According to legend, when Ngai (God) sent Gikuyu to the land he had chosen for him, he told the man that he would identify his new home by the Mukurwe tree and the twitter of nyagathanga birds. And sure enough, when Gikuyu climbed down Kirinyaga mountain, Ngai’s abode, there in the garden was the huge tree, with the nyagathanga birds twittering their welcome.
Gikuyu and his wife, Mumbi, raised 10 daughters, nine of whom they married off, and soon the population started growing.
The people grew millet but the birds invaded their farms and the people, unable to stop them, simply gave up farming the grain. With no food, the nyagathanga flew off to the friendlier skies. Today, only a few of the birds remain at the Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga shrine, akin to the Gikuyu’s garden of Eden.
It is a freezing June afternoon when I arrive at the shrine. A security guard greets me and introduces me to three women sitting on the grass. They are the custodians of the place, as well as entertainers. One of them takes my gate pass and asks about my mission. To see the place, I say; I read about it in school.
The shrine has lost more than just the birds. Once considered a top destination for people seeking to re-connect with their roots, today Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga in Gaturi, Murang’a County, is in disrepair.
“Visitors no longer come in large numbers like they used to,” my guide, Boniface Maina, says.
We walk down a narrow trail to a group of traditional huts dedicated to Gikuyu’s and Mumbi’s 10 daughters. They are empty, unswept, the walls defaced with graffiti. The shrine’s deterioration has been occasioned by apathy, lack of finances and poor management. Most of the income is raised though gate collections and donations.
“I grew up here and live here but I don’t think much about the place,” Njoroge, the motorcycle rider who brought me says.
A major reason for the decay of the shrine is that it is neither listed as a heritage site nor placed under the Museums of Kenya, which would have allowed for funding.
Now some local people have taken it upon themselves to preserve their heritage.
Faith Mugechi, who visits the site on alternate days, believes she is doing God’s work.
“I would like to restore some of the lost glory,” she says. She depends mostly on donations by well-wishers and the paltry gate collection. “We are doing this because vandals desecrated the compound, yanking off roofing and cutting trees. The late Wangari Maathai inspired us to plant these trees, Mugechi says, pointing gesturing towards a dense patch of trees.
Nothing tells of the shrine’s neglect more eloquently than the half-built strucutre in the middle of the compound. A government initiative, it was an on-site hotel for out-of-town patrons that stalled in 1986.
The building’s floors are covered with moss. The cracked walls bear messages scrawled by visitors, most of them secondary school students, the main visitors to the shrine. Some have even indicated their social media accounts.
The building will be demolished and replaced with a glamorous one in the near future, Maina says.
I find Njoki Mwangi sitting in a clearing near the half-built hotel, a leather-bound Bible and staff by her side. She says that during the 1997 El Nino floods, she received a call from God asking her to stand in the gap for the country, the leadership, and for all children. He also told her that she should pray at the Mukurwe shrine.
She is waiting for the clock to strike 3pm to start praying. She is dressed in a red robe with a matching headscarf imprinted with a white cross. Njoki, 89, has been coming here every Tuesday and Friday for nearly 20 years. This season she will be praying for the upcoming general election and a wave of kidnappings.
“I might not worship in the traditional way people used to in the past, but God sent me here,” Njoki, an adherent of the Akorino sect, says. When I ask about the Bible and staff, she stops me from touching the book and reaches into her bag. “I have another Bible if you want to read,” she says.
Before the inner sanctum of the prayer sanctuary was closed, busloads of supplicants would visit and leave their shoes, belts, phones and hats at the entrance and stand by the massive, sacred mugumo tree and pray for rain and good health.
But not everyone could enter the prayer area, Maina informs me, “only those with a clean conscience”.
The prayer sanctuary has also fallen into disrepair and is covered with weeds. The most prominent feature is a huge mukurwe tree with very wide branches. It was planted by the late Gikonyo Kiano in 1957. Before security was instituted, the locals stole valuable items of history and cut trees.
“We bring our students to see history, but you wonder why word is not being spread about this site,” says Stanley Muchiri, a retired teacher. “The county is sitting on gold but they do not know it.”