Wisdom from the elders

One of the greatest joys of my research work (in Nyandarwa ranges, central Kenya), is the opportunity to converse with elders. I study people-forest relationships and indigenous knowledge systems, but the discussions spill over to many many other topics -related and unrelated. Elders engage with any subject of discussion seriously,  they perform the conversation – it is an art,  they are philosophical, their thoughts are as powerful as the Mugumo tree, they ask me questions, they wish me well,  they challenge me to think harder, to work harder, to question things, to reflect, to take it all in.

Mugumo tree

Here is some of that coded wisdom.

“You should not be educated just to get rich. You can get rich even without knowing how to read a,b,c,d.  You should use your education to help the oppressed and the vulnerable.May your work be fruitful. ” 90 year old elder. 

Nyandarwa mountain

“In Gikuyu culture there was something called “ikumbi ria Ngai/Store of God”. Every time you harvested  you were expected to  take the first produce there. It would have bananas and all sorts of food. If you were passing by/on a journey you were welcome to eat food from this store and proceed with your journey. You were not to take anything away.  So, the  white man did not come with a new thing but a different way of doing what Africans were doing. They told us that the tithe was to be taken to the pastor but that pastor has a car, has a plot, has tea. So a cripple comes and gives 10ksh and the pastor comes and takes away all the offering. I want to demonstrate to you that the Gikuyu people knew God. Some of these new teachings that came are both good and bad. Somebody is blind but comes to the church but all the offering goes with somebody who is strong and able to work. How do you see that? God was therefore listening to Agikuyu prayers because they had clean hearts and  minds. That is why the pastors are progressing and the members are suffering. Because we are feeding the stomach of the pastor. If you find 100ksh it belongs to the pastor but you do not eat. So, God is not happy. The devil is seated right in the church, I tell you, my child.   That is why there are so many problems.”  64 year old elder.


“I try planting indigenous crops and trees on my land and now I am encouraged because I see that there are other people who are supporting me or who believe in this kind of work. So, educate people.” 90 year old elder.


” Since you are asking me questions, let me ask you too. What would you say about the many trees that we have planted almost under the bed, but its not raining – why? Before we had what we called the forest of God with indigenous trees. What would you say about that problem?” 88 year old elder.


“Now we know that people live because of trees. Even if we are not educated, we agree with what Wangari wa Maathai was saying. That trees support life and that we need to plant trees. People used to undermine her because she was a woman and said that she was just making noise. But now they see that she knew what she was talking about.” 86 year old elder. 

Wangari Maathai (centre) planting trees     Photo credit: Green Belt Movement

“We had said that nothing belonged to anybody if we we did not have wiyathi/indipendence. If the soldiers(Mau Mau) in the forest wanted food they would just. come and get it.”  Age unknown – probably 80’s.  


We were fighting for our soil during the Mau Mau times. We had our homes in these forests of Kirinyaga and Nyandarwa   But today we seem to be very confused. We are electing young people but in which direction do they want us to move to?  Where is the white man?  eh my child? I am asking you. What I want to tell you is that you have dismissed and undermined the teachings of our elders and you will not be able to develop the country. The parliament has already passed laws but if you look at the laws they are only benefiting them, but not to help the populace.We the Mau Mau had said it is better we die so that our kids can live well. Where is that goodness that we fought for? Eh? Where is it, mama?  You can be educated until university but this education is not the same as wisdom that our elders have. I was brought up by elders who wore skin,  and later others  who wore clothes. I therefore know a lot. We should hold seminars for elders and youth so that elders can share knowledge. There will be those would benefit from that kind of gathering and there are others that will not heed that advice and will “get lost”. 85 year old elder. 

Britain Kenya
Mau Mau Veterans during the court case in London            Photo Credit: www. uchaguzi.co.ke

“This walking stick is made from MUNGIRIMA, a very good tree, it doesn’t bend.. It was gifted to me by my father. It reminds to  stay  upright. Ever since I was young, I was taught to not take things from others in a bad way e.g. stealing/corruption because I believe it will take away my wealth/ what I have.  I have never fought with anyone. I have never impregnated a girl and my father has never been asked to pay any goats.  Lying is bad.”  85 year old elder.