The demise of sacred mugumo tree (Ficus natalensis) in Kikuyu culture is symbolic that foretells incoming tragedy, end or beginning of an era.
Mugumo tree grows upward, others are strangler figs that grows from seeds that falls on others. Mugumo trees offers a lifeline habitats for birds, fruit bats and monkeys.
The roots (aerial roots) are very strong which are spread down to dominate firmly what they touch, even for elephants, its very difficult to topple the tree. These features are the reasons why culture of Kikuyu view them as symbols of power and strength.
Mugumos feature in the Kikuyu people’s story of origin. Once they are declared sacred, they become shrines which serve as god. As such they should never be cut. Felling down a mugumo tree is a taboo among Kikuyu culture, and the consequences are there if mugumo fell accidently/naturally or cut down by any individual.
During colonial Kenya, some Kikuyu who were converted to Christianity were killed for chopping down a mugumo tree for firewood, this was according to the writing of Missionary Costanzo Cagnolo in 1933.
These sacred trees have been free to grow into giants with such protections.
The natural falling of mugumo trees mark the end of leadership and beginning of another. In the late 1800s, the great Gikuyu seer foresaw the arrival of pale-skinned people with ‘fire sticks’ (guns). He saw an iron snake that would eat and vomit people (train). He also predicted that when a mugumo tree in Thika fell, that when the people would be free. This was the most famous fallen mugumo which fell in 1963 and marked the end of British rule.
When the colonial government officials heard this story before, they reinforced the tree with a metal rail. However, part of the tree fell in May 1963 and month later Kenya gained internal self-rule. The remainder of tree fell six months later and Kenya became independent country month later on 12 December.
Falling of mugumo tree is also linked to fallen heroes who help in the struggle of independence. On May 2 1975, JM Kariuki one of the prominent politician was found dead, a day after the tree fell. He had been assassinated. Another tree that went down in 1978 foreshowed the death of Kenyatta who died later that year.
Falling of these fig trees can also signify the shift of power. In Nyeri county a mugumo tree fell shortly before Kibaki won 2002 General Election. This ended KANU’s 40 years rule.
In other communities in Kenya like Ameru, they view this fig tree different from Kikuyu. According to one of the locals, popularly known as the Daktari (Veterinary officer), mugumo tree symbolize life. Is the reason that he will cut down mugumo tree from his compound immediately when his mother will die, because the mugumo around his compound, according to him symbolize the life of his mother.