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The iron of a ghost within Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga shrine

By Nzau Musau | November 25th 2017
The sacred shrine of Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga in Murang'a County. The shrine’s deterioration has been occasioned by apathy, lack of finances and poor management. Most of the income is raised through gate collections and donations. [Photo:WILLIS AWANDU/STANDARD]

A ghost swallowed up in moss confronts you as you step into the sacred Mukurwe wa Nyagathaga shrine for the Agikuyu in Gakuyu, Murang’a County.

It’s initially obscure and derelict, until one delves past the steely gates and beyond the main reception ground of the cradle of Kikuyu nation.

As you take the stone-path round a half-brick wall protecting the holiest grounds of the shrine, there it gapes at you - opening its innards unto you, unashamedly, unrepentant.

At first, and testimony to its shame, my guide Mzee Karanja Mugute was hesitant to draw me to its attention until I stood up to him with “what is that protruding in a holy site?”

“They tried to construct a hotel right next to the holiest of the grounds of the shrine. They did not consult the elders who were and remain opposed to desecration of the grounds through hotel activities,” Mugute responded.

Contractor vanished

He was referring to the ill-thought decision by the former Murang’a County Council to construct a tourist hotel complex comprising a swimming pool, cultural centre and attendant facilities.

As it were, civil engineering works commenced on site in 1985, without consulting locals, but by 1990, the project stalled in unclear circumstances.

“We believe it was God at his mysterious best. The contractor vanished from site just when he was about to complete. And everything stalled to this day,” Wilfred Kimani, a retired head teacher at nearby Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga Secondary School, explained.

One of the structures, a semblance of a traditional hut built of modern brick, actually made its way into the holiest part of the shrine, a circular enclosure where the original giant Mukurwe tree which the Agikuyu God referenced to while directing the Agikuyu settlement.

The structure stands next to the Mukurwe tree planted in the 50’s by the late minister Gikonyo Kiano, and which is now stooping South East and menacingly above the “original” house of Mumbi (nyumba), a hut structure that is oddly roofed with mabati (iron sheets).

A fallen branch has dented the hut’s roof and is still resting there. With its door facing the East, the hut sits next to another hut, a thingira in Kikuyu, whose door faces the West.

The two huts- thingira for men and nyumba for women are symbolic of a typical Kikuyu homestead and the addition of a third one on the opposite side, broke the pattern.

As we walked round the holy site, we could hear buzzes of the faithful in prayer and song. It turned out to be pilgrims using some of derelict buildings meant for senior staff to intercede for their country. We passed by them and right into the bowels of the ghost hotel.

It’s a two storey structure, with self-contained rooms, a dining area, curio, library and museum among others, all unfinished. While the outside walls are engulfed in moss, the insides have been transformed into writing walls for pilgrims to scribble their memorials and dedications on.

Beneath the main hotel are nine self-contained cottages spread between the nine daughters/clans of Mumbi starting with Wanjiru and ending with Wangui. The 10th hut belonging to the least credited daughter of Mumbi known as Wamuyu is slightly bigger than the rest for symbolic reasons.

Going through each and every hut, our guide explains the attributes of the nine daughters- the beautiful Wanjiru, the adventurous Wanjeri, the gossipy Wanjiku, the creative Nyambura, the accomplishers in Wangeci, the brave but mean Wangari and the leaders in Wangui’s.

Their inside plaster walls are laden with graffiti and dedication of pilgrims to their loved ones in accordance to their clans or names.

“The hotel will have to come down,” my guide gestured as he led me a few meters to another special feature of the abandoned hotel facility- an abandoned open-ground amphitheatre.

You can hardly spot the descending concrete sitting spaces curving into a horse-shoe shape until they are pointed out to you. Overgrown trees- some cracking out the columns and shattering the design- have concealed it.

Climbing down, an ancient feels wafts across the columns as insects dart at the disturbance.

Further after the amphitheatre we descended onto other structures, our old guide having to hold himself steady with a walking staff through the narrow and slippery path.

We found the unfinished structures designed to be changing rooms before pilgrims plunged into a swimming pool beneath.

The pool was never constructed. It appears the contractors had barely begun working on it when they left. Foundational structures however still stand on the proposed site of the swimming pool.

Cultural significance

We climbed back to the main reception area of the shrine and took to the East, walking past two crumbling granaries to the open space where one of the oldest trees in the shrine stands, scorning at the desecration of the place and destruction of her peers.

“One of the elders of this place who was initiated in 1885 used to tell us that he found it in exactly the same shape as it is today. If this tree had eyes and could talk, it would tell you a lot,” our guide said.

The shrine is essentially the mythical Garden of Eden for the Agikuyu, and by extension neighboring tribes of Embu, Meru and Kamba.

It was the central point of dispersal for the Agikuyu before they took to the four corners of their land- Aberdare Mountain ranges (Nyandarwa) to the west, Ngong Hills (Kia Mbiruiru) to the South and the Ol donyo Sabuk (Kia Njahi) to the South east and Mount Kenya (Kirinyaga) to the East.

Despite its cultural significance and gazettement as a national monument and cultural site, very little has been done to raise the stature of the place as pilgrimage site and transform it into a reputable cultural learning centre.

The guides available at the site are lay volunteers. There are no exhibition or panels on site, no panels or any form of site interpretation. 

The community around credits the late Prof Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement for most of the little restoration efforts in the shrine after the initial destruction by colonial government.

They say Prof Maathai empowered them into recognising the cultural value of the shrine, planting trees and hosting annual cultural nights at the site.

A lonesome Mururi tree planted on October 19, 2011 by Kikuyu Council of Elders to commemorate the death of the Nobel Laureate credits her for “lifetime struggle towards perpetuation of the Mukuru wa Nyagathanga shrine.”

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