Before the British established modern courts in Africa, the Abagusii had traditional law courts where they would make rulings and pass judgment on matters brought before them.
The elders had a place on top of Manga Range where all the community issues were settled.
The place was called Manga Itongo (or Ritogo) and the elderly men would seat under the Omotembe tree to make these determinations.
Accused persons were brought before this ancestral court and charged, according to the offenses one had committed, before the old men, who were highly regarded in society.
At the time, land disputes and theft of property had been brought to a minimum as people feared the community’s justice system.
Because of the perception the community had of the tree as a sacred spot, all who appeared before it had to tell the truth. “The sacred tree helped maintain law and order within the entire community. It was often a place that yielded instant solutions as parties came to an amicable understanding,” says 93-year-old Elijah Metobo.
Metobo says there was a structure to be followed before the offending party was presented to the elders at the Omotembe tree.
A complaint was first reported to a head elder who would then call for a meeting with his peers, After the elders discussed the matter among themselves they would decide the course of action.
They would then invite the two parties to appear before them for hearing and settling of the matter.
Metobo says once the accused person was brought before them, the individual would have to skip over special nappier grass ten times, hold on to the Omotembe tree and recite some scripts by taking oath.
If one was found guilty, they were required to pay a fine and bring a goat for their cleansing.
“Goats would act as a cleansing agent and once the complainant and the accused had been reconciled, that would be the end of that. The accused person was regarded as pure and was welcomed back into the society,” he says.
If the accused failed to do as instructed by the elders, there would be severe consequences including a disease outbreak in one’s family, loss of a family member, demons destroying one’s property or barrenness.
The sacred tree had several other uses. The seeds were used to make necklaces and other ornaments that would then be worn by specific people in the community.
Jingles were for the elderly while some ornaments were used during traditional weddings where the married couple was asked to wear them as a sign of unity.
The tree was also said to have healing powers where young children who had mumps could go and recite some words while at the tree then throw coins to it. Believe it or not, the disease would vanish in an instant.
The tree’s back would also be used to make attractive drums that were used to grind and shell maize.
Celebrating his tribe’s rich heritage, Metobo says it is unfortunate that westernisation came to put an end to this practise that brought such law and order in the community.
“The elderly people who remember the old way of doing things have no trust in the current judicial system which is deeply flawed. If only we could embrace the traditional way of doing things, it would put an end to the vices we are now seeing and create harmony in the community,” he says.