Gitaru residents: We want the new railway line, station and our mugumo tree
As we drive into Gitaru, Kiambu County, the mood is sombre, accompanied by pin-drop silence.
Young Kenyans led by environmental and climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti, 27, have made a big circle around a tree while holding hands.
They are sending a message to Gikuyu elders who are warming up to perform a ritual they say is custom before a mugumo tree is made to breathe its last.
Wathuti is almost tearing up.
“I have contacted the Kenya Forest Service who say they cannot do anything and that I should contact Kenya Railways. They are the ones who have instructed that the tree be felled to make way for railway construction,” she says.
We move around and look at the two deep trenches dug on either side of the tree.
“I have been moving from one office to another to try and stop them from cutting down this beautiful tree that actually poses no danger to anyone, but no one wants to listen, I will not give up though, we will spend the night here if we have to,” she tearfully tells the Nation.
James Mwaura, a cobbler who plies his trade under the massive tree, says he cannot believe it will be felled.
“I have been here for over 35 years. This tree is a major landmark in this area. It will be unfortunate if we lose it … we need to come together and stop this from happening,” he says.
Rosemary Wanjiru, a trader who was born and bred in the area, just like Mwaura, says she is not happy with the elders who, despite endless efforts by the local community, have decided to go on with their ritual.
“Do they have a conscience? Why do they disregard our tears and decide to aid people to come here and bring down this tree?” she wonders.
The elders — five old men — make their way to the tree and then cover themselves with a large polythene bag after which they start chanting in their mother-tongue as a cloud of white smoke fills the air.
No one is allowed to approach them and we cannot see what they are doing, but 10 minutes later, they walk away.
“This giant fig tree, which the village of Mugumo-ini in Gitaru is named after, holds immense cultural and historical significance to the local community,” Wathuti whispers.
“It’s not just a tree, but a symbol of their heritage, identity, life and history. Cutting it down erases everything, let’s save the tree.
“By sparing this one valuable iconic sacred fig tree, we are showing love to our children and generations,” she adds.
Last week, Daima Green Spaces at Wangari Maathai Foundation raised the alarm over the impending felling of the tree.
“It is a travesty that the sacred Gitaru Kiambu fig tree is to be cut down next week, paving the way for the construction of a railway station by Kenya Railways.”
According to environmentalist Paula Kahumbu, this is a great opportunity for Kenya Railways to show leadership by supporting Kenya’s international climate and environmental commitments and compassion for the people of Kiambu.
“Imagine an ancient Mugumo tree towering beside a brand-new railway station — it sends a powerful message of heritage and splendour to all Kenyans and the world.”
In an official statement, Daima Green Spaces says that almost two years ago, they mobilised Nairobi residents to stop cutting down trees on Waiyaki Way to pave the way for the Nairobi Expressway.
“While these efforts saw the protection of a one-hundred-year-old iconic fig tree in Westlands from facing a similar fate, there is still more to be done to help the government and concerned stakeholders buy into sustainable development. Trees are our lifeline and our livelihoods and sustenance depend on them. The whole world agrees that biodiversity is on a steep decline.”
The photos capturing efforts by the community, which is trying to save its sacred tree, are a poignant reminder of the government's disregard for the needs and concerns of its citizens, according to Daima Safe Spaces.
Dedan Njuguna, 22, says young people in the area have decided to be on the look-out in shifts, day and night.
“We want to see who from our community will actually be paid to do the job of disrespecting us by cutting down this tree, and if you are a foreigner asked to cut it down, think twice before taking up such a job.”
While the fate of the tree is in the balance, Kenyans on social media have started the ‘Save The Mugumo Tree’ online petition. By Tuesday it had 397 signatures.
The Nation tried to reach Kenya Railways Authority officials but they did not answer.
“I just had a very interesting meeting with an engineer and two other officials from the environment section of the Kenya Railways Corporation. They are keen to explore a win-win option for the station to save the tree. It will cost a bit more but it’s feasible,” Kahumbu tells the Nation on Tuesday.
“Designing a station while saving this tree will send a strong message to Kenyans and the world,” she says.