedding, Uhuru assured residents that a new contractor had been sought to finish the project.

“When I visited this place in 2014, I witnessed firsthand the suffering farmers go through due to the poor road and promised them that this Sh1.5 billion project must be actualised this time round," said Uhuru.

The road, which Governor Waiguru describes as a boon for the agriculture-rich County and crucial link to neighbouring Embu County, is expected to be completed next year.

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