How witchcraft led to dispersion and great trek from Murang’a

Contractors working on a section of road in Murang'a town. [Boniface Gikandi, Standard]

Something curious happened in Murang’a and Kiambu to some extent between 1930 and 1937. Hordes of men and women immigrated to Embu.

They did not settle in the well-watered part of Embu like Runyenjes but arid areas towards Mbere.

Why did men and women leave their well-watered and fertile ancestral land and settle in a worse place climatically?

Most of them became squatters and never owned the land.

A few married the locals and got land. The Second World War (WWII) found them in the adopted home.

Some volunteered to fight for the British Empire in faraway lands such as Burma or Egypt.

The new immigrants had the worst of Mau Mau. They were victims of villagisation with moats around villages to keep Mau Mau away and deny them food. Mzungu moved them frequently to destabilise them.

I set out to find out about this great trek from eyewitnesses now scattered in Nyandarua, mostly Ol Kalou, Shamata, and Mweiga specifically at Endarasha. The other members are found in Kithimani, Machakos County and Ithaca in Murang’a.

A more recent trek around 1977 ended in Mpeketoni, Lamu. The Mpeketoni group came from Njiru near Kasarani and Tanzania after the breakup of the East African community. History has lots of secrets.

It seems one of Jomo Kenyatta’s lasting legacy was settling the landless, the cause freedom fighters fought for. That is for another day. Back to Murang’a.

Few of the original immigrants from Murang’a or Kiambu are alive, but they suggest they ran away from witchcraft.

Both Kiambu and Murang’a lots mention witchcraft often and independently.

It is possible that new diseases or plagues were mistaken for witchcraft.  For example, Dr Isgaer Roberts, a medical entomologist writes about a plague in then Kikuyu Province and Nairobi in 1936.  

What is indisputable is that the fear of witchcraft was real in the 1930s, soon after ituika, when one age group was supposed to hand over the mantle of leadership in Central Kenya.

The ituika, which mean separation was the precursor of two-party systems like democrats and republicans.

The colonial authority stopped that ceremony, still shrouded in secrecy. Even Louis Leakey, despite his authority on Kikuyu customs could not get us the secrets of ituika.

It seems the fear of witchcraft was so real that many of the immigrants did not return to Central Kenya during the 1956/57 land consolidation.

They seem to have left on a one-way ticket. I know shambas in Murang’a that have been abandoned by families despite the serious shortage of land in the county. But why witchcraft?

Even today, Gaturi in Murang’a is still mentioned with a light touch as the crucible of witchcraft.

Kaharati, I hear is gaining prominence. Did witches suddenly become more portent between 1930 and 1937? It is possible that other factors were at play and witchcraft was a perfect excuse.

Benefiting from medical advances, the population could have gone up leading to serious competition for land.

Could some people have turned to occult sciences to chase away their brothers and sisters and disinherit them land? Overpopulation could have led to family conflicts and accusations of witchcraft.

We still witness that today. Noted that witchcraft is prevalent in dry places where resources are scarce?

Remember after WWI, native land was taken over by mzungu and converted into plantations, putting pressure on available land.  This could be another explanation why some people left fertile land in Murang’a and Kiambu for Embu, which was scarcely populated and drier.

Others followed the railway line to work for mzungu farms in the Rift Valley. When Uhuru came, they settled there adding to the mosaic of communities that is Rift Valley.

They also took their village names with them like Mang’u, Githunguri, Tigoni among others. They probably would have wanted to stay on in their ancestral land.

But the truth is they were evicted by witchcraft or rumours of it. When I put the question of witchcraft to Murang’a based WhatsApp group, there was total silence. I will not speculate why.

It is possible these immigrants saved Murang’a and Kiambu future social-economic strive arising from overpopulation. Pundits suggest the current wave of illicit brews in Central Kenya have a lot to do with overcrowding after post-election violence in 2007/8 stopped the population flow to other parts of the country.

The unspoken truth about political violence from the return of multi-partyism to 2007/2008 is that the population of their hosts in the Rift Valley went up putting lots of pressure on land.

Economic growth

Add the political incitement and violence was easy to stir.

Needless to say, post-election violence sent lots of Central Kenya natives to the diaspora. You can find Kikuyu church services in Boston, Massachusetts or Birmingham, Alabama.

Without industrialisation and rapid economic growth, we have remained attached to the land - both economically and emotionally.  That is why land is so emotive. It’s a matter of life and death for lots of people; not so different from the 1930s.

The new immigrants were evicted violently in post-poll chaos while their parents or grandparents had been evicted by witchcraft or threat of it.

It seems some people are just unlucky; uprooted by witchcraft and again by political violence within 100 years.

Today, there are still unanswered questions about the immigrations from Central Kenya. What of those they left behind, how did they fair socially and economically?

A visit to Murang’a or Kiambu will give you straight forward answers. But we need not answer, all the questions, the same way we can’t answer why we immigrated from Congo or Sudan centuries ago.

We must not try and reverse the tides of history, but we must learn from it. Luckily, Kenya has started maturing as a nation.

By giving citizenship to Makonde and Shona, we have indicated that it’s time to live together, forge a new nation without wasting precious energy settling grudges.

History moves one way. We can only learn from it to face the future with confidence. But I still demand the truth on why men and women left Murang’a and Kiambu from 1930-1937.

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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