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How State, culture and religion have intertwined to protect forest

By Ndungu Gachane | June 18th 2021
Custodian of the shrine Wambugu Nyamu, a member of the only 10 High priest (Agongoni) in the Agikuyu community. Nyamu says the shrines were a prophecy between Mau Mau freedom fighters and God. The fighters promised their creator that they would set up a shrine in the forest where the community will be interceding for the nation. June 12, 2021. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

A Kigongona Kia Agikuyu shrine signpost welcomes you to the Mt Kenya Forest. Also on the signpost are warnings, six of them, without further elaboration.

You are just about to enter a holy place. It is holy for Christians, it is a shrine for the Agikuyu people, where their high priests, the Agongoni, offer prayers when the country is faced with calamities of different magnitudes. And they are not the only stakeholders; the national government has entered a pact with the users of this section of the forest, through the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), to ensure it is kept in its most natural form.

There are two sacred places here, and only the Kikuyu high priests and selected Christian priests can take you to either of them. 

On this day, the Agikuyu high priests offer to take us through the thick of the forest. Wambugu Nyamu, the custodian guardian of Mt Kenya Agikuyu shrine, and a member of the 10-member high priests team is our guide. The shrine is a holy place, and only Agikuyu priests are allowed at the altar. This is one of the warnings. Inside, century-old trees stand. But before you get closer, you are met with a huge warning: ‘Prohibited access from this point. A wooden fence barrier reinforces the warning.

At the far end are three more barriers. The furthest place inside is the holiest. It has five Mugumo trees surrounded by a thick forest. “From this point, no one is allowed to access the most sacred shrine. Only high priests. They visit here for special prayers,” Nyamu tells us.

He says access to the shrine was granted by President Uhuru Kenyatta after he was approached by the Agikuyu high priests. “There was an agreement between the freedom fighters and the gods that if we got freedom, the elders would isolate a place in the war arena for prayers. It is on this premise that we approached the President and he agreed to give us access to the shrines,” Nyamu says.

Later, he says, some Christians, coincidentally, also asked to have access to a place they could worship in.

The Agikuyu and Christian altars are approximately 1.5km apart but divided by the Tigini River, which means from one side, one has to skirt around about 5km to access the other. 

“When the Agongoni decided to agree with Christians and offered them a place to have the altar of the body of Christ, some elders fought the idea, but we told them our culture was not in conflict with Christianity,” says Nyamu.

In 2019, Environment CS Keriako Tobiko visited the shrine to inform the elders that the President had heeded to their quest to access their shrines deep within the forest. The Agikuyu altar was set up on August 10, 2019, and five months later, the Christian one was also up.

Deep inside the forest, high pitched whistling sounds of wind and swaying trees break the silence. Measuring 12m by 12m, the Agikuyu altar is surrounded by a wooden fence and locked with a padlock.

At the center of the altar are five stones, partly buried. Nyamu says the five stones represent intercessory, prophecy, priesthood, Biblical teachings and apostolic ministry.

“The pillars of this nation camp here to pray and intercede for the country during calamity and disaster, but this has never been made public,” Nyamu says.

Nyamu says since being granted access to the holy place the elders have planted about 1,000 trees and are planning to plant more indigenous ones to conserve the forest.

And because locals revere God, Nyamu says, they do not destroy the forest. This has seen deforestation slowed. “The forest is now associated with holiness,” says Nyamu.  

“This is how the partnership between KFS and indigenous people has made use of religion, culture and laws to conserve the Mt Kenya Forest and benefit everyone. The forest provides a relaxing environment for praying by Christians and the Agikuyu community, who reciprocate by planting trees and helping the government to take care of the environment,” says Nyeri County Ecosystem conservator Ndegwa Wahome. “While the elders get fresh air as they meditate and seek spiritual nourishment, they also protect, maintain and conserve the forest. They are like Kayas of the Coast,” Wahome said.

He says the partnership also makes the community understand the importance of conserving the forest and discouraging destruction.

The forest has a station for wardens and elders who regularly visit for prayers, and are usually briefed on any incident like fallen trees.

“The high priests have only conducted special prayers thrice since we go the land,” says Nyamu, further warning that those plotting to take National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi to the prayer centre to desist, or be met by the god’s wrath. 

“We only have 10 Agikuyu high priests and we turned down an invitation from Muturi’s team over the intention to pray for him at the prayer centre as that will definitely desecrate our place of worship. Fire will consume those who do so and their generation,” Nyamu adds.

The three occasions when the shrine was used were on August 10 2019, when CS Tobiko handed over the prayer centre, on November 15, 20219 when the prayer centre was sanctified and on February 23, 2020, when the Agikuyu women went to the forest to take the community harvest before God and elders received and conducted rituals.

Julius Kamau, the KFS Director, says the model is referred to as a Participatory Forest Management Plan. It has been achievable through the KFS and Community Forest Association. 

“This kind of partnership enables the community to feel part of the forest ownership, hence making them legitimate stewards and minimising destruction,” said Dr Kamau.

The KFS has ensured minimal destruction of other forests countrywide by entering such partnerships with communities near Kaya forests, the Meru Forest, through the Njuri Ncheke, in Londiani with the help of the Kipsigis, among others in western and several parts of the country.

With such access, communities benefit by accessing water, fresher air, firewood, apiary to harvest honey, peat and several other good things that forests offer without degenerating.  

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