The sacredness of Mount Kenya in Kikuyu tradition

Mount Kenya, at 5199 meters, is the second-highest peak in Africa (the highest is Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania). For the people living in the surrounding areas, Mount Kenya is sacred.

This extinct volcano stands impressively almost on the line of the Equator (just to the south), about 190 km from Nairobi. Its diverse and unique ecosystems have been formed over millennia. The period of its most intense activity as a volcano dates back to between 3.1 and 2.6 million years.

An extensive ice cap covered it for millennia. Fire, ice and wind shaped it, infusing it with the forms that we can admire today. A dozen small glaciers remain of that large ice sheet, which are retreating at a rapid rate due to global warming.

Local populations have always revered Mount Kenya, as it is believed to be the seat of their divinity.

The relationship with nature established by peoples with a very ancient history, such as the Kikuyu of Kenya, is based on an attitude aimed at profound respect. The legends that revolve around this imposing peak testify to this.

The Kikuyu, who live along the east and south slopes of Mount Kenya, call this mountain Kirinyaga, ‘place of brilliance’. For them, this peak is the seat of the god Ngai, which is why it is considered sacred. An ancient Kikuyu legend tells of the formation of Mount Kenya: “When the earth was formed, a being called Mogai shaped a great mountain to which he gave the name of Kere-Nyaga. After that, the white powder called ‘Ira’ began to cover the summit, thus transforming itself into the bed of the god Ngai”.

Even the Embu, the Masai and the Wakambas consider Mount Kenya a site shrouded in sacredness. They are peoples who see the presence of divinity in nature. For the Kikuyu, the god Ngai manifests himself in natural phenomena, such as the sun, the rain, the rainbow, the moon and the stars. Even in the trees, considered sacred, the Kikuyu see his presence. Traditionally, Ngai is invoked when the balance between man and nature seems to be broken, such as in periods of drought or famine, and when a particular phase of the agricultural cycle begins.

But it is above all in the most important stages of life that the Kikuyu invoke the blessing of the god Ngai: on the occasion of a birth, for an initiation, a wedding or when the moment of death arrives.

As ecologist Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, recalls in her book Only the wind will bend me: “For the Kikuyu, Mount Kenya […] was a sacred place. Everything that was good came from there: abundant rains, rivers, streams and potable water. Whether praying, burying the dead or making sacrifices, the Kikuyu turned to Mount Kenya and when they built their homes, they made sure the doors looked in that direction.”

(Silvia C. Turrin/SMA)

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