World cultures have always had various ways of making alcoholic beverages through the fermentation of ingredients available within their locality. The Jews can trace their Kosher wine to Noah's vineyards. The Indians used fermented rice to make Sura. The Native Americans used corn and grapes to make Chicha. The ancient Egyptians used raisins and honey to make their Nebit Shamsi, while the Chinese distilled Baijiu from fermented sorghum.
Similarly, the Agīkūyū people were blessed with naturally growing mĩratina trees (Kigelia Africana / Sausage Tree) which produced fruits known as mīratina, that are used to make the famous mũratina drink. The drink derived its name from the tree and the fruits that are used for fermentation.
Mũratina brewing was one of the activities that brought together the whole family. Harvesting and preparation of the beer were done by young men and women while the main brewing was done by elderly women. All beer-making and related activities were led by elderly men.
Mũratina was always brewed around the hearth of the woman's hut known as nyũmba - which was considered a sacred place where solemn home-related rituals were conducted.
Mũratina beer was never drunk without a purpose. A mũgĩkũyũ man never brewed mũratina beer just as a drink for himself. All beer was brewed for some definite ceremonial, ritual, or social purpose. There was special mũratina that was brewed to cement friendship and respect between men, which was known as njohi ya kĩrugo. Whenever a man wanted to ask a favor from another, he would brew mũratina, and then invite him for a drink. Otherwise, mũratina was commonly brewed for occasions in connection with marriage, initiation, and other communal ceremonies.
Young men and women were never allowed to drink mũratina until they reached the appropriate age - which was when they'd be marrying off their eldest children. Until then, one would only be allowed to taste mũratina on a few special occasions such as initiation ceremonies, and even then, they were only allowed one shared horn of mũratina. Otherwise, mũratina was a reserve for elderly men and women.
How was mũratina made? Well, you only needed these four simple ingredients; maaĩ (water), ngogoyo (sugarcane juice), ũũkĩ (honey), and mũratina (sausage fruit). These ingredients were readily available within the Gĩkũyũ country and they all had a cultural, social, and philosophical significance behind them.
Maai (water) - this represented purity, truth, righteousness, and most importantly chastity. Water can be calming but at the same time be violent. It assumes the shape of whatever container it’s put in, and becomes the container. When put inside a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Inside a cup, it becomes the cup. Inside a channel, it becomes a river. This symbolises adaptability, versatility and self-control. It also emphasises purity, upholding the truth while maintaining chastity.
Ngogoyo (sugarcane juice) - represented sweetness, steadiness and the various stages of life - just like the sugarcane segments - gūkūra na marūngo ta kīgwa. The top bit of the sugarcane which is known as gĩthethwa is less sweet symbolises the young, inexperienced, naive generation, while the sweeter bottom part of the sugarcane known as gītina symbolises the wiser, more experienced elders. This means that one should strive to seek wisdom and knowledge while enjoying the sweetness that is brought by the various stages of one's life. Also, there were various types of Gīkūyū sugarcane - nyamūirū, nyamũnjerũ, nyamūcūra, nyamūteta and nyamūbūcĩ. They symbolised the need to acquire wisdom from various sources that exist.
Ũūki (honey) - this represented hard work, wealth, and a sense of identity. Bees were well observed by the Agīkūyū and used in many analogies. The way bees live in the colony with various ranks and roles was well represented among the Agīkūyū. Bees always stick to their swarm known as mūrumbo or coora. Likewise, people were encourage to never leave their age-set or clan and hence the proverb, 'nyūmba na riika itiumagwo'. When bees fly away from their hives in search of nectar, they always return to their hives without taking the nectar to the wrong or nearest hives. This means that even though one might live far away from their culture, he or she should not forget or forfeit their identity and heritage, and whatever good they learn or earn from foreign cultures, they should bring it back and share it with their communities. Bees will not collect nectar from poisonous plants. Likewise, one should stay way from bad influences. Bees will collect nectar from seemingly dangerous thorny plants but still find sweet nectar. This meant that no matter how tough your experience might be in life, one should aim to make something good and sweet out of it. Lastly, each bee has it's own lethal sting but it only uses it to protect the colony. Bees live together in harmony without stinging each other since they have posterity to protect inside the hive. Similarly, humans should strive to live in peace because of future generations but also know when to use their strengths to protect themselves - not to self-destroy.
Mũratina (Sausage fruit) - this is one of the few fruits that were never picked off the tree - they were considered ready or mature for use only when they had fallen to the ground off their own accord. This signifies the need to live life with abundance and not die young due to unfortunate events or diseases, but die out of old age and maturity. Living life with abundance. The many seeds inside the mũratina fruit signified fertility, posterity and virility. The Agīkūyū believed that the mũratina fruit contains healthy compounds that prevent premature ejaculation, treat erectile dysfunctions among men as well as promote blood circulation while maintaining a healthy sperm count. This could be the reason why elderly Agīkūyū men were able to sire children at their old age!
Mũratina was always brewed in large gourds known as Ndua and served in medium-sized gourds known as Nyanja. Men drunk mũratina from a special drinking horn known as rũhia rwa njohi while women used a special drinking guard-cup known as ndahi ya rũngũ.
The most important part of mũratina was its use for blessing occasions. When drinking mũratina, one had to first pour a bit of the mũratina to the ground in honor of the ancestors, then spit a little bit onto their chest and hands to bless themselves and the labor of their hands, before uttering words of blessings depending on the occasion. During the blessing, the Agīkūyū people will always attach the symbolism and significance of the four ingredients mentioned above to those who are receiving the blessings. Agīkūyū believe that mũratina connects their three worlds of existence, the unborn, the living, the ancestors while Ngai acts as the witness.
To learn more about mũratina, the traditional way of brewing it and the ceremonies connected to the drink, we recommend reading the following book available at mathaga.com
Listen to the podcast below on Matirĩ Ngemi that discusses the philosophy of Mũratina in a fun light-hearted manner.
At MATHAGA, we have various sizes of gourds (on order) and special drinking horns based on the various Agĩkũyũ clan designs.