On 8 May 1902, a ship arrived at the Kenyan port of Mombasa and discharged four Italian men. They were Catholic missionaries from the Consolata Mission in Turin, and they were on their way to Abyssinia to convert local people to Christianity. But thanks to an unplanned encounter with a special tree, they ended up putting down roots in Kenya.
By chance, they had soon met the paramount chief of Kenya’s Kikuyu people, Karuri wa Gakure, who invited them to his homeland. When they arrived, he gave them a place to stay and said they could hold their first mass under a sacred mugumo tree. As Christianity and local traditions overlapped in the years ahead, these trees would become the focus of cultural clashes, curious exchanges and controversial claims of religiously-motivated ecocide.
A mugumo is a kind of strangler fig (Ficus natalensis) that dominates other trees, growing into a giant that is seemingly immortal. These trees are traditional symbols of Kikuyu society. They are sites of religious ceremonies, homes to ancestral spirits, and places where elders can commune with Ngai, the Kikuyu god. To cut down a sacred mugumo is taboo. But to Constanzo Cagnolo, a missionary active in Kenya in the early 20th century, these trees were “temples of the Kikuyu paganism”.
“The best and first mission of these missionaries was to eradicate [the Kikuyu people’s] traditional temples of worship, the mugumo trees, replacing them with churches and schools,” wrote Matthew Karangi, in a 2013 book of his doctoral research on the role of mugumo trees in Kikuyu religion.
In a 2006 interview, Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai claimed that missionaries and their converts had felled many mugumos in their zeal to replace the god of the tree with the god of the church. Missionaries were “very eager to get rid of all these trees,” she said.
David Anderson, professor of African history at Warwick University, disputes this. “There are a couple of notorious incidents where local missionaries cut down mugumo trees, but only on land they had been granted for mission stations or schools,” he told me. “The idea that they had any kind of campaign or that there was significant destruction of trees on Kikuyu Reserve land is frankly ridiculous.”
But Karangi disagrees. “The process of evangelisation in Kikuyu land was not a peaceful mission,” he told me. “It was at time brutal and unsympathetic towards the local customs. Missionaries were strategically cutting down ceremonial mugumo trees in order to weaken the African belief, which was obviously considered as pagan by then.”
People whom Karangi interviewed during his doctoral research told him new converts to Christianity had deliberately uprooted sacred mugumo trees, particularly in the counties of Kirinyaga, Murang’a, Nyeri and Kiambu. However, beyond two published accounts of oral testimony describing Kikuyu converts burning or cutting down sacred trees, documentary evidence is scarce. And it is clear that missionary views of these trees were both varied and subject to change.
“It is easy to blame ‘the missionaries’, who were always a mixed bunch, for everything,” says Ben Knighton, a scholar of Kikuyu history at the University of Oxford. “While some might have written off rituals at the sacred groves as pagan or heathen, the British ones had a liberal view of traditional religions and were not in the business of demonising trees.”
Knighton doubts that many converts would have been able to harm sacred fig trees without seriously upsetting the elders and the colonial administration. He also points to cases of missionaries protecting mugumo trees and the rituals that involve them. In the 1920s, for example, a missionary called William Rampley complained to the Colonial Office that new roads and building works were destroying fig trees. Thanks to his intervention, a new road bent around a mugumo at Kabare, saving it from the chop.
Other missionaries found in sacred fig trees opportunities to align the Kikuyu faith with Christianity. Karangi says that, after many years of living with the Kikuyu people and learning their culture and knowledge, some missionaries became convinced that Christianity needed to be contextualised, that inculturation “was not only necessary but a must.”
“For these groups who had lamented the deracination of those sacred trees by other missionaries, the sacred mugumo prepared the ground for the evangelisation in the Kikuyu land.”
These missionaries portrayed Kikuyu sacrifices at fig trees as being congruent with the ‘Great Sacrifice’ of Christ. They built churches alongside sacred fig trees where Kikuyu elders made sacrifices to their god Ngai when the rains failed. A Catholic shrine now stands at the site of the fig tree under which the Italian missionaries performed their first mass in 1902.
A Church of Scotland missionary called Arthur Barlow, agreed to preserve a path through the mission compound, so Kikuyu elders could continue to reach a sacred mugumo tree. When a storm felled the tree in 1930, the missionaries sent its trunk to Scotland, where it was turned into a cross and returned to Kenya to be displayed in the church. “This was done as a symbol of religious colonisation,” says Karangi. The mugumo has been replaced by Christ.”
The extent to which Christianity had replaced traditional beliefs became clear in 1996, when Kenya’s parliament debated whether to protect three mugumos that had long been sacred to Kikuyu people.
“All that we are asking the Assistant Minister to do,” said Stephen Ndicho, the MP for Juja, “is to allocate about an acre of land for a mugumo tree and declare it a national shrine, so that if we fail to get our prayers answered in the churches we can go back to ask our Ngai to give us rain.” Dr Lwali Oyondi, MP for Nakuru, replied: “This is devil worship!”
But while many Kikuyu people embraced Christianity, not everyone rejected the fig trees outright. This is clear from the words of hymn sung today in Catholic churches: ‘Ngai is the mugumo that never dries, while Christians are its branches’.
Keeping the tree
Julius Gathogo, a senior lecturer in philosophy and religious studies at Kenyatta University, says Kikuyu converts saw the new African Christianity as a continuation of their old religion, so they retained elements of the old that were compatible with the new. “The Kikuyu Christians largely remained beholden to the African religiosity that viewed the mugumo as an extraordinary tree with Theo-religious significance,” he told me.
A mugumo near Mount Kenya provides a prime example of this. The tree has a door carved into its trunk. Painted on the door are the Ten Commandments. Behind the door is a Bible. Open it and you will see the book is dedicated to the Kikuyu god Ngai and to the fig tree itself.
It is a testament to the depth these trees were rooted in Kikuyu culture that they have withstood more than a century of religious proselytization. They continue to be serve as places where people can commune with Ngai in times of need. Even as the Kikuyu people embraced Christianity, their sacred fig trees were too important to leave behind.
Read more: Mugumo fig trees have played many curious roles in Kenya, from wartime lookout post to clandestine post office, from conduit of divine power to symbol of society. In the story I tell in my book, Ladders to Heaven (published in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers), they star alongside a queen, a seer and the most wanted man in the British Empire. For a summary of the book and reviews from Annie Proulx, Deborah Blum, Michael Pollan, Sy Montgomery, Simran Sethi, David George Haskell and others, visit this page.
Picture credits: Top: Mugumo fig tree — Ficus natalensis (JMK/Wikimedia Commons). Middle: Mugumo tree photographed by Consolata missionaries in 1907 (Wikimedia Commons). Bottom: Mugumo tree with ten commandments, photographed by MacGregor Magruder (reproduced with permission)
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