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Kenya Elders to Curse Officials Over Destruction of Sacred Site

Elders in Kenya's central highlands are planning to place a traditional curse on town leaders, a tea company, and even local loggers for the destruction of a hill that is sacred to the thousands of Kikuyu people who live nearby. As Nick Wadhams reports from Nairobi, plans for the curse are making regional officials nervous.

According to Kikuyu tradition, Karima Hill, a couple of hours north of Nairobi, is a stepping stone God uses to get from his home to Mount Kenya each day. Two sites atop the hill are meant for ceremonies to bring rain, cure illness, and stop insect invasions

But Kikuyu leaders say the past 20 years have seen Karima Hill devastated by the planting of foreign trees such as eucalyptus and cyprus that have dried up nearby streams. The trees are cut down for use by a local tea company, which paid the county council for an 80-acre concession several years ago.

Locals say the destruction of Karima continues despite repeated government injunctions to stop. So dozens of elders have decided on drastic action: invoke a curse on everyone involved and bring misfortune on them and their families.

Kariuki Thuku, who works for an environmental group called the Porini Trust, is from the area and is helping orchestrate the curse. Elders are asking that spiritualists from around Africa to come to Kenya for the ceremony set for December. Hundreds of people are expected to attend.

Thuku says he has gotten numerous calls from officials in the nearby town of Othaya asking the council leaders to call off plans for the curse.

"This is real, it is no joke," said Kariuki Thuku. "Everyone is worried. Already some of them who have been employed by the tea factory, they cannot go there again, they said 'no no' they do not want that job, for us we do not want to interfere with that hill anymore. If there is that kind of ceremony about to be done they cannot be said to cut down trees anymore. So, it has caused panic everywhere."

Curses have been an occasional tool for Kenyan communities powerless to stop rampant deforestation or development. A couple of years ago, elders cast a curse to protect the Giitune Forest in the Meru region. They said anyone who logged in the forest after the curse would be bitten by a snake and turned to humus.

The Kikuyu elders say that Kenya's modern-day legal system has failed them in the case of Karima Hill. The tea company, Iria-Ini, has been given the right to plant trees until the year 2030. And in 2004, the CelTel mobile phone company was given permission to build a network tower there.

The hill is supposed to be overseen by four Kikuyu clans that live nearby. In 1957, those clans had decided to give the hill to the community, which meant that the local council oversaw it. The clans say the council has exploited that power.

The hill is also a potent reminder of suffering the Kikuyu suffered under colonial rule - the colonial government burned its forests in the early 1950s to flush out Mau Mau fighters said to be hiding there.

Thuku of the Porini Trust says Kikuyu spirituality is closely linked to the environment. Karima Hill is said to have been left by previous generations for people to protect in the present day.

"When they spell out a curse, they literally link all the energies and that is why it is very difficult to separate issues related to environment and spirituality in the indigenous world view," said Thuku. "Because actually our spirituality comes from our own environment, what we understand as God, what we understand as heritage, what we understand as spirituality has direct link and relevance to the eco-features we have in place."

About 200 elders are gathering near Karima to decide the exact curse to cast, and whether to back down at the last minute. Details of the meetings are hard to come by, only people 70 years and older are allowed to attend.