The magic of the historic Red Hot Poker (Murembe) Tree

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The Murembe tree

Every adventurous walk in Kakamega Forest holds an assured sight of beautiful canopies and rich fresh air apart from wild fruits. But the description of certain deciduous tree reaching to about 12-15m high, with a thick yellow-brown corky bark showing deep longitudinal fissures with spiny and dense terminal pseudo racemes writes an indelible rich culture.

Mr. John Rono, an official of Kenya Forest Service (KFS) equipped with scientific names calls the plant Erythrina abyssinica also known as Red Hot Poker Tree (English), Mwamba ngoma (Swahili), Murembe (Luhya), Muvuti (Kamba), Muhuti (Kikuyu) and Orembe (Luo).

According to Mr. Rono, its wood is commonly used for making carvings, stools, drums, mortars, beehives, tool handles, brake blocks and floats for fishing nets, and sometimes also in house construction; wood from the roots is used for making walking sticks. In addition, the wood serves as firewood.

Deep down this abyssinica plant, lies a broaden rich culture specifically for the Luhya community. The tree that is widespread from Sudan and Ethiopia South to Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique and extensively grown as a living fence has caught the attention of many. To those with Western Kenya origin, it reminds them of the days the shrub was considered holy with limitless ability to cure diseases like mumps among other miracles.

It could not be easily forgotten in Mahira village in Kakamega where the magic of Abyssinaca sits pretty when Mrs. Rebah Molenje, 81, lost her wheelbarrow.

She was advised to seek services from the ‘Murembe’ the common name for Abyssinica. She cut a branch of the tree and struck it where the wheelbarrow was before it got lost. Two days later, a tall and dark middle aged man visited her complaining of stomach ache and confessed he was behind the theft of the wheelbarrow.

Curiosity about the magic performance of the tree by Mrs Molenje commanded great attention from the entire village.

“Murembe is a powerful tree used to trap thieves. The thief will always bring him/herself back after running away with stolen property,” said Mrs Molenje. “The remedy to this thief is to uproot this tree with its roots,” Mrs Molenje continued.

Mrs. Syphrose Onaka, a traditional herbalist from Shitungu village, Lurambi sub-county spoke on the medical aspect of the traditional tree.

“Murembe is believed to be a remedy for mumps, a contagious disease caused by a virus. Most villagers would visit the tree immediately they contract the disease which is believed to occur in close-contact settings such as schools,” she said.

Mrs Onaka, who once contracted the disease explains, “You wake up very early in the morning before anyone, go and collect a small amount of firewood, tie them with a rope and put them on the head then go round Murembe tree three times as you sing

Tsindeindei kalukha khu murembe (mumps go back to Red Hot Poker Tree)

Tsindeindei kalukha khu murembe (mumps go back to Red Hot Poker Tree)

Tsindeindei kalukha khu murembe (mumps go back to Red Hot Poker Tree)

After the song, throw the firewood down and go straight home without talking to anyone nor looking back. After two to three days, the disease will have gone.”

Mrs Onaka says you must use Murembe tree which has never been cut for you to receive the cure.

The tree is also believed to cause another type of ‘tsishira’, a disease believed to be caused by one’s husband being unfaithful.

Long ago, one was warned never to swear on Murembe tree or else death may occur.

Scholarstica Ombayo 75, from Esirulo village Khwisero sub-county in Kakamega county explained “If say you have a misunderstanding with your husband or wife and go to the murembe tree, cut one of its branches, swear you won’t go back to him or her then hit the branch on the tree, you are not supposed to go back to the person or else you will develop ‘Tsishira’ which causes your body to swell and may cause death.”

If by any chance you swore on the tree and you want to go back to your lover, visit the elders in the village who will carry out a ritual for the both of you before allowed to get back together.

Ombayo said, “If a husband is doubting her wife of cheating in marriage, the husband takes the suspected wife to the tree and makes her go round the tree three times admitting that she didn’t cheat on him. If it’s true the wife was not cheating nothing would happen to her but if the wife was lying, then she would die. The husband needs to uproot that Murembe tree together with its roots, in a order to save her.”

Moreover, the tree was used in the burial of an elderly person whom during his or her life was engaging in traditional activities like traditional herbalists.

Ombayo, who attended such a burial in Butsotso East, Lurambi sub county back in 1992 explained.

“Two branches are cut from the murembe tree, two holes are dug and the branches are put in the wholes parallel to each other. A special drum ‘isukuti’ is placed between the branches and played in a special tune known as ‘Tsingoma tsia Mavuyi’. While the drums are being played, any willing person goes in the crowd and selects his enemy to fight him and later a sheep is slaughtered to appease the gods. The drums were played twice, the day the deceased died and the day he is buried. This to them was a ‘respectable’ sendoff.”