When, after hundreds of years of sustaining life all around it, of providing shade in which prayers were chanted and blood was spilt in sacrifice, of binding communities who claimed it a symbol, when —after all these things — a great mugumo dies and crashes to the ground, its death echoes through both ecology and society.
In the Kikuyu culture of Kenya, the demise of a sacred mugumo fig tree (Ficus natalensis) is more than a local tragedy. It is a portentous event. Now, with two giant mugumos having fallen this year, and another expected to crash down soon, many Kenyans are wondering if some big change is coming.
Mugumo trees are awesome to behold. Some grow upwards from the soil, while others are strangler figs that grow from seeds that fall on other trees. They send down pendant aerial roots that dominate all they touch. In time, these roots coalesce into a solid mass that even an elephant would struggle to topple. To birds, monkeys and fruit bats, a mugumo’s figs offer a lifeline. To people, these titans symbolise strength and power.
Mugumos feature in the Kikuyu people’s origin story. Once consecrated as a shrine, they serve believers as a conduit to god. As such, they must never be cut. As I recount in my book Ladders to Heaven (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers), taboos against felling fig trees are not unique to Kenya.
Elsewhere in Africa, as in parts of Central America and much of Asia and the Pacific, many different cultures have developed such bans – often with punishments, both real and imagined, for transgressors.
According to a recent media report, a Kenyan man’s skin turned white after he pruned a sacred fig tree in 1972. Contrast that with the fate of some Kikuyu converts to Christianity who — according to the missionary Costanzo Cagnolo writing in 1933 — were killed for chopping down a mugumo for firewood.
With such strong protections in place, the sacred mugumos have been free to grow into giants. And so, the very notion of one falling has become wrapped up in faith.
Perhaps the most famous of Kenya’s fallen fig trees is one that grew in Thika until 1963, and whose downfall was prophesied more than a century and a half earlier. In the late 1800s, a Kikuyu seer had foreseen the arrival of pale-skinned people toting ‘fire sticks’ — their guns. He saw an iron snake that would eat people and vomit them out – the train. He also predicted that when a huge fig tree in Thika fell, his people would be free.
When representatives of the British Colonial Government heard this story, they reinforced the tree with a metal rail. It did not help. Part of the tree fell in May 1963 and a month later Kenya had gained internal self-rule.
The remainder of the tree fell six months later. Within a month – on 12 December – Kenya became an independent country, with Jomo Kenyatta its first Prime Minister. One of Kenyatta’s first acts as leader of the new nation was to plant a mugumo fig tree where the British Union Flag had fluttered in the wind.
In the years ahead, people would link falling fig trees with the declines of heroes of the struggle for independence. On 2 March 1975, the day after one of these trees fell, a popular politician in Kenyatta’s administration called JM Kariuki was found dead. He had been assassinated, his burnt body dumped on an ant nest. The tumbling-down of another sacred mugumo in 1978 foreshadowed the death of Kenyatta himself, later that year.
Falling fig trees can also signify shifts in power. A giant mugumo in Nyeri County fell shortly before Mwai Kibaki won Kenya’s presidency in 2002, ending nearly 40 years of unbroken rule by Kenyatta’s party KANU.
Another huge mugumo fell just days before the March 2013 general election. As in 1963, this mugumo split in two before it fell. In Kikuyu lore, this signifies ituika — the change of guard from one group to another. Kikuyu elders said it presaged a generational change in Kenya’s leadership. Sure enough, Jomo Kenyatta’s son Uhuru won the presidency – replacing Kibaki and shifting political power from the old to the young.
These mugumo fig trees have played many other curious roles in Kenya, from wartime lookout post to clandestine post office. In the story I tell in my book, they star alongside a queen, a Nobel Prize winner and the most wanted man in the British Empire.
Now, with Kenya’s next general elections taking place on 8 August 2017, the country’s fig trees are again under intense scrutiny. Since the start of the year, dozens of media reports have pondered the significance of an apparent increase in falling fig trees, such as the one that crashed down in Karatina, Nyeri County on 3 May.
Back in March, the body of another sacred mugumo cracked and began tilting toward people’s houses in Kiambu County. A village elder said mugumo trees do this when the society has committed a sin: “God is angry and people need to seek forgiveness,” he said.
Three days earlier, a giant mugumo fell in Kiamigwi village, Nyeri County. Some locals suggested that this symbolised the death of Nyeri’s Governor Nderitu Gachagua, in February. Others said it was because a snake had made its home among the fig’s roots and defiled the holy place.
The Kikuyu elders chanted, sacrificed lambs and sprayed libations of beer to cleanse the shrine and, as one elder put it, to “say goodbye” to the tree. When asked what the mugumo’s demise meant, the elders said there was nothing to fear. On this occasion, it was just a case of old age.
Read more about fig trees in my book Ladders to Heaven (published in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers). For a summary and reviews from Annie Proulx, Deborah Blum, Michael Pollan, Sy Montgomery, Simran Sethi, David George Haskell and others, visit this page.
Photo credit: JMK (Wikipedia / Creative Commons)