Ngugi: The old man Mirara and the discovery of carbon dioxide gas in Kiambu North

By Muiru Ngugi On Sun, 8 Sep, 2019 12:19 | 4 mins read
Kereita Forest in Kiambu County
A stunning view of the Kereita Forest in Kiambu County. PHOTO | COURTESY
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    Mirara wa Gitome, the old man who discovered carbon dioxide, lived in Githoito Forest village, one of the large villages in the Kireita-Kinare-Gatamaiyu Forest complex in the period immediately after independence.

    Mirara, in one of his forest routes, would pause to marvel at a small spring that bubbled mysteriously, giving the impression that its waters were being boiled by some furious subterranean devil, although the liquid was cold to the touch.

    One day, the unthinkable happened one day. As he went on one of his rounds, the water from the spring suddenly shot up in a furious, roaring cold geyser that rose above the trees.

    As a veteran hunter, he had encountered virtually all wild animals resident in the large forest but he had never seen or heard anything like this.

The man who discovered carbon dioxide gas that is currently mined at Kireita Forest was known as Mirara wa Gitome.

He was a hunter-gatherer who specialised in extracting honey from the Kireita Forest, which he knew as well as the back of his hand, but he also worked as a cook for the mzungu forester at the Kereita Forest Service office, according to his Netherlands-based grandson, Karegwa Muchiri, who runs the Africa Capacity Training Institute.

That he supplemented his salary in this manner is not strange: Lari and the entire Kiambu North is a melting pot of Kikuyu, Dorobo, Maasai and Kamba communities, who copied livelihoods from one another.

The melting pot of Kikuyu, Dorobo, Maasai

In fact, some families in the area are still able to trace their Dorobo or Maasai ancestry, although the assimilation of these people into Kikuyu is almost complete.

Yet you can almost tell them by their names: Kiburi (Kipury?), Kadenye (Nkandenye?), Rono (Rono?), Mugo (Murgo?), Njau (Nchoe?), Waiyaki (Koiyaki?), Ngure (Kuret?), etc.

Mirara lived in Githoito Forest village, one of the large villages in the Kireita-Kinare-Gatamaiyu Forest complex in the period immediately after independence.

Whenever he was off duty, he would go to the Kireita Forest to check on his beehives that were scattered all over the expansive forest.

He would smoke out the stinging African bees and steal their honey, which he would sell to fellow villagers for use in making traditional beer and in paying dowry.

This was his declared part-time livelihood, but the villagers knew that he and a few other villagers such as Chege wa Ng’ang’a, were also the proprietors of several dangerous traps that caught game — antelopes mainly, but also wild boars and an occasional buffalo.

The bubbling spring

On one of his forest routes next to the road leading to Ha-Wainaina, a local market junction, he would pause to marvel at a small spring that bubbled mysteriously, giving the impression that its waters were being boiled by some furious subterranean devil, although the liquid was cold to the touch.

Strangely, the water on this spot never flowed anywhere. It kept recycling itself on the same spot.

On one or two occasions, he had found some dead birds and an antelope next to the small water pool.

He had reported the curious discovery to the other villagers. Some had accompanied him to the site to see for themselves.

One day, the unthinkable happened one day. As he went on one of his rounds, the water from the spring suddenly shot up in a furious, roaring cold geyser that rose above the trees.

It scared the wits out of him. As a veteran hunter, he had encountered virtually all wild animals resident in the large forest but he had never seen or heard anything like this.

He rushed back to the village, where he found people wondering where the noise was coming from.

He led some of the men back to the site. They approached the location like it was holy, keeping a very respectable distance.

With the roar sounding as if someone had accidentally buried a running jet engine and forgotten to close the coffin lid, conversation was out of the way, for every shout was drowned by the angry din made by the spew from the earth.

The party had no choice but to make its way back to the village to deliberate.

An elderly lady who remembers the incident told me that the phenomenon was accompanied by very low temperatures that enveloped the whole village and the surrounding areas of Baathi, Kimende, Gatamaiyu, Kambaa, Magina and beyond.

Farmers tending their “Shamba system” (an arrangement where the Forest Department allowed people to cultivate in fields planted with young trees in order to weed out competing trees) pieces in Wangochi, Kanyawa, kaguaga, wandei, and matuguta.

The party went back to the village and reported to the local chief, who in turn escalated the issue to the higher ups.

The following day, similar jets of water exploded out in one or two other spots nearby.

Fear engulfed Githoito village, and men, most of them hardened Mau Mau fighters who had taken multiple oaths, some known veterans of the “Night of Long Knives” battle in which Chief Luka wa Kahangara had been killed, idled outside the shops, discussing the strange proceedings, but having no clue how to protect their village from a threat they least understood.

The commencement of extraction

A day or so later, a group of white people, some dressed like astronauts, arrived in the area with strange equipment.

They sealed the roaring jets, and everyone was happy that the inexplicable threat was contained.

The area was also ring-fenced with robust wire mesh and the road paved with ballast.

Extraction of the gas then started. With the noise having died out, the villagers went on with their lives. No one talked of compensation or benefit to the local community, or old man Mirara, who died a few years later in penury, in the early 1970s.

Three of his sons joined Kenya Defence Forces and served until retirement.

The removal of people from Kireita Forest

During the 1980s, former President Daniel Moi’s administration directed that all people living in the Kireita Forest move out.

They did. Their MPs, Peter Turuthi Mungai, Andrew Kuria Kinyanjui, and Philip Gitonga, never protested.

Githoito, Kinare, Kamae, Kieni and other villages were demolished and their inhabitants scattered to all the four corners of the compass. Githoito, Kinare, Kamae, and Kieni primary Schools were demolished.

Today, Carbacid still extracts the natural carbon dioxide gas, which has wide-ranging industrial uses, including refrigeration and cooling.

Where the various villages used to be, the virgin forest has healed and regenerated, part of the Kireita Forest where tourists from Nairobi flock during the weekends for heart stopping 2.4km zip lining and to breath in the best fresh air in Kenya.

Dr Muiru Ngugi is a lecturer at the School of Journalism, University of Nairobi. Email: [email protected]