Kenya: Back to the Shrine - How Peasant Farmer And His Sons Created a Violent Cult

The Nation,Nairobi/June 10, 2007
By Sunday Nation Correspondent

Senior Superintendent of Police Amos O. Owang', the Officer Commanding the Ndaragwa Police Division, is a giant of a man with a voice to match.

A veteran of the police force who has served in some of the most volatile areas of the country, he always adds the letters H.S.C. ( Head of State Commendation) after his name, a reminder of the honour awarded to him in 1984, when he had the rank of inspector. Asked why he was given the honour, which was bestowed on him by former President Moi, Owang' bursts out laughing.

"It has nothing to do with the number of people I've killed," he jokes, adding that he was honoured because of hard work and years of dedicated service to the force.

It was his reputation and experience that resulted in his posting to Nyandarua district just over one year ago, with a brief to bring soaring crime levels down and curtail Mungiki activities in the area, which is expansive and has a reputation as being the bedrock of the cult's activities.

"Crime and Mungiki-related illegal activities were getting out of hand before I was posted here, and at the beginning things were hectic for me," he says, explaining that the Mungiki menace still persists.

"We know all the Mungiki members, sympathisers and financiers around here, and we monitor their activities on a daily basis. In fact, no goat can be slaughtered for oathing in this district without our immediate knowledge."

Mr Owang' firmly contends that crime levels have drastically gone down in Nyandarua since he was posted there.

He does not, however, play down the Mungiki threat in the district.

"We're not taking claims that Mungiki leaders have reformed very seriously," Mr Owang' says, pointing out the fact that sect members have begun killing police officers is a message that those leaders are powerful and very influential.

The rising acts of Mungiki-related violence in Nairobi and Central Province has resulted in close coordination of police activities countrywide, and he has a list of seven Mungiki leaders who have gone underground, and whom his men are hunting for.

Those men are difficult to find. The Sunday Nation had been to Molo the day before, realising too late that it was on a wild goose chase. Just about two or three weeks ago, the area District Commissioner, Mr Jan Ireri, called a baraza (public meeting) and told the local people that there were Mungiki operatives in the area, and that they had to volunteer information about them if they wanted to keep out of trouble. But Nakuru OCPD John Katumo says the area has no serious incidents of crime.

To prove his point, Senior Superintendent of Police Katumo points towards the place where renowned Mungiki boss Ndura Waruinge was born. The police boss challenges us to take a walk there and see if we can find Mungiki people there. We don't bother. Instead, we stroll towards the Molo matatu station and talk to the two supervisors there. Where is Mungiki here, we ask. They respond with mirth.

"Mungiki is an old story around here, so may be you can tell us where they are," says one of the supervisors. "Ndura Waruinge has never addressed a rally here, and the only time we can recall seeing Mungiki activity is when Maina Njenga used to occasionally turn up to try and recruit young men into the movement. A few idlers registered and were initiated, but soon got bored and left."

We cannot verify that, and are unsure about defectors from Mungiki, given information we have received earlier in the day from the Nakuru District Commissioner, Mr Wilson Wanyanga.

"The Mungiki people move about rapidly," he says. "Since they took over bus and matatu stages they have established cells everywhere; Mungiki is today a faceless organisation, and keeping track of it is very difficult.

We have lots of Mungiki adherents here in Nakuru, but we cannot pin them down. The menace is only solvable through the matatu industry, within which extortion by Mungiki is rife. Also in that conspiracy of fear are many landlords who quietly pay protection fees to Mungiki operatives."

Back in Nyahururu, we learn from OCPD Owang' that one of the prominent Mungiki leaders is an old man known as Kamunya. The OCPD says that the last time the police heard of him he was living at Ol Joro Orok, but has of late moved to an unknown location, shaking off the police trail on him.

Later, we were able to establish that the old man, whose full name is Kamunya Maina, is the father of John Maina Njenga, the alleged Mungiki national chairman who is now in custody, and his elder brother Njoroge Kamunya, who used to be the movement's national organising secretary. Efforts to interview the latter are unsuccessful.

One leader we manage to reach by mobile phone is a man named Kimani Ruo, who used to be the Mungiki Rift Valley coordinator. Informed that we're in Nakuru and would like to meet him for a chat, Ruo says he is on his way to Mombasa, and tells us to call him after a few days so that we can arrange for an interview. The phone goes unanswered henceforth.

Our next trip takes us to Ng'arua Division in Laikipia West constituency, which has the unenviable reputation of being both the birthplace of the Mungiki sect and the bedrock of its activities.

When we visited the area this week, our first stop was at a place called Karandi, which for many years has been the centre of Mungiki activities, including massive recruitment and the performance of initiation rituals.

Before our trip to Karandi, about 30 kilometres from Nyahururu town, we have been warned to be extremely careful about how we go about gathering information about the Mungiki sect, which has over the years metamorphosed from a religious-cultural movement into a massive political set-up with a wide and secretive following across the country.

Curious eyes follow our every movement as we enter a little café and order refreshments, which we take with some trepidation as people walk in and out, obviously monitoring our every move. We have come all the way from far-off Ndaragwa, and it is already 4.30pm, so we are aware that we don't have much time to reach our destination, Kanyuka dam, reputed to be the most famous site for the initiation of new Mungiki recruits.

Although we have been told that the dam is near Karandi, a local contact who has been waiting for us now tells us that the dam is several kilometres away, along a dirt road, and that we cannot quickly reach it easily on foot.

Throughout the short trip, our hired driver is extremely conscious about being identified by the few local people - most of them herdsmen tending sheep - that we pass on the way.

And when we tell him that we would like to go up to the Kamunya homestead later, he firmly protests, saying that he would not for any reason want to be spotted taking us there. An offer of extra money for the trip mellows him down somewhat. There's one condition though: We must alight from his vehicle metres away from the homestead, while he drives ahead out of sight, to wait for us further up the road.

Although the dam has been described as a Mungiki shrine, there are no structures near it. The first thing one notices are the hoof marks on the muddy shores, left by livestock taken there for watering. The rest of the dam is quite expansive and surrounded by tall reeds.

It is in its shallow waters that Mungiki recruits would be submerged for "cleansing" during initiation ceremonies, sometimes described as a kind of baptism. "There were times one would see crowds of people from faraway places dropped at the dam in numerous vehicles for the initiation ceremonies," a source tells us.

Apparently, in those days the Mungiki sect operated openly and was tolerated by the authorities, despite its strange rituals, many of which were carried out at the home of Mzee Kamunya. We head there after surveying the dam, and alight from the old Ford. The driver proceeds up the road and out of sight without us.

Peeping through a mesh fence we can see the abandoned homestead as well as an old wooden structure, complete with a kind of steeple, where many of those rituals used to be conducted.

By this time we have attracted the attention of apprehensive neighbours. To lift the suspicions of the people monitoring our movements, we say we are on a mission to inspect the damage done by the elephants.

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