Karũri wa Gakure was born in or around 1849 at Kanorero of Iyego location in Mũrang’a in the Gĩkũyũ reigning generation of Maina. He was born together with two brothers, Kĩguma and Ngarũ and sisters Wambũi, Mũthoni and Gacoki and many step-brothers and step-sisters including one Wambũi who was later to be mother of Jomo Kenyatta. They were born into the Ambũi clan but when Gakure died their young mother left the Ambũi clan and joined with her children including Karũri the Angarĩ clan where they were re-born ceremonially. The particular Mbarĩ they joined was called Njono and lived in Kangema near Marĩmĩra forest. The Angarĩ clan was later to migrate to Kĩgumo midway between Kanyenya-ini and Tuthũ and this is where Karũri grew up and settled as an adult.
Karũri as a young man endeared himself to his warrior group, Njaama, with exceptional leadership qualities and business acumen. They used to hunt and scavenge elephant tusks in the adjoining Aberdare forest and sell them to Arab traders who came all the way from the coast up to Kambaland for them. Being quite an ambitious and restress young man he decided to join the lucrative career of medicine and divination, Ũgo. He was able to fund the expensive process of training and induction into the Gĩkũyũ cult of Ũgo through the ivory trade and he was to become a very successful and famous MũndũMũgo. His war medicine was so successful that his warriors always won over the Maasai and many warriors aligned themselves to him. He thus gained the status of a War Chieftain, Mũthamaki.
This should not be confused with the Mũthamaki – reigning Chairman of a civic elder’s court, Kĩama. These were judicial and clan administrative councils which always had rotational chairmen who acted like the Speaker of a modern parliament and whose sole responsibility was to moderate discussion in the Kĩama. They were not leaders and it is during one’s tenure as a moderator when one is called a Mũthamaki. These leaderless Courts confounded the colonial administration and they therefore elevated the much more visible War Chieftains like Karũri and Njiiri to the status of tribal chiefs or colonial representatives at local level. By the time the colonials came to Gĩkũyũland, Karũri was the undisputed War Chief, in practically all of Mũrang’a, Waiyaki wa Hinga was undisputed in Kabete, Wang’ombe wa Ihũũra reigned in the Western flank of Mt Kenya with lesser War Chiefs like Ndũinĩ wa Mũrathimi and Wambũgũ wa Mathangani.
These War Chiefs appear not to have had much to do with civic administration and kept themselves busy with keeping the peace, and protecting the general populace from the excess of malicious Medicine-Men or women, Arogi. These were those who practiced inverted Ũgo; what was later to be termed as witchcraft by the White Man’s Church. In fact, Karũri himself in the early years of his career as a MedicineMan was branded a Mũrogi, because of many mysterious deaths that were attributed to him. The warriors gathered at night and surrounded his hut while they were sure he was inside and put it to flames. As he uttered wild screams and curses from the inside the fire razed the hut. They were satisfied that they were rid of him but he escaped the episode unscathed. This made them fear him even more and his fame spread into all Gĩkũyũland with some calling him, Karua na Ngai – circumcised together with God.
These War Chiefs aside from dealing with the external threats of the Maasai and local peace keeping had once in a while internal desputes against each other. Wang’ombe wa Ihũũra is probably the most famous Gĩkũyũ warrior of all time. He learnt his art of war from the Maasai and was closely allied to them. So when a serious dispute arose between Wang’ombe and Karũri it looked an uneven match as far as warcraft and visible resources went. Next to the might of the famous supreme warrior, Wang’ombe, Karũri seemed just a simple fellow who dabbled in meaningless magic. But it turned out to be a war of mind verses might, the terrible forces of Maasai war machine were allayed against the war medicine of Karũri. Father Joachim Gĩtonga in his little but detailed book, The Paramount Chief Karũri wa Gakure, gives a fast paced blow by blow thrilling description of the clash of these two that would make one of the greatest movies ever made in Africa. According to the author, this war which should rightly be titled, “The Humiliation of Wang’ombe wa Ihũũra”, Karũri put to display all the might of his war medicine, Gĩthitũ, against Wang’ombe and beat him hands down. The place of the final showdown is to date called Gĩitwa or the place of slaughter where nearly all of Wangombe’s men perished. He later sent a bull’s hide to Karũri as an acknowledgement of defeat.
When the British colonial administration was established in Gĩkũyũland, at the beginning of the last Century the colonisers simply elevated the War Chieftains to Civic Government Chiefs in a hitherto chiefless society that was governed more by a complex system of taboo enforced mainly by individual conscience and fear. When necessary a Council of Elders, Kĩama, was constituted sometimes on demand and mostly a clan council dealing with clan matters like boundary disputes, marriage and serious crimes like murder or witchcraft. Otherwise a normal Gĩkũyũ person could go about his or her life without any need of a visible government. The Council of Warriors transformed into an administration police under the colonial Chief and thus today the Government enforces such mundane things as what I can or not cook in my own kitchen.
Karũri in being raised to a paramount Chief had to lay down his Gĩthii or goatskin cloak and put on a British Great Coat. He had to set aside his powerful medicine and serve a master with stronger medicine than his. As a war for the hearts and minds of the Gĩkũyũ it was played very well. Here is how the psychological operation is described in Conquest for Christ in Kenya. Yes, Conquest.
“In 1915 Karoli’s health began to fail which greatly alarmed his family. He asked to be baptized and this so impressed Father Superior that he asked His Lordship Father Perlo to baptize him with all possible solemnity.
In the presence of many missionaries and neophytes from the neighboring mission stations, and very many chiefs including Chief Njili and Chief Moriranja (the Chiefs came at the personal invitation of Karoli), and a large section of the native population, the sacrament was administered.
The Chief’s baptismal name was Joseph (at the same time his wife Wanjiro was baptized). Such religious function had never taken place in Tuso, and within living memory there had never been such a public gathering for an event whether secular or religious, although for years that had been the place where the greatest leader of the Kikuyu lived.
There was an Italian farmer in the vicinity who came to witness the ceremony, in his motor car. His offer to drive the royal couple through the village was accepted. As the car slowly crunched along the road, the by-standers clapped their hands and raised their voices for sheer joy.
The feasting lasted for three days, but the memory of it lingered for years and many now living remember the event as it was told them by their parents and grandparents.
There could be no better way of preparing the minds and hearts of the people for receiving the message of the Gospel.”
Shortly after in May 1916, at Tuthũ village the famous Paramount Chief died, the victim, so they said, of powerful witchcraft from neighboring Wĩthaga. He was laid to rest at Tuthũ Consolata Mission.
The sad picture of the felled giant forced to deny his other wives in order to be baptized and give up his powerful war medicine contrasts sharply with his colorful deeply moving past. Is this the fate of the tribe?
Yes. It has always been, and will always be, a battle of the minds.
For the weapons of our warfare are not physical but mental.
Ũgo witũ ũhũranaga na ũgo wao
Thaai Thathaiya Ngai Thaai!!!
Karũri wa Gakure as Paramount Chief. Picture from The Akikuyu by Fr C. Cagnolo