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The Kikuyu chief whose life was ruled by witchcraft

By By AMOS KAREITHI | June 24th 2012

When a man masters his universe by combining mystical powers with physical strength, weak-kneed soldiers have no chance at love as beautiful women find the bewitching charm irresistible. Long before the coming of the white man, one such man existed in Murang’a, where he wielded his powers over men, and conquered 40 wives and a string of concubines with his love and charms.

There are no records to show exactly when Karuri wa Gakure was born, for his parents Gakure and Wangari were illiterate. But a researcher, Joachim Gitonga, a descendant of the legend describes the chief’s childhood in his book, The Paramount Chief, Karuri wa Gakure, as unhappy.

Karuri was born in Kanonero village in Iyego location in Murang’a: the time of his birth is estimated to be 1849 for he was circumcised in 1869 at the age of 20. Originally, his name was Thuo but after his escape from a burning house, he was nicknamed Karuru (bitter man) or Karua na Ngai (he who had been initiated together with a god).

Gakure died when Karuri was a small boy, forcing his wife Wangare to migrate from Ambui clan to Angari clan where she and her children were symbolically reborn after an elaborate ceremony. During his boyhood a severe famine swept across Murang’a, driving residents to wander in search of food. Karuri and his mother strayed to Mbeere, through Kirinyaga.

It was in Mbeere where Karuri was apprenticed in the art of witchcraft. Two famed witchdoctors instilled in him a skill he later used to tame beasts such as elephants that he killed for ivory tusks and later sold to Arabs, (thukumu) at Njogui-ini market in Murang’a. “After selling elephant tusks, he decided to buy medicine for his witchcraft from Githaiga wa Muya, Gikerumi wa Kirara and Dorobo. He underwent all the Kikuyu ceremonies and became a recognised witchdoctor,” Gitonga explains.

Gitonga adds that Karuri joined forces with his maternal grandfather, Gitonga wa Migwi and terrorised their opponents as they practiced witchcraft. An incident is told of how the two witchdoctors tried their portions and powers on beautiful girls who had defied marriage propositions, but had to give up after she defied all their powers.

As Karuri’s practice of black magic flourished he caused disharmony in his area because he was accused of bewitching countless people who died in unclear circumstances. His clan, family and neighbours organised a ceremony where Karuri was disowned and publicly condemned to death for causing misery and killing innocent people. Wary of his supernatural powers, the community devised a new way of killing him, for they suspected that if he was loaded into a circular beehive and rolled down the hill, he might miraculously escape.

Plot to kill

They plotted to torch him, his house and his belongings, together with his precious charms at night. Nonetheless, just as the hut was about to explode in flames, Karuri could be heard shouting curses and expletives from his abode. From his house, Karuri confessed to killing several people and threatened to visit death to all those who were trying to burn him and his house. The pleas and screams convinced all that the witchdoctor had died in the inferno.

Karuri had long suspected that he would be burnt inside his house and had secretly dug a tunnel from the hut to a cliff overlooking Mathioya River where he jumped after his dramatic show. He escaped to Njumbi, only to re-emerge a few days later leading a group of warriors donated by his sympathiser and friend Mbaria. When Karuri made his second coming, his family and villagers mistook him for a ghost. Others thought he had risen from the dead and called him Karua na Ngai (he who had been circumcised alongside the gods) and others Karuru.

The shocked villagers of Iyego sued for peace, fearing annihilation by the witchdoctor who had powers to cheat death and showered him with gifts and vowed never to antagonise him again. Karuri is alleged to have outwitted Wang’ombe wa Ihura from Mathira and Ndiuni wa Murathimi in Tetu as well as Wambugu wa Mathangania from Nyeri to become the paramount witchdoctor, warrior and chief. After these victories Karuri turned his attention to Kabete where strange white men had been sighted. He had been to the place to sell his wares and this time he visited Kinyanjui wa Gathirimu and demanded that he be introduced to the Europeans.  Francis Hall documents Karuri’s visit to Kikuyu in a letter dated June 10, 1894 in the book Kikuyu District by Paul Sullivan. “I received a visit from Wakikuyu from Merang’a the district at the foot of Kenia... they begged me to go and open a station. I gave them a letter and a flag in case Freelanders should want to come there. I promised to visit them first chance I got.”

Karuri’s subsequent visit to Hall in Nairobi brought him in contact with a trader, John Boyes, who established his kingdom in Tuthu where he married three Kikuyu girls and introduced a parallel tax system that rivaled the Government’s. Boyes, who was locally known as Karianjahi for his love of cowpeas led expeditions to as far as Nyeri where he confiscated livestock as he flew the union jack and behaved like the King of Kikuyu.

Boyes had a standing army of 500 spearmen and 14 rifles and was arrested on October 31 1900, on the order of Hall who had earlier appointed Karuri a paramount chief. Karuri had a knack of striking friendship with weird characters like Richard Miertzhagen who conducted a number of murderous expeditions notably in Kuhumbui-ini and Muruka and publicly executed two witchdoctors in Murang’a.  Merinertzhagen visited Karuri on July 26, 1902 and the two instantly became friends, as the chief sought the services of the soldier to recover proceeds of his ivory tusk from Boyes. Karuri was also unhappy about a white carpenter, Smith, who had duped young virgins into sleeping with him, promising them this was the gateway to heaven. He was soon deported from Murang’a.  Just like he had sought out Hall to establish a station in Murang’a earlier, Karuri again invited Catholic missionaries Consolata Fathers to his place.

Embracing Christianity

The invite led to the celebration of the first mass. Karuri also did the unthinkable by offering his sons, among them Daudi Gakure to be educated at a time when community used orphans and disabled children as offerings. It would, however, take the missionaries nine solid years to convince Karuri to abandon witchcraft and embrace Christianity; a feat they finally accomplished on January 19 1915

when he was baptised Joseph and his wife Wanjiru Maria. He later astounded the missionaries when at the age of 60, he enrolled for adult classes and mastered the art of writing his name. Not long after, his favourite son David Gakure proceeded to Europe for higher education. However, Gakure was deported from Europe for misbehaving, scandalising the paramount chief and earning his wrath. Gakure’s ire knew no bounds as had been demonstrated earlier when a group of uncircumcised boys humiliated his favourite wife Wanjiru. One day Wanjiru was on her way to visit a friend in the company of women friends; but the group was attacked by a group of naughty boys at Wanjerere who feasted on the delicacies the women were carrying. When Gakure heard of this, he decreed that no boys would be circumcised for three years. It took the intervention of elders for the reversal of the decree, but only after the elders showered him with goats and bags of millet and pleaded for forgiveness.

Gitonga explains that Gakure allowed the circumcision ceremony to resume on condition that each initiate paid a fine of two rupees. This was to be collected by chiefs in the whole of Murang’a district before the operation. The money from this and other taxes was stored in a safe in his stone house where Muchai wa Muetithia was employed as an ‘accountant’ to take care of the finances. Karuri’s attraction to Wangu wa Makeri, who was his age mate’s wife proved fatal for the residents of Koimbi were tired of giving gifts to Karuri whenever he visited his lover. Every time he visited Koimbi, which was often, goats and calves would be rounded up for slaughter: others were confiscated by his agents, brewing hatred among the locals. During one visit in May 1916, his food was laced with powerful portions that rendered him blind. His personal witchdoctor, Gitonga wa Migwi tried to restore it but in vain. The missionaries also tried to resuscitate their friend but he died from what the locals believed to be a brand of more powerful medicine than his.

His son Gichuki, who also succumbed to a similar curse after a short spell, succeeded him. His death paved way for assistant chief Abraham Michuki Kagwi, father to late Cabinet Minister John Michuki to take over as chief of Iyego Location. The echoes of Karuri’s tyrannical rule are heard every time vehicles cruise around the tortuous bends along the eight-mile Tuthu-Kanyenyaini-Murang’a Road where his ingenuity helped in construction of bridges over 14 streams and 40 bends curved. He painted all those who completed their day’s portion in digging the road with red ochre and rewarded them with flour as wages.

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