Where falling fig trees portend political change


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 Constanzo 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.

Photo credit: JMK (Wikipedia / Creative Commons)


Mali’s giant trees and fortune-telling foxes

In 2010, I walked in parts of Mali where now the threat of violence dogs people’s daily lives. I loved every place I visited, but it was the mystique, peace and beauty of the portion known as Dogon Country that touched me most. It is a remote region near the middle of Mali, which itself lies landlocked at the heart of the hump we call West Africa.


A sandstone cliff — 200 kilometres long and up to 500 metres high — divides the Dogon territory in two. Some of the Dogon people live atop it in the Bandiagara Highlands while others live on the Séno-Gondo Plain down below, or in villages that huddle in a line at the base of the cliff itself. My walk between these distinct worlds started in Sangha, a highland commune of mud buildings and massive baobab trees like this one. Even strong men look weak in their company.


In the wilderness beyond Sangha stood a trio of elders who provide people with advice about problems or changes in their lives. To do this they seek the help of a sacred desert creature — the pale fox (Vulpes pallida). First the men use a stick to scribble symbols in the sand to represent a client’s questions and possible answers. Then they scatter peanuts over the marks they have left and go home for the night. After the sun sets, there is a good chance that a fox will come to eat the nuts. The next morning, the elders check which answers the fox has left its footprints on — and that is the advice they give.


In the village after Sangha — a small place called Bongo — the air was ripe with the sweet scent of onions that grew in green fields all around. They became a cash crop in the Dogon Country in the 1930s when French colonists created a demand for them. When the onions are full grown their farmers pound them into a paste, which they then roll into balls to dry in the sun. In the past these fragrant spheres served as currency. Today they sell in distant markets and are a vital source of income in this poor corner of a poor country.


After Bongo — where children had filled the air with songs — the landscape became a place of peace. The silence was stunning. Even birds seemed shy. Yet more than 120 species of them live here. The plateau is also home to over 300 plant species, many of which are hard to find these days in less remote parts of Mali.


To reach the Dogon villages on the plain, I clambered over rocks along an ancient path that hugged the face of the cliff. That’s Burkina Faso in the distance across the plain.


The Dogon people migrated to this area in the 1400s from their homeland far to the South-West. When they arrived they found another group of people called the Tellem living in caves on the cliff. Little is known about these “little red people” and it is not clear whether the Dogon killed them, chased them off or assimilated them into their own society. According to Dogon oral history, the Tellem people could fly, and that’s how they built structures like these high in the cliff face to store grain and house their dead ancestors.


The picture below shows a Dogon village that sits at the base of the cliff, beneath the older Tellem structures on the cliff face. The Dogon people migrated to this place because they didn’t want to convert to Islam. When France colonised Mali, the Dogon people again hid and resisted change (apart from adopting onions, that is). Their animist culture survives in part thanks to the remote landscape they chose to call home.


Three years ago when I walked in Mali I felt only safety. Today it is a place where danger lurks. Cowards with guns threaten good people for making music, sending girls to school or simply believing in another god. The old men and the pale foxes may not have foretold this but the Dogon have seen it all before.