In the forests that surround Lake Victoria there grows a plant called murembe. The Idakho and Isukha – two ethnic groups of the Kenyan district of Kakamega – consider it a sacred tree.
Murembe also means peace and is used to exchange greetings or to begin a conversation aiming to foster a new friendship or strengthen an existing one. Also in another Kenyan language, Luhya, the word peace is the same as that for the sacred tree.
People from most groups pray under a sacred peace tree, they use its leaves for rites of passage or inhale the fumes of its wood during ritual blessings. Various Kenyan villages such as those of the Okiek, Maasai, Turkana, Rendille, and Borana always have a peace tree to honour ties with ancestors in. To gather under those branches means to taste the peace that the forbearers dreamed of for their people, and that they have now reached.
Nobody would ever dream of violating a peace tree. It is cut only for serious reasons and only after having requested permission. Maasai women pray before cutting a branch of the oseki plant (cordia ovalis), one of the four sacred trees of this ethnic group: “Oh oseki tree, we pray to you: allow us to sever you. We do not intend to harm you, nor to injure you. Grant us the permission to glean a branch of yours: it is to take some peace from you. This is what we ask of you: peace in our homes.”
During the great ol-orika, or “of the stool”, ceremony, through which the young part with their warrior status to get married and settle down, nine recently circumcised men with four of their “godfathers” have the task of retrieving an oseki. It cannot be cut: it should instead be removed from the soil without “injuring” or “offending” it. The rites and rituals for this uprooting last an entire day. All 13 men are dressed in black or dark blue. The four godfathers bring fermented beer with honey with which they will sprinkle the oseki, after having given it fresh milk to “drink”. They then begin to dig, being careful not to let it fall. They do this by steadying it with branches from wild olives, then they sustain it with “loving” hands and lay it “sweetly” on the ground so that no branch gets “injured”, facing Mount Kenya. They bring cows into the fold and then the women take charge of it with honours and care. Every part of the plant is used – nothing is burnt. Its leaves have medicinal qualities; its foliage keeps bad spirits at bay; sticks made from its branches will become important symbols of peace. One in fact says e-luaa e-seki [(my) oseki stick is laid across (your path)] to announce the acceptance of a truce in a dispute or a conflict.
Borana elders too, in the North of Kenya and the South of Ethiopia, sit under an odda, a peace tree. They discuss essential aspects of peace, such as respect for one another, the administration of justice, and ethic principles on which social life should be based. In the shade of the same tree sit the council of those in the highest positions of the gada (the complex social system of hierarchical age-based layers within groups, clans, and sub-clans). They say they do this in order to “give space and protection to peace,” performing the necessary formalities so that new laws enter into force, able to preserve the peace which is threatened by turbulent times or profound social changes.
The pow, the wild fig, offers its refreshing shade to the Luo elders. It is only here that one is allowed to and must discuss and review laws that govern society, or “read” the seasons and the times to discover how they might influence the land and its people.
Respect for elders that preside over these meetings is of the highest level and is shown in the way of addressing and talking to them, and in keeping to the protocol when choosing where to sit. The entire scene seems set precisely to facilitate a peaceful conversation or a reconciliation, whichever is needed. Under a peace tree, one cannot refuse to listen, nor is it lawful to breach the order, or reject the decision taken by the “guardians of peace”.
In the shade of sacred trees one also recalls the past, above all events and moments of peace and reconciliation. It is a way of remembering that in a certain sense makes what happened in the past “happen again”. To recount and sing of yesterday’s peace is to guarantee its remaining today, or accelerate its return tomorrow. The wisdom with which the elders maintained this utmost good is called to the mind and the heart by proverbs and maxims.
The recollection of peace is considered sacred because it is a real communication between the living and the “living dead”. The land on which we are seated is sacred (because our ancestors were seated on it before us), and the tree that protected and counselled them is sacred, too.
Someone in the West was surprised when Wangari Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace prize: “She was an environmentalist, not a heroine of peace.
She limited herself, mostly, to planting trees.” No African, who remained so, was instead marvelled. By planting trees – she also planted some sacred ones – Wangari “cooled” the earth, she “purified” it of the too much blood shed uselessly. She made it once again a “benign mother”, she brought reconciliation between people, and between people and the land. Above all, she defended peace, fighting against everything that impeded it.