Debate rages on felling of Mugumo tree Moi planted

A fig tree (Mugumo Tree) which was planted by former President arap Moi at Ruringu Stadium in Nyeri in 1978.The contractor wants it uprooted to pave way for the constructions of the stadium. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

It stands tall and majestic at the entrance to Ruring’u Stadium in the outskirts of Nyeri town.

A 42-year-old fig tree (mugumo) planted by Kenya's second president Daniel arap Moi is one that residents hold dear. 

Moi planted the tree on October 28, 1978 during his first public rally in Nyeri, after the death of the county's founding president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

The tree was recently the bone of contention between the Agikuyu Council of Elders and a contractor hired to rehabilitate the stadium.

The contractor wanted the tree felled, but the elders would have none of it, not just because of the belief in the sacredness of the fig tree among the Agikuyu, but also for the history surrounding this particular tree and the field where it stands.

First, the elders reminded the contractor that according to the customs and culture of the Agikuyu, a fig tree is a holy shrine where traditional prayers and ceremonies are conducted. Then there was also the fact that it was planted by Moi.

In the standoff that followed, Moi's fig tree won the day.

Historic symbol

Incidentally, the tree stands a few metres from where the last of the Mau Mau freedom fighters surrendered their guns to Moi's predecessor, Kenyatta, shortly after he became president. Kenyatta himself planted another fig tree at the stadium.

Moi planted his shortly after he took over presidency following the death Kenyatta in 1978. For the elders, it marked the beginning of another one. They, and the last remnants of the Mau Mau regard it as a priceless memorabilia.

“The tree is special to us because one, it is sacred and secondly, it was planted by former President Moi who we respected. It reminds us of his first visit as president and for these two reasons, we declined to have it cut,” said Nyeri patron for Kikuyu Council of Elders Njaramba Wanjii.

In memory of Moi and for preservation of Kikuyu culture, Mr Wanjii said the tree could only be uprooted and replanted in a different location within the precincts of the stadium. Either this, or all wait for it to fall on its own.

Moving the tree will be no mean task, considering its extensive root network. But according to the elders, the county government has agreed to give them heavy machinery to not only dig up Moi's tree but also move it and replant it.

However, before this is done, the elders are expected to conduct a traditional ceremony to ask for permission from the gods to move the tree. This is to avoid the wrath of the gods.

“We will slaughter animals to appease the gods before uprooting it. The ceremony is meant to exempt anyone from any calamity as consequences of uprooting a sacred tree,” said Wanjii.

On the standoff between the elders and the contractor, Wanjii says the historic stadium, whose construction has since stalled, is important to the local community, and that they have no problem with its rehabilitation.

All they want is either to be allowed to move Moi's tree first or wait for it to fall on its own.

“We are not opposing rehabilitation of the stadium because we will also benefit, but that tree cannot be cut without a ceremony. We are waiting to hear from the county government. When they are ready then we will move it,” said Wanjii.

He has no doubt who will blink first in case the county stands its grounds.

“The tree will have the final say,” he said.

Although Moi's tree has so far not officially hosted any traditional Agikuyu ceremony or prayers, Wanjii insists felling it could have bad consequences, including death.

“It is the tallest and most majestic indigenous tree in that area and that is enough proof why it should not be cut down. Sacred trees are supposed to fall and decay naturally,” he said.

The fall of a fig tree is highly symbolic among the Agikuyu. According to traditions, the fall of a Mugumo tree away portends a major event.

The trees that fell

The elders believe that a huge mugumo tree that fell in Thika back in 1963 portended the exit of colonialists and victory for the Mau Mau fighters who had dug in Mount Kenya and Aberdare Forests fighting for independence.

They argued that its fall had been prophesied by Kikuyu seer, Mugo wa Kibiru. Word has it that when the British colonial government learned of the prophecy, it built an iron ring around the tree to prevent it from falling. But in 1963, the tree fell.

Word also has it that shortly before Mzee Kenyatta died in 1978, another mugumo tree fell in the Chania.

In 2002, another giant mugumo tree is reported to have fallen after heavy rains. Elders linked the fall to the transition from Moi to Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki was sworn in as president shortly after.

Whether the mugumo that Moi planted will fall in his honour or wait to be relocated, only time can tell.