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How Mukurwe Wa Nyagathanga shrine of Agikuyu lost its shine

CENTRAL
By Ndungu Gachane | June 13th 2021
A half-built structure in the middle of the Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga shrine compound [Willis Awandu, Standard]

Mukurwe Wa Nyagathanga, the shrine and cultural heritage site believed to be home of the Agikuyu community’s ancestral parents - Gikuyu and Mumbi - has been a treasure to residents for decades.

The shrine is a significant landmark to the Agikuyu because of its ancestral, spiritual and cultural heritage. From time immemorial, the shrine was considered sacred to the Agikuyu people.

It was a place of offering sacrifices to Mwene-Nyaga (god), and this was mostly done when the community was faced with calamities such as famine, epidemics, drought, internal conflict and wars against local or foreign invaders.

Sacrifices were also offered in thanksgiving to Mwene-Nyaga for his bounties. Overall, the shrine was the spiritual centre of Agikuyu life.

It is here that residents believe Gikuyu and Mumbi lived with their nine daughters, who later created the origin of the clan system among the Agikuyu.

However, the shrine appears to be losing its shine after years of neglect and efforts by unnamed people to grab the land it sits on.

Coronated

Recently, Mukurwe Wa Nyagathanga captured national attention following a ceremony where National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi was coronated as the spokesman of Mt Kenya region.

Muturi’s appointment has been linked to next year’s election as the region struggles to identify a kingpin.

Located about 10 kilometres from Murang’a town and five kilometres off the main highway to Kiria-ini, the original home of Kenya’s biggest tribe is unremarkable for its simplicity.

However, the cultural heritage situated in Gaturi village in Kiharu, Murang’a County, appears to have been abandoned. Now, two groups are fighting over control of the shrine with their eyes firmly fixed on the ‘appreciation fees’, otherwise known as ndugi, paid by visitors.

The fight over the shrine forced the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and the county government to appoint a caretaker team to manage the centre.

The shrine, according to some residents, becomes only important during electioneering seasons.

This is when leaders troop the centre to gain political mileage as they seek votes. Some of the politicians promise to improve the shrine but many never keep their word, until the next electoral cycle.

“President Uhuru Kenyatta visited the shrine when he was facing charges at ICC in The Hague.

“Governor Mwangi Wa Iria visited us in 2013 when he declared his interest to run for governorship and the area MP (Ndindi Nyoro) was here for blessings when he decided to run for office. But we have not seen them after their election,” said Muriithi Ithagi, an elder.

Among the promises politicians have made is tarmacking of a six-kilometre road from Kaweru shopping centre, along Muranga-Kiriani road, to make the shrine easily accessible.

“Because of the poor state of the road, you will take  30 minutes to get to the shrine, a distance that should ideally take about 10 minutes if the road is tarmacked,” said Ithagi.

Local elders said the only person who visited the shrine, made a promise and kept it, was the late Njenga Karume.

And due to lack of a perimeter wall, the four-acre land on which the shrine sits has been exposed to land grabbers. Some people are also cutting down trees.

Another elder, Gakuhi Kinyati, recalls how the community fought to reclaim part of the land which had been grabbed with blessings from the defunct local authority. 

At some point, Kinyati said, the municipality started to construct a Sh20 million tourist lodge.

Scared contractor

However, the project stopped as the contractor abandoned it. According to Kinyati, the gods scared the contractor away.

“We stood against a decision to construct a lodge inside the shrine and the gods heard us; they scared away the contractor who abandoned the project and even left behind his tools.

“The work the contractor had done has gone to waste,” Kinyati said.

And according to Margaret Waithira, a member of the caretaker committee appointed by the county government and NMK, the abandoned construction poses a risk to visitors as some of the metals that were used on the construction have rusted.

“At the moment, those visiting the shrine leave dissatisfied because they don’t find what they want to see.

“Most of the huts no longer exist or have been turned into modern structures and do not have the traditional artifacts used by our forefathers,” Waithira said.

In the 1950s, during the Mau Mau uprising, colonial home guards converted the shrine into a safe camp.

The camp was later relocated after lightning struck a hut where a resident had been detained for defying a curfew, but neither the detainee nor his cow were hurt but the hut caught fire. This forced the guards to relocate the camp.

A story is told of how some members of the Akorino sect, in 2010, visited the shrine and offered a sacrifice under a Muringa tree.

It was reported that thunder struck that night, mysteriously causing a huge fire at the base of the tree.

Allan Kamau, another elder, said it is believed some trees at the shrine are over 1,000 years old.

Kamau said in the past, those who lived nearby would hear ululations from the shrine.

“There was also smell of traditional foods and bleating of goats,” he said.

NMK curator Antony Maina said they have been working with the local community, custodians of the cultural centre, to preserve it.

“We would like volunteers and people of goodwill to partner with us to make the shrine more habitable and attractive,” Maina said.

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