Kenya: Climate and sacred sites

M’Riberia Mwongo, medicine doctor and spiritual adviser is leading a ceremony under the towering mukui trees in Giitune sacred forest. Photo Mats Hellmark

This text was originally published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur issue 4 2009. You can read the Swedish version here.

To cope with a more arid climate, Kenyan women are literally seeking their roots. We follow their journey as relict crops and sacred sites are brought back to life.

As we arrive at the village, the women are preparing a feast. The banquet table is filled with harvests from the surrounding fields: a variety of beans, amaranth, arrowroot, bananas, chapati bread made from sweet potatoes, yams, cassava and sugar-cane juice.

Things were very different just a few years ago, when many locals hardly had a meal on the table, despite the fact that the region has long been among the country’s most productive.

“We couldn’t afford to buy food, or to let our children go to school. And it was tough even for those who had money. The shops were simply empty,” explains Monica Gatobu, a farmer in the village of Kirugua near the city of Meru, to the east of Mount Kenya.

Along with corn, potatoes and wheat, most small-scale farmers had begun to invest more and more in cash crops – foreign crops that could be sold directly for cash on the international market.

Then came the drought, which devastated the most water-intensive species of plants. At the same time that the climate began to shift, the world experienced a crash in the prices of cash crops, particularly for coffee, in which many farmers had invested heavily.

“Most of us had converted the nearby fields to coffee and cleared the forests for our household crops. But we were forced to stop because of the destruction it caused in the forests. Instead, we started to look for the seeds of relict crops that could be grown in a way that conserves moisture,” says Monica.

The forest, which is part of Mount Kenya’s larger forest ecosystem, lies just an hour’s hike from the village. It is a major reason for the region’s plentiful water supply.

Monica and her husband, Joseph, were among the first to take advantage of the opportunity to join a project sponsored by ICE, the Institute for Culture and Ecology, dedicated to the renewal of the village’s traditional practices. Mercy Muleva was one of the advisors who began with a small group of about 30 households.

“Western influences are very strong here. Many people here hardly knew of any crops other than corn, wheat and beans. But as the climate has changed, rain patterns have become increasingly unreliable – and our crops have to tolerate both rain and drought,” explains Mercy.

Together the group managed to find and cultivate a number of relict crops, and their success convinced others to follow their lead. Today, a large portion of the village’s 5,000 inhabitants has joined in the effort.

This shift has not only secured the village’s food supply. It has also affected local gender roles.

“Because so many of the relict crops are traditionally planted by men, they’ve become more and more involved in local agriculture. Bananas and yams demand, for example, that we dig deep into the soil. As women, we’re responsible for the home, which seems easier nowadays. Men and women support each other more,” says Monica.

Traditionally, African men and women have had different tasks and skills in the agricultural system,” explains Gathuru Mburu, general coordinator for the ICE group. “In many cases, women have shouldered much of the burden of this work. And colonization has only increased their workloads.”

When Englishmen employed men at the large tea plantations, many became supervisors, a role they then assumed at home.

“In colonial times, native people were forced to adapt to new systems, new worldviews and a new religion. The local, traditional knowledge and skills were no longer valued, and the government has done nothing to change this since the country’s independence in 1963. We’re trying to help these villages reconstruct their knowledge base.”

A crucial part of this effort is to build awareness of the fact that forests must be protected for society to ensure its water supply. Another is the idea that the earth has been damaged by chemical use and high-yield crops, and must therefore be “healed.”

“It’s about decolonizing people’s thought patterns – to reestablish the feeling of community and restore connections with local ecosystems. In many cases, it’s not that difficult once the work has begun,” says Gathuru.

But it’s not just colonization that has led to these negative developments. Christian missions also played a role, in part by diminishing the social status and protection of ancient sacred sites.

One such place is the sacred forest of Giitune, on a hill beside Ruiga, a village several hours away by car. We stop beside a road sign announcing that we have arrived at the equator. Several older men lead the way along a path through dense vegetation. As we hike, the air is pleasantly cool in the shadows of the towering mukui trees (Newtonia Buchananii).

At the top of the hill we reach a small glade, where several dozen villagers sit in quiet concentration around a fire. The moment we’ve taken our places in the circle, a group of women begins to sing and dance, their loud howls inviting us to join in. Two older men, one in a tattered grey suit and a broad sun hat, the other with a black-and-white fur headdress and tufted staff, emerge from a hut on the far side of the glade carrying a ceremonial drinking horn and a calabash adorned with shells.

The calabash used in the ceremony in Giitune by M’Riberia Mwongo contains a sacred beer, brewed from sugar cane juice and honey from the foothills of Mount Kenya, and fermented near the fire.  On the right senior village elder George M’Turuchiu. Photo Mats Hellmark

The men dance within the circle as they drink the liquid from the calabash, which they then spray from their mouths onto the people surrounding them, and onto a nearby tree. The song has become more rhythmic. We hear a single word repeated: thaai, thaai, thaai. As the liquid sprays in my direction, I notice a faint scent of yeast and honey.

Tetu Maingi sits beside me, whispering that the ceremony is a blessing of the sacred forest, and of the people in the shadow of the great tree. The word thaai means peace and serenity.

Tetu is a coordinator in the environmental organization Porini, which also works to promote traditional knowledge and local autonomy. Together with the UN organization UNDP and the National Museum of Kenya, Porini runs a project aimed at restoring and conserving some two-dozen sacred sites surrounding Mount Kenya.

In many cases their task is urgent: Environmental degradation and exploitation threaten valuable natural and cultural resources, and the older generation’s traditional knowledge is dying out.

As a secular Swede, the ceremony around us feels unfamiliar. But it doesn’t take faith in the local god Murungu to understand the advantages offered by the forest in terms of water, firewood, medicine and more stable weather conditions.

The man in the fur headdress – made from the pelt of the sacred colobus monkey – is M’Riberia Mwongo, a 74-year-old medicine doctor and spiritual adviser in Njur Nceke, the highest council of elders in the province of Meru. The man in the sun hat is the senior village elder George M’Turuchiu, at 84 years of age.

The calabash contains a sacred beer, brewed from sugar cane juice and honey from the foothills of Mount Kenya, and fermented near the fire. Later in the evening I’m offered a taste: It is strong, sweet and cloudy with yeast.

At the end of the ceremony is a Christian prayer, a fact no one seems to see as a contradiction. But when I speak with Mwongo afterwards, he shares his criticism of many of the effects of Christianity:

“The Bible tells us that Jesus forgives. But to be accepted back into the community, and to atone for one’s sins, our tradition requires repentance and a purification ceremony.”

Christian missions paved the way for colonization, broke down traditional systems of rules and severed the connection to nature, he explains.

“The first European arrived in 1901. Before this, the forest was intact, protected by the taboos of the council of elders.”

It wasn’t allowed, for example, to take a knife or axe into the forest. The only acceptable cutting tools were stones. Firewood could only be collected on specific occasions, and then only dried branches. If a living tree was felled, bloodshed would follow. In the forest, the killing of animals was forbidden along with fighting and sex.

As the church became the new holy site, the myths and taboos of the forest faded into the past. Instead, ancient beliefs were associated with forces of evil. Sections of forest were cut for timber, which was then used for building and wood coal. Subvegetation was collected for animal feed, and the forest began to dry out.

“The morals of our society also faded. In one spot in the forest, beer was brewed and sold. The forest was used as a toilet, and for love affairs,” explains Martta Kauthi Gituna, a 42-year-old local.

Janet Ikaria is just over 70 years old and has noticed a resurgence in traditions due to the project:

“Now, the young people listen to their elders again. Streams have begun to flow, harvests have improved and we don’t need to go as far to collect water.”

The turning point was a grand purification ceremony in 2005, when a sheep was sacrificed, according to Julius Gikundi, secretary of the Giitune Environment Conservation Group. The group maintains the forest on behalf of the National Museum of Kenya, which granted the area protection rights in 2003.

“Giitune is proof to the whole world that it’s possible to protect forests through traditional cultural practices. Now, security guards are no longer needed. We plant native trees to restore the parts of the forest that were destroyed,” say Julius. The animal life, however, has yet to recover, with the exception of birds, of which there are still quite many. The elders estimate that about two-dozen species have disappeared, among them several monkeys and antelope.

“Traditional knowledge is passed down through generations. We try to combine the stories of the elders with modern technology, such as GPS mapping. This kind of documentation also makes it easier to gain the attention of authorities,” explains Tetu Maingi of Porini.

A group of young locals tells me that they’ve learned a great deal from their elders. “Of course, many younger people leave the village for work or studies. But we hope to be able to carry on our traditions with the help of research and photographs,” says George Ringera, a teenager in the group.

At other holy sites, less progress has been made. We pass Mbututia, a sacred lake and wetland area endangered by drainage and conversion to croplands. The lake is vital to migratory birds and huge numbers of fish, and its survival has been threatened on several occasions – once, by an Italian priest who proposed leveling the area and replacing it with an airport. More recently, a forced relocation program has led to a number of farmers being allotted land that today is lake bottom.

 Wildlife diversity here is enormous, and plans have been developed to use EU aid to turn the lake into a nature preserve. But as long as land rights issues remain unresolved, the threats remain.

Tetu takes us to Karima Hill, a hilltop forest in the province of Nyeri, west of Mount Kenya. “Here, the struggle is still underway. People have become aware of the situation and are beginning to fight to keep their forest. The government sees it only as a source of timber,” he explains.

The forest is 270 hectares in total, although the majority was burned or cut by the British to eliminate what was seen as a refuge for resistance fighters during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s. Where the forest was once managed locally, the system was later taken over by the city government, which proceeded to set up tea plantations and replace the damaged areas with non-native tree species – mostly water-intensive eucalyptus. None of these projects have brought direct income to the surrounding villages.

Water access, on the other hand, has suffered dramatically.

“The forest is very important for us as women. We’ve been able to collect firewood there, and the water, which has always been near our homes, has given us proper harvests. There were also medicinal herbs, wild fruits and berries for the children,” explains Rachel Wagui, a 75-year-old villager.

“Before, there was water in every valley. Now, 20 of our 26 streams have died out. The rain patterns have also changed, and erosion has increased,” says the village elder, Paul Thuku.

The council of elders is currently working to take back control of the forests from the city government. Despite other setbacks, two sacred sites totaling some 70 hectares have remained untouched, and are now protected by an ordinance from the National Museum. We climb up to one of these sites, first through a steep tea plantation, then past the tall eucalyptus trees at the hill’s crest.

As we approach the site, flashes of movement swish by in the tree canopy overhead. Black-and-white creatures with long tails hop nimbly among the branches. This is the home of the rare colobus monkey.

Paul Thuku and Kamau Mwita, members of the council of elders, discuss local taboos before we’re allowed to follow them to the most sacred site. Are women and whites allowed to come along? And what about abstinence? Anyone who has had sex during the previous week is forbidden from entering the area.

Eventually we’re allowed to follow them into the dense vegetation to join in a ceremony beneath a colossal tree enveloped in the lianas of the strangler fig. That the holy site has managed to survive untouched is something Kamau sees as a gift from the gods: “It gives us hope for the future. This, and the progress being made at other holy sites like Giitune.”


Traditional knowledge

Traditional knowledge is an important part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, a treaty which has been ratified in 180 countries.

Porini and ICE are currently working according to a concept known as Community Ecological Governance, or CEG, a model for managing the destructive effects of globalization with the help of traditional knowledge and local influence. Porini and ICE are supported by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, and cooperate with other environmental organizations in Africa, within the African Biodiversity Network.

Find out more about their work at: and

Text Mats Hellmark Translation Grant Baldrigde