Mount Kenya, the highest mountain in Kenya and the second highest in Africa after Kilimanjaro, lies just south of the equator in central Kenya, approximately 95 miles (150 kilometers) from Nairobi. It is variably referred to as “The Mountain of Mystery,” “The Place of Light,” or “Mountain of Brightness.” It is also sometimes denoted as the “Mountain of Whiteness” because of its snow-capped peaks. Mount Kenya National Park has been designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site. The Gikuyu (or Kikuyu—the British spelling of the word) of Kenya have a beautiful creation story that incorporates how Kere-Nyaga or Kirinyaga, the extinct volcano commonly called Mount Kenya, came to be. After a brief discussion of the sacred character of mountains around the world, this entry describes that creation myth and the continuing importance of the myth and the mountain in Gikuyu religious belief.
Mountains have long been regarded as sacred and mystical stations. Perhaps it is their proximity to the firmament and its life-sustaining rain clouds that has inspired such awe and reverence in the hearts of many people around the world from time immemorial. This is no exception in the African tradition. For instance, the Bavenda and Shona revere the Matoba (or Matopa) mountains as a divine manifestation of God, while both the Ga and the Tumbuka recognize divinities of the hills. The Akamba, for their part, attest to seeing “fires of the spirit” on the hillsides in the dark of night. Be it Mount Sinai in the Judeo-Christian faith, Mount Arafat in the Islamic tradition, Mount Fuji within the Shinto system of belief, or Mount Kailas in Hindu and Buddhist teachings, for example, mountains are considered by many around the world to represent the pinnacle of spiritual liberation and elevation.
The Gikuyu Myth
According to the Gikuyu creation myth, in the beginning, Mogai (God), the “Divider of the Universe and Lord of Nature,” summoned Gikuyu, the founder of his ethnic group, and gave him his share of the land, replete with rivers, rain, forests, vegetation, and diverse animals. At the same time, the Mogai (sometimes spelled Ngai or Mungai) made a gargantuan mountain, Kere-Nyaga, which is said to be his chief Earthly dwelling—although he is said to also occupy the four other lesser, sacred mountains visible from Gikuyu land. Some say that he inhabits the sky just beyond the mountain and that he frequently visits the Earth to mete out blessings and punishment. Above all, however, Mogai was known to regularly inspect and admire his creation—the beautiful, bountiful Earth.
Legend has it that on the day of creation, Mogai took Gikuyu to the top of Kere-Nyaga, with its panoramic view, and pointed out a place called Mokorwe wa Gathanga, a locale said to be the geographic center of Kenya and where there was a profusion of mogumo—sometimes called motamoyo, Mikoyo, or Mokoyo—(wild fig) trees. God commanded that Gikuyu should build his homestead there. Mogai then told Gikuyu that whenever he was in need, he should make a sacrifice a under a mikoyo (fig) tree and raise his hands toward Kere-naya and Mogai, the Lord of Nature, would come to his assistance.
It is worth noting here that the word Mogai, if not the sacrosanctity, originated with the Maasai word Enkai and was appropriated by both the Gikuyu and Kamba. The Supreme Being is also known as Mungu, Murungu, Mwene-Nyaga, or Mulungu, a variation of a word meaning God, which is known to be in use as far south as Zambia among the Zambesi and is sometimes dubbed Mwatbani or Mwathi (the greatest ruler), derived from the word gwatha, meaning to rule or reign with authority.
At any rate, Gikuyu proceeded to the designated spot, where he found a stunning woman who Mogai had provided as his wife. Gikuyu named her Moombi, which means molder or creator, and together they had nine daughters. When Gikuyu expressed his desire that his daughters have husbands, Mogai instructed him to sacrifice a lamb and a kid under the homestead's big mokoyo tree, pouring the animals' blood and the fat on the trunk of the tree. Then the family was to make a bonfire under the great fig tree and burn the meat as a sacrifice to God—and sacrifices and supplication were always the purview of the family because no individual could petition the Almighty. Gikuyu did as directed. Then, per Mogai's decree, he took the womenfolk home. Subsequently, he alone returned to the mokoyo tree, where he found nine handsome men for his daughters. They married and procreated, and this is how the Gikuyu people multiplied and filled the land.
For the Gikuyu people, the question of land tenure is singularly vital to the people's existence because it guarantees a domicile to peacefully and safely cultivate the precious soil, which supplies their material needs and permits them to seek out a “high place” to perform their “magic,” traditional ceremonies and, perhaps most important, to burn ritual herbs and offer sacrifices in undisturbed tranquility under a mokoyo tree facing Mount Kenya.
The mokoyo tree, which is sometimes called the “strangling tree” because the sacrificial lambs are strangled underneath one of them, is considered divine, and it may be compared to the Christian conception of the church because the Gikuyu traditionally had no “temple made with hands.” The Gikuyu call them moti iva Ngai or moti iva igongona, or, respectively, “God's tree” or “ritual tree.” That is, the mokoyo is no less than the “House of God.” It is said to symbolize the Mountain, and the Gikuyu customarily worship in its shade. Jomo Kenyatta even posits that the name Gikuyu is rooted in the tree (i.e., mokoyo: the tree; mogekoyo: a Gikuyu person). The trees are no longer plentiful in Kenya because the early European “settlers” routinely cut down most of them after confiscating the Gikuyu land.
The Gikuyu, even today when many have converted to Christianity, continue to offer sacrifices on monumental occasions, such as the beginning of the planting season, rites of passage (i.e., birth, death, marriage, etc.), before crops ripen, at ceremonial purifications after an epidemic, during droughts, and at the harvest of “first fruits.”
Last, but not least, Kikuyu people traditionally constructed their homes with the main entrance facing the mountain. In addition, they buried the dead with their heads turned toward this most sacred site.
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